Thoughts on life after the PhD
After a steamy courtship that included multiple rescues from stalky demons and a bit of frolicking and sandcastle-building on a beach, I’m happy to announce that I’m engaged. Granted, I had to pay an extra $2 for the “proposal package” to get that ring on my finger. Also, he’s already married–to a few million other women.
To put it another way, I paid $2 for a collection of text and images to say “Will you marry me?” to another collection of text and images that served as my proxy in an interactive romance novel. And I might do it again with a different virtual guy.
Welcome to the world of Astoria: Fate’s Kiss.
Astoria is an otome (“maiden”) game, a subgenre of Japanese “dating simulation” smartphone games that are marketed to women and are played by millions of people around the world. “Game” is a bit of a misnomer, because Astoria, at least, isn’t so much a game as it is a high-tech version of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Thankfully here there’s no way to end up falling off a cliff or getting shot by a gangster due to your choices, which always seemed to happen to me as a kid.
Otome games vary a bit in content and structure, but the basic premise is that there’s a narrative, a main character (you), and in the very beginning the option of pursuing several possible “routes,” each one centering on a particular romantic interest. Once you make your choice, you’ll move through the game by reading the text of the story on your phone and occasionally making choices about how to move the story forward. Depending on the game, you may also rack up affection “points” that move you toward the ideal ending (which usually means some sort of sex and ultimately marriage). It’s rare for otome games to be sexually graphic—in Astoria there was a lot of talk of heavy breathing and hands gripping shoulders, but no mention of private parts or the actual mechanics of sex.
Descriptions like this have usually left me giggling or feeling mildly uneasy about dating sims. On the surface, I feel like a lot of these games involve paying for the illusion of intimacy and love, which, like the exchanges that happen in host & hostess clubs (and to a MUCH lesser extent, in cosplay cafes), I’ve never been 100% comfortable with.
The big difference, of course, is that with dating sims there’s no other human being involved. Which lessened the squick factor for me, but I was still wary. This felt like another otaku-esque realm that that I’ve never quite connected with–I’ve got movies, books, and characters that I deeply love, but not on the level of the Tumblr enthusiasts who endlessly post and repost images and clips of their favorite anime and manga.
Still, I’ve been in a “try anything once” mood lately–I’d been wary of butler cafes but had a lot of fun at Swallowtail. Facing a series of very long flights to the U.S. and at least a day or two of jet lag-induced insomnia, I downloaded Astoria: Fate’s Kiss to my smartphone.
Astoria takes place in an alternate universe where the Hell Earth Relations Association (H.E.R.A., get it?) works to maintain harmony between humans and ancient Greek gods, demigods, and monsters. The main character (MC) is a H.E.R.A. agent on the up and up who has the chance to take on a new assignment that will get her out from behind her desk and into the field. Each possible case will push her toward a romantic relationship with a particular god / demigod, including Cerberus (not a dog, just a guy with a rather shaggy haircut), Chimera (goofy blond guy), Hydra (moody, tortured soul who does not actually have multiple heads), Medusa (minus the snakes), or Hades (reserved gentleman whose hairstyle vaguely resembles flames).
Anyone who’s read a romance novel or manga published in the last ten years will recognize a lot of the typical otome male character types. As Cathryn Sinjinn-Starr writes, there’s usually a pretentious one, a broody loner, and a womanizer, plus occasionally a few extras like the “big brother” type and the sweet-but-easily-flustered one.
As EJ Dickson points out, there are plenty of otome game tropes that don’t really fly in the English-speaking market, or at least that are less popular. As in so many anime and manga, the male characters in the Japanese games all tend to have the same look—young and slightly androgynous (which is appealing to some English-speaking fans, especially those who love the K-pop / J-pop boy band look). Astoria, at least, featured male characters with a slightly more masculine look, (they were buffer, anyway), though the aesthetic is still distinctly anime (large eyes, smooth skin, delicate features).
Sinjinn-Starr notes that the female protagonists in Japanese games also tend to be “helpless, clumsy, childish, easily flustered, and sexually reserved.” In general, the biggest problem is the gender dynamic—consent can be hazy, and plot lines tend toward sadistic and manipulative men who eventually bully their naive lovers into submission. The female MC is sexually submissive, and there are hints that lying, manipulation, and verbal abuse are normal parts of a relationship.
As otome games have grown in popularity, though, they’ve also become more diverse in their plot lines and character types. It’s a trajectory similar to the English language romance novel market, where stories of virginal protagonists and weak female / dominant male relationships have long since been supplemented by large numbers of novels with more competent and sexually assertive heroines and a more equal power dynamic.
Hence my choice of Astoria, which had generally positive reviews and seemed to be more progressive than the average otome game. I started playing the game and chose the Hades “route,” because apparently I have a thing for thousand-year-old demons who wear sharp suits.
And damn, I got sucked in fast.
Like I said, Astoria isn’t really a game. There’s no visible score and it doesn’t really seem possible to “lose” (though you get slightly different results depending on your choices). Astoria is basically a visual novel–a book with pictures that occasionally move. You don’t so much “play” it as tap your phone every few seconds to make more text appear, and at least once or twice per section you choose from three options to move the story forward. It requires zero skill (other than the ability to read and tap your phone). The decisions you make (which will divert the story toward a “passionate ending” or “thrilling ending”) are fairly random and don’t require any sleuthing or problem-solving. (At one point the Medusa route asks if you want scones, muffins, or cake, and you’d better choose correctly if you want that passionate ending.)
