Accepting that you’re not what’s considered “normal” by society is never easy. For me, it was accepting myself as a man romantically attracted to other men, surrounded by a culture both implicitly and explicitly hostile to anybody that didn’t fit the cishet norm. A lot of homophobic slurs were used to bully me in middle school as a result of my failure to perform masculinity as expected of me. Consequently, I developed a knee-jerk reaction of insisting I was straight in response to any suggestion that I wasn’t.
A lot of my taste in media entering high school was informed by my peers, to help fit in. It wasn’t so much about my subjective enjoyment of something, so much as it was something that would help affirm my cishet status to both myself and others. Yet, as I would play games featuring a romance written from the perspective of a man with a female love interest, I didn’t feel emotionally invested in them the way other people did, and that still felt alienating.
Still, I’d been doing a better job of performing masculinity and blending in with the crowd, and I considered silent alienation to be preferable to the bullying I’d experienced before. I had already built up a wall that would make it hard to question my orientation, so I discovered myself through something very unlikely: otoge, or otome games.
I discovered the world of otoge in my sophomore year of high school, with the Western release of the PSP game Sweet Fuse: At Your Side. The premise was outlandish: you play as the niece of real-life game developer Keiji Inafune, who is launching his own theme park. But during the opening ceremony a group of pig-masked terrorists attack, taking Inafune hostage and demanding you—and a small group of visitors that make up your harem of dateable men—navigate the trap-laden attractions to save your uncle.
It was very silly, and I enjoyed it. I even still have the bonus necklace that came with my copy.
My friends were confused as to why I, a seemingly straight boy, was enjoying something made for straight women. At the time, I justified getting it for its wacky premise and as a way of supporting other niche localizations. But in truth, I enjoyed it not just for the silliness, but for the romance as well. It tickled me in a way that romantic games about men dating women didn’t.
I sought out more games where I dated men as a woman. I was able to justify it to myself because these games are still depicting romance between a man and a woman, so it wasn’t gay for me to play them… right?
It was Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi that got me to re-evaluate how I was approaching otoge. The protagonist is a young woman in Edo-era Japan who crossdresses as a man to protect her identity. Her love interests know she’s really a woman, and treat her as such, but she still often adorns a masculine presentation.
I saw myself in this protagonist more than in previous otoge. While I told myself I was enjoying playing otoge as an observer, this game allowed me to empathize more strongly with the protagonist.
Hakuoki was also the first game that prodded me to acknowledge I was having “gay feelings,” specifically by way of the character Sanosuke Harada. He was someone who I could acknowledge I was attracted to and enjoy romancing vicariously through the eyes of the protagonist.
Harada had an old-fashioned romantic view on love, treating his partner gently and with great concern. His goals were humble and respectable, not seeking glory like the others but instead wanting to settle down and start a family.
Yet, I found one aspect of him disappointing: his chivalry. He acted like this towards the protagonist primarily because of his perception of her as a woman who needed protection, which felt off to me. I came to acknowledge that this was because I projected myself into the protagonist’s shoes, and this took me out of the experience.
From then on, I began consciously projecting myself into the role of the protagonist, having been eased into the idea that I was having romantic feelings for male characters. A common element I found in my favorite guys was a certain sense of romanticism that felt irresistible. Kent from Amnesia: Memories began the story acting very cold and logical, but throughout his route, began to open up to his own feelings and express them in a very sweet way.
Kouichi Sakurai from Tokimeki Memorial expresses his feelings in a fairly quiet, but not invisible, way, by displaying a deep sense of loyalty. And Impey Barbicane from Code: Realize wore his feelings on his sleeve, unafraid to express his affections at any moment. I couldn’t put my finger on any single trait or type I preferred, which made it all the more exciting to play another game and see who my next fave would be.
Eventually, my newfound interest started to bleed into my taste in other genres of games as well. One JRPG I played for the romantic elements was Rune Factory 4. I selected a female protagonist, quickly fell for the resident horse guy, Dylas, and set my sights on marrying him. I received a delightful surprise after clearing the game’s second arc: I could alter my character’s appearance to assume the appearance of the male protagonist!
I jumped on the chance, and found myself enjoying the game even more now that I was able to romance Dylas as somebody who looked closer to me. Still, it felt a little odd that this was more of a bonus feature than an intended gay romance option. I still didn’t have much pride in any proclaimed queer identity, because I still hadn’t seen myself in any explicitly queer characters.
Enter Fire Emblem: Fates, another series I got into for the romantic elements (and yes, I know how controversial the increased focus on romance is; my friends keep me well informed). When I found out the character Niles was romanceable by protagonists of any gender, I was intrigued, but I wasn’t expecting the impact he would have on me.
Niles is a mischievous rogue who so strongly fears rejection that he acts in a deliberately annoying manner, such as peppering his speech with double entendre, to push people away before they got to know him. It reminded me a lot of my edgy personality in high school, a habit I still struggled to discard when I first played Fates. Yet, also like Niles, I secretly wished somebody would see through me—and Niles finds that “someone” in the protagonist, Corrin.
Some people have criticized him for being a questionable portrayal of queer people, particularly in the original Japanese script where his negative traits are exaggerated to the point that the term “depraved bisexual” would be fitting for him. I acknowledge he isn’t a perfect character, but he had a tremendous positive impact on me.
While it’s never mentioned that he feared rejection for being bisexual, it was a powerful subtextual connection I made to my own experiences and feelings of social alienation. I saw myself in a queer character for the first time, and I felt proud to be queer. I love him so much for the way he’s resonated with me that I go out of my way to collect as much merchandise of him as I can.
Liking otoge used to be something I was embarrassed by, my own dirty little secret, but over the years I’ve become more and more open in discussing my fondness for the genre. This comfort in discussing otoge openly correlated with my own feelings on being seen as queer—I spent a long time afraid of people thinking I wasn’t manly enough for fear of not “fitting in.” As I started to feel more comfortable in my attraction to men, I began vocally embracing the genre, no matter how weird it may seem to others.
I still love playing otoge and other games with romantic elements even now that I’m completely comfortable with being a gay man. I picked up Code: Realize – Wintertide Miracles only a few weeks ago. I feel much more comfortable seeking out explicitly queer media these days, but I still come back to otoge because it’s such an important genre to me. Otoge played a vital part in slowly taking apart my notions that I was straight and helping me come to a greater understanding of myself, and I’ll always be grateful to it for that.