The Case for Amagami in 2018

On the face of things, I’m about as far from the intended audience for Amagami as someone can possibly be. A 2009 PlayStation 2 dating sim set in late 1990s Japan, as something of a nostalgia piece, in terms of the sheer premise, there’s very little that it has in common with my own personal experiences. I didn’t live in Japan during that time period or speak the language then, let alone attend high school there. Amagami is set in a world where kids didn’t even widely have feature phones yet, VHS tapes were still the popular way to consume videos both above and slightly below board, Yu-Gi-Oh was the hot new anime taking the country by storm, and Japan had just lived through its bubble economy spectacularly crashing and burning. I, meanwhile, was a senior in a Colorado high school in the late 2000s, just as the first iPhone arrived on the market, Blu-rays were slowly trying to supplant DVDs as the disc-based movie medium of choice, Naruto Shippuden was an anime just getting off the ground and beginning a televised run that would last twice as long as its predecessor, and our own financial system was showing signs of strain, but had yet to melt down in earnest. There are, without a doubt, parallels to be found, but in terms of specific imagery and trends being invoked, Amagami isn’t meant to engage with my schooltime experiences in particular. There’s even a toggle in the game’s option menu that lets you play the entire thing with a PC-9800-style FM synth soundtrack, for crying out loud!

Yet, even as I must be approaching 100 hours spent playing Amagami at this point, getting to know its myriad heroines and unlocking a slew of endings, I’ve still felt countless echoes of my own experiences as a teenager in an American high school a decade later. For all of the things that are different about American and Japanese high schools in terms of customs, classes, and even the overall amount of time spent attending them, they’re both still rife with the sad, awkward, funny, and simply weird ups and downs that define adolescence in those years, sometimes in quick succession. Amagami is sentimental and nostalgic not just in the typical way tapping into shared cultural and aesthetic memories, but even more so in a sympathetic sense. It’s unafraid to be frank and open about the experiences we all feel at that age, good and bad, being very real and very valid, whatever they are, as players retrace what are likely to be years long gone for most. Nobody at Kibito High is perfect and nobody really wants to be perfect per se, either. They just want a little validation of their humanity, some recognition that their path in life and the way they walk along it is okay and valid and right for them, even if it bears little semblance with what they see in others. There’s a quiet understanding that complicated, teenage you probably had a lot of mixed, conflicted things to say about life and growing up and in Amagami, that’s more than okay. It’s only right and honest that you did.

Few sequences early on in Amagami drive this point home more than an early subplot involving the sweet, but demure-to-a-fault Keiko and mussy-haired, charmingly forward Kaoru, pictured above. Keiko is in love with a boy at school, or at least she thinks she is, only said boy is flaky at best about actually returning her feelings, leaving her hanging after she initially confesses to him. And at worst, he tries to take advantage of them for easy physical affection. The whole thing understandably leaves poor Keiko confused about what to do and she eventually ends up turning to you for advice on how to deal with him. When you suggest that she put her feelings down on paper in a letter intended to make him decide where he stands with her one way or another, the whole thing blows up in her face. The guy ends up mockingly reading her letter aloud in front of his friends, laughing at the contents. The whole experience leaves her noticeably scarred and afterwards, she questions whether she’ll ever be able to move on and find another guy who actually loves her. While Kaoru, ever the optimist and supportive friend, tells her what many adult Amagami players likely would, that there are plenty more fish in the sea, such spectacular failure at her first real attempt at wooing a guy leaves Keiko deeply skeptical of her merits as a young woman and her ability to find someone who genuinely values her as a person.

Hardly every episode in Amagami ends on such a dour note or is even so consequential, at least in immediate terms. But its willingness to let its cast naturally go through the motions during both the good times and bad, rather than force a more abrupt and immediate resolution to its plot threads, underlines its intuitive understanding about the rawness that comes with a period of life that routinely shifts between being anticlimactic and scarily rapid in turn. The students at Kibito High sometimes struggle to open up, be honest about themselves and their needs, and let each other into their lives, afraid of what might lie in wait on the other side and unable to know what that other side even is until they make that leap. More so than the typical dating sim fare of simply finding a cute partner and living happily ever after, Amagami is most about finding the courage to not only be honest about ourselves to the world around us, but also using that honesty to attain at least a little patch of Heaven in life where we can live peacefully in our element, surrounded by those who empathetically understand and embrace our weird, flawed selves.

