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BL games



Warning

No, this section does not contain graphic nudity of any kind, if only because I want to keep the number of graphics down. It does however describe games with homosexual (or what passes as such in the female imagination) content. So if you have a problem with this, don't read on; hit the Back button, block this site in your browser or whatever. If you do read on, and become mentally disturbed as a result, don't bother sending me the psychiatrist bills; they'll be shredded in the spambox.


Disclaimer

No, I don't know Japanese. I know the anime catchphrases that one starts to recognize after a while, and I'm starting to figure out the alphabet (the kana, not the kanji - they're a totally different story). And that's as far as my comprehension goes, so, with BL games so dependent on text and dialogue, I'm bound to miss the finer points. However, that doesn't mean I can't play BL games, or listen to BL voice dramas. BL games depend on characterization, not on action, and understanding the character is more important than knowing exactly what's happening (although often it would help!). In a way I'm glad I don't know literally what's being said, and so am being spared possibly teeth-gnashingly corny dialogue while enjoying the high-quality voice acting. Also, it's fun to spam the actors, and just to make things easier they drop in some English now and then, which is hilarious. However: any synopsis or game description of mine is based on intelligent guesswork plus a smattering of information on the Web, and may be totally inaccurate. That said, once I'd Googled the synopsis of Everlasting note, I found my guesses were right except for the flower's quality of being visible to angels and tangible to demons - that was a bit too technical to guess.


About BL games

Although they may have action/RPG elements, BL games are most often dating sims. They are a subcategory of ren'ai games, as it's called in Japan: the player is presented with one main character and a number of "target" characters to start a romantic relationship with. Ren'ai games aimed at a female public feature a girl trying to snare one of a number of boys or, even more popular, a boy trying to snare other boys: the second kind of game is called "Boy Love" (a literal translation of "shonen ai"), BL for short. Such games being made for women, they are i. not realistically "gay" and ii. because we women have such delicate, fragile psyches, very sugary and storyline-oriented with mosaics covering the little-or-no actual sex. Dating sims aimed at a male audience tend to be "how fast can you shag all the chicks". The gap is narrowing, though, with some very grim and/or sex-filled BL games in the "for women" category, deep psychological drama in the "for men" category, and even some BL games specifically made for a male public! I won't go into the whole "why do women like stories about gay men" debate here except to say that the standard anime-female gender roles, voice mannerisms and body proportions make me puke - even BL games usually contain bladder-chested dumb-waitress types with wheezy voices, but at least they're only extras - so a male-heavy cast is simply more bearable, and that likewise hetero romantic conventions are so stomach-turning that I don't care whether the players are all gay males or all lesbians, as long as I don't have to put up with the inevitable (hetero)sexist CRAP! In fact, many "gay" BL characters aren't, it's more a case of "love knows no gender", and often the game doesn't fuss about straight or gay. What a relief.

That's the BL bit out of the way, now a little about the dating sim genre itself. Why would one try to chat up a virtual person, with all of the complications involved in getting a date, but without the reward? Then again, why would one play The Sims? There is a difference, though; superficially like build-an-empire sims and virtual pet programs, dating sims are in fact closer to text adventures. A text adventure, lacking graphics and real-time motion, is about puzzle-solving. So are dating sims, except that this time, the puzzles are persons. You have four different gifts: an apple, a bunch of flowers, a gold necklace and a box containing the latest SuSE Professional edition. There are four girls: a rich bitch, a romantic type, a health food addict and a nerd. Match the gifts with the girls. Or with the boys, if it's a girl game. You're given choices of what to say; guess what they'd like to hear. You're given options for different actions; try to predict what the outcome of each action would be. The reward for all this carefully applied psychological insight? An "event"; either a graphic depiction of sex, or a bit of story unfolding (in PC games as I know them, it would be an "animated sequence", but these dating sims aren't big on animation) to let the player know that the choices were right. The game Tokimeki Memorial: Girl's Side has no sex whatsoever; after hours, days, weeks, months of playing, one gets the happy ending of having the targeted male almost confess his love to the main character. Some satisfaction!

To make gameplay even more frustrating: BL games are made in Japan. Japan is one of the countries where people work on PCs and play games on game computers. Europe also has "work" computers and "game" computers, but the games I played were written for "work" computers, with a keyboard and a mouse. So, I can type things in, and move a cursor over the screen. What does a "game" computer have? A gamepad with a few buttons. Great for punch-duck-run-jump games, worthless for any game I like to play. BL games are made with gamepads in mind: expect two buttons. So the most frequent player actions are: push a button to continue, or push one of two buttons to choose one of two options. Moreover, the Japanese audience, it appears, expect a game that "goes somewhere"; you can't just start the game and choose your own route. So, the standard dating sim goes like this: follow a chunk of story. Make a choice. Follow another chunk of story. Make another choice. Oops, wrong one; start over. Go back to last save and pick the other choice this time. Wow, an event! Sit and watch the event. In other words, user input is minimal, and much game time is spent being passively entertained.

