I grew up on a diet of romance anime, manga and video games. Of course even as a kid I knew that the doe-eyed, clumsy protagonist ending up with the princely, stoic but kind eye candy on campus was a fantasy, which was probably why I clung to it and rejected the idea of real people, real relationships. I was ugly and socially inept, yet didn’t have the courage or the motivation to rectify parts of my personality that I would cringe at now. I rejected society, and I was proud of it, because to me back then people in real life were complicated, overbearing and superficial and I hated it, and I hated myself. It was too much trouble for me to change myself to fit in, so I decided to completely head in the other direction.
I can still vividly remember the two months I spent after the GCSE O Levels, my first set of “major exams”, though frankly there wasn’t really much to remember — I mostly moped around at home, either in bed or at my computer table, staring at a flashing screen and clicking at pastel-colored buttons for hours in a row. In Tokimeki Memorial Girl’s Side I wasn’t me, I was Nodoka (named after my favourite character in Negima!) and Nodoka could be anything I wanted her to be.
Yes, I played all of them. All of them. I dated every single one of these handsome animu boys.
TMGS was an otome game of the stat-raising variety; otome (meaning ‘young woman’) games are basically dating simulators targeted at young girls, usually featuring a plethora of hunky guys of all types for you to chase. Stat-raising meant that I had to pick a series of school-related tasks for my character to do in order to raise parameters (e.g. fitness, intelligence) that would help me get a good ending with the guy of my choice. The jock liked sporty girls; the quiet, bespectacled nerd-type liked studious ones. The princely, ‘perfect’ guy on the front of the box — the Grand Prize or Biggest Catch — required you to be an all-rounder. On weekends you could go on dates with the dude you want, or just sleep off all the accumulated stress from studying all week. I realize this probably sounds goddamn boring in words, but TMGS and other games of its genre’s sole purpose is to put players in the shoes of a bland, unremarkable high school girl and give them the means to do whatever they want with that blank canvas of a virtual life. And it was addicting.
After all, I hated myself and I hated most of the people around me, so what better way to escape than plant myself in a fictional town in Japan, in a fictional high school, with fictional people that would actually show fictional interest in me? Getting virtual attention, some sort of recognition, gave me a rush of endorphins and shudder in glee. Romantic confessions and gifts were adorable and extravagant and I couldn’t help but feel slightly jealous of Nodoka’s life. Things were so straightforward in Tokimeki: study the right things, wear the right clothes, pick the right answer out of a selection of three and poof! — the heart meter gradually fills up with red, the immaculately animated sprite of the sparkly anime boy smiles shyly at you and romantic background music plays. I kept this up for two to three months. At the end of it I had probably dated every single pixel available to me in the game. School picked up soon after that and I had to stop playing so many games but I still kept up with manga and audiobooks (drama CDs) when I had the time.
The above wall of text probably sounds like the deranged rantings of a sad, deprived teenage girl (and they are, but I don’t want to deny that part of me, and I really enjoyed those years), but those games brought me a lot of joy. I knew for a fact that this wasn’t how real relationships and friendships were, but I was okay with indulging in a fantasy for such a prolonged period of time. Reality was a chore and it was exhausting.
I’m approaching the second year of being in my first relationship. My relationship definitely did not begin with me and him as childhood friends colliding in an abandoned church, there was no mutual friend secretly feeding me information about him in a well-organized chart. I had to pick my own words instead of choosing from a list of set phrases and consequently my own battles, because we had to wade through some miles of knee-high (dramatic) shit to get to the comfortable place we are right now. It probably would have been so much easier if I had just stuck to my video games. I mean the worst you could run into was a depressed hikikomori trying to come out of his shell, or a rich heir and his tortured artist shtick. Just tap the screen a few times and their problems would vanish. It would be so much easier. (You could also press a button to instantly become prettier or more athletic. I wish this could happen to me.)
Maybe I’m growing up, or at maybe just masochistic, because I’m learning to appreciate the pain and suffering actual love and relationships bring (though I guess there was pain and suffering in TMGS from the sheer amount of grinding). It’s not pure one-sided effort on my part. I can reach out and touch him, and he can do the same to me. I don’t always say the right things, and neither does he, but there is joy in inconsistency, glitches in the system that ruin things for a brief moment but are never left unfixed for long. Though sometimes I do wish I could keep him in my pocket so I can see him whenever I want, but love is also about dealing with absence.
The lows are lower than that ending where you end up with your little brother because you failed to chase down any men, but the highs are indescribably better than even the confession sequence of the biggest catch. And — maybe the best part — the credits don’t roll.
Writing this really makes me want to play it again. I miss you Saeki Teru… and my prince Hazuki…