I was determined after the accidental skeleton-rattling therapy session that was my time with Tokimeki Memorial: Girls Side Premium Third Story this time around my Konami dating experience was just going to be fun – not a resounding success of perfectly picked perks and a queue of loved-up girls waiting outside my classroom door, nor an abject failure where the sole love of my life just wasn’t that into me because I didn’t dominate every sports day – just fun. Pleasant. I wasn’t going to actively pursue anyone in particular, which sounds like a ridiculous thing to say when you’re playing a dating sim I know but… I suppose after last time I just wanted to go to a few places with some nice people, maybe say yes or no to a few invites and get myself into a few relationship tangles, and just have a good time.
And I did. But not in the way I was supposed to.
This 2009 PSP exclusive is, at the time of writing, the most recent and final mainline Tokimeki Memorial game; the end of a series of dating sims that if not consistently successful have at least doggedly persisted in a genre that still sometimes struggles to believe people would want to spend time being nice to an anime girl if they don’t get to see her tits before the credits roll. It’s worth taking a moment here to highlight the difference between this – a dating sim – and the oft-conflated visual novel genre: Visual novels are great, and as I’m sure you know can be anything from fluffy tales of romance to tense murder mysteries to serious science fiction that demands nothing less than your full attention, your general progress and overall outcome determined by the choices you make at fixed points along the way – but they aren’t dating sims. A dating sim will often have the idle chatting and dialogue choices, yes, but the opportunities that arise and your chance of succeeding at them largely depend on you carefully growing, balancing, and maintaining a broad range of player-character statistics – the kid who spends all day every day running around the school field isn’t going to be inside to hear the girl practising piano down the hall, and likewise the guy busy in the science lab isn’t going to bump into the soccer-mad teen any time soon. Part-time employment throws another set of stat changing events into the already complicated mix, as work isn’t just about bringing home extra cash but further enhancing your desired skills too: taking a job at a convenience store will naturally raise a different set of skills compared to someone pouring tea or debugging software. Which is all a lot of spreadsheety fun but the magic lies in how closely these systems are tied to the narrative that emerges from the behaviour and specialisms you choose to create: Maybe your new boss is a potential date’s dad, maybe being soccer-sporty isn’t as attractive to a particular character as being kendo-sporty, maybe you should’ve spent more time studying for that upcoming test.
And so you study and work and study and date and work and look forward to an expensive date at a fancy location this weekend… and suddenly you can’t go, because stress and exhaustion have made you too ill to attend.
And when that inevitably happened to me…
My date left an annoyed voicemail on my phone, wanting to know what the heck was I playing at and why I didn’t turn up when I was the one who organised the whole thing in the first place. The funny thing was I was struck above all else by how fair this verbal ticking-off was; there was a clear and direct link between my (in)actions and her negative mood, this wasn’t some invented slight to stir up drama. I could’ve eased off and given myself a lighter workload… I just chose not to. So as soon as I was well again I called her up, and we chatted, and I asked her out, and she said yes – my previous slip-up had caused some not insignificant damage to our friendship but the important thing was we were still friends. This isn’t just important for Tokimeki Memorial 4 as a game – nobody really wants to play a game where one mistake can ruin three in-game years of work – but for the characters as well: The teenage girls you spend time with here aren’t opaque hormonal bitches playing hard to get in pretty clothes, dumping your perfect masculine self at a moment’s notice because women, right? – they’re just friends who might want to like you like you if you give them the chance and consistently behave like a decent person.
So you end up emotionally investing in these characters in part because they’re so darned nice to be around but also because they don’t operate on a simplistic binary of “Maybe girlfriend” and “Fuck off”, your social efforts recognised across a whole spectrum of friendship that can ebb and flow over time. And because you start to care you find all sorts of objectively mild scenarios transformed into truly stomach-churning decisions, like the time I organised multiple dates on successive days and the game very innocently asked me whether I was meeting my friend today at the arcade or the zoo, and when I got there as I couldn’t find her was I sure I wanted to hang around a little longer… or should I try the other location, just in case? Post-movie chats perfectly capture eternal friend-impressing problems, making you offer your opinion first on classic films like “Metal Snake” and “Castlevania” – do you tell your date you loved it and risk looking like a cultureless idiot as you gush over an action movie she hated, or do you play it safe and watch her face fall at your beige response to what she thought had been a thrilling trip out? It’s not all about the fear of failure either, as characters in TokiMemo 4 give just as capably as they receive: Find the right balance between hard work and kindness and you’ll feel butterflies in your stomach when someone feels close enough to you to call you by your first name, or remembers your birthday and makes the effort to drop off a present at your own front door.
That was a really lovely moment for me.
But it was also enough, really.
I didn’t end up with anyone waiting to profess their love for me under that legendary tree – again – but this time… I wouldn’t say “that was the plan” because that would imply I have a better command of TokiMemo’s gameplay than I actually do, but it was exactly what I wanted. I just hoped for, y’know, friends. I wanted to be a bit rubbish at sports because I was too busy doing unsporty nerd things, beat up a deer in an amusing parody of an RPG battle (the Gradius homage in the skill bar was a brilliant touch too), and make some very sweet classmates blush on their birthdays with thoughtful gifts – and that’s what I got. The dating sim “me”, essentially made up of a few numbers going up and down in a few clearly defined categories and dressed in a pair of jeans I bought with money from my part-time job, ended up a satisfyingly close representation of me me, and that, uh, me me got to experience a great time at school with her friends and went out to lots of fun places too.
By any normal measure I failed to “win” TokiMemo 4 in the most definitive way, but I also got precisely as much romance out of it as I was personally comfortable with: some friendly walks home, some nice days out, a few people taking the time to come over during social events and say hi when they really didn’t have to. I notice “small” things like that, and they make me very happy. There was never any suggestion I had to play the role of a serial dating student with impeccable grades, my phone constantly ringing and my schedule fully booked, if I wanted anyone to engage with me of their own free will – or even just smile at me when we spoke – ever again. I cannot stress how much of a positive impact this emotional leeway has on the cast: It immediately prevents them becoming transactional toys for my amusement, from being a reward for cold stat thresholds and setting off the correct events, because they’re always presented as people first and potential dates second. I see it as proof of TokiMemo’s maturity – as a designed product, as a concept, as a story ultimately dealing in personal relationships – as it allowed me and the cast the creative space to find the level of friendly engagement we wished to have with each other, even if that meant I ended up playing it “wrong” and in many ways against the spirit of the game itself.