Rewriting the romantic rulebook

There are just a few weeks of school left before the main cast of this Tokimeki Memorial spinoff graduate, and no doubt more than a few of them hope the classmate they’ve spent the past few years awkwardly blushing at will be waiting for them under the school’s very special tree – the one that promises eternal love to any couple brave enough to confess their feelings for each other under its leafy boughs on their final day at Kirameki High.

Our renameable lead has spent the past three years quietly pining for childhood friend and perfect pupil Shiori Fujisaki – so quietly that he’s never really done anything to move their relationship forwards. Luckily for him he’s also good friends with Yoshio Saotome, a classmate who is far more perceptive and proactive than the protagonist will ever be, helpfully volunteering this hapless hero to help with the school yearbook project – the same project Shiori’s working on. What could be more perfect than a legitimate reason to spend a lot of time alone with her, time he can use to get close enough to finally admit his true feelings for her?

The evening of the same day brings yet more Yoshio-related meddling: He’s decided he’s going to run in the city’s marathon race, held the day before they graduate, as a way of marking this momentous turning point in his life – and the lead character’s definitely going to run the race with him, because Yoshio’s already signed him up for it. This revelation naturally brings some doubt – a marathon isn’t exactly an easy event to participate in, especially when you’re not sporty – and also our first glimpse at Tokimeki Memorial Drama Series Vol. 3: Tabidachi no Uta‘s theme in Yoshio’s reply. Yes it’s going to be difficult, but it isn’t about finishing the race or coming out on top, it’s the practise and participation that make the endeavour meaningful (as well as showing off a toned male body, hair flowing in the wind and muscles shining with sweat, impressing all the girls watching in the stan- sorry, Yoshio got a little sidetracked). Our lead remains unconvinced by these lofty ideals, but at least this run will give him something to write about for their mandatory “When I shone brightest” yearbook essay.

With all of that information swiftly dispensed we now know we have a lot to do, not a lot of time to do it in, and worst of all no real idea how to go about doing any of it.

And a lot of that’s because Tabidachi no Uta is not a dating sim like its parent game but a standalone adventure created by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan – that was the Metal Gear Solid part of Konami at the time – the last entry in a trio of similar titles released for the Saturn and PlayStation. It would also turn out to be something of a final official farewell for the original cast after years and years of highly successful ports, spinoffs, and intense merchandising (including amongst the more unusual items mirrors, lighters, glasses, plates, clocks, voice recorders and even pocket-sized Beatmania LCD games), one last game in the sun before Tokimeki Memorial 2‘s debut just a few months later.

So this send-off is a cynical paid-for guaranteed romance with Shiori Fujisaki, the True Last Boss of dating sims, and the student most dating sims fan recognise but have never actually “won”, is it? How very Konami. It could have been, if it had been created under a lesser team’s watch. While it’s true to say you click your way to romantic victory here (Miharu is the only other date available, although the choice is very much a binary “definitely Shiori or definitely Miharu” rather than the latter’s usual haphazard appearances – to the point where I wouldn’t have known she was in the game at all if not for the packaging), this is far from a transactional experience. If anything its design ethos echoes Capcom’s masterful GameCube remake of the original Resident Evil, Tabidachi no Uta using everything you know about the million-plus selling original and its star schoolgirl to weave a tale that delights in countering your preconceptions.

In the original TokiMemo Shiori was the literal girl next door, this casually friendly setup at jarring odds with the vast amounts of effort required to become her boyfriend, as she demanded nothing less than stat-based perfection from any potential partner. You had no chance of winning her over unless you very carefully planned to do so from the very beginning, and even if you did go to those extremes all that work still wasn’t enough to guarantee you’d win her heart. Tabidachi no Uta’s early game weaponises these very real fears of messing up and forever ruining your chances of dating her against you – and your avatar – with coldly calculated precision, deliberately engineering scenarios that put you on edge and force you to reveal your mistakes and insecurities to her.

