There are few works in commercial video games that set out to knowingly critique the genre they are a part of. Given a combined value of technological advancement and consumerism, games are often aiming to be better, more refined, or newly synthesized versions of what came before them. So it’s really cool to come across a game that upsets your expectations or plays hardball with genre conventions and compels you to consider your involvement in playing. Lately I’ve mostly secluded myself to playing visual novels, otome games to be exact. The one that most people are familiar with if they don’t really play these is Hatoful Boyfriend, since the absurdity of dating pigeons was enough to get people interested. But at its heart, Hatoful Boyfriend was a parody and poke at the genre it essentially represents to most people who play games, which shows a bit of maturity in the genre despite not being very prevalent in non-Japanese countries. But where Hatoful Boyfriend allows people to see the constructs of otome games through irony, the newer Amnesia: Memories does through a deep commitment to the tropes of the genre, not shying away from its more pernicious qualities. Spoilers for the game to follow if you plan on playing it without knowing anything.
Right from the title, you know this game is either extremely aware or another output of anime-grade nonsense. When I first began playing it I thought it was a little on the latter, and in reality it still may be, but as it evolved, the fact that it holds a contradiction, the memories of amnesia it implies, becomes more apparent. The game starts out in a space outside of reality where you meet a spirit, Orion, that accidentally collided with you and knocked out your memories. He pledges to assist bringing back your memories as that will separate the two of you so you can go back on with your lives. You eventually get a choice to enter a world designated by suits of playing cards, which you find out are associated with romanceable guys. In these worlds, you are involved with these men to some extent romantically before you lost your memories and you attempt to navigate the world without memories while people have different agendas for you that you are mostly unaware of. At its heart, the game reveals itself to be more of a mystery than romantic work, as you don’t finally piece together the entire tale until you complete a 5th hidden route.
Visual novel convention relies on players taking a completionist mindset, where you continually go through routes over and over again until you see every special cutscene (CGs) and endings, typically rated as Good and Bad, though some have True and in Amnesia’s case, Normal endings. With most games, this means you’re seeing a story with a lot of similarities over and over again, usually splintering off by which romantic route you choose when it comes to dating sims. So it’s a big wink wink when Amnesia starts off the entire game by choosing your romantic route first (fans of otome would have been able to guess who was which world based on promotions), because all the worlds are slightly different depending on what guy you’re dating.
This speaks to some absurdity to otome conventions already, much like Hatoful does, where your entire world revolved around dating pigeons. Most of these pigeons fill character tropes that you find in the otome genre, implying that the otome player doesn’t necessarily need what comes along with a human, that is, what we tend to base our sexuality and eroticism around, instead we would be fulfilled emotionally and that would satiate our needs. This is in contrast to most dating sims for men where the ultimate goal is to witness sex scenes, the game structured around basically achieving porn. In reality, you’re a player, presumed to be a woman, who is obsessively tailing men no matter how awful or downright abusive they may be to find all the special moments and endings you have with them. All of the men in this game are questionable partners, from the character featured on most of the cover art constantly putting you down and being borderline sadistic in how he treats you, to a character who literally entraps you against your will because he’s obsessed with you. This game, sometimes from the men’s very own mouths, question your tastes and decisions around wanting to be with people like them. This is most apparent in what is sorted into Good vs Normal Endings; Good endings have you living in romantic bliss with them now with your memories fully regained, despite all the bad things they’ve done to you, while Normal Endings usually have you more distant from their unhealthy behaviors with room for them to change their ways. My feeling after completing the original routes was that this game was asking me to justify my otome game-playing habits, which were to do whatever you can to please your chosen romance, no matter what your true feelings may be, so you can get the best route. It also questioned why I would go back to view all the bad routes, which usually resulted in my death, after I found the more preferable ones. And these are legit questions; why? Why do we find it natural to bend our personalities towards men and relive the trauma game systems depict for us if we fail to conform?
It is the introduction of the 5th hidden route where the game takes this awareness and uses it as a plot device, one that really doesn’t resolve itself so much on the meta level, but I found to be a neat way of using previously established commentary to reach an emotional endnote. The 5th world is a sort of like a combination of all the other worlds, where you seem to know all the characters in equal importance and all of the major events seem to occur. The romance of this world is a character with mostly disturbing cameos in your other routes and also broke the 4th wall by recognizing that there are different worlds and you’re dating someone different in each of them. You come to find that this character has been obsessively jumping between worlds trying to find the one where you both can be together, charting out all of your endings so he can finally prepare for the time you meet and help you evade death for 25 days. This is a really weird and alarming parallel, because you the player have just been going through for entertainment, but here is your actual fictional boyfriend who basically has been through hell dying, witnessing you dying, and killing you (he develops a murderous split personality, of course) an infinite amount of times. The final decision of the game is you judging him, whether you can forgive him for the times he’s caused you pain in the other worlds as a result of how watching you die or end up with other men.
Amnesia isn’t necessarily the Moby Dick of otome games, but it’s one of the few that actually get you consider what you’re doing while playing it. The game shows possible evolutions for the genre to further probe humanness by its very structure. I’m super interested in games that are cyclical in nature, reviewing similar events in different lights to get a grander understanding of how our actions affect others and the world. I think dating sims are a worthwhile genre for people to look at, for despite how small it is over here, there are some stand-out metafictional games (Shira Oka is another) that poke at our consumer relationship to play. While there are some games that grapple with metafictional issues, most of these are non-genre games, and I feel like there could just be more of them overall, as we could use further engagement for why we play the things we do, the way we do.
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