So you’ve heard of simulation games that let you build your own avatar in a town (like The Sims), interact in a family, or even farm. But within the simulator genre exists a peculiar yet popular niche—the dating sim.
If you want to take a break from online dating or are simply looking for a good laugh, you might want to give dating sims a try. This Valentine’s Day, we let you in on what they’re all about, and our picks of the best and weirdest ones.
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What are dating sims?
Originating in Japan, a dating sim has the player befriend, maintain, and build relationships with characters by performing tasks (such as buying gifts), selecting the best dialogue choice when chatting with the target, and otherwise finding out the best way to woo the characters in the game.
Dating sims can be likened to visual novels, or interactive, “Choose Your Own Adventure” style stories. The goal of dating sims is to end up in a relationship with a character in the story; sometimes you’re encouraged to then start over and try dating other characters.
It’s usually set in an environment that’s new to the protagonist, whether you’re starting at a new school, moving into a new neighborhood, or accidentally getting invited into a group chat full of guys at school (we’ll get to that in the list below). You then follow the story and respond to different dialogue or event cues in the hopes of eventually scoring a date with another character.
Is there skill involved? Well, sort of; you are expected to observe characters’ personalities and attract them based on what you think they’d like. If you choose the “right” options, you get to date the character, if you choose the “wrong” options, you get spurned, although here you’ll get to reload from a save file and try again. In early iterations of the dating sim, the premise of being able to manipulate outcomes by redoing stages of the game was downright creepy.
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Dating sims today: Wholesome fun, and heavy on satire
But the past decade has seen an evolution in the stories these dating sims tell—for one, whereas they were once told only from the point of view of a heterosexual man, that is no longer the case. The genre also began to poke fun at itself, and recent satirical interpretation—notably the viral April Fool’s Day hit Hatoful Boyfriend in 2011, where you date sentient birds in a post-apocalyptic world—have kept casual and committed players entertained.
A good dating sim, much like a good story, makes you care about the protagonist (i.e., you) and compels you to explore the world that you all exist in. Part of the dating sim’s draw is the storyline, whether it’s learning about a character’s intricate backstory and developing a connection or simply immersing yourself in a world where you’re trying to impress Colonel Sanders with your cooking skills. The artwork that accompanies these sims also adds to their charm, and the cheesy dialogue can make the experience equally wholesome and hilarious.
Whether you’re curious about the genre or looking to play fun and sometimes downright bizarre dating simulators, here are a few to start you off.
Best dating simulator games
Hatoful Boyfriend (2011)
Available on PS4 and PC
What arguably kicked off the trend in the West started off as an April Fool’s joke: Hatoful Boyfriend: A School of Hope and White Wings. It stars you, a human girl attending a high school where you get to decide between eight love interests, all of whom are pigeons. Yes, pigeons. And there’s no explanation for this either.
Arguably one of the more out there and self-aware takes on the genre, Hatoful Boyfriend has fascinatingly absurd storylines you can follow, allowing you to play the game multiple times to get different plot outcomes.
If you’re looking for something that is completely ridiculous and hilariously self-referential, try Hatoful Boyfriend. You’ll also pick up a few pigeon breed names too.
Mystic Messenger (2016)
Available on Android and iOS
The setting of this Korean mobile dating sim takes place on a messaging app, where you somehow get added into a chat group with a bunch of guys who happen to all be well-drawn. Mystic Messenger takes it from there, and as you interact with each guy, you start getting DMs and phone calls from them. The app-only premise also makes for an interesting take on the genre.
Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator (2017)
Available on: Switch, PS4, Android, PC and Mac
Ever dream of moving into a suburb as a single dad and find out that there are other hot dads in your area? With seven hot and (mostly) single daddies to match with, Dream Daddy lets you play different plotlines to see how your relationship with each daddy will turn out.
If you’re into character creation, Dream Daddy has you covered, with a plethora of colors and customized accessories to become the ultimate dream daddy. There are also tons of dad jokes and some fun little mini-games that are definitely on-brand for dads. Mini golf and fishing, anyone?
Doki Doki Literature Club (2017)
Available on PS4, PC, and Mac
Another self-aware take on the genre, Doki Doki Literature Club subverted the dating sim genre in a big way. It starts off innocently enough, taking the conventional dating sim trope of a high school guy getting to know four potential love interests in a literature club. Anyone remotely familiar with anime will spot the archetypes: the quiet girl, the sweet bubbly one, and the tsundere hothead all make an appearance. But the rosy high-school romance takes a dark and thrilling turn. There is a reason why it’s not suitable for “children and those who are easily disturbed.” If you’re up for the ride, give this one a try.
I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator (2019)
Available on PC and Mac
Perhaps the most corporate take on the genre comes from KFC, who actually commissioned a dating sim where you, an aspirational chef, wants to impress the silver-haired fox that is Colonel Sanders by performing various tasks and building skills over a three-day cooking class to make, well, we don’t even have to tell you what.
While I Love You, Colonel Sanders is unapologetically a marketing stunt (quite like their gaming console), it’s short and funny enough for the game to be charming in its own right. It’s also free to play, and references a lot of anime.
Have you played any Dating Sims? Let us know in the comments!
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I was actually playing a dating sim (Love Plus) when I saw this article recommended to me.