It's tough for single women in Japan. Between the perverts on the train, unambitious "herbivore" men, and guys who would rather marry their Nintendo DS than a woman, it's hard to find a good man.
But I and many other women living in this fine nation have a digital solution in otome games, dating simulators made for the fairer sex. Such games have been geared toward men since their inception, but the market for otome games is growing. Women in Japan can now trade racy emails with fictitious ninjas or princes on their smart phones, or chase after high school boys on their portable gaming systems.
I didn't want to waste my time with just any old bunch of pretty boys, though, so I downloaded the strangest otome game of all: Hatoful Boyfriend. I'll give you a hint as to why this game earns that title ' "hato" is Japanese for "pigeon."
That's right, I am dating a pigeon on my laptop.
Giggle nervously all you want. As a human student at the world famous St. Pidgeonation's high school for pigeons, I have my pick of birds to sweep off their spindly little legs. There's my best friend the rock dove, the brilliant mathematician quail professor, the rich and slightly racist fantail pigeon, the quiet mourning dove in the library, or even the murderous partridge who serves as the school's doctor. Each character has their own backstory and unique personality so I can date the bird that best suits me.
As with most otome games the goal is to have one male character fall in love with me by the end of the story. Completing the game multiple times will allow me to unlock different endings and new potential mates. My actions throughout the game will affect the ending, so I have to play carefully to get the best outcome. Choosing one character and obsessively fawning over him at every opportunity is the best course of action, as this is obviously what goes into dating in the real world.
If the element of romance isn't enough, Hatoful Boyfriend takes place within a more complex setting of a world where humans and sentient birds are still learning coexist peacefully. An avian flu pandemic wiped out a large portion of the human population, and coincidentally allowed birds to grow larger brains and become more intelligent. In this new bird-dominated society, there is heated political debate as to whether the remaining humans should be exterminated or allowed to live. There are also reports of students disappearing at St. Pigeonation's and it is up to me, the lone human in a pigeon academy, to solve the mystery.
Beyond the ridiculous gimmick of dating pigeons, there isn't much that is different about this game than the rest of the otome genre or even the general market of dating simulators. They're all made for the purpose of losing touch with reality for a little while, allowing a reprieve from loneliness and the pressures of society. Much of otaku, or geek, culture in Japan revolves around this concept; maid cafes, butler cafes, and cosplay let people live out their fantasies just long enough to stay sane.
I don't enjoy the game enough to want to marry my laptop, but dating a fat blood-thirsty partridge is more interesting than dating a salaryman.