It’s not just in major, preset plot points that these characters’ struggles to live true to themselves manifest, either. As a game squarely in the Kadokawa school of dating sims, incidental conversations that you can hold with each of the primary romantic interests can also be just as revealing of their own inner workings as anything else that happens in event scenes. As the player, you can engage them in nine different topics, with their specific interests varying partly based on their individual personalities, as well as the mood of the current conversation and how your overall relationship with them is progressing. Early on, these chats might bear relatively sparse fruit, with only little tidbits here and there shared about things such as the basics of their school and club lives, what they like to eat, and TV shows that they watched the previous night. But stick with them and soon enough you might hear about how, say, contrary to her perpetually disheveled appearance, Kaoru actually knows a thing or two about fashion and regularly keeps tabs on the latest developments. Or how the eccentrically mischievous Haruka, pictured above, once tuned into a porn channel on a hotel TV during an extended field trip to mess with the other girls staying in the room with her. They’ll also occasionally discuss things that have happened in the main plotline and around the school, giving these moments a sense of continuity. You might not always learn about critical things weighing on their minds, but they do fill in blanks that can help explain aspects of their behavior and anxieties when significant events do crop up, which makes engaging in these conversations still feel rewarding in isolation of everything else going on.

But it’s the things that go unsaid and hang in the air at times that reveal the most about what’s on their minds and how they’re coping with things. Like a lot of dating sims and visual novels, as a game that progresses largely through character portraits, dialogue boxes, and still backgrounds, Amagami has what can only be described as an economy of animation, but what modest amount it does have is used to subtly, yet powerfully add in new layers to its already nuanced characters. Their eyes, especially, are arresting and have much to say when their voice fails them. They’ll flick to and fro mid-sentence as they talk to you, sometimes able to confidently look you straight in the eye and other times nervously having to pull away as they gather their thoughts, blinking madly as they think through a million different things at once. Eyes are an unsung, but hugely important piece of the puzzle, placed on just as high of a pedestal as its art, writing, and voice acting when it comes to characterization. If the other three pieces are often enough to breathe at least a minimal life in most such games, it’s the varied, animated, and vivacious eyes that Amagami adds to that equation that give it its soul and make it so charmingly, beautifully, poignantly personal and approachable.

Those sometimes desperate, but forever earnest eyes are among the strongest tools that Amagami has at its disposal for bringing me back to my own high school years despite the generation gap. When Haruka looks at me softly as she flirts with me and tries to be affectionate in her own clumsy, blundering way, I think of old flames I’d lock eyes with across the classroom and knowingly smile, losing ourselves briefly to our own little world before returning to work. When the short and soft-spoken Sae finds herself at a loss for words, eyes looking everywhere but straight at me, unaccustomed to speaking her mind, least of all to guys, I remember the sweet, but similarly reserved friends I went to high school with who came from home lives that pigeonholed their family roles and groomed them for futures they never entirely asked for. When Kaoru’s eyes narrow as she forces herself to blushingly sit a little too close for comfort for either one of us, trying to make sense of feelings she’d put off to the side for a long time, it reminds me of myself at that age, close to a lot of girls as friends, but bad at putting into words any deeper feelings I had for them, struggling to find ways to make that deeper connection. These sorts of moments occasionally make me wince, not because their execution is cliché or because they feel sappy or overly dramatic, but because they so sharply capture my own adolescent experiences that remembering I had those foibles and hardships in my life can be a bitter pill to swallow. I desperately want at such times for the cast of Amagami to be happy and feel at peace with themselves without having to endure similar agony and rough patches, even if I know deep down that it’s a part of growing up and that they’ll come out the other side of it better people in the end.