It doesn’t take very long to realise that the time spent every day working on the yearbook with Shiori means nothing more than time spent every day working on the yearbook, you proofreading the latest page while she picks out an appropriate photo to go with it. This is a daily task you actually have to complete yourself rather than passively watch your schoolboy stand-in perform from afar, manually scouring the text for typos and misspellings and then individually clicking on each problem character, prompting your high school avatar to neatly cross out the mistake and write the correct term in its place (if you’ll allow me a brief aside: there’s a humorous ongoing issue with people writing “dog” (犬) when they meant to write “big” (大), which eventually ends up with someone accidentally writing about a dog helicopter, our lovelorn teen quietly musing/despairing over the thought of a helicopter with a tail propeller and four landing legs, as well as endless manglings of “Kirameki [High School]” to contend with too. You’d think these college-bound kids would know the name of the place they’ve spent the past few years, but you’d be wrong). When you’re done Shiori checks your work, tilting her head down to look over the text… and then there’s an agonising silence before she tells you – every possible outcome fully voiced – exactly how many errors you missed (if any – although there’s bound to be a few) that she had to then correct on your behalf.

There’s an overwhelming desire to impress her, the heady mix of the monstrously successful original game’s insistence on perfection blending with the natural wish just to get the job you’ve got to do done always weighing heavily on your mind. You know it, your in-game equivalent knows it, and that’s why at the end of the first school day our lead is verbally backtracking almost as quickly as the words spill out their mouth when they nervously ask Shiori if she’d like to walk home with them seeing as they only live a few feet away from each other and they’ve both finished and… of course she would. She smiles warmly, and from then on the two of you end up walking home together every day, chatting about anything from classmates to the future via an unfussy menu system. As sweet as that may sound, in practise the experience feels a lot like putting your head inside a hungry lion’s mouth – you’d almost prefer it if she behaved the way she used to do, because at least then you’d know where you stood. One kind gesture has made it very clear you have no idea how to behave around Adventure Game Shiori, no idea how to win her heart.

This newfound uncertainty is gleefully seized upon by Tabidachi no Uta’s writers and used to turn the early Valentine’s Day event into two whole days of stomach-churning torment. It begins on the 13th of February, the last school day before the romantic event. Almost every girl in the whole school’s already given out chocolates to the boy she likes, leaving our stand-in hoping Shiori will just somehow know he’d really like her to give him a box of chocolates without ever actually saying anything to her about it, or them, or anything. She eventually comes over and… chats about school in general, but no chocolate. The two of them then set about their usual work on the yearbook project, and still no chocolate. With that over, she wonders if he – confectionary-related hope sending his pulse rising – if he would like to meet up and go shopping tomorrow? There’s a book on page layouts she’d like to buy while they’re out – it’d help them with the school project.

Shopping on Valentine’s Day with the girl from school you really like is kind of a date, right?

Valentine’s Day arrives and brings Shiori with it to our lead’s front door, kicking off one of the longest and most emotionally fraught days of our poor Kirameki-attending boy’s life. One of the first things he notices – before they’re even out the house – is that the bag she’s brought with her seems to be suspiciously full – chocolate box full. Oh how sweet, maybe n- ah. Right, of course, they’d better head out so Shiori can buy this book.

And they really do go to the book shop and Shiori really does buy the book she was talking about the day before. “Isn’t it interesting?” she says, the two of them so close they’re practically cheek to cheek as they check out its contents. I was personally shouting at the screen in exasperation at this point: Please Shiori, please give this lovesick boy a sign, just some hint this is more than a regular shopping trip on Valentine’s Day. “I’m going to go pay for this” she says, both us and our in-game persona made to politely wait for her to return, idly clicking on points of interest in the shop to pass the time.

