I’m not a particularly big fan of visual novels. At risk of being “that guy,” they tend to blur together for me. Awkward, permanently silent guy in high school falls over dick-first into a series of cookie-cutter relationships with a selection of anime stereotypes and becomes a bone-fide ladies man. I’m just not into them.
So naturally, I throw that existing prejudice out the window when I see screenshots of (deep breath) Tokimeki Memorial Girls’ Side 3rd Story that my friend had been posting on Twitter. It seemed so utterly ludicrous and charming that I had to give it a shot, if only for fifteen minutes or so.
I finished the game, and am currently halfway through a second playthrough.
Tokimeki Memorial (or this at least this one, anyway) is an Otome game: you play as a girl, trying to woo a series of impossibly attractive men before you graduate from high school. Sounds pretty generic, and I figured that it would be. But I was still looking forward to it for one reason: I have other VN’s about getting together with men. They’re all yaoi VN’s, but the spirit is still the same. But these are incredibly gross, involving things like physical violence, rape, and shit like that (which I was not aware of when I was given these titles), so to have a far more innocent game like this was awesome. I can’t imagine too many people are interested in being sexually assaulted via their PSP.
Konami did a good thing by bucking the cliches and tropes established by their own series. The potential partners in this game are still all these anime supermodels, but each and every one of them is a complete trainwreck. The “childhood friend” is a homeless juvenile delinquent who gets into fights and squats in an abandoned theme restaurant. The “artist” is a narcissistic dickhead with millions of dollars who barely acknowledges your existence and takes a limo to school. The “easy going younger guy” is a total pervert who tries to use Pick-Up Artist techniques and, if the game had an adult rating, would have a massive collection of internet porn. Does the “Smart Guy” actually like you, or is he being nice since it’s his job to be as head of Student Council? These wrinkles aren’t that deep, but they do their job in separating this game from the rest of the pack.
I spent four simulated years making numbers go up. Digital representations of my intelligence, fitness, style, charm, artistry, and social skills. Getting a boyfriend, a job, joining a club, entering a good school are all dependent on these numbers. It isn’t just playing around with boys, I had to pass exams, not get fired, and represent my chosen school club to the best of my ability. An easy to digest version of teenage life, without the bullying, learning disorders, abusive parents, or uncaring teachers that come with the real world.
Because this is a video game, and not real life, it’s far more difficult to get a man to want to be with you. I ended up stopping my first playthrough when I realized that I was going to end my high school life a single woman. So I started over, knowing what to do, and ended up in a kinda-sorta polyamorous relationship with Tamao, the super-genius Student Council president, and Shitara, the self-absorbed dickhead musician. Dating two people at once is tough, don’t know how you people do it IRL.
These stupid jerk-off boys and their dumb personalities and ludicrous high-standards in a partner that betray the real life libido of a teenager hooked me. I was (am) in love with this aggravating game. After finishing it the first time, I found out that there were multiple endings for each character, so yeah, I think I’ll be playing this for some time.
But it wasn’t just the weirdly charming characterization and writing that has stuck with me. The whole time, I’ve had this odd feeling of nostalgia, and I wasn’t sure why. I’m old; I graduated high school back in 2005, and most of my memorable moments took place away from school. And this is not the first game I’ve played where I was a teen in high school. For example, I’ve played all four Persona games, and never thought to myself, “ah yeah, this take me back!” I don’t get nostalgic for school. That doesn’t happen. And even if it did, I went to an American school, far different from the Japanese one presented here. I even played the original Tokimeki Memorial when I was a teen. I played a “fan-translated” version that had exactly one word in English; I was left to figure out the rest of the game from badly-written FAQs and disorganized message boards. I somehow managed to finish it. It was neat, I guess, but I wasn’t interested in playing a second time.
So I kept playing, wondering what was up. Over time, I started to notice how outdated so much of the technology in the game was. Shitara, the well-off rich kid who can have anything he wants, has trouble sending an e-mail over his flip phone. The web browser you use has every site presented in simple HTML pages. The PSP version came out in 2012, and was a port of a 2010 Nintendo DS game. The iPhone had taken over the world by this point. Facebook and Twitter were on the rise. Social media and micro-blogging was (and is) how we use the internet, with HTML more or less being obsolete. And here we are, basing our in-game schedules off of webpages that look like they were put together in 2000.
And that was when I got it. As a troubled teen, I spent a lot of time online. This would’ve been during a time where pages were categorized as either a WYSIWYG disaster on Geocities or a barebones site by someone clearly learning HTML published on Angelfire or Tripod (remember frames?). I would spend my Saturday nights looking for Sega Genesis ROMs and looking at fanpages for anime and Gackt (who was synonymous with J-Pop in the US for so many years). I would lurk on message boards mostly filled with other female nerds talking about Sailor Moon, being too nervous to join and get involved (one of those “I should’ve fuckin’ known I was a woman” hindsight moments), though eventually I did start talking to people. Finding out what Yaoi meant, and finding out how awesome it was. Reading fanfiction, then posturing really hard online that I didn’t. The nostalgia (for me anyway) from Tokimeki Memorial comes not from being in school or going on dates, but from being a confused kid not knowing who or what they were. My nostalgia is my queer awakening. It’s from discovering things about myself that, unfortunately, I had to hide from the real world, but could express on the internet no problem. All this, wrapped up in a fun package of falling in love with anime boys. It’s weird that this all came from looking at outdated technology, but things don’t always make sense. Especially with me.
While a good portion of my enjoyment of Tokimeki Memorial Girls’ Side 3rd Story came from a strangely personal place, it’s also absolutely wonderful, fun, and charming on its own merits. And hey, who knows? Maybe you, the reader, are in my age group, with a similar upbringing, and may reflect on your own awkward adolescence while you play it. Or maybe you’ll just gush over a fictional character. It’s a positive, either way.