This article is part of a collaboration with iQ by Intel.
Otome games—visual romance novels targeted at women—don’t often find a wide audience outside of Japan. Not only do they struggle to market towards women in countries where dating simulators are less of a cultural staple, but the games’ protagonists and stories are often coated in a Japanese context, causing some of the magic to get lost in translation. Even breakthrough titles in the otome genre usually meet small niche popularity when compared to their male-oriented counterparts. That being said, some otome games have broken the barrier, finding their foothold in the west.
Among those chosen few are games like Alice in the Country of Hearts, a romantic reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s classic; Hakuoki, a game following a protagonist disguised as a man in search of her father; and Amnesia: Memories, a game in which the main protagonist awakens with no recollection of her past. These notable titles have overcome the cultural barrier, with many players and reviewers alike celebrating their distinct art styles, varied story routes and, in the case of Amnesia, expert localization for an English-speaking audience.
Their method of reaching out to a western audience mirrors that of another otome game, Purrfectly Ever After, which follows a burglar cat-turned-girl, trying to live as a real human while navigating her new city life. Purrfectly Ever After was designed specifically with a western audience in mind, with the team referring to the game as an effort to “bridge the gap between Japanese-centric otome games told from a not-so-Japanese point of view and storyline.”
“Otome games are popularized in Japan. It’s natural that those who are exposed to otome games are also those who are very much into Japanese ACG (anime, comic and game) culture,” said Sue Anne Chan, founder of Weeev, the team behind Purrfectly Ever After. “Unless the concept of the game is set in Japan, though, we want to make it as universal as possible.” Chan cited cultural and environmental differences as the largest barrier for western audiences, noting that “even though some otome games are localized in English, the elements of Japanese culture remain intact.”
Instances of cultural references that might not be removed during subbing and dubbing of otome games, such as the removal of shoes before walking into a room, or the act of ‘kabe-don’ (where one pins another against a wall as a romantic gesture), are just a couple of elements that might not be fully appreciated by a western audience at best, and alienate them at worst. Whereas non-playable characters in romantic visual novels generally fit neatly into traditional Japanese anime tropes (the cool character, the shy one, the intellectual guy, the tsundere one, etc.) newer titles in the otome genre have been more lenient with these roles when conceptualizing for a western audience.
According to a survey conducted by Weeev, an overwhelming majority of their fanbase said they prefer otome games with a moderately complex storyline, as opposed to a simpler one-track plot. Norihisa Kochiwa, who oversees development of one of the top otome game companies, Idea Factory, mirrored this sentiment in an interview with Siliconera, saying that they focus on the storyline as opposed to the gameplay itself. For western audiences in particular, character complexity even leaks into the main protagonist. While Japanese otome games generally feature a blank-slate character for the player to project their own personality upon, Chan said that games developed with Europe and North America in mind tend to portray leading female protagonists with more developed backstories.
“Western audiences like to see a lead with an established personality, unlike the ones stereotyped in typical otome games,” Chan said, going on to note that audiences for Purrfectly Ever After responded positively to their female lead Pastel being characterized as a “a strong-willed, cat-turned-human girl who is a leader of a clan and a hero of justice.” Even in the case of Amnesia, the most popular title among western audiences, the player is allowed to build a completely new personality for the protagonist following her memory loss. Each narrative decision slowly establishes her character as the game goes by, adding a layer of depth to the path that the player chooses. “I think the momentum has started to pick up among western audiences, and people are more receptive of otome games now than ever before,” Chan said. “The increase of fan base and coverage of otome games is prevalent. It will only bring more opportunities and awareness to the genre worldwide.”