Dating sims and visual novels in Japan are part of an intriguing subculture that looks to place players right in the middle of the action when it comes to romance. No matter what kind of partner you’re into, you can find someone to sweep off their feet, whether it’s a meaty Cronenberg-esque monster of Saya no Uta fame or a dashing young savior of the known universe seen several times over. Two anime series have attempted to capture the very things that make visual novels as engaging as they are in the first place, though they’re not quite effective at presenting a cohesive narrative as either anime episodes or pseudo-dating sim vignettes. Instead, they’re frustratingly flat.
If you've been looking for your next awesome new dating sim or visual novel to enjoy after taking in beacons of queer storytelling like Brianna Lei's Butterfly Soup or you're wanting something to spend time on throughout the holidays, perhaps you've heard of these strange shows that debuted last year. Let's break them down.
Both One Room and Room Mate are series from SMIRAL and Typhoon Graphics, and both are described as “first-person narratives,” where the viewer is insinuated to be the audience in one-on-one and face-to-face interactions. Each series has three different “routes” where either an assumed male protagonist interacts with a woman, or an assumed female protagonist interacts with a man. One Room focuses on female “routes” and Room Mate features male “routes.” As each character’s tale unfurls, the series are supposed to simulate the feeling of actually speaking to, getting to know, and even flirting with.
Room Mate plays out just like an otome game, or a game typically aimed at women that offers up several men with which players can choose to pursue a romantic relationship with (or have sex with, depending on what type of game it is.) It features three very different men, with a female protagonist meant to play the role of the new manager at a set of dorms where the men live. Takumi is a college student who loves to rock climb. Aoi is an actor. Shinya is a businessman. From the beginning of the series, the game sets them all up as potential love interests but doesn’t manage to offer up any convincing or interesting threads to pick up on either in the realm of anime love or real-life love.
Your first interaction with each character is less-than-stellar, and like the female character-based One Room, the guys’ personalities are pretty one-dimensional. Straight off the bat, you can tell that Takumi is gruff but truly cares about his friends. Aoi gets too into his acting, but he’s sweet and sensitive. Shinya is an arrogant sadist and wants you to submit to him, essentially. All can be enticing to different viewers, but there isn’t much about them in each individual route to make you want to keep watching, unless you’re just really excited or turned on by a man who’s outwardly a jerk to you but really wants you to keep pursuing him because he OMG loves to rock climb!
There’s no real organic conversation or imperative to want to pursue a type of relationship with these men, and it’s a shame when so many visual novels and otome games do an excellent job of building rapport and ensuring you fall deeply for the character you’re romancing. Instead, it feels like a rushed slideshow of what could be, which is doing both male and female fans a disservice.
There are ways both shows could work, but it would almost certainly mean a longer series of episodes and more meaningful interactions between both parties. There’s a real lack of connecting conversations and getting to know the other person and a lot more vapid interactions that dumb down the potential these series do have. The addition of some semblance of plot would be helpful, for instance, instead of a series of offhand remarks about what character X is going through right now and why. As a huge fan of the genre already, I should be seeing smartly-integrated paths and multilayered suitors, not silly greetings and silence where it’s assumed I should be “talking” to the star of each vignette.
I’m hoping to see more of these types of series, but with improvements made to them in the interim, because as much as I love a silly little love story, these shows simply aren't doing the medium justice. And I'm hoping to see that turn around in the future.