Phone app games have gained popularity as a way to pass time and a reason for baby boomers to call millennials and gen-z kids “lazy”.
“Otome” style games (literally meaning “maiden”) are, in essence, romance simulators. Along with advancing the story, the player advances a romance with one of many dashing bachelors.
The first time I can recall otome games finding their way into the Western mainstream culture of gaming was with the game “Mystic Messenger” where the player would get actual texts (not in-game messages) from the love interests. Since then, I haven’t seen a game make the same ‘splash.’ Seeing an ad for one of the games piqued my interest and got me asking questions concerning the lessons that individuals playing the game were learning.
Ikemen Sengoku is the otome game I saw advertised and the game that I decided to download and play. The premise of the game is you, the player character (hereinafter referred to as the “PC), are transported back in time to the Sengoku period in Japan. The Sengoku was a time of immense social and military conflict and the perfect atmosphere to develop a romance with one of the various shoguns. The game itself is a visual novel, meaning the simple mechanic of the game is tapping past the story and occasionally making dialogue decisions that inform the chosen romance.
Ikemen Sengoku offers many options for the PC to romance, including the three real-life unifiers of Japan: Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. After the prologue of the story, you are given the prompt to “choose your favorite guy” and embark on their romance route.
I chose the route of Oda Nobunaga (Nobunaga Oda in the Western translation). His title, which I believe is available when choosing the romance route, is the “Devil-King”… We’ll explore why.. Also spoilers follow for Nobunaga’s route on Ikemen Sengoku.
Nobunaga’s romance route starts with a common romance movie/novel/etc trope: “I hate the main love interest who is cruel and rude to me, but I also might like him?” The trope is inherently toxic since it supports the idea that negative behavior is romantic. We see this with the age old phrase many parents say to their young daughters, “He’s only being mean because he likes you”.
The romance aspect of the story begins with Nobunaga making a bet with the PC. The gist of the bet is if the PC can beat Nobunaga in a game of Go (a Japanese chess-like game) then he will accompany her to the space where she can time travel back to the present (yeah, he believes the time-travel thing right away when she tells him). With each game the PC loses, however, Nobunaga gets to claim a part of her. I’LL REPEAT. With each game the PC loses, Nobunaga gets to CLAIM a part of her. In fact, he calls it “conquering”.
“But, Mariam,” you may be thinking, “if it’s consensual, it’s totally fine!” You’re absolutely right. If it’s consensual. The PC tries to get out of the bargain because she simply doesn’t like Nobunaga and doesn’t like the idea of giving up parts of her body to him. Nobunaga’s response? Threats. He tells the PC that if she doesn’t agree to the bargain, he will lock her up in the castle’s dungeon. How that idea even left the pitch-room for the game is beyond me and how the PC is able to look past this fact and fall in love with him.
All in all, with how far I am with the route now, this particular otome game exemplifies the worst parts of a romance game and the romance genre as a whole. If we are to cultivate a culture where our children (our daughters based on the audience for the otome games) can learn healthy perceptions and practices of a good partner then we need to start with games that employ more feminist ideas such as affirmative consent and pushing back against harmful notions of attraction.
Mariam Bagadion is a Filipino-American fourth year SCSU student who double majoring Gender and Women’s Studies and English. Mariam has loved writing from a young age and is excited to use this passion to bring attention to and start conversations about feminist issues surrounding identity and pop culture today. Mariam is a writing tutor at The Write Place and in her free time runs a personal blog at micarlixx.wordpress.com and is Game Master for her friends’ Dungeons and Dragons games. Social Media Consultant.