Job done, they return to the station, our protagonist noting to themselves that this probably means they’re going home; no chocolate, no sweet confessions – nothing. Then again, she didn’t promise anything else, did she? Good old Shiori, always on time, always keeping her pro- she reaches into her bag…

…and pulls out a pair of cinema tickets. Would he like to go to the cinema with her? YES HE WOULD SHIORI LET’S GO. It’s me shouting at the screen again, this time in relief. There’s still a chance this’ll all work out just the way these romantic adventure meet ups should, that Tabidachi no Uta’s just been teasing us over the chocolate no-show this whole time. Except now there’s another problem: The film doesn’t start for a while, which leaves these two amorous question marks at a loose end and prompts another conversation menu as the two try to fill this unexpected void. Through this dialogue our eyeless in-game identity learns that Shiori likes the spaghetti at a nearby restaurant, and it’s not that she doesn’t enjoy going to the arcade, she just doesn’t enjoy going by herself. Two trips to the relevant places later (as well as some time taking photos in the arcade’s print booth – although there’s obviously no way either of them would select the heart-shaped borders because that would be weird, right? Especially on Valentine’s Day) followed by a trip to the cinema that really did involve intently watching that famous action movie Metal Gear Solid all the way through and not slyly holding hands or perhaps leaning in a little closer than friends would and that’s it, it really is time to head home – and there’s still no sign of any relationship-changing chocolates. Our painfully passive protagonist is disappointed, but at least they had a nice day out; I meanwhile am about two seconds away from shaking my monitor as I shout “JUST TELL HER HOW YOU FEEL!” at the idiot.

Shiori hasn’t finished with him yet.

She suggests they sit and talk in the local park for a bit rather than walk straight home. The sight of the sandpit prompts nostalgic conversation about playing together when they were small, of Shiori finding comfort in the two of them always being together in every new class and every new school… and now… now they’re getting older and leaving school behind…

The boy’s finally ready to burst.

(Now! I’ve got to say something now!)” he thinks to himself S-Shiori, I…

She awkwardly continues, the tension bubbling away below this superficially sweet dialogue absolutely unbearable for everyone – including me.

Even if we’re apart, let’s always be close friends. Here, for you. Valentine’s chocolates.

He got exactly what he hoped for in the most personal way possible, so why is he now lying on his bedroom floor, letting Yoshio’s calls go straight to the answerphone?

Let’s always be close friends.

What does that mean? Is this “Thanks for being there for me” chocolate? “Good friends” chocolate? But, why would she give him that on Valentine’s Day? What she said didn’t sound like a romantic confession to anyone listening – she even admitted it sounded like a strange thing to say herself. And of course there’s no way this idiot can just talk to her about it – and she would like to explain but it’s all a bit embarrassing so…

So things go a little bit wobbly between the two of them for a short while as tender new emotions crash headlong into the brick wall that is the “ordinary” lifelong relationship these two have built up. It’s all a bit awkward, upsetting, unclear, and definitely not the way a date’s supposed to end, but it’s also an unforgettable experience and perhaps a more honest reflection of faltering first attempts to turn friendship into romance than the seamless transition to young coupledom many sweet romances offer their players.

The story has you so caught up in the will-she-won’t-she aspect of the whole chocolate-giving business (as well as the “What the heck do these chocolates mean now he’s got them” side of things after) it took me a lot longer than it should have to realise she’d planned a whole day out with him on Valentine’s Day. The shopping. The cinema. The meal. And yes, even the chocolates in the park at the end. I was so shocked by the whole ordeal I also hadn’t realised that the romantic adventure game spinoff of the world’s most popular dating sim had deliberately sabotaged the game’s one and only Valentine’s date with the series’ star character either. This is TokiMemo’s everything broken wide open, a glimpse at a relationship not running along a single “Hates him, loves him” line but messy and complicated and more. There are no right answers here, no easy phone calls to set things right.

But that doesn’t mean getting things back on track with Shiori is impossible (if things get back on track – I’m pretty sure the response you give Yoshio about the whole emotional whirlwind when our confused student’s back at school determines whether the optional Miharu change kicks in)  – it just takes a little honest conversation and a desire to keep on doing whatever the heck this not-dating thing they’re doing is. With their relationship now able to gently progress without the external pressure of a special day, it’s time to focus on getting this teenager fit in time to run the city’s marathon race.

