When I was young and horny, I would play a lot of dating sims and other types of “adult” games. I would either pirate these games via torrents or play free Flash games on sites like Newgrounds.com.
Yes, even in those days, free porn was everywhere, but there was something intoxicating about these games to me. Playing to unlock nudity in these games compelled me to play them well into the small hours on many occasions.
It is only now, with more experience in designing games myself, that I’ve come to realize that these games teach all the wrong lessons.
Relationships distilled into a bar
The basic gameplay loop of a dating sim is very simple.
You are a loser, most likely a high schooler, and you want to get into the pants of other high schoolers. You do that by first improving yourself, i.e. getting a job, going to the gym and studying. Then, you talk to these girls, getting to know them a bit better and memorizing their interests. This earns you relationship experience with them. Once you have leveled up your relationship, you can take them on increasingly expensive dates. Here, the women will ask you questions about their interests and reward you for getting the answers right. Once you’ve taken them out on enough dates, you get to have sex with them.
Now, let’s break down what these mechanics teach the player.
Firstly, women are treated as vending machines. If you put enough Nice in, Sex comes out! Capturing a relationship in a bar (that only goes in one direction) is problematic in this regard. As a game designer, you teach the player that relationships are purely transactional. Any problem they have can be smoothed over with a well-timed gift or date.
Next, these romantic interests rarely have their own agency. I’ve played a lot of these games, but it’s rare to see the women showing any interest in you themselves. You essentially have to compel them to like you. Having a character play coy can be interesting to the player, but it can also end up feeling like they have to dominate their target.
These games also teach players to lie to the people they’re romantically interested in. In order to maximize their chances, they have to be everybody to everyone. Alice is really into skiing, so I’m a big skier myself! Bree likes to stay inside with a good book, so that’s my favorite activity too!
Finally, what these games teach players is that sex is the end goal. Once you’ve had sex with one target, it’s time to move on to another. This is because of the way the games are structured: nudity is locked behind the relationship bar, which means the sex is at the end of the bar. If you want more content after that, you will have to move to other girls.
These problem isn’t limited to dating sims, though! Even big titles like The Sims 4 allow you to min-max relationships by spamming hugs, gifts and ultimately dragging your targets into bed.
Training for success
Another subgenre of adult games I’m very interested in are called “trainer” or “slave maker” games. In these games, you train one or more people (usually called “slaves”) by assigning them tasks during the day and having sex with them during the night.
The slaves usually have many, many stats, ranging from Charisma, Refinement and Morality to Nymphomania, Lust and Blowjobs. Tasks performed during the day can influence these stats, but there’s a catch! The slaves have a very limited form of agency! You cannot compel a slave to perform an action she is opposed to, unless you are willing to pay a penalty on the other stats. They will also tell you what their needs are and will end up happier if you fulfill them.
And it’s this friction, that what the player wants is not necessarily aligned with what the character wants, that I’m exploring with my own game.
Sex without bars
My game is called “Up There They Love” and I’ve been working on it for two and a half years now. It is a combination of a trainer game and a visual novel. The basic idea is that you need to level up your crew in order to advance the story.
In UTTL, you play as a loser stuck in a dead-end job as a dock worker on a space station. Your best friend Chichi got you the job and is working on a new type of engine, called the S.E.X. drive. As the name suggests, the drive is powered by sexual energy. Which is unfortunately considered sacrilege by the local cult, who want to outlaw sex throughout the galaxy…
I don’t want to spoil too much yet, but shenanigans occur, and you end up fleeing the scene with Chichi’s experimental drive. In order to power the drive, Chichi first tries masturbating, but then sucks you off. Your combined sexual energy allows you to escape the cult, but now the race is on!
The gameplay is divided into three day shift and one night shifts. During these shifts, you assign crew members to rooms on the ship and pick tasks for them. Tasks influence the stats of a character, which can ultimately influence their mood.
During the night shift, you convert garnered Motivation into sexual energy, which is used to power the ship’s drive.
With this game design, I hope to address my main criticism of the dating sim genre: relationships should not be captured in bars.
Got your interest?
I’m currently working towards an Alpha build of the game, which I will make available as a free download. In the meantime, please watch this space or follow me on Twitter: @mrhands31
Thanks for reading!