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Alright, alright, we get it. "Fun" isn't enough anymore. Games must strive to connect with players in ways other than giving them sights to aim down. Only major publishers and studios have the strength to push the industry forward as a whole. Of course, it's not as if they aren't trying, but the allure of making art isn't enough when making mad bank is on the priority list as well. After all, if artistic relevance guaranteed commercial success, then the term "starving artist" would be a joyful oxymoron.
Talk is cheap. It's easy and noncommittal to praise a free five-minute artgame to high heavens and then donate a few bucks out of charity. But paying commercial prices for games that we won't try to be "fun?" That requires a change in attitude, one that challenges what we want in a game, maybe even our definition of what a game is in the first place. It won't do for us to just post lengthy rants about how badly we need these things on our C-blogs (lol irony).
How about meeting halfway, then? If gamers add more colors to the spectrum of genres, conventions and styles that consider "fun," publishers and developers will see that there is reward in painting the game rainbow something other than gunmetal gray. It's natural and hardly a bad thing to trust in what's proven and known, but that behavior doesn't reward games that refuse to swing in ways we're accustomed to.
Well then, what games should we ask for? What games will illustrate to the majors that our horizons our broad?
*Cue Glorious Nippon, enter stage east*
I suggest that we look over the horizon. I suggest that we welcome more eroge. Really, I'm serious!
Bishoujo games, galge, visual novels, H-games, ecchi games, hentai games, AVGs, dating sims, romance games, whatever you want to call them*, you need to want them.
(*For convenience I'm going to use the term "eroge," regardless of subgenre or content rating.)
For the three of you who still don't know what they are, eroge ("eh-row-geh") are a type of adventure game concentrated on interactive storytelling. For the most part this interaction consists of clicking through reams of text, staring at static pictures of pretty anime girls, and occasionally choosing an action to perform. Variations on text display, visual complexity and even additional elements and mechanics are common, but an eroge's main focus is at all times very clear-cut. Eroge are all about interacting with characters and reading a story.
"LOL WUT," you might exclaim as you recoil in horror and confusion. I don't blame you. By our standards, eroge barely qualify as games. Gamers' tolerance for dialog, cutscenes and text is waning. Everyone's crying out for emergent stories, self-authored narrative. "Linear" is rapidly -- tragically -- becoming a dirty word in development circles. The eroge core concept seems to fly straight in the face of that. On paper an eroge is practically anathema to what games-as-art activists want.
And yet, despite knowing these things I, the weeaboo whose blog is entitled "Death by Eroge," want you to want some eroge. But why?
I want you to want them because good eroge are gems that illustrate exactly what they have to offer modern gaming, showing off what our definitions of "fun" may be lacking or have been unwilling to acknowledge.
Fine then, just what do eroge have offer us?
Eroge offers us a design philosophy almost obsessively focused on activities and concepts that other games treat as secondary, placed on the backburner with "fun" at the foreground. While not necessarily a step forward in terms of experimental design, eroge leverage their idiosyncrasies to deliver positive experiences that, at times, seem paradoxical and conflicting.
We need to talk
Eroge are all about talking. Be it through the protagonist's autobiographical narrative, or interacting with the cute anime girls populating the typical fanservice wet-dream scenario, eroge are meant to facilitate conversation. In fact, at their base level, they're incapable of facilitating anything else. Even RPGs, often criticized as being more interested in text than play, cannot hold a candle to the typical eroge's love for yakkity-yak.
If not for JRPGs, the eroge experience is almost unknown to us. And it's really only in those games can one find mechanics resembling that particular style of execution. About the closest approximations available in current mainstream release the "dive sequences" found in Ar Tonelico and, to a more limited extent, the "Social Link" events in Persona 3 and Persona 4. And still, dive sequences are but a small part of Ar Tonelico's whole, and Persona's silent protagonists are hardly the type to use first-person descriptive prose. And when they DO pop up, they produce a significant disconnect, detracting from the experience in the end.
While that novelty factor alone should be enough to justify the eroge's existence in our market, I'm supposed to be giving you "real" reasons to support them.
A good judge of character(s)
A game about talking is nothing without something to talk to. By extension, what, or rather who can be talked to must be worth talking with. Eroge casts run the entire spectrum of appeal, background, archetype and design. From the loli-who-is-actually-18 to the hot single mother (and her four nubile daughters) to the President of Russia, there are no limits to diversity. On the other hand, that reliance on having appealing characters tends to lead the majority to settle for disgustingly cute archetypes and cliches. They often play mix-and-match with popular tropes and traits, aimed at generating profitable concentrations of moe.
