A few days before last Christmas, a line stretched around a Tokyo bakery. The customers were waiting to buy Christmas cake. But they weren't waiting to buy just any cake.
In Japan, Christmas is akin New Year's in the U.S. — secular and spent with friends. Yes, there are Japanese Christians who celebrate the religious aspects, but the holiday does not carry the connotations of being with family necessarily. It's more of a "party" holiday, one for dates and one to eat cake with your mains squeeze.
The cake was part of a promotion for Konami's Nintendo DS game, Love Plus. The cakes, which were sold at three different bakeries in the Tokyo Metropolitan area, featured the characters from the game. But why were people getting these Love Plus Christmas cakes? There is a proud history (internet history, that is) in Japan in which folks take pictures of Christmas cake in front of a computer screen displaying some sort of dating sim. It is a gag of sorts, but there is a ring of truth to the loneliness. Konami had tapped directly into this subculture with the cakes.
Konami is primarily known for three series: Metal Gear Solid, Bemani and Pro Evolution Soccer. That is starting to change. Love Plus was released in September 2009 and was unlike anything Konami had done before. Sure, Konami had developed dating games — tons of them. But those titles focus on the beginning of the relationship — the wind-up, if you will. Love Plus gives players the pursuit, but then asks this question: You've got the girl, so now what are you going to do?
The game not only takes full advantage of the Nintendo DS hardware, but allows a player to talk, send emails and even "caress" her via the Nintendo DS's mic and touch screen. It's the combination of senses (audio, tactile, oral) that separates Love Plus from Konami's other dating sims. The fact that the game takes place in real time and uses tens of thousands voice expressions and over a hundred cutscenes makes Love Plus seem far more organic than anything to hit the Nintendo DS before it. The game's characters even change the way they speak to the player over the course of the game.
As columnist Tim Rogers pointed out, there was a stink about male players getting "too" in to Love Plus. This certainly could have been a publicity stunt. Konami even polled 500 Japanese men if they wanted to fall in love with a video game character. (Sixty-four percent said "yes"!) Likewise, the one about the guy who "married" a Love Plus character was a publicity stunt or performance art or both.
Love Plus is not alone. There are countless dating sims and PC visual novels that connect with players on emotional levels. Ditto for console titles that run the gamut of role-playing game to action game. Video games can move us. The bells and whistles of the Nintendo DS aside, Love Plus attempts to move player in the same way any video game does: Through an investment of time. By playing a game, you are giving a chunk of time, a chunk of your life to that game. What Love Plus has explicitly done like some many good dating games before it is turned that investment from the game itself and turned it into a character in that game. The appeal of that character for some players becomes undeniable, because when they look at that character, they see experiences, movements that they have spent together.
This week, Konami has announced that it will be releasing another Love Plus game with the temporary title Love Plus+ (Plus). Konami is running a campaign to collect people's names so the Love Plus girls will have a larger vocabulary to draw from. That's all we really want as humans: Someone who remembers our name, someone to eat cake with, someone to spend time with so that we don't feel alone. Love Plus in a small way offers just that.
Konami has not yet announced plans to localized Love Plus for Western players.