With so much time spent watching the screen, what's onscreen had better look good. And it does: BL game art is, judging from both the games I have and the screenshot galleries on the Web, utterly gorgeous, both in backgrounds and in character design. But it's static. It's one still frame after another. For instance, I look at a sumptuous living room with a couch. Text scrolls by in a dialogue window and the game character voices make it clear to me that they're sitting on the couch, maybe even playing footsies. But do I see two characters walk in, sit down on the couch, and get cozy? Nope, just the living room and empty couch. Sitting turns to snuggling, and wham, the whole still frame is replaced by another still frame, from an entirely different angle, of the two characters on the couch hugging each other. More voice acting, and the sound of smoochies. Do I see them kiss? No. The only thing that might change onscreen is the characters' facial expressions, and, in hardcore games, a jet of white to let me know I've "scored" an orgasm. And that's it. PC games either show a main player walking across the screen or, if the player just moves from one room to another, animated scenery; BL games can be relied on to have practically NO animation. Again like text adventures, they depend on text. Preferably spoken text, as that has the extra communicative value of intonation. It is surprising how well one can guess the general meaning of a conversation in a completely unfamiliar language, just from intonation. In BL games, text does more for the story than visuals. Example: Loki, a cheeky young demon, invites Liam, a well-behaved young human, out for an evening walk in the wood. They're surrounded by will-o'-the-wisps, probably fairies, and judging from the still frame, Loki, like the little tyke he is, is trying to lure them into a flame, while Liam looks concerned. Poof! A big elf (bespectacled - the Japanese will stick glasses on anything!) appears in front of them and wants to know what they're doing. Loki gives him a lot of lip, so Liam claps a hand over Loki's mouth and says they didn't mean any harm and and are sorry to have been a nuisance. I don't see this happening. I hear Loki's voice going something like "Kiss my a-mphgrmmph!" and more angry mmph-ings through Liam's apology, but all I see is a still frame of an elf character whose expression goes from neutral to cross and back to neutral. The voice acting is so convincing that my imagination supplies the missing visuals.

An added advantage of voice acting - and the reason why fans may react with disappointment to a game that isn't voiced - is that it helps to round out the characters. If dating sims are about guessing a character's personality, that personality had better shine through. And it does: one voice actor can voice two different game characters and sound like two different persons. Two voice actors can voice two game characters with similar temperaments, and sound remarkably alike.


About BL doujin games

Doujinshi are "unofficial" manga, often produced and published independently by starting artists and sometimes using copyrighted characters from other artists. Doujin games are similar. They can be relied on to be the following: i. short and simple, ii. well-illustrated, iii. unvoiced. Just as bookshops will sell doujinshi, so game shops will sell doujin games; just like doujinshi, doujin games may be rare and hard to get; and likewise, they may be real gems.


About BL voice dramas

I don't like radio plays. I know there was a time, before every city had its cinema, when radio plays were very popular, because every household already had a radio, and radio plays didn't depend on the primitive visual technology of that time. But radio plays annoy me - and I felt this annoyance even reading a transcript of the radio-play version of Ai no Kusabi - because the lack of visuals is compensated by an irritating amount of sound, and unnatural dialogue as characters try to interact while at the same time explaining a scene to the audience ("Here I am banging on the door, as you can hear from the sound effects, locked up in a building which you can't see but which is very high with a luxury penthouse apartment on the top floor belonging to you-know-who - dammit, somebody open the door!"). However, if the Fragrance Tale voice dramas are representative for all "radio plays" of BL games (or ren'ai games in general) then the game voice drama genre works differently. You might wonder why I'd shell out cash to hear game characters talk, but the art in the average BL game is so static that the whole story is carried by the sound of game characters talking (or, for non-voiced games, the text displayed in "talk" boxes) so that a BL game is already very much like a voice drama. Moreover, since the game provides a visual setting - however static - that is assumed known when listening to the play, the dialogue can be as natural and non-descriptive as it was in the game. What these plays have to offer over the game (at least the two I've heard) is interaction between characters that isn't technically possible in the game, little jokes and subplots that the game doesn't have room for, and more characterization. It's extremely gratifying to hear two familiar game characters arguing and think "I knew that's exactly how it would go if they ever ran into each other."


