Perhaps you are interested in creating a cute story in which the main character can end up with one of several love interests. Maybe you want to prove to the world that you can make a full-blown Dating Sim without problems like illogical choices (or gratuitous sex). Or perhaps you want to mix some relationship elements into your mainstream video game. Regardless, read on.
The first decision you make will unlock a major Event Flag for your story/game:
- Are you prepared to make a stat-driven dating simulation which approaches the complexity of Tokimeki Memorial, or a raising sim as intricate as Princess Maker? (If so, you better have a lot of time, resources, and assistants who are committed to work with you.)
- Do you want to just make a simple Visual Novel?
- Or are you ready to create a hybrid-genre game (for example, including RPG elements)?
If you're not creating a product with the intention of selling it, then know what you're getting into. Do not talk about your awesome plans until your project is almost finished. Instead, write a few scenes, or get some of your gameplay to work. Then set a realistic deadline for yourself, and don't change it. The English-speaking Ren Ai Game community has too many examples of games which only had demos, or which never amounted to more than ambitious plans.
The second decision which will shape your game:
Who is your main character, and what is their sexuality? The following options will make a huge difference:
- Heterosexual male. Yes, you may have seen it already. However, there's more out there than sex romps. Boy-meets-girl(s) stories exist in all sorts of flavors. They can be silly, they can be cute, they can be tragic, they can be twisted...
- Heterosexual female. As of 2009, the Otome Game genre has been around for fifteen years. And unlike bishoujo games, it didn't begin with porn — no, the first one was Angelique, on Super Famicom.
- Gay male. If you're working in the Boys Love Genre, then your characters will be somewhere between androgynous and feminine. If you're working in the lesser known gay genre, then your characters will be Manly Gay.
- Gay female. A tiny genre. See also Schoolgirl Lesbians.
Any of the above could conceivably be crossdressers. Any of them could have one or more transgender people or bifauxnen as potential love interests. You could also make them bisexual if you want love interests of both genders, but don't put too many options or it can be overwhelming.
Unless you are making a story which is the equivalent of "gen" Fan Fic, you will have a main character who falls in love with one or more people, or vice versa. Therefore, you need to devise interesting ways for their feelings to develop.
Most commercial ren'ai games feature a harem. If your game will have one, then find a way to make it logical. Note that harems do not necessarily exist in doujin visual novels.
Likewise, many commercial games have a Slice of Life setting. If your setting is realistic, then make sure you can portray it in a way that the audience will find interesting. However, there are examples of ren'ai games which take place in diverse genres, including but not limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror...
Nearly all dating sims have Multiple Endings. These can often vary from good to bad to nihilistic. Don't let all of them be happy, because if the main character is not allowed to fail, then your story/game may lose its emotional impact.
If you have decided to create an adult game, then you need to decide how sex will be incorporated into the story or the gameplay. You can include hardcore scenes at important moments. You can create a love story in which a single sex scene is an important landmark for the characters. Or you can create a game filled with challenges and/or puzzles, and make it difficult to get to a sex scene.
Just like in the Write a Magical Girlfriend Series entry, a male main character may be an Unlucky Everydude. In other words, he may be quite dull. Also, a main male character can sometimes be a Marty Stu who gets all the girls with no effort. Remember, you want your audience to sympathize with the main character, or perhaps imagine they could be him. So do your best to find an alternative to "boring" and "obnoxious" characters. You should ask questions such as, "Why would anyone like this person?" Remember, it could get worse — if your story involves horror/dark themes, and if your main character is doing horrible things, then your audience may want to see themselves as anyone but that character. Note that Featureless Protagonist is exception to this. However, there is reason why Dating Sim use this character less and less.
Mary Sue: if your main character is female, some fans may be quick to label her a Mary Sue, or as some sort of stand-in for Fangirls. Don't overcompensate to avoid this. Just show the audience that she has plausible strengths and real weaknesses.