But on the other other hand, that makes the best eroge stand out all the more. Great eroge come up with distinctive, even powerful characters, rich in background and personality. Thanks in part to their relative inability to deliver conflict-based gameplay (more on that later), the eroge environment is also more welcoming of complex or initially opaque cast members, the sorts that demand otherwise distracting levels of exposition to be understood.
From the desperately insecure, emotionally manipulative (read: f*cking crazy) girls of Yume Miru Kusuri to Kana's chronically ill little sister, who could up and die any day now, there's a lot of room in the eroge world for character traits unconcerned with math or game balance. When eroge do attempt to assign their characters game-like "statistics," such as in Fate/stay night, they seem almost laughably unnecessary, there but for schoolyard "my imaginary girlfriend can beat your imaginary girlfriend" arguments.
Toeing the line(ar)...
In a game where there isn't much to do other than talk or read, there are also few directions to go but forward. Thus, eroge are friendlier to more traditional, Aristotelian forms of narrative. Since there is nothing much else to do than advance to the next scene, the player always moves in lockstep with that of the plot. Even the most complex eroge contain none of the bloated sidequesting and grinding activities that sabotage most JRPGs plot and pacing. This makes it easier for stories to unfold in a more traditional manner: beginning, exposition, climax, denouement.
Traditional games tend to end with the climax, a final boss fight, capped off with a series of cutscenes containing no gameplay. That's usually because most game mechanics, being based on conflict, cannot operate without an enemy to fight (and thus a purpose for leveling up). As such, a denouement is impossible to execute using the same play mechanics that players have spent the entire game learning to master.
The result is what a smart person called "ludonarrative dissonance," wherein a game's "ludic" (mechanical) elements conflict with the game's ability to tell a story or form a plot. Eroge minimize ludonarrative dissonance by stripping down their own ludic elements to the bare minimum of what's needed to service the narrative and cast.
This might not seem like a very happy formula, but by doing so eroge enhance the impact of their plot and focus on conversation and exposition. They essentially remove any opportunity for players to feel as if they're kept from playing the game (by cutscenes, etc). Beginning to end, an eroge player is never removed from the state of play.
...yet respecting your choices...
For a genre that affords the player so little control over the ebb and flow of the experience, it can be hard to believe eroge are constructed with your choices in mind.
"What choices," you ask? It should be obvious! Eroge are about choosing which girl (or boy) you want to bag! In fact, there's no other way to enter the eroge mindset. You're sure as hell not in it for the cover system. In an eroge, your weapon is choice, and the first choice is where you want to stick your weapon.
Oh geez, did I just write that?
Anyway. When picking a mate is the only thing in an eroge resembling an objective, eroge try their hardest to make the process of getting there meaningful. Like all good adventures, the goal is clear, but the journey is unknown. Oftentimes the choices one makes over the course of an eroge don't have obvious, cause-and-effect consequences. Should you go straight home, or stay after school for club? Except in the dumbest, pure-porn eroge, it's not always clear which choices bring you closer to getting it on with the hot maid, the hot mom, or the hot tentacle monster.
The problem-solving, cause-and-effect aspect that is unique to games pops up in the grand scheme of things, for when you play through again to mack it up with the hot classmate instead of the hot teacher or even go for the harem ending. The right combination of choices leads you to the ending you want, next time around.
Paradoxically, that setup more or less forces you to play the way you feel. Provided you're not using a walkthrough, the lack of immediate good/bad feedback keeps players from reducing relationships to a cost-benefit analysis. Even the eroge that DO give you a form of quantifiable result discourage calculating behavior by having the player's progress inseperable from the plot.
Furthermore, there's less incentive to "game the system" because the system doesn't award the player secondary, game-like benefits. One might not give a crap about the characters in Persona 3's Social Links, but choose to advance them anyway because they strengthen one's battle capacity. Since there are few such things in an eroge, there's no reason to waste time courting a character you don't like.
...all of which are critical...
