[*WARNING* There is some NSFW material in this post]
When I was in college one of my literary professors tasked the class with reading a Harlequin romance novel. As a heterosexual male I approached the task initially with a tremendous amount of skepticism, knowing that these books cater mostly to a female audience and are often laden with incredibly raunchy and near otherworldly sexual characters & situations. Being a letter grade is a letter grade however it was impossible to say ‘no’ sans I effectively fail the course or drop in letter grade (and as I paid my entire way through college myself – no loans, and working at one point three jobs for two months’ time – I wasn’t about to pay for something that I’d then drop).
To the uninitiated – whomever you may be out there – Harlequin is a company out of Canada who has long published romance novels aimed at women for roughly the past seven decades. In the 1970s and 1980s, romance novels were all the rage in the United States and most went from being relatively tame prior to now featuring a tremendous amount of explicit sex and situations in their content. For all forms of written entertainment sexual content seemed to be quite high during this time period and the US was besieged by romance novels, adult comics that couldn’t be sold at general news stands, and ‘skin’ books that attempted to capitalize on people that actually did not read the articles in Playboy.
For romance novels, the sexual content itself often became the selling point of these type books and consequently the old adage of “never judge a book by it’s cover” fell by the waist side as Harlequins and similar books are often ALL ABOUT their raunchy covers. Aside from Harlequin themselves there are also other competitors that publish similar titles. However for the most part the term ‘Harlequin’ has become synonymous with these sort of books, akin to saying ‘Coke’ when you want a soft drink.
Being that we were allowed to pick what title we wanted to read for the class – we did have to go out and buy it after all – I elected to buy a book from Harlequin’s ‘Blaze’ lineup titled ‘Into Temptation’. Yes; I did buy this title based off it’s cover and reverse synopsis. It is the fourth book in the White Star series and written by Jeanie London. The ‘Blaze’ series from Harlequin features romance stories about real ‘out there’ situations and this one, being about a female MI6 agent pursing a ‘fixer’ who knows about the series namesake the White Star, sounds like the plot for a movie that bombed at the box office and saw a niche’ following on home VHS release. In another life, the premise could very much play out like a reverse Lupin the 3rd with a lot of sex (apologies Lupin fans).
Now in the very not so likely chance Mrs. London ever happens to come across this blog I will not critique the writing itself (and considering I myself am a horrendous writer I have no place to; just read this blog…) as the book progressed effectively how I anticipated it would. I will say I can see the appeal of these type of books, and ultimately I understand why we were tasked as college students to read them. In a world where we unfortunately see women pursuing sexual gratification as ‘bad’ or similarly detrimental (50 Shades brought out that topic into full force) these novels – from my male opinion and stand point – are almost akin to an escapism of sorts, yet ultimately it’s sad that they have to function in that manner.
We often have a very difficult time – in America – talking about sex but I feel we fail to realize that sex is ultimately human nature. Humans by being the dominate species we are makes us very sexual creatures. We want to seek mates, procreate (or at the least frequently participate in the act), and failure to do so is often seen as failure to be, well… human. In the First World particularly we don’t worry about our survival itself as our quality of living is so high; we just want sex. People have also acted out on their perceived attitudes towards others and their sexual lives. Think of the men that violently act out against the world in a perceived notion that women ‘hate them.’ And yet our inability to educate individuals about proper sexual conduct is possibly a determinant factor in the relatively high teen pregnancy rates in the United States.
… … …
But I’m not here to talk about philosophies or politics of any sex. Instead you’re wanting to know WHY. IN. THE. ABSOLUTE. HELL! I’m talking about a Harlequin romance novel in a gaming blog, right?
I’m bringing this example up because video games have long had examples of these sort of sexual gratifications in stories; eroge visual novels. I’ve touched on the concept of visual novels in previous posts and have even talked about a few. What I want to talk about now though is finally eroge as a topic, and use a game as an example.
Eroge got it’s start in Japan during the 1980s. Most of these games came about by often being developed to push relatively low grade hardware in a competitive field. NEC is often cited as a very early example of this since publisher Koei – long known for their Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition series’, among many others – developed their first eroge game Night Life ( ナイトライフ ) primarily as a way to sell NEC computers.