Stereotypes: some character lists in bishoujo and otome games can seem like checklists of fan-favorite character types. (Patient Childhood Love Interest, Meido, Ojou/Sheltered Aristocrat, Not Blood Siblings, Troubled, but Cute, Token Mini-Moe...) Add some unique-but-not-bland characters, or at least add some variety. It's possible to present the audience with a character who seems like a stereotype at first, and then introduce complications as the story goes on.
If your story takes place near a school, and nearly every important character is under twenty years old, then there's a chance that your story may seem trite even if it's original. Strive to add distinct elements to your game/story which will be obvious from the very first scene.
How will the characters meet? Do they know each other before the story begins? Make sure any Meet Cute scenes are not just random occurrences.
It's possible to create a multi-path game with an Official Couple. This might even make the other characters Pretty Freeloaders. Maybe you can even go as far as to create a story in which the two people are more than just casual acquaintances at the beginning. If the game is a simulation, and the Official Couple continues their relationship, then your game could emphasize time management and making friends. This would be different from the many games in which the main character is unattached at the beginning, and the story is all about their finding love.
However, as long as you're willing to write Multiple Endings, try to make sure all the pairings make sense. Remember, the player may be interested in creating OTPs out of your cast.
Comedy can add to a game, but if the storyline and characters are treated as one big joke, then your game may become a Shallow Parody and lose its emotional impact.
If your story or game has a decision tree, then it doesn't hurt to include some blatantly obvious Event Flag-triggering decisions. At the same time, don't write choices which are misleading or hopelessly vague. Luck Based Missions will frustrate your audience. (Unless the point of your game is to be misleading or vague.)
In a similar vein, do your best to avoid But Thou Must!. Your audience may become frustrated if the in-game decisions are meaningless, or if they can't make decisions at important parts of the plot. (Unless your goal is to create a universe in which You Can't Fight Fate.)
Dismissed Gender: Be sure to read that entry for its suggestions on what your audience might find acceptable. Then strive to avoid a game in which a male lead character can pursue girls much younger than him... or at the very least, make sure there are consequences or challenges.
If you choose to create an all-ages game, then don't tease the audience by labeling it as porn. A few fan-made games which were billed as eroge but did not have any sex scenes will be disappoint.
If you choose to create an H-Game, remember that too much sex can actually be boring. Additionally, remember that writing sex itself is not the easiest thing. We have a separate article, So You Want To: Write A Sex Scene?, on the subject. (And that's not even getting into the possibility of the Hot Coffee Minigame.)
If your game is based on an existing series (as a form of Fanfic), and if you try to keep plot and continuity intact, then it might end up seeming like Filler. The opposite problem can exist — if your game could resolve the Love Dodecahedron and/or break up couples, then set the story at a point where Romantic Loose Ends Can Be Cleaned Up.
If you're trying to sell a text-driven game to an audience which suffers from Small Reference Pools, or an audience that has never experienced one (at least since the days of Zork), then you might want to include some elements which make your content more palatable. Break away from a Cliché Storm such as "boring main character gets three to five love interests. No plot, no bad endings." Here are some ideas...
If you think your audience doesn't know the difference between an H-Game and an all-ages game, then perhaps you should mess with their expectations. You can encourage the audience to use its imagination. You could present a scene where it first seems as though the main character is having sex, but then reveal that something else is happening. You could include a scene which suggests that the main character's friend or rival has a non-platonic love interest.
If you're weary of weak, bland main characters, then make him/her distinct. Perhaps the main character has No Social Skills. Or perhaps he/she is a badass. An innocent main character might be welcomed by the rest of the cast. But if the others perceive the main character to be a threat, then there will be some antagonism.
If the main character voluntarily crossdresses (or is compelled to), then this could set up a story which starts as same-sex friendship, but then develops into love. (Boys Love Genre and Yuri Genre writers may further subvert this if they want.)
If you don't want your story to start drifting into W.A.F.F. territory, consider adding an active antagonist. Or put the characters into threatening situations.