Furthermore, player choices are made especially meaningful because they often determine the flow of the entire plot. Choosing one girl over all the others changes the whole story to revolve around your relationship. Eroge, more complicated ones in particular, often wildly diverge based on the player's choice. Games like Yume Miru Kusuri and Fate/stay night are actually multiple full-sized stories in one game. And that's not even considering the differences between Good/Bad/True endings.
That level of branching is quite difficult to accomplish in high-budget, glitz-and-glamor titles, even those that lay claim to the mantle of "meaningful choice." Most games of that nature still tend to end the same way, with the same final boss fight and the same tasks being accomplished, with arguably minor differences depending on whether you've chosen to be a jerk or a saint. They claim to really alter the world in significant ways depending on your actions, and on occasion fall flat. In an eroge, the world is almost always altered dramatically, because you determine the ending, by choosing a girl to hook up with.
Thusly, eroge are a lot more "open" than they look at first glance. They drive forward relentlessly, following a story path that you've altered through the power of your hornball preferences in cute anime character design. Me, I'm partial to thighs (and Chie and Aegis), but you probably didn't want to know about that.
...to the you that you've been told you are
Everything in an eroge is prewritten, predefined. All endings are predetermined, every line of dialog scripted. Despite this, eroge are capable of a strange, counter-intuitive sense of immersion. How is that even possible?
Again, it all comes down to an eroge's structure. Eroge are almost always told in the first-person. At all times, the player lives in the mind of the protagonist, reading his every thought, knowing everything he knows, and not knowing anything he doesn't. Despite the fact that the protagonist (ostensibly you), is scripted from start to finish, eroge by nature force a player into his shoes. No matter how different a protagonist's personality might be from one's own (quite likely in some of the darker-toned eroge), the simple fact that one is always in the protagonist's head is just enough for a player to make a connection, willingly or unwillingly.
Those connections are reinforced by the few choices allowed by the game. Playing an eroge, you are the one who chooses the protagonist's actions, often unaware of the potential consequences later down the one-way road. In no other game is this sort of immersion possible. An FPS or rail shooter would be horribly compromised if the character's every thought were broadcast in the middle of a firefight. A silent-protagonist JRPG would be compromised as the game tells you what you should be thinking or feeling. Think of the occasional disconnect that happens when playing Persona 4, when the game tells you that "you decided to stay home today" in preparation for the next round of cutscenes. It seems "off" in any other game, but is natural and acceptable in an eroge.
As an eroge player, you are not unlike a stage actor. No matter how much the real you is not like him on the script pages, it's you who is standing at center stage, reciting the lines. If you can't force a connection with that, close the curtain, then call the understudy.
Yeah, they go there...
Aliens have accidentally killed your country's leaders, and installed your hot next-door neighbor as president in their place. Living in the girl's dorm requires you to cross-dress for class. You and several illegal immigrants pose as a family in order to remain in the country. Your congenital heart condition forces you to live in a school for disabled children, perhaps to find friends among your "damaged" fellows.
These are just a few of the elaborate, sometimes ridiculous premises that set up various eroge, and none of them could possibly work by our current, genre-bound conventions. With so little else to do, eroge live and die by their ability to drag the player into their world, to talk to characters and get all romantic. Thus, the range of settings and subjects they cover runs far and wide. There are few limits to an eroge writer's imagination. One is the need to have other characters than the protagonist. An eroge without others is not an eroge it is Myst. Another is unspoken commercial pact to add in at least some sex, until all-ages console port gets green-lit.
And while sexual content is naturally more common in eroge than elsewhere, themes of family, death, and subjects other games can't or won't yet touch are also present. Concerns of emotional balance and sexual identity are common. Subjects like incest, polygamy, suicide and yes, even rape are explored, and not always for the purpose of tickling a fetish. Regular games are under pressure to make the efforts players spend overcoming challenges feel worthwhile, shying away from unhappy endings and Pyrrhic victories. Because of the way they're built, eroge don't burden their players with arcane game systems or boss fights.
Thus tragic, angry and confused conclusions are can come more naturally. "True" endings are rarely the happiest ones, and some of the most lauded eroge conclude on a down note. One game features a bad ending wherein one character snaps hacking another to death out of envy, stabbing the protagonist as punishment for his philandering ways (oh delicious yandere). Melodrama, descriptive text, angst and the vagaries of branching plots turn many an eroge into simplified - perhaps subverted - stand-in for human interaction. Isn't human interaction through conversation (with both oneself and others) is the most natural way we know how to speak to the human condition?