While the goal is ostensibly to go out with someone by the school’s big Christmas party, Amagami is a game that’s primarily defined by such little interactions that take place from moment to moment. Relationships are by and large improvised things, built upon a curious bedrock of sudden, unexpected discoveries and leaps of faith that eventually snowball into unique dynamics as two souls try to make sense of each other and grow in their own ways. It’s why Amagami’s optional scenes and conversation segments work so well and don’t feel like mere roadblocks to be grinded through on the way to more dramatic payoffs. Because without that buildup, without those occasional flubs and moments that don’t really “matter” in macro terms but do in micro, human ones, the whole journey would feel less like an adventure in getting to know someone in their own element and at their own pace than it would a highlight reel being doled out of some vague obligation to always feel good or at least be entertaining. The exact end of any given road you end up taking in Amagami along a particular route might be predetermined, but a good amount of the tangents you encounter along the way, the places you go and the things you do and talk about, those are driven by you as the player and require your active participation and cultivation in order to reach a happy, fulfilling ending. There’s so much to see and discuss with each of the girls, some of which you’ll invariably miss, that each step taken feels like one that’s unique to your relationship with them, just one way to foster a successful relationship and find happiness with them.

I constantly go back to a particular birthday scene that embodies this philosophy of inconsequential consequences in Amagami’s depiction of relationships. Towards the end of the game’s six weeks, your character will celebrate their 17th birthday and if you become sufficiently friendly with the girls, you can receive birthday presents from them to commemorate the occasion. Functionally, the presents don’t serve an actual in-game purpose, but they can be pointed reminders of the progress you’ve made in your relationships since the beginning of the game. In one such possible scene that you can encounter if you choose to focus your attention on Haruka, she arrives on your doorstep at your house one night after school. After some coyly flirtatious teasing about the purpose of her visit, she explains that she’s indeed come to deliver your birthday present. Unwrapping it reveals a pair of chopsticks and a renge, the Japanese term for the ladle-like spoon that commonly accompanies bowls of ramen and other noodle dishes.

To many Westerners who didn’t grow up around Asian cuisine, such a gift might appear to be a rather modest gesture. While nice silverware certainly exists, it’s not always people’s first idea for a gift, even for the culinary-minded. But in Japan and other Asian countries, individual pairs of chopsticks can be significantly more personal affairs. Whole ranges of them exist across a wide price spectrum that sport designs to varying degrees of intricacy, from simple and gaudy plastic affairs to more austere, elaborately crafted wooden ones. What kind of chopsticks a person chooses to use in their own home can say a lot about their own background and personality and every pair, no matter how cheap or expensive, is expected to be well cared for because of that personal symbolism.

While Haruka in the game is largely a person who doesn’t try to keep things too serious at school, I readily felt the gravity of receiving a pair from her when I came across the scene during my own time wooing her. After many hours spent talking to her and getting into fun trouble with her, here she was, ready to make a concrete statement about what that time together meant for her, willing to not only try to make an educated guess about my tastes in chopsticks, but also be so bold as to make them a memento of our relationship, things that I would hopefully think about whenever I would have meals with them. Her gamble more than paid off for me emotionally as a player, bringing back very fond memories I had of receiving my own nice pair of chopsticks around that same age from a girl I also liked and spent a lot of time with during my high school years. I still remember them vividly, a handsome black wooden pair kept inside a beautiful blue cloth sleeve with golden fabric trimmings. I used them for years after graduating high school, even after I fell out of touch with her and they had their intended effect. It’s no exaggeration to say that when I got to relive that episode in Amagami with a character I’d come to fall very hard for that the experience brought me to tears. So striking was the sincerity of her words and actions that I couldn’t hold back the pleasant nostalgia that overwhelmed me in that moment.

It’s a scene that didn’t get explicitly referenced again during the remainder of my time with that particular route, but its effects on me and how I viewed that particular relationship afterwards were lasting. But that was completely okay. It was a simple expression of the weird, special thing that I had built together with Haruka. Hardly every step that my character had taken with her along the way was perfect; plenty of awkward missteps had happened, especially in the early days when it came to showing that affection to her. But we had come out of those and many other moments stronger and closer for it and the chopsticks served as an important gesture to signify that the appreciation was mutual. It was a brief tangent taken along the way to the emotional final stretch of her story, but it provided an important inflection point to briefly think back on our shared history together as people, our enduring presence in each other’s lives as we grew up and matured, and the excitement at the future memories that we had yet to make.