Don't let the player get rewarded just for taking the time to read your game. Let there be a real possibility that the main character will end up alone.
If you're bored with available characters whose personalities are bland, then write a few who are distinct. For instance, if at least one character is a Fanboy or a Fangirl, then you can use that character to comment on what it's like to be a nerd. Or why not use one or multiple Hot-Blooded characters to change the audience's expectations?
In most bishoujo and otome games, the characters are all inexplicably chaste teens who do not already have relationships. How could you subvert that? Consider a story in which the main character or the available characters are slowly recovering from failed relationships. Or one in which the main character can't win unless he/she carefully convinces one other person to break up with their current love interest.
In To Heart, it's possible for the main character to build a relationship with Multi, who is a Ridiculously Human Robot. It might be possible for them to live together, but this could be awkward. Work with that idea, and think what might happen if your main character attempted to win the love of a humanoid being incapable of straight sex or procreation.
If the main character attempts to hook up with a "different" person (someone much richer, or someone of a different race), then it should be a challenge.
If the main character is an adult who falls in love with an underage person, then either they should be punished, or else it should be quite difficult to wait until that person is old enough.
Want to be bold? Try making a character who isn't really attractive. Then let the main character slowly discover why this ugly character is special.
Or consider a game in which the main character is not "selfishly" trying to find a love interest for him/herself. Instead, write a game in which the main character is compelled to act as a matchmaker for other people.
No matter what, your game will be fiction. So if you're interested in commenting on the differences between fiction and Real Life, then you could put your characters into a virtual reality world, or people who are Trapped in TV Land, or make them actors, or role-players...
How much time will your story cover? Will it continue on after the honeymoon's over? Do some research on Memories Off 2nd, which is all about breaking up, or the latter segments of CLANNAD, which cover life after school years are over.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
It's entirely possible to write a game which initially seems feature a harem, but once the player gets to know the story, it is much more like True Companions. The Power of Friendship might help in resolving conflicts which stem from love triangles. On other end, it can be much more like Psychological Horror as well. A cutesy conflicts which stem from love triangles might end with Downer Ending if resolved with Love Makes You Evil Yandere Stalker with a Crush.
Your game/story could be a (delayed?) Coming-of-Age Story. Consider writing a story in which the main character grows from an Accidental Pervert or a Fangirl into someone more mature. Or if your game will have statistics, see if you can portray your main character as someone who grows as their stats improve. On a similar note, your main character could grow in maturity as he/she changes from indecisive to committed to one person.
Your main character could be a nerd, or someone who has trouble dealing with people. Perhaps this character has been alone prior to the events of the story. If so, why? Did he/she choose solitude? Or did he/she simply not fit in with normal society? If that is true, then perhaps your main character was A) bullied, B) an outsider, C) acting in socially inappopriate ways, or D) suffering from trauma. A main character with any of these issues will have a major effect on the story.
If you prefer a less realistic nerd character, or if you want to reduce potential This Loser Is You implications, then your main character might suffer from "nerdy" problems which are unlikely or impossible in Real Life. Is he/she Allergic to Love? Was he/she Cursed with Awesome, and thus their "problems" are things many people only dream about? A female main character who Does Not Like Men shouldn't have to trace her issues back to plausible causes.
If it seems too easy for the main character to get together with the other characters, then your writing may have a hollow ring. To avoid this, consider adding unexpected complications which show that love isn't as easy as making a few choices or increasing the right stats. Reveal that potential love interests have complicated lives and backgrounds.
It's not unusual to find tragic endings in commercial ren'ai games. The wacky comedy Green Green eventually turned into a Tear Jerker. Therefore, if you can justify creating an optional or mandatory sad ending, then you may certainly include one.
If you want to create a harem game, then see if you can create links between the characters to make it a Themed Harem. They could be classmates, teachers, or Not Blood Siblings. They could be people who share jobs, sports, hobbies, beliefs, or backgrounds. Or they could just be of your favourite moe character type.