This takes the form of daily training with Nozomi, Kirameki High’s star athlete, eventually turning the protagonist from someone who collapses with exhaustion before they’ve really gone anywhere to a capable runner tackling demanding all-uphill routes at 5:30am just so they can get some stamina training in before school. Every single one of these segments is a finger-testing minigame where you have to alternately tap the confirm and cancel buttons to keep them running at the right pace (which changes based on the inclines encountered along the way), always striving to reach the finish line without unnecessarily wearing them out. It’s as thoughtful and engaging an experience as anything found in Namco’s Numan Athletics or Sega’s Decathlete, and there’s pride to be had in learning how to anticipate the change in rhythm when a sharp hill comes up, in seeing Nozomi cheering our sweaty avatar on at the finish line. As the weeks go by I not only see myself improve but also my character too, his key stats hitting triple digits and his energy levels vastly improved – and it’s a good thing too because the big race is tomorrow.

It’d be a shame to see a game-long project fall apart on the big day.

Argh!

As this would-be boyfriend stands up to walk home with his maybe-girlfriend after completing another yearbook session he suddenly clutches his leg in pain. All this exercise has strained a muscle in his leg – and he needs two or three weeks of rest to recover. Running a full marathon tomorrow is absolutely out of the question, although in response to his desperate pleas to run, the doctor reluctantly mentions that taping up the muscle would help – but it’d help if he was planning on doing a little light exercise, not a long race. If he pushed his leg too hard he could end up hospitalised. Why not let this marathon slide and come back next year?

Come back next year? But he’s graduating in a few days.

Shiori is beside herself – she knows he shouldn’t run, but she also knows how much this race means to him too. Just before he retreats inside his home to collapse in defeat on his bedroom floor, she tearfully shares her concerns. Should she stop him, knowing the damage he could do to himself if she doesn’t? Or should she support him, well aware of how hard he’s worked to get to this point? Kirameki’s perfect girl doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do – and he doesn’t either. In an attempt to literally add insult to injury that disastrous night ends in an especially cruel manner thanks to an entirely innocent phone call from Nozomi. She obliviously calls out of the blue just to make sure he’s OK, that he’s taking time to relax before tomorrow’s big race – she’ll see him there, right?

Right. Whatever.

Race day. Shiori shows up right outside his front door – she’s bought a book on muscle taping and the medical tape to go with it, just so she could help him participate in this race. She’s still worried, but she’s going to help. Phew. That previous event was obviously meant to be our little narrative scare before the big day, a dramatic little blip before the grand finalé. No doubt there’ll be some sort of associated stat drop or slight limp for me to take into consideration as I rhythmically tap my way around the course, but I’m sure I’ll mana-

Nozomi turns up, and as she’s professionally serious about sports and knows exactly what she’s doing she doesn’t just give him a ticking off when she spots his taped-up leg, she immediately runs off to fetch a medic, a medic who forces this poor kid, the one who’s worked so damned hard to get here – I worked so damned hard to get him ready for this life-changing event – to remove the race number on his shirt.

There’s a pause. Silent defiance. He won’t le-

Then it comes again, the same polite but firm request to remove the race number from his shirt.

And that’s it. His race is over.

To call this a brave plot twist would be an massive understatement – the non-romantic tentpole event of the entire game has just vanished without any resolution or consolatory distraction, and as a player all of the hard work I’ve put in has been for nothing. I practised – sometimes double practised if he still had the energy after a training session – every in-game day for this race, because I personally wanted it to go well. And now? Nothing. And what’s worse is there’s only one day of the game left, which means there’s no time for any heart warming last minute turnarounds either.

It really is over.

Shiori calls that evening, and finally says out loud the message she – and the game – have been trying to tell both me and my sim-self all along: She doesn’t want him to be perfect, she wants him to be himself. It’s the effort that counts, the journey and the growth he’s pushed himself through, not the race result at the end. So please, won’t he cheer up? The two of them can still graduate together tomorrow, can’t they?

She’s right.

But he’s come so far, and to simply give up on the run – to give up on making the effort to better himself, on seeing things through even when they get tough, on being anything other than the passive person who cruised through high school on autopilot – isn’t the way he wants this chapter of his life to end. And I, tears in my eyes and hope rattling inside my chest, don’t want it to end this way either.

