The late 2000s saw a boom in western dating sims — now adults, developers who’d been influenced by Japanese visual novels, eroge, and dating sims began making their own forays into the genre. Given the explosive success of Dream Daddy and the romance elements of latter day Bioware games, it might be hard for younger gamers to imagine how niche the market was less than ten years ago. Barring a few translations by small companies like JAST USA (which started in 1996 and primarily focused on pornographic titles), the bulk of the VN genre was shared peer-to-peer or sold at convention booths.
Hanako Games (founded in 2003) was one of the oldest indie developers to take elements of this style, usually incorporating them with “raising game” (focusing on the development of the player character’s stats), RPG, or adventure game elements. They developed their first dating sim in 2008 with Summer Session and ventured into the otome game model with 2010’s Date Warp. The team continued to develop and experiment within their chosen genre, and 2011 saw the release of Magical Diary, one of the company’s most narratively thoughtful if visually unremarkable games.
The plot is simple: players take on the role of a transfer student at a school for magic and guide the player character through their freshman year of classes, taking classes to raise skills, completing exams, and forming relationships with other students. Magical Diary appears, on the surface, to be a somewhat lax Harry Potter simulator with the serial numbers filed off for legal safety, but the player shouldn’t be fooled. It’s a simple premise with a somewhat outdated art style, even for the time, which disguises the unexpectedly smart script.
The game’s diverse selection of love interests is a notable precursor to Dream Daddy and Hustle Cat, and its attempt to wrangle with problematic romance tropes in a smart, lighthearted manner stands alongside its contemporary Hatoful Boyfriend.
The Frontier of Inclusion
Even in the world of indie games, it’s been a long and uphill slog toward games that tell diverse, inclusive stories. The most popular dating sims and visual novels translated among fans and by professionals were predominately heterosexual and aimed toward (cis) men. Among western visual novel developers, Hanako Games was one of the first developers (alongside Winter Wolves) to include same-gender romance options — predominantly between women, as their games tended to star female protagonists. While the game also makes an attempt to be more responsible in its worldbuilding — the game’s magical populace is heavily entwined with Native American tribes, for example, though there are no Native characters — but I am quite unqualified to assess how successfully it executes those elements. Hence, we’ll be focusing on the relationship writing.