The Nintendo eshop can be a lawless and bewildering terrain. Updated with seemingly dozens of games every week, it can be hard to wade through the smorgasbord of software to find your chosen gem. Then you see a handful of games adorned with screenshots of androgynous beanpole boys, and titles as convoluted as they are befuddling; Ayakashi Koi Gikyoku – Forbidden Romance with Mysterious Spirit or Destiny’s Princess: A War Story, A Love Story for example, and you might really start to question Nintendo’s barrier for entry – but you’d be wrong to judge so hastily.
These games belong to an increasingly popular genre called Otome, where maidens find themselves on fantastical journeys guided by a cornucopia of men. While titles like Pub Encounter give you every right to pause for thought, it is these games that inspired series’ such as SENRAN KAGURA and NekoPara. Without games like Kitty Love – Way to look for love – your favorite waifus from Dead or Alive may have never been created. Furthermore, they all have their roots in one of game developments first all-female teams.
It all starts with one unlikely woman; Ms. Keiko Erikawa. Co-Founder of KOEI, her childhood dreams paired more intimately with romantic fantasy than reality . “Ever since I was a child I dreamed that an extremely rich prince on a white horse would marry me,” Erikawa once said in an interview with Famitsu. “Unfortunately, I lead a completely different life.”
Her path changed with the death of her father: following his passing, Erikawa and her mother moved in with her maternal grandmother in rural Gunma where Keiko took on the hard-working role of her father. In her spare time she never stopped designing and producing goods to sell. She attributes her strong work ethic to her grandmother, saying, “She was always working for herself, filing patents, working in food science, or writing books. I think that is where I got it from.”
Due to her mother’s youth and kind character, Erikawa refused to trouble her with her problems. “I guess I was bullied because I was a city girl. Perhaps also because I was brilliant. … My mother was very young [when her father died] and a good person. I didn’t want to worry her, so I began taking care of my own problems.” This was when she began escaping into her own fantasy world; the seeds for Erikawa’s future romantic storylines were sown. Luckily, she moved away from her childhood bullies when she was still young, and at her new school she was instead admired for her looks – the other children would say she looked “like a French doll.”
Even if life didn’t turn out quite how Erikawa had imagined it, she began forging her own path from a young age. A sharp mind, she applied and was accepted into design school, albeit against her mother’s wishes. Her hope had been that her daughter would marry young and be supported for life. Instead, Erikawa fell in love with Kou Shibusawa, one of the lodgers at their family’s estate, which caused a Romeo and Juliet style feud between the families.
“They said that the daughter of boarding rooms had dangled a fishing line out the second floor,” Erikawa said in an interview with the Japanese website Entertainment Station, (referring to herself), “and had regrettably reeled something in.” Despite their families objections, however, Erikawa’s fanciful designs and analytical business mind when paired with her husband’s knack for game design and love for computers would help shape the future of video games as we know it.
Together they founded KOEI, now Koei-Tecmo, in 1978, but by the start of the 1980s Erikawa was still the only woman working for the company. With the romance fantasies of her childhood firmly in her mind, she wanted to move far away from the stereotypical violence of the male-dominated game space and create a new genre of games; by women, for women. She began a recruitment drive to hire more women into the industry, but found that women were simply not being trained in the gaming industry. Determined to see her dream fulfilled, she hired women with no gaming backgrounds — rather, they were educated in humanities and Erikawa insisted they be trained at KOEI. Despite their lack of expertise in the field, she knew that women’s unique viewpoint would be vital in creating the kinds of games she was envisioning. She would call her team Ruby Party after her belief that young, single women always wear red.
With the process of hiring and guiding these women into gaming, the development cycle for creating the first game – in what Erikawa would hope to be a new genre – was a long path fraught with difficulties. It took 10 years from conception to the completion of Angelique, the first Otome game. But, in Erikawa’s own words, what Ruby Party had created, “looked like a game, but was miserably uninteresting”. While they had written and conceived of all the ideas themselves, there was little to no actual gameplay in their game. Here, her knight in shining armor steps in, as husband Shibusawa injected much-needed interactivity into the title.
Angelique was not an immediate success, but with tie-ins to more commonly popular media, such as drama CDs and manga, it slowly found its audience. Erikawa had known that the market was always there, and now she had finally found a way to get these women interested in gaming. She’d begun a new team for Japanese women in this developing form of media. However, the popularity of Angelique and, later, the Otome genre as a whole, would not only have a positive effect for female gamers, but for the heterosexual male audience too.
This is where waifus come in. While both words mean “young, attractive girl”; Bishojo is actually the opposite of Otome. That is to say Bishojo is a genre of games where a male protagonist chooses between an array of female lovelies to court. As you may expect it was around long before its female counterpart – one of the first Bishojo titles, Night Life was also released by KOEI. Bishojo as a whole had a lot more pornographic take on the “dating” genre, meaning not only were the games not very popular, but they were looked down upon by the general public.
In 1994 (the same year that Angelique was released) the Bishojo began to show the impact that Erikawa and her team were having. We saw the release of Tokimeki Memorial which was not only hugely popular but had a far more character-centric and platonic take on romance. Later in 1999, the erotic Bishojo Kanon was released, but didn’t find true success until a less sexual version was released three years later on PlayStation 2. As Bishojo morphed from purely primal and often sexually violent erotica, to more whimsical dating fantasy, so did the public’s disdain for the genre begin to soften.
Nowadays, Otome and Bishojo are incredibly popular genres, both in Japan, and increasingly so in the West. Most gamers have heard of Steins; Gate which mixes science fiction storytelling with Bishojo elements, or Root Letter where the protagonist tries to find out what happened to his high school pen pal by meeting her past friends. There are also plenty of visual novels which, while they don’t have dating as a key component of their gameplay, can thank Bishojo and Otome for their style and inspiration. Games such as the Danganronpa trilogy are clearly rooted in Bishojo, with a large majority of gameplay spent strengthening bonds with other characters.
Otome and Bishojo have not only influenced other visual novels, but other genres of gaming as well. One of gaming’s most popular series’, Persona, broke ground when it switched from being a straightforward JPRG into what is essentially half RPG and half Japanese high school simulator in its third installment. The Final Fantasy series is another good example of how Otome gameplay elements, such as relationship building and a heavy focus on dialogue options are implemented to shape its story in later installments.
While Otome itself is less mainstream than these games, it’s still hugely popular within its own community, along with a constantly growing audience of more “traditional” gamers. With gripping storylines covering everything from murder mysteries to historical thrillers — even, on occasion, the paranormal — its a genre with something for everyone. So next time you see NightShade or Norn9 adorning your Switch’s screen, do not scroll by so quickly. Rather, take a moment to remember Keiko Erikawa: French Doll, founder of KOEI, and inventor of Otome, and her all-female team of developers and be glad for all they have done to shape video gaming’s ever-changing landscape.