So yeah, more of a book than a game. But…a bit more intense, at least for me.
For starters, the characters used my name. This made me laugh at first (“Agent Nelson, I knew I could count on you,” / “Lindsay, I’ve never met a woman like you”) but as I got used to it I found myself slipping deeper into the story. A good romance novel will have you empathizing with the protagonist, but the empathy packs a bit more of punch when the protagonist is YOU. Or a much younger, more petite version of you who likes to bake when she’s stressed.
The characters also sent me emails. To my Gmail account. Sure, they were just copy-and-pasted text from a computer, but something about seeing them in my inbox triggered the same kinds of fluttery feelings that I might have gotten if they’d been from a real person.
I was also really drawn in by the platonic relationships depicted in the game, sometimes more so than the romantic one. The “girl talk” sections of the story were fun, and I enjoyed getting gossipy emails from those characters.
In general, the writing was good—it reminded me of contemporary romance novels by people like Kresley Cole and Loretta Chase, though decidedly PG. Probably the most shocking bit of sexy text was when Hades suggested we take a shower together (and it made him blush, poor thing).
I also paid money for this stuff and I didn’t mind. This is a common complaint about some otome games—they draw you in with a free sample and then make you pay for subsequent story installments, and the costs definitely add up. I think I’ve spent about $15 on Astoria so far, which is pretty outrageous compared to the cost of other smartphone games, but I feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth.
I was pleasantly surprised at how progressive Astoria was. The cast of characters is racially diverse. There’s a lesbian storyline. There’s a trans character who is consistently referred to as “they” or “them” with no comment or explanation. (This character proved so popular that they were eventually given their own route.)
Astoria’s MC is also assertive, competent, and often takes the lead with the flirting and the sex. There’s a focus on honesty, communication, and loyalty in all relationships.
I was especially happy to see how a particular segment that could have gotten ugly was turned into a little relationship teaching moment. At one point in the story Hades becomes possessive and controlling, which at first made me roll my eyes–do all the male characters have to turn into Edward Cullen at some point? To be fair, Hades is being possessive and controlling because the MC is in danger, and he feels conflicted about it. Still, he’s being an ass.
And she calls him on it! Instead of falling into the usual routine of “He must really love me if he wants to obsessively control my every move,” she tells him that she’s not a shrinking violet and that he’s hurting her by treating her like one. And instead of getting defensive and bullish, he listens, confides in her, and admits he was wrong. She praises him for confiding in her, they realize that things are definitely better when they communicate, and then they have PG-rated make-up sex. Score one for healthy relationships!
This is one of the biggest criticisms of “dating sims,” certain kinds of manga, and even novels like the Twilight series—that they promote wildly unhealthy relationship models for young, impressionable women. Of particular concern is the trope of the controlling, possessive boyfriend and the doormat, eager-to-please girlfriend, as well as storylines that suggest that verbal abuse and manipulation are normal parts of a relationship. So it’s refreshing to see that Astoria doesn’t seem to have any of that.
Still, it goes without saying that enjoying or being titillated by relationship dynamics that you would never condone or pursue in real life is perfectly normal–it’s doubtful that the readers of old school romance novels wanted to be kidnapped by pirates or forced to marry a duke they’d never met. Things get a bit iffier when the reader in question is young (and when unhealthy relationship models are the ONLY kinds of relationship models they’re being exposed to in fiction). But as Emily Bazelon wrote about the rite of passage that is young people reading books that are too old for them, better that teenagers encounter these unhealthy relationship models in books and movies than in real life. It’s not that those stories and characters don’t deserve to be unpacked and challenged, it’s just that most of us, even from a young age, can distinguish fantasy from reality.
Playing Astoria also got me thinking about how ambiguous “reality” has become, something I’ve been reading and writing a lot about lately. In particular, I thought about the amount of disgust that’s leveled at adults who can’t seem to distinguish reality from fantasy–people who prefer fictional characters or worlds to human interaction, or even just enjoy those things as a supplement to human interaction. There’s a lot of vitriol hurled at people who gush about anime characters or who extol the virtues of their online “girlfriends,” usually of the “You idiot, it’s all fake” variety. This has changed a lot with the rise of nerd culture and nerd pride, but for outsiders people who immerse themselves completely in fantasy worlds can seem delusional at best, creepy at worst.There’s also the assumption that these people are confused–that they genuinely see these characters and worlds as “real,” and that this must mean that they don’t have any “real” relationships.
I can’t speak for all otome fans, but in my brief foray into Astoria I never, ever confused this story with “reality.” I know it’s fake. I know that the characters are a collection of text and images and nothing comparable to flesh-and-blood people. I can see how people could become absorbed in the game, but I can also see people playing it purely as a momentary amusement during a commute. I, for one, can’t imagine this world and these characters ever replacing my “real” ones.
The story produced a lot of the same physiological and emotional responses (albeit on a much weaker level) that I get from real-world interactions. I got excited when I got emails. I felt empathy for the characters. I was sad when things went badly and relieved when they went well. Not so different from the effect produced by a really engaging piece of fiction, of course, but again, more intense. More–dare I say it–real.
I’m certainly not an expert on otome game culture after my brief foray into one game, but I feel like I have a slightly better understanding of how these games can become addictive, especially for people who are already prone to falling in love with fictional characters and worlds. And I’d imagine things are going to get realer and realer. I started the game as a lark and for research purposes, but I’m probably not done playing. Judging by the number of new games and stories being released every month, I don’t think the other millions of players are either.
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