About Engrish

No, this isn't a misspelling. It's a derogatory term for the mangled kind of English produced by people, in this case the Japanese, who don't really understand the language but who use it anyway because they think it sounds cool, or because their export product's manual needs an English translation and they can't be bothered to hire a professional. The Dutch are just as bad, their non-mastery of English is called Dunglish. The incomprehensible manuals that go "Please to employ plug in wall contact" are called Japlish or, from the fact that Japanese does not distinguish between "r" and "l", Engrish. The joke of writing Plug'n'Play as Plug'n'Pray is one the Japanese would not easily understand. Don't be surprised if the button that starts a game reads "Pray". Doujin games readily fall prey to Engrish, but professional games can be as bad: when I push Quit, the game asks "Do you quite the game?" Do I quite the game? What an interesting question. It gets even funnier when the Engrish principle is applied to other languages: the makers of Enzai may not have realized that their game would be played by real Germans when they labelled the game buttons in German, then knocked off all the umlauts. The fascination of the Japanese with strange languages is quite convenient for foreigners, but their translations can't always be relied on to make sense.

Not Engrish but simply a limitation of the language is the mangled pronunciation of foreign names. Japanese has five vowels, which sound the same in their long and short forms (only the duration varies), a number of consonant-vowel combinations, not always consistent (the "t" set runs: ta, te, tsi, to, tsu; "ti" is written "te-ii") and a liquid consonant sounding like "m" or "n" depending on the surrounding letters. There is no "v", "f" or "th" in Japanese: these sounds are replaced by "b", a harshly pronounced "h" and "s" or "z"; and "l" and "r" are considered variations of the same sound. That's how the norn Verdandi turned into the well-known anime character Belldandy, why "Loki" sometimes comes out as "Roki" and why the Irish word for heaven, "flaithis", becomes a strangled-sounding "hraihisu". Which leads to another peculiarity of Japanese: syllables don't end on consonants. There are three exceptions: the liquid consonant, a consonant "dragged" into a previous syllable with a special letter (as in "Katze", written "kat-tsu-e" with a silent "u") and consonant-vowel combinations where the vowel becomes mute, usually with an "u"-vowel. Example: "Tim" is written "t(e)iimu", with a generally silent "u". But emphasis brings the vowel out again, so that "Silvio" is pronounced "Shi-ru-bio". In all, pronunciations of characters' names can differ considerably from their roman-alphabet spelling, and it's just as well that game makers tend to include character names in English so I know what I'm supposed to be hearing.


Where to buy BL games

The "buy" bit means I'll be skipping the file-swapping options through services like Bittorrent. BL games for PC, which is the only kind I'm interested in, can be ordered, along with extras like fandisks and voice dramas, from the site of the company that made the games; from online Japanese book- and software shops; and second-hand from Japanese online auctions and personal webpages. Which is great if you speak Japanese and the seller is willing to ship overseas. There are import companies with sites in English specifically targetting foreigners who want to buy goods from Japan. Two such sites, HimeyaShop.com and JAST USA, can be found under the links. I haven't done business with them, but the first one carries most current BL games. In all cases, expect to pay between - to use eBay's default currency - US $20 for second-hand games to $85 for new games, and that's without shipping.

To date, I've bought all BL games from eBay. Note: most BL games on sale there, especially the cheap ones from China, are PIRATED COPIES which, the ethical side apart, are burned on CD-R and so have a much shorter lifespan than the originals. The first time I bought BL games on eBay, I thought nothing of the low price considering I'd just bought games like the Space Quest collection and Lands of Lore II for similar prices, and so was surprised to get just two shiny stickered disks. At the time, no originals were up for auction. Via eBay I arrived at a site where the sellers frankly admitted to sell copies at a low price to finance buying more originals, their mission being to make the public aware of these games. I bought a pile for the purpose of trying them out and am replacing them with originals as they appear. These originals are usually second-hand, so I'm afraid the game companies still aren't getting my pennies, but when I want a game and can afford it, I buy it new.

Japan is game computer country, and when a PC game title seems impossible to find, it may already have been ported to PS2. There were two Europe-based eBay sellers - both seem to have disappeared - who carried many PS2 import titles, including all BL game titles I knew of; without age warning of course, since I doubt the company knew what it was importing. But playing the PS2 versions requires a PS2 game computer made in Japan, and apparently it is illegal to export these. They're exported anyway, but I'm not going to buy an extra computer just for games and put up with this "you may not play our games" nonsense. Suffice it to say that Japanese PS2s are available abroad, one source being, as usual, eBay.





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