Here in the US, video games typically fall into a small set of genres. First and third person shooters dominate the American market, with other genres like adventure, puzzle and role playing games holding their own. In Japan, however, there are seemingly limitless types of video games. While American kids were marveling at the original Nintendo Entertainment System's killer titles like Super Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda, Japanese gamers were learning military history and strategy in Romance of the Three Kingdoms, or planning the next moves of their menagerie of mecha in Super Robot Taisen. Both Romance and Taisen were best sellers in Japan but at the time were never seen on American shores, mainly because as good as they were, they just wouldn't have sold here in the States.
With the increased popularity of Japanese culture in the US, the borders to entertainment have opened. In the few arcades left here, it's almost unheard of to not see a Dance Dance Revolution machine. Music games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero are taken right from such Japanese classics like Guitar Freaks or Keyboard Mania, and it's not at all surprising to see Japanese imports like Taiko no Tetsujin sucking down quarters.
Of course, there are many more types of games from Japan that have not made the transition to the United States. One of the preconceptions about Japanese culture is that young men seem to have a hard time with members of the opposite sex. It's portrayed constantly in anime, with male protagonists becoming incredibly shy, subdued, or even having their nose burst into arterial sprays of blood during an interaction with an attractive woman.
That stereotype isn't helped when all you have to do is visit TR for some Super Terrific Japanese Things. The country that brought us Nintendo, sushi and Kirin Ichiban is also the same country that has given us Eel Juice, Vagina Bread, and the Penis Powered Game Controller. The Japanese culture has long been known for its technological prowess, with innovation solving so many of their problems. So what do you do when you have a population of young men who are believed to have difficulty talking to the opposite sex? Make it into a video game! Enter Dating Sims: games in which the goal is for you to pursue one or more virtual girls in the hope of forming a digital love connection.
Of course, something like trying to woo a Tamagotchi is instant fodder for Rule 34, and it wasn't long before the goals of some of these games went from wining and dining your digital partner to something far less innocent. Now, the idea of virtually frakking your virtual girlfriend would be enough to give Pat Robertson an aneurysm, but this is Japan, birthplace of tentacle porn. In the Land of the Rising Sun, if there is such a thing as a porn game, then you know there has to be a tentacle porn game.
Originally released in Japan in 2003, Saya no Uta tells the story of Sakisaka Fuminori, a talented med-school student whose life is torn to pieces when a car accident leaves him parentless and suffering from a traumatic brain injury. His vision of the world is twisted, with entrails, slime and ooze covering the walls of his hospital room. Doctors, nurses and even friends appear as twisted "flesh-beasts", with even their voices warped beyond recognition. His world is a living hell, at least until he meets Saya, the only object of beauty left in his mind. An otherworldly romance blossoms between them, leading Sakisaka into a Gigeresque world; a journey that you the player get to accompany.
I will be the first to admit, aside from learning how to play mahjong in college specifically for bootlegged porn MAME ROMS, I have never played an erotic or eroge video game. That doesn't mean that I haven't played games that included sex in the storytelling process; I specifically remember the uncomfortable silence I received from my mother when I asked why a girl was spending the night at Golgo 13's house. 8-bit humping aside, I've never even had the desire to simulate a relationship, sexual or otherwise, but when given the opportunity to take a first look at the infamous Saya no Uta, I couldn't resist.
This isn't a traditional game in any semblance of the word. It's certainly not for everyone, and I'd even go so far as to say it's not for many. If you're too timid to give this a shot, here are ten things I learned about eroge, Japan, video games and myself while playing Saya no Uta. Special thanks go out to animator, artist and con favorite Steve Bennett for giving me some firsthand insight into Japanese culture. Please note, while much of Topless Robot could be considered NSFW, this article and the game it references include many subjects which could be particularly offensive.
1. Call for Help? Turn to Page 56. Fuck the Tentacle Monster? Turn to Page 69.
When I started researching this game, I found very little information about gameplay. Story details were readily available, but nowhere could I find what I would actually be doing while playing. For some reason, I went in with the preconceived notion that I would be playing a twisted/sexy version of Myst, exploring environments and trying to solve a mystery, all while getting laid. As I started playing, reading page after page of text superimposed over imagery that could have come straight from a Hellraiser film or the bridge of the Event Horizon, my preconception turned from Myst to Zork. I continued to read, waiting for the option to get eaten by a grue. Forty five minutes into the game, I still hadn't been able to interact.
There is a very good reason for this lack of interactivity. Along with others of its genre, Saya no Uta is not really a game, at least in the American sense of the word. While being pitched as a game, Saya is more interactive/visual novel, an illustrated Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. It's no wonder that this genre of game hasn't been a hit here in the U.S., with its distinct lack of gibbing. The visual novel genre, however, has incredible potential. A few years ago a Bioware team member caught untold amounts of flame for stating that she would like to play the story portions of a game like Mass Effect without having to go through the action portions of the game. A format similar to Saya no Uta could easily accommodate requests to play the narrative without having to level grind. It's not something I would prefer, but I can see the benefits of it. Additionally, this would be a perfect genre for mobile gaming (aside from the gratuitous sex). The download of Saya was a whopping 250 MB, which could easily fit onto the internal memory of a smart phone or tablet. While visual novels aren't for everyone, it is clearly a niche that isn't being filled by traditional publishers, and has tremendous potential.
2. This Shit is Real (The Medical Condition, Not the Sperm Hungry Sex Monster)
Sakisaka Fumimora awakens from his coma with his perception of the world twisted and warped into a nightmare. The damage done to his brain from his car accident caused him to experience a disorder called agnosia. While the more extreme effects Sakisaka experiences are a work of fiction, the disorder itself absolutely exists.
Agnosia is a disorder of the brain which causes a person to not be able to recognize objects for what they are. Some people may no longer be able to recognize the faces of voices of people they have known for years. Others may perceive colors differently from others, which happens to be one of the symptoms that Sakisaka suffers from in the game. Thankfully, there are no known cases of agnosia where the subject sees hideous monsters as beautiful girls...that's just beer goggles.
3. This is Not the Game the Japanese Played
While playing, I noticed that during scenes of explicit sexual content, there was a watermark in the lower left hand corner of the screen marking the game as the international version, not to be played in Japan. Wondering how much worse the Japanese version could be, I asked Steve Bennett what the differences could be between the Japanese and International versions, with the answer being rather surprising.
According to Bennett, one of the actions taken by Allied forces after World War II was to ban pornography in Japan. As Japan was a very sexual culture prior to the war, occupying forces blamed porn for the aggressive and expansionary tendencies of the Japanese Empire, and the ban was created to curb their combative nature. That being said, it's illegal for genitalia, real or animated, to be featured in entertainment; a ban that over sixty years later is still in place. While the Internet age has allowed "American-style" porn into the country, it's technically contraband; something to remember before taking your spank mags to the Land of the Rising Sun.
The Japanese edition of the game likely features the same pictures as the international version, however any "junk" will be pixilated more than a hooker on COPS.
4. The Mysteries of Tentacle Porn Revealed
Bennett, while explaining to me the potential differences between the Japanese and International versions of Saya no Uta, has at last explained the reasoning behind Japanese penchant for penetrating protuberances; a.k.a. Tentacle Porn. Going back to that damn Allied anti-porn law, penises and vaginas were parts non-grata in Japanese entertainment. But those meddling Yankees didn't say a Cthulu-damned thing about tentacles. In fact, so long as it's attached to a monster, it doesn't count.