Are Romance-Simulator Apps the New Romance Novels?

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Photo: iTunes

I haven’t been much of a gamer since I gave up the Sims in middle school — but I still remember the thrill of my Sims' first kiss. The pixelated avatars' lip locks were accompanied by a euphoric soundtrack, dramatic embrace, and sometimes (I later learned) a serendipitous impromptu wedding. The game offered a satisfyingly methodical path to romance: Get your Sims to talk, tell some jokes, flirt, and then go in for the kill. It was foolproof, and while perhaps not totally realistic, still pretty entertaining.

So when I heard about Japanese romance-simulator apps, I was intrigued.

Men have been onboard with dating simulation apps for a while (as evidenced by marriages to virtual girlfriends), but romance sims — marketed primarily to women — are newer. Yesterday Adrianne Jeffries of the Verge took a closer look at the apps, which are essentially choose-your-own-adventure e-romance novels. Developers claim to have researched women’s dating lives extensively in order to re-create “the butterflies feeling of a romance.” And, as I found when I downloaded "My Killer Romance," the result is weirdly compelling. 

In 2011, the Tokyo-based company Voltage began releasing English versions of their most popular romance apps, with titles like "Be My Princess," "Seduced in the Sleepless City," and "My Forged Wedding." Users pick a suitor, and then interact with it as if they were dating — choosing from a menu of options like “hint about your feelings” and “feign ignorance” to determine the story line. The apps are free to download, but where other romance-themed apps make money by encouraging users to buy virtual products for their characters, Voltage pauses the story at cliff-hangers, prompting users to pay for the next plot installment to find out what happens. 

Like romance novels, the apps are heavy on plot and clunky dialogue, low on opportunities for interaction. You click through screenshots captioned with story line, entirely passive until you’re prompted to respond (“Xavier” asks you out to dinner, and you can choose what to say: “I’m afraid I’ll be pretty busy,” “That depends,” or “I ... don’t think I have any plans”). Yet despite the slow pace and cringe-worthy graphics, it’s immersive. The plots are delightfully outlandish. In “My Killer Romance,” a crew of hunky demons grant you ten days to live, and you must seduce your captor (a prince in the “realm of death”) so that you can make it to your mother’s birthday party. In another app, “Kiss of Revenge,” you flirt with a doctor involved in covering up a case of medical malpractice that resulted in the death of your mother.

While romance sims have enjoyed huge success in Japan, it’s unclear whether they’ll catch on in the States. As Jeffries notes, there are already hard-core Voltage fans who have taken to Tumblr to drool over characters and recap game scenarios. And I'll admit I was enjoying the slow pursuit of Xavier's young brother, Kieran — a soul-sucking demon whose bare skin, it turned out, would burn me if I touched it. We could hold hands if he was wearing gloves, but that was about as far as things got before the cost of buying successive plot installments ($3.99 each) became prohibitive. I'm skeptical the apps will gain a following beyond their current base of devotees, but, then again, I never would have predicted 50 Shades of Grey, either.