Most early eroge titles were guised as sex help programs and the like, but eventually they started to develop narratives. As computers started being able to display more simultaneous graphics and various sounds & musics narrative genres began to form. In the later 1980s and even into the 1990s a fantasy genre featuring animated characters rose as being popular. Anime influenced characters were chosen because they were able to be drawn more convincingly and quicker than realistic humans. They could also ‘sell’ a product better, being that these type games often appeared at specialty shops that catered to fans of anime and manga.
In the 1990s games had finally come to the point where not only the graphics becoming more dynamic and appealing but also musical score and voices were more than just beeps and boops. In my Tokimeki Memorial post I mentioned Dokyusei ( 同級生 ), often considered one of the very first visual novels with a complex plot. Released in 1992, prior to Dokyusei most visual novels were incredibly static and if they presented any interaction by the player it was through a select few menu selections. In Dokyusei the player had to guide the main character avatar to various locations at particular times to interact with characters. Believe it or not for eroge in 1992 this was very much a revolutionary idea.
Dokyusei is a classic in eroge visual novels and not only spawned sequels but also spiritual successors with Elf’s later Kakyusei ( 下級生 ). I may one day actually give Dokyusei the talk it deserves, but not today.
With a shift in eroges starting to have complex stories, like Harlequins there is still a subset of games that simply wanted to push sexual content to players. Devising a complex narrative and working out routes requires writers, play-testing, and further quality & assurance checks. On the other hand if you have someone that can draw characters, program a simple game engine (a variety of very simplistic visual novel game engine programs now exist), and type out a story you can build a game with a group of three to five people.
Now while I had played a handful of visual novels prior to buying one of these just straight sex games, I have never personally sought buying one simply because both I didn’t see it as the best way to spend money and also they’re incredibly static in game play. Some of these effectively have no choices by the player sans maybe one or two selections and the rest is just reading and looking at pictures. Additionally, most all assets of these games quickly get dumped into online galleries, meaning if you really want to get a feel of a game you can just search for it.
Despite all of that reasoning around the time I picked up the Harlequin Blaze novel I’ve talked about I also decided to buy my first real eroge. I picked out what would be a good example of the quick sexual -type narratives I’ve been talking about; Slave Pageant ( Shoujo Settai [ 娼女接待 ]).
Slave Pageant was developed by Ignition and was their first title. Ignition as it’s original company no longer exists. In the span of two years’ time they developed five titles total before merging with developer CD-BROS. JAST USA, under their G-Collections banner, distributed the title in English. I will outright admit like the Harlequin Blaze novel Into Temptation, I bought this game immediately from it’s cover. Look at those characters! Look at ’em! I’ve always been a member of ‘Team E X T R A T H I C C’ and lament the lack of women with more realistic bodies and features in anime and manga. Japanese artists seem to have no clue how breasts actually work, and also have yet to figure out that women don’t have to have pencil waist hourglass figures to be attractive. I was somewhat disappointed when the in-game characters lost some of that thickness, but at least Kanbara Sorami retains some along with some much needed darker skin representation.
Slave Pageant left no real lasting legacy sans Asai Kiyomi voicing the essential class president character Nakategawa Shinju. Asai has been doing voice over work in visual novels for twenty years, and Slave Pageant was a relatively early work of hers. Another key item to point out is that in what is relatively uncommon for eroge one of the characters actually has a lot of previous sexual experience prior to the game’s time frame. Characters in these sorts of titles are usually virgins or use the main character as their first time – a sexually experienced character being somewhat of a rarity.
The story is about a school that serves as a source to supply girls for a prostitution ring. The current head of the pageant is beat up by the main character, Mido Yujiro, who is a massive delinquent (strangely he has both a distinctive face and dialogue; most main characters in these sort of games are faceless). In assuming the role of heading the pageant he immediately blackmails three girls in the school, including a bubbly childhood friend, by filming them having sex and forcing them to perform further sexual acts to prep them for prostitution. Depending on the route you take in the story there are five endings total including the all-important ‘harem route’. The game actually ends lovey dovey in all the girl’s routes, but getting there is anything but.
