One is a charismatic heir to a multibillion dollar empire. Another is an irresistible bad boy with a heart of gold, and the other is a dreamy surfer with a mega-watt smile and washboard abs. They’re hot, single, and looking for love. Who would you pick to fall in love with?
If it sounds too good to be true, well, it’s probably because it is. These gorgeous alphas and McDreamies exist in the world of Otome, video games with romantic storylines targeted at women.
Created in the ’80s in Japan, with its origins steeped in manga comic books, Otome is seeing a resurgence in the smartphone age decades on, in the form of free-to-download apps with interactive storylines (read: saucier with sound effects), dialogue and graphics – alongside a choice of messenger apps (yep, you receive romantic “text” from lover boy) and visual novels.
Today, female fans can fuel their imagination in escapist fiction with hundreds of Otome apps created by game developers around the world.
It’s no surprise that Asia is the top money-spinner with Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan dominating half of the US$6.5 billion global market share, according to the last Global Games Market Report in 2016. While America and Canada trail behind at 21.7 per cent, Europe and Australia generate 7.8 per cent and 1.7 per cent, respectively.
Now, one may ask what’s the lure of investing in a fake romance? Think of it as an alternative to watching a rom-com, or reading a romance novel. The difference is: You, the protagonist, get to call the shots, steering the plot through selective responses in the nearly every scene in each episode, while the hot alpha male who’s a bit of a tease woos you obsessively.
Customise Your McDreamy
One such game app is Chapters, an interactive visual novel developed by Californian games-publisher Crazy Maple Studio. You can choose from various story themes, from Bad Boys, Billionaire CEO, Young Adult, Fantasy/Sci-fi, Suspense to Vampire/Werewolf, and more.
Other similar novel games include Choices, Moments, and Romance Club.
The fun part: Players can choose the appearance of each alpha male avatar for every story, from skin tone to hairstyle and hair colour, plus facial features. The same goes for the female character, but choices usually extend to a wardrobe of skimpy, chic outfits.
The visual novel apps feature a diverse catalogue of game novels, which explain their core female players, who are often in their late teens, 20s and 30s. The stories are like a Netflix series, with a new episode uploaded weekly.
It’s like spending money on ebooks. And I want my female avatar to play hard-to-get.Jen Loh, Episodes fan
At each cliffhanger, you have the option of tapping on one of three responses, with each taking you on a different course.
According to Chapters, the app gets people into reading – or to read more – which is the complete opposite of what people expect from a game.
Many stories are written by accomplished authors such as Lauren Layne, best known for her paperback titles such as Central Park Pact and To Love And To Cherish, which are Amazon and USA Today bestsellers.
One Chapters fan in Singapore is Jolene Ong. The 28-year-old retail manager tells Her World: “This game works for me because typical quest games like Assassin’s Creed only ever has male leads, and you can’t customise your own character.”
And women are more likely to play the games if avatars resemble them in some way, according to a 2018 report by UK-based game analysis Game Analytics. In Chapters’ My Billionaire Boss, Jolene is an attractive brunette who’s falling in love with her grumpy, hot-as-hell boss.
Pay As You Play
But it isn’t all a free play. Players have to splash on their flashiest outfits and the most desired responses. Otherwise, one winds up with lacklustre freebies: frumpy outfits that won’t get you far with the classy billionaire, and spending the night alone with no romantic date – if you run out of tokens.
And that’s how the games such as Moments, Chapters, Episodes and Choices, generate revenue. Using tickets and diamonds as tokens, players can buy them from $2.98 for 20, as well as watch 30-second ads to earn free bonus tokens. Each moment-defining response or elaborate outfit costs between 12 and 30 diamonds.
Jen Loh, 32, an Episodes fan, spends up to $120 a month, accumulating up to four virtual boyfriends in a span of two months. “It’s like spending money on ebooks. And I want my female avatar to play hard-to-get.”
OMG, He Texted!
Some anime avatars will make you feel all the feels, like a real-time experience – pinging you via a messenger chat in Miraclr: Divine Dating Sim by the USbased Woodsy Studio. In this game, expect relatable messages like “How was your day?” or “I really want to get your opinion on something”.
Miraclr, written by former Hollywood screenwriters Jenny Gibbons and Malcolm Pierce, is a comedy-fantasy where the female player is recruited to help the male archangels create miracles.
Marketing executive Gillian Toh, 23, says: “Users can’t customise their love interest here, but it offers an element of surprise. It’s similar to how you can’t ‘design’ Tinder dates in real life. But in this game, you’re guaranteed to get a hot anime guy.”
Girls, be warned. This is a cute but needy male avatar that feeds on your attention. If you’ve ghosted him for a week, be prepared to get spammed with text notifications on how much he misses you.
Real Versus Reel
Indeed, the immersive experience aided by technology draws players to invest emotionally in their beta boyfriends – even if it’s a less interactive game-novel like Love Triangle, which features a fixed storyline and characters.
Games Are Fun, But Don’t Confuse Real and Virtual Romance.Dr BL Lim, psychiatrist at Psychological Wellness
While one can only name her male lead, and tap on the occasional “yes” or “no” question, the game comes complete with sound effects. It reminds players to put on headphones or move to a private area once you’ve reach an intimate scene, making the virtual connection even more realistic.
Still, Jolene says: “You feel connected to your male avatars when you’re playing the game. But not after you’ve finished the novel… it’s just a fictional character.”
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Read more stories from our Love package here.
This story was first published in Her World’s February 2020 issue.