This is why the first thing he does the morning after is rope Yoshio in to helping him tape up his leg. He’s going to finish what he started, Shiori’s childhood headband – his lucky charm – wrapped around one hand the whole time.

He – we – are going to run the full marathon course for his own sake – a day late and all alone.

We can do this. Tabadichi no Uta consciously blurs the line between character and player from this point on, frequently breaking the fourth wall to say “Just run like normal. Repeatedly tap the confirm and cancel buttons.”.

A little further. Again. “Just keep on running, same as always. Repeatedly tap the confirm and cancel buttons.” We are, to be a little simplistic about this unusual turn, deep in Kojima-studio territory now. This solo run is a deliberately long and draining scene – physically and emotionally – effectively the Tokimemo variant of several Snake’s worth of extended torture scenes.

You have to keep running.

The line above intrusively repeats throughout the lengthy run as images of the current graduation and cherished childhood memories of Shiori come into view. There are no stats here, no indication of how much energy we’ve got left or if we’re running at the right pace.

You have to keep running.

Cruelly followed by a sudden stop, hands on knees and breathing heavily through the pain. The game gives me the choice to continue, or quit – I don’t even consider the second option. We can do this. Just run like we always do. Repeatedly tap the confirm and cancel buttons. Shiori glances back at our empty graduation chair.

You have to keep running.

As the tears stream down his face. As he falls to the ground in pain. The same simple question reappears: Continue, or quit? No, we’re going to keep going. Just run like we always do. Repeatedly tap the confirm and cancel buttons. We have to run until we reach the end. I now learn why he’s gripping Shiori’s old hairband so tightly, memories of a childhood run flooding his mind. A simple child’s promise – if he holds Shiori’s headband when he runs, then it’ll be like she’s running with him. He can take her across the finish line, even though she’s not there.

Unlike that time, when he showed up at her door covered in grazes and with a blood-soaked plaster over one knee, he’s not going to give up just because he’s struggling.

You have to keep running.

Screw school. Screw that damned tree and the stupid legend that goes with it. Screw this injured leg too. There is no option to quit now when the pain gets too much, not even when he falls to the floor and has to fight to get back up, although we still have to choose to run on. More memories of Shiori come to mind, of all the times he’s struggled and she’s-You have to keep running-been there cheering him on. Her voice is so clear it’s almost as if she’s calling out to him right now.

She is. She’s waiting for him at the finish line, cheering him on the same way she always has, only this time she has her arms outstretched and waiting to embrace him.

He collapses into her open arms, and then she pulls him close.

There is no graduation ceremony for this infinitely renameable stand-in or any heartfelt promise to be heard under that tree, even though those events have always sat right at the core of everything Tokimeki Memorial is supposed to be. But, as we have been reminded over and over again, that doesn’t mean that the experiences he – and I – had along the way were worthless. Tabidachi no Uta broke all the rules: all of TokiMemo’s rules, all of the more general gaming rules about making sure players are clearly rewarded for their hard work at appropriate times, like rats pressing buttons in exchange for treats. It broke them because it understood how much they’re supposed to matter to the cast, who base their entire romantic futures on visible stat thresholds, and because it understood how much they’re supposed to matter to us, the people who bought strategy guides and tried so hard over multiple playthroughs to twist our time spent within Kirameki High into Shiori-winning perfection.

It broke them because it wanted us to be more than someone else’s stat sheet.

I’m glad you stuck with it and tried your best” says Tabidachi no Uta “But never forget, you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to win, you just have to be you.

[This wouldn’t be here without the kind support I receive through Ko-fi! If you’d like to help me continue writing lengthy articles on untranslated delights, please click this way!]

5 thoughts on “Rewriting the romantic rulebook

  1. Thinking he can win over Shiori in the last month of school instead of having to work three years towards it… what a sweet summer child he is.

    But it’s really interesting how subversive the game can be when it doesn’t have to include a dozen wins masquerading as girls and a gameplay way to get there.

    Like

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