At the same time, don't let the members of your game's harem be clones of each other. Vary them. See if you can write the available characters in ways which highlight the attributes of your main character. Or let your main character's interests and life experiences be reflected in the available characters.
The Tokimeki Memorial games happen over the course of three years. But unless you have a lot of ambition, you will probably want to create a game with a smaller scope. Consider the following...
Vacation: surely your main character can meet people away from home and their normal life. Time is short, and sightseeing can be quite distracting.
Reunion: after some time apart, the main character is once again meeting people from their recent past. Have they grown up? How have they changed over the years? (Are they unrecognizable?) Do they genuinely miss each other? Can their relationships improve now? This can be done very well, but be wary of making it too much like Kanon, considering how influential that game was.
Familiar to unfamiliar: the main character has lived in an isolated world. Suddenly, he/she goes to a place where there are several girls or guys. The main character might be welcomed, or might be seen as a menace. It's possible to let the potential love interests arrive unexpectedly, but that may be a copout.
Coping with a crisis: in Kiminozo, the main character is forced to deal with a girl in a coma. In Nanatsuiro Drops, the main character has to figure out how he'll live after becoming non-human most hours of the day. What crisis could your main character have to confront?
The difference between friendship and love: from the otome game Houkago wa Hakugin no Shirabe, it seems the main character spends some of the story disguised as a guy, and thus she forms friendships with the male characters. Therefore, consider how your story might work if friends might turn into lovers.
Thematic schedule management: the Pia Carrot games were early examples of games in which the player had a constrained amount of gameplay to increase the main character's stats. Since then, a few similar games, including otome games, have been created. Therefore, think of a situation in which your main character would need to learn a task. Or a situation in which the main character would have to grow in order to get the attention of cute people nearby.
Set Designer / Location Scout
Many ren'ai games take place in locations which are calm or pretty. But if your game borrows fantasy RPG elements, you can make your art reflect that. Ditto for science fiction, horror, etc.
The props to be involved in your game heavily depend on the setting. Extensive research goes a long way.
School-themed dating simulations tend to have uniforms somewhere between "cute" and "cool." But if your game/story doesn't take place in a school setting, you may use whatever costumes you want.
Outside of sex scenes, characters in H-games tend to stay fully dressed. He has seen only one game with an Innocent Fanservice Girl... and the protagonist could not hook up with that character. He wouldn't mind a little Author Appeal — that is, seeing a few more characters of that type.
It's common to find characters who are Moe, Bishoujo, Bishounen, or Yaoi Guys. Not every character is what they appear at first. A Wholesome Crossdresser can exist, and even be an available character, in Bishoujo Games.
If your game involves lots of action, stunts are required. Otherwise, this department is nonexistent.
There's already several games which blend unexpected genres. Galaxy Angel is an RTS as well as a ren'ai game. Nanatsuiro Drops takes its story ideas and art from the Magical Girl genre. The Infinity series from KID (Never7, Ever17, Remember11) have strong suspense and philosophic elements. Sakura Wars brings together many different genres. Therefore, think up the most unlikely game genre fusion that you can. Can you combine a dating sim with an FPS? How about a Platform Game? Then consider fiction genres. Would a genre like Funny Animal work? Would Film Noir be acceptable? What about Toku?
Remember: dating sims don't always happen in the good ol' Land of the Rising Sun. Why not make a dating sim set in a Real Life non-Japanese country (or even a specific region/area/province), which will have the additional benefit of being an Edutainment Game? (See Mangagamer and Overdrive's collaborative work, Go! Go! Nippon.)
Consider a change from the cliche "still, cartoonish figures against a more realistic background, with text on the bottom" graphic style. For instance, look at the art and dialogue styles used in Littlewitch games. (As of this writing, only one Littlewitch game is being fan translated: the H game version of Quartett!)
