Dating sims defy a lot of logic. Describing them to someone who’s never heard of them would paint them as a game aimed for girls; relationship focused, sappy, a social simulator. But as every other genre and the medium of video games itself, the main demographic consists of men while women are associated with a sub-genre. Yo-Jin-Bo is an otome game, a genre visual novels and dating sims made for women to play, or at least have a female playable character. From what I can tell, these are what the gaming industry thinks women want in a dating sim as they continue to apply conventions based on a male demographic. Tuskuba Muneshige fits that bill, blending tropes of “the nice guy” and “the stalwart protector” in a typical shoujo anime motif. Your character, Sayori, is a typical high school girl who finds a magical artifact that transports her to a feudal Japan-like world, caught in a life-threatening situation and ends up guarded by an Unwanted Harem of attractive men. All of these men vie for her affection and vow with their lives to protect her; every girl’s dream, right?
Except this isn’t just an attempt to create a game, or genre, for women’s wish fulfillment, but also men’s. I chose Muneshige mostly because I felt sorry for him. He was the guy in the movies passed over because he wasn’t as exciting, or enough of a jerk. Always waiting for the main woman to come to her senses and realize she’s been in love with him the entire time. I wanted to reward that, and maybe even appreciate a little of that myself. In most dating sims, you learn to like your chosen object of affection because you spend your time and actions pleasing them, or trying to figure out how to get them to like you more. The choices of how to manage your day, what to buy, what to say, create an emotional investment that the player expects a return on. However, Yo-Jin-Bo doesn’t have this mechanic; rather, the choices and variants seem to rest mostly on whom to end up with, not how. This creates a one-sided dynamic where the player doesn’t learn to like their romance options, but the characters develop and pursue their relationship with Sayori. Muneshige’s persistence on protecting the player and controlling his sexual drive (making note of it instead of keeping it to himself) reflects the “white knight” mentality that “should” be valued in reality. Instead of learning that he has this type of personality and whether you like him, the question becomes can you reject him, knowing you shouldn’t. Sayori’s thoughts turn to what some do and don’t deserve rather than figuring out her own feelings, making the game a strange reverse otome. Since the player character doesn’t really change throughout the story, the focus is on the men’s intentions, leaving room for men players to identify more with the game than women.
Yo-Jin-Bo also accommodates men by breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect. It’s constantly reminding you that this is a game, and not to take it too seriously. All of the romance options are well aware they are in a dating sim and struggle to be with the player in the end. Each character has their own way of doing so, and Muneshige’s is telling terrible puns on subject matter that exists in contemporary reality and doesn’t exist in his world. This is what contrasts this character with the others; he’s absorbed in pleasing Sayori despite how bad he is at it while the other men call on erotic tropes from anime fandom to interact with the player. The game also enjoys putting the male characters into yaoi-tropey situations, and Muneshige is one of the few that plays up this sort of fan-service for women. His scene is purely comical and innocent in its result; it portrays him as sensitive, open-minded, and willing to please while evoking the awkwardness in trying to appear attractive to your love interest. This changes in group settings, where the respectful boy-next-door joins in on gawking and begging for varying degrees of sexual interaction. Whenever the game starts to get romantic, the tone breaks and releases the tension where heterosexual men might feel uncomfortable playing.
This game isn’t obviously marketed to men or as something of universal experience, but the predominate presence of men in visual novel and dating sim culture only allows an otome game to go so far. Yo-Jin-Bo is a hyperbole of a very small genre; there are many games where the same tropes are subtle and easy to miss if you’re not analyzing it. Maybe this game hints at changing the structure in an attempt to figure out what women want in a dating sim? On the other hand, perhaps it’s a serendipitous product that shifts the agency and game away from the player in favor of the suitors? Either way, this prompts an exploration as to how dating in games would differ for women, or if the current method is appropriate for all genders.