Tokimeki Memorial (PC Engine CD version).

It’s in this sort of way that makes a pure dating sim like Amagami, the kind that isn’t just a truncated conversation system grafted onto a different kind of game as a tangential side activity, a unique investment of time and emotion like no other genre. But the nature of this investment and the rewards that it provides have changed hugely as the genre has grown, peaked, and settled down into a comfortable, yet still ultimately niche ubiquity. When Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial came out in 1994 and sparked the first major boom of the genre, dating sims were primarily games driven by statistics, which isn’t particularly surprising when considering the sheer popularity of complex RPG and strategy games in the decade leading up to them on Japanese consoles and PCs alike. To hook up with the girl of your dreams under the school’s cherry blossom tree, you had to raise specific stats that would make you look more appealing to her as a romantic interest, which was accomplished by carefully managing your daily schedule, as different activities would raise and lower different variables. And so it went in the games that followed in its wake throughout the 90s and once again in the 2000s when spiritual successor Love Plus emerged, as well, with tweaks made to the aesthetic and setting trimmings as needed to make them sufficiently stand out on their own.

There’s a cynical fallacy to this formula that often does in those sorts of older-style dating sims, however. While it can be argued that by providing a stat-based, RPG-esque progression system in some ways emulates the natural process that people undergo in changing and improving themselves over the course of a relationship, when that process is boiled down to explicit numbers and gauges, it risks making the final conclusion, its enduring message about relationships, selfish and shortsighted. As long as you craft yourself in the way that your digital interest expressly wants in an ideal partner, as long as you give them exactly what they want materialistically, emotionally, and especially conversationally without ever veering off track, without ever risking taking them out of their comfort zone and giving them a chance to experience the real you, you can have whoever you like. No ifs, ands, or buts, at least long enough for the relationship to turn official and for the two of you to be a bona fide “thing.” Before there was incessant postings of elephant pictures to look adventurous and worldly on Tinder, before interest sections on dating site profiles were filled with trademarks from the media we consume as parts of fandoms in search of like-minded consumers, there was grinding history books, working out, and doing artsy, intellectual things in Japanese dating sims to cater to the whims and tastes of the pixelated men and women of our choice.

In an early part of Haruki Murakami’s South of the Border, West of the Sun, the protagonist, Hajime, recalls how he felt after his first sexual encounter with his high school girlfriend, Izumi. “I felt like I knew more about her than ever before, and she must have felt the same,” he reminisces. “What we needed were not words and promises but the steady accumulation of small realities.” Amagami’s quiet rebuttal to the Konami school of dating sims lies in its own collection of small realities strewn across its many, many routes. Relationships in it aren’t reduced to a series of variables to raise and lower and school subjects and extracurricular activities to strategically choose from in pursuit of a concrete, overtly stated ideal. Instead, they’re little inside jokes and routines that arise spontaneously. They’re the ways people look at each other and smile, the audible comfort in the tone of their voice when they know they can let their guard down. They’re the things big and small that people do, not only when they aren’t asked to, but sometimes especially when they’re asked to, sometimes daily and sometimes only once in a lifetime. And they’re moments of triumph and failure that are of little consequence to any outsiders and won’t change anything or anyone else, but are still climactic to the two of you, the only ones for whom they need to be.

Amagami takes a much harder path as a dating sim, focusing on personal chemistry and dynamics built upon an imperfect foundation. It lets its cast, both you and the heroines, be flawed and sometimes make mistakes, get mad and sad, and misinterpret things that the other one says and does, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. These women open up about their insecurities and their traumas to a degree few other games of its ilk are willing to do, too afraid of potentially alienating players if that veneer of perfection incarnate is let down even for a brief few seconds. But in Amagami, it’s not that drive for perfection, of being what women in other games like it would think they want in The One that justifies investing potentially dozens of hours into a given route. It’s the mutual acceptance that comes at the end, when all the quirks, warts, and rough edges have been laid bare, and you still find in each other a human being to be cherished. You, too, were okay, great even, as you were when you were at that age and were worth loving for your humanity then. And you still are now.