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February is Smooch Month, a month dedicated to considering media that falls under the heading of smoochy. Things that are about relationships, forming relationships, building or deepening relationships, and things where a romantic relationship is important. This presents challenges because it might not surprise you, but in videogames, despite their breadth of content, haven’t done as much with this element of human interaction as you might think. Oh, there are a lot of games about romance, and a lot of them handle it in a linear or systemic way I dislike a lot. For all sorts of common cultural reasons you might be familiar with, romance in videogames tends to be about an agent pursuing an object and getting it. Super Mario Bros and onwards. Or Donkey Kong if you want.
None of this is to say that ‘all games that try to be about romance are bad,’ but there are a lot of games that are more or less replicating the same basic idea, existing in a binary between a language maze or an entirely unrelated linear story. What’s more, often romances aren’t depicted as if they express a relationship as an interested interaction between two parties who both want something. And this is pretty strange when you consider how much art has been made on this idea and how many forms that art has taken.
Like pop music.
Osu! Tatakae! Ouendan is a game whose name you don’t have to shout but come on, you should want to, you should be shouting in your heart, that is the original progenitor of a game you might have heard of called Elite Beat Agents. It’s a rhythm game on the NDS and 3DS, so the unique interface of the console presented designers with new(ish) opportunities to make a type of rhythm game. You tap the screen in time and place to correspond with the flow and movement of the music, and that’s kind of it.
(In a lot of ways, Ouendan as a game is a thing that benefits immensely from the material realities of what the DS is.)
If you know what a rhythm game is, you probably can work out how to play Ouendan in just a few minutes, even across the language barrier for non-Japanese speakers. In fact, it was that accessibility in part that led to the game being picked up in the west, and enjoyed so much we got a American localised version of the same game, Elite Beat Agents. This was in fact so much of a thing that at the end of the credits for Ouendan 2, there’s a thank you note in English. That approachability is only part of the reason why you can play Ouendan without literacy, though; another element is that the NDS doesn’t have region locking, so you can just buy a Japanese copy, jam it in your Belgian NDS (I assume you have one of those) and it’s going to work, rather than requiring you to pay distributors in your country. This meant that this game, in all the ways it’s very Japanese is available for you to experience without changing anything about what it is, its cultural framework, and its visions of what it wants to say in a story told through its particular framing device.
Because that framing device, to a common western audience member like me, seems at first impression to be bananas. In Ouendan, you are finding people who need help, then helping them. What kind of people? Well, you might help a kid with their university entrance exams. You might inspire a noodle shop cook to get over his problems with a stray cat. You might bring back the dead for one last dance. You might help a kid avoid wetting the bed in his sleep, or fight a virus or help Cleopatra build the pyramids. The first game culminates in the Ouendan saving the world from an asteroid strike through the power of rock and roll.
What’s important about this, though, is that in each of these stories, you aren’t playing the people who the story is about. You’re playing cheerleaders.
And you may be visualising something from your own perspective, and yes, you can unlock those, those are an option, but in Ouendan, you are not playing a western style cheerleader squat. You’re playing an Ouendan troupe: Which is to say, heavily masculine, disciplined cheer leaders who do ferocious poses, stomps, claps, whistles and shouts. This is a proud, established style of cheerleading in Japan. Manly cheerleading. In Ouendan, you play Ouendan who are more specifically, school toughs wearing gakuran and with all the signifiers of delinquents.
These roaming bands of goons find people who need help, burst into the scene in sometimes wildly inappropriate ways, and cheer them on to do their best. You are not competing for the exams; you want the person who is competing for the exams to know they can do their best. You are not capturing the bank robber, you are encouraging the horse to capture the bank robber because you believe in them.
It’s a great game.
It comes to my mind so often when I think about trying to find games for Smooch Month. Games about relationships, about expressing the forming and maintaining of a relationship in some way that doesn’t end when the characters express interest in them? They’re pretty rare. I could find more games about rescuing a dog than I could find about working with a partner!
(Don’t mention It Takes Two to me.)
That’s why I came back to this classic rhythm game, OSU! TATAKAE! OUENDAN!
There are some love stories in Ouendan. There’s a classic one where an Office Lady wants to date the Office Hunk (did you know sometimes those can be boys?) and the culmination of their story is her getting his attention in a literal Cinderella ref, backed by the probably somewhat culturally insensitive Koi no Dansu Saito. There’s also the story in Over the Distance, which is about a ghost coming back from heaven to apologise to his wife for the fight they had just before he died. It’s nice that there’s this bookending between these two types of relationship stages – a beginning and, sadly, an end.
It’s not the one that makes me think of Ouendan! in smooch month though. Melody, one of the early levels, is set in a Matsuri festival, where the person we’re helping wants to Win At Doing The Festival race, because that will get him respect and get the permission of a girl’s crappy dad to marry her. So far so Mario, woman as prize, right?
Now I pulled deep to find this game because I think this successfully breaks a lot of my problems with videogame romances. First, you don’t control the agents in the romance; you’re not the boy or the girl, and your relationship to the other has nothing to do with how well you play the game. These two characters are into each other, and their reactions to how well you play is how well you get them towards a goal they both want (where they want to get married). You want to do well, because you want them to have their chance to get married (and you get a rewarding tish sound). They are dating. They are in love, and they are being obstructed by her dad in this one instance. The girl isn’t the reward and the guy isn’t your character – she’s one of the participants. Your victory is not Him Getting Something, it’s Them getting what they want, because they set up a game event.
It’s a sweet story, it’s about something nice, and in amongst all these games I’ve been digging through to find just a romance that didn’t make me clutch my insides. Like you can read the dad as doing a thing that implies ownership of his daughter’s options for marriage, but even then he gets involved after the boy racer says that he’ll propose when he wins. In that case, it almost looks like the father is in on the game, because he wants the Matsuri competition to be a competition.
What’s more, everyone thinks he’s being a dick — strangers get involved and join in and help our protagonists. He goes from carrying the Matsuri on his own, and then, inspired by that, school kids and old folks and tourists all join in on the race. If you succeed, then the father in law is super happy because he sees it as a good omen for their marriage! It’s not ‘you shall not marry my daughter,’ it’s ‘well, do a proper Matsuri race then.’ At the very end, he’s not grumbling that this man stole his daughter from him; he’s joyfully attending their wedding.
And you know what happens when you fail?
They don’t get married and you failed. That’s it. She doesn’t leave him. The relationship is not contingent on the Matsuri race, just the father blessing them here. They were in a relationship beforehand, and there’s no reason that ends. The story doesn’t need to make this event the contingent requirement for the romance.
And that’s nice!
It can be a big story moment for these two, where you get to show up and encourage them to their best. It’s not told as if this is the make-or-break, it’s not told as if this
Incidentally, I did consider doing this with Elite Beat Agents instead, because, you know, it’s slightly more available and didn’t get a sequel. Thing is, it’s uh, it’s not got a story like this one in it. The closest we get to this song is Queen’s I Was Born To Love You, which shows us Leonardo Da Vinci harrassing Mona Lisa until she agrees to pose for him as a model, which is so much worse as a story.