Granted, in most the human condition often being spoken to is the condition of being horny, but the potential is there, and is more regularly exercised, thanks in part to the genre's self-imposed similarity to more traditional, passive storytelling media.
...and on the cheap, to boot
Compared to today's mainstream releases, eroge can be made very cheaply. Their appeal, after all, rests mostly on text and 2D art. Despite their lack of technical sophistication, eroge can make quite the impact. Acquiring key eroge titles makes up large part of Microsoft's strategy for the Xbox 360 in Japan.
And these aren't tiny no-name releases either. Major publishers regularly hype eroge with a fervor that approaches that of a landmark JRPG release. Consider the convoy of customized buses that roamed Tokyo in promotion of Namco's latest eroge-slash-rhythm-game-slash-maid-hostess-manager title Dream C Club, or the creative marketing campaign pushing Konami's Love Plus, the most comprehensive relationship simulator I've ever seen. It's highly doubtful that any eroge can reach the same levels of cultural...er...penetration here as there, but it's a tragedy and a shame that people think these games are so alien to us as to be unsaleable.
They're easy to embrace...
Indie developers and amateurs can get into the act quite quickly, as well. The game I mentioned earlier about moving in with disabled girls is being developed by an international team, initially inspired by (of all things) 4chan's anime board. And the results so far are quite unlike anything one might otherwise expect from such a place. Some in the community have even found it quite moving. A recent Xbox Live Indie eroge was removed from the network, thanks to prudes at Microsoft Europe.
With few resources (on the development side) hanging on the line, visible demand on our side will encourage publishers to start taking these relatively small risks, "baby steps of faith," if you will. If the market proves receptive, they'll see that they have less to lose and more to gain by bringing them over. They'll see the benefit in improving upon the core concepts or massaging their elements into future designs, resulting in a more diverse game selection across the board.
... but might be a hard sell
Unfortunately, the one true stumbling block on eroge's path to the mainstream is likely to be the most difficult to conquer. Many eroge are porn games (hence the term). Early on, the English-language eroge scene consisted mainly of distributors pandering to basement trolls in search of hot 2D dickings. Only recently have more complicated, less purely-porn titles begun to enter the market.
In the gaming environment, those who enjoy eroge and games in their style are labeled weeaboos, pedophiles or furries, nerds among nerds. The derision is not entirely unwarranted. Many eroge cover material quite taboo in the mainstream. Darker titles fulfill more deviant tastes, and yes, there are titles that feature rape and other morally abhorrent topics.
Sadder still is the fact that the stigma may never be lifted without the change in attitude that is being called for in this very piece. Only gamers and their market activity can hope to make a significant impact. This brings up a sort of chicken-and-egg conundrum. Will greater distribution of eroge help gamers' attitudes change, or will changing attitudes toward eroge spur an increase in their market presence? I'm thinking that it will take a little bit of both, but this piece is aiming for the latter. After all, I can't very well just send a letter to Activision asking Bobby Kotick "PLEASE TO GIVE WE TEH SEXYTIME ANIMU GAEMS." We all need to send that letter together.
So pick the Good Ending!
So, what am I asking of you, fellow mainstream gamers? Put simply, I'm asking you to play games that you might not think are "fun." In fact, that was the whole point of this overly long screed, that you might try out these eroge and find them worthy of the adjective. Take these baby steps of faith and show the world that it'll be worth it.
Eroge aren't always or won't automatically be triumphs of storytelling, much less gameplay. In fact, they might be quite backward in that sense, not quite pushing the envelope of using games' inherent traits to tell their tales in a new way. What they are, though, are terribly, wonderfully new. Though their elements have popped up to refresh some staid, floundering genres *coughGodblessAtluscough*, and are slowly worming their way into others, such pure expressions of their values and core conceits have never existed on this side of the ocean.
Eroge are striking examples of games that make the most of happily self-imposed restrictions, poster children for the less-is-more mantra. They're cheap to make, and, with your help, will become even cheaper to buy. They're cute, quirky, and occasionally heart-rending. They deserve to be wanted.
Now, to business:
A lot of the best eroge out right now are free (through the right channels), given loving translations by their fans. I'd suggest some demos, at least. Just for a taste. Some might not be super-emotional or moving, but if nothing else, they might be hot.
Take a chance on games about love (and/or sex). You might just end up loving it.