Yeah; this game like Into Temptation is a real ‘out there’ type of story.
This is a pure sex game tried and true. Not only are all four of the characters frequently humiliated publicly but also sex acts as bondage and urination are explored. Voice over work aside (I really feel for the ladies that have to voice the characters in these type games) they’re all really… shallow characters. The narrative tries to give them some character and life but it just falls flat, and ultimately it’s hard to feel for them when you realize they’re all effectively just vessels to show off sex acts. Any light hearted or sensible moments in the narrative that do occur are near immediately slashed by further immediate sexual humiliation.
It was a rough play through, but you can complete the entirety of the routes VERY fast. In an afternoon you can effectively clear all the routes including the harem route. Just make a save before the all important selection point – literally all you have to do is select a favorite girl – and load that point once one route is finished.
I also kind of had a relatively strange feeling after finishing the game. This game is at it’s core about prostitution. While individuals joke that it’s the ‘oldest profession’, the game was also touching upon a real concerning subject; human sex trafficking. The cast of Slave Pageant were being prepped for high class clients in the sex trade, and there are many points in the game hinted that if the narrative had progressed without the main character, the “winner” was going to enter into a very dark world of forcibly selling herself among a constituent of clients. While the prior year’s “winner” is one of the characters in the game it’s hinted she too – although it was a massively missed opportunity to develop her character – entered into a business that nearly ‘removed’ her from society. Human sex trafficking is a modern crisis for our world and having read ‘Half the Sky’ by Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn it’s one that likely will not disappear in the foreseeable future.
Yeah I know; I’m getting philosophical again. More feels than any sort of arousal I’m afraid…
Unlike games that often establish a property, these games never seem to do anything of the such. Companies move onto the next title as soon as their current game(s) are finished. Like many gaming companions in the Japanese market titles are often pressed in very limited numbers, and as PC games the world over have never really had any sort of guidelines or standards on packaging companies often go wild with packaging. While PC games in the 1990s in the US were often these HUGE oversized hunks of cardboard similar in Japan most eroge titles were packaged in relatively large boxes primarily to display the game’s artwork more prominently.
Also unlike Harlequins the market is obviously the male population. Anime and manga often attempts to portray buyers of these titles as female – in that there is this massive closet group of women whom are massive perverts – but ultimately it’s men buying these games. There is a good market for titles oriented towards women, but they are often from the yaoi (boys’ love; not necessarily gay, but typically) genre and games featuring a female lead whom gets her harem of boys (or girls *wink*wink*) are very few in between. It yet again shows a division in how products are marketed, considering that the male buying market can have most any sort of sexual product marketed towards them, whereas similar products marketed towards women are often too focused on a genre (yaoi) or ideal.
In recent years many games have been moving to digital sales, and while eroge has seen similar digital releases it is one genre of gaming that has held stead fast with physical packaging. Nowadays, a lot of companies have to keep interest in their games, and one way to do that is to offer special editions or unique packaging for physical releases. Eroge as a whole possibly has had as many special & unique editions as the entire western gaming world.
And speaking of the western world, it really does astound me that western game developers have not figured out a way to create a game of this sort that is both relatable but also enjoyable in a true western world setting. Yes, I know Leisure Suit Larry exists and yes, it really is a true niche’ title for western gamers. There’s something that could be put out to the gaming public that could probably really fill a gaming niche’ and if I were to surmise what that is it would need to have a strong black female lead; one day the gaming world may come to realize not everyone that plays video games are white males, and similarly realize every consenting adult enjoys sex.
After completing Slave Pageant, I since have not bought another eroge of this type. I’ve continued to play visual novels and eroges, usually more well-known games or games I know I can receive some enjoyment, but this sort of just outright sex game I’ve stayed away from.
I’ve also not bought another Harlequin romance. Sorry Mrs. London.
[Note: While I typically play through titles and post their screenshots, I elected to just pull the shots from Google this go around and write based of my memory of the game. I no longer have a PC to play Slave Pageant and didn’t want to bother trying to work on installing it. I’ll try and do this less in the future.]