If you are familiar with a specific ren'ai game, consider what would happen if it went through a Gender Flip. What could be improved? What could make it a poor adaptation? Research the following: Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side, Your Memories Off, and Da Capo Girls Symphony.
Think about creating a multiplayer dating simulation. First, consider what sort of story and gameplay would appeal to fans who would be willing to compete or cooperate. Second, decide what sort of content you will include. Will you exclude the Otaku audience? Will you create the video game equivalent of board games for couples? Third, work on specific elements. Perhaps you could create a simulation in which players compete to win the hearts of 2D girls or guys. Maybe you could create a Moe raising sim in which players raise characters... and perhaps have them fight!
Lighter And Softer: Aside from some other crazy people on message boards, when the majority of anime and game fans think about dating sims, all they know are raunchy PWP games. So instead of creating another porn game, or one with constant fanservice, why not create a relationship-centered game which doesn't appeal to Otaku? Play a few general audience Visual Novels (fan created and/or translated). Then think about what sort of visual novel or simulation would appeal to more than a few fans.
This section is hampered by the fact that several critically acclaimed ren'ai games not only lack official translations, but also lack fan translation patches. (To be more specific, as of September 2010, only one of the Sakura Wars games received an English localization, and by September 2012 only the first two Tokimeki Memorial Girl's Side game of the vast Tokimeki Memorial franchise has a complete translation patch.) Thankfully, some individuals on GameFAQs have created English guides for a variety of relationship games.
Quartett. One of two games that sent littlewitch's popularity skyrocketing. It focuses on the lives of various young men and women who strive to be world-class musicians. Despite the slice-of-life pace, it still has incredibly powerful drama and romance aspects, making it a very satisfying coming-of-age tale. A complete English patch has been released for it.
A Midsummer Days Resonance. A translated doujin game with no choices. One of the few visual novels in English with a female protagonist.
Elven Relations. A fairly serious fantasy story which is also a harem story. It contains optional RPG battles.
Mitsumete Knight. It's already unusual for a Dating Sim to take place in a medieval-fantasy setting, but this game also has rich background story, notably of the world it's set in, and of the war taking place, which are as important as - and sometime overlapse with - The Hero's quest to win the girl's heart. Also, the game can go far enough to kill some girls off, even during dating event. The end result, a solid plot which will captivate even those who aren't interested in Dating Sims.
Katawa Shoujo. It sounds like a sick fetish game, with your love interests being crippled, but it's actually a well written visual novel with characters that are interesting and fun, with an awesome soundtrack, themes that are well-researched and taken seriously, and moments that make you want to smile and cry at the same time.
Hatoful Boyfriend. Marketed as a parody of the otome game genre, the player character is a human girl in a school for and by pigeons. Weird as the premise may sound, the characterisation is really wonderful and there is a second, very intense second storyline that turns the game into a surprisingly dark mystery thriller and explains the relationships between and many a thing from the past of the respective characters.
The Epic Fails
Love Hina Sim Date RPG. It's just a fan-made game and a Shallow Parody. The gameplay isn't bad at all, but the dialogue and characterization resembled a chat room or a junior high cafeteria. This also applies to the Galaxy Angel fan game, which might be a Recursive Adaptation, except that the fan game creators probably did not play the untranslated games (and thought that prim loli Mint as a stoner was the funniest thing ever).
Season Of The Sakura. One of the first H games in English, and thus arguably an Ink Stain Adaptation. It resembled a poorly disguised doujin game, since all of the characters were Expys of ones from established series. Furthermore, the male main character was a Marty Stu who could excel at several sports, yet felt bored.
- Seasons of the Sakura also has a common failing with many early dating sims, in that while following the Visual Novel example, the game requires many upon many choices, about 3 of which are key to viewing any given ending. Really just a lot of pointless padding where a newer game would actually put more story.
Sprung, in addition to having few romance options and a mostly linear story, is also plagued with Trial-and-Error Gameplay and Guide Dang It!. Beyond some Funny Moments and the option to play as either a man or a woman, there is little to recommend it.