Trapped in a Dating Sim: The World of Otome Games is Tough for Mobs – Episode 1

By: Alex Henderson April 3, 20220 Comments

What’s it about? After being emotionally blackmailed by his younger sister, a nameless protagonist spends days on end completing an otome game. He hates it: the characters are tropey and pretentious, the worldbuilding is a strange mix of sci-fi and high fantasy elements, and turn-based combat keeps interrupting the high society tea parties. Woe is he when he falls down the stairs and finds himself reincarnated into that very game world as Leon, an NPC. Can he survive this genre mish-mash—and maybe even thrive?

I’ll admit, this one got me: when I saw the title Trapped in a Dating Sim, I, much like our hero, expected more high society pretty boys and less robot fights. But maybe that was an unfounded assumption for both of us. Plenty of otome games have high-octane action and fantasy plots, with their romance routes just one part of rich and layered tapestries. Honestly, exploring the greater world of an otome game with a protagonist who isn’t engaged in the romance aspects, while poking affectionate fun at their dramatic genre conventions, could be kind of fun. I’m not sure that’s what this series is going for, though.

Right now, aside from some other stuff I’ll get into momentarily, the biggest thing souring the show is its contempt for the genre it’s meant to be playing in. I said it could be interesting for a series to affectionately poke fun at otome games’ wacky conventions, but there’s very little affection evident in this premiere. The show opens with the main character, our window into the world if not our audience surrogate, yelling about how much he hates dating sims and this one he’s playing in particular.

He’s only doing it because his little sister forced him to, threatening to tell their parents about “you know what” if he doesn’t get all the achievements for her. So… let’s see if we ever figure out what that means. In the meantime, we’re introduced to the world, characters, and mechanics of the game through Our Hero complaining relentlessly about them. Not really in a funny way either, though I can see how some of the exaggerated tropes or out-of-place battle mechanics were meant to give us a laugh. The tone this scene sets up is one of just cranky, vicious down-punching.

And yes, this could be the low point from which character development springs. Getting sucked into a genre you initially hate, or think is stupid or “for girls” or what have you, could be a great way to garner new appreciation for it. I’d like to think that’s a possible direction this could go, storytelling-wise. Planting a male protagonist into a genre usually associated with power fantasies for young women is a narrative device that could veer in many different directions.

The first episode doesn’t leave me mega-confident about the show’s future engagements with gendered roles and assumptions. Reincarnated as a boy named Leon in a low-rung noble family, Our Hero quickly realizes with horror that he’s ended up at the bottom of the food chain. A quick conversation with Leon’s brother tells us that “women have more power” in this world, and men don’t get much respect. The most use the sons of a family can be, especially the younger ones, is to marry well and assure the bloodline continues—or become “paramours” to noble women, if they’re of a certain class or race (in this case, elves or beast-men).

Which is a lot to unpack, for sure! I’m tentatively intrigued to see how the series will demonstrate this piece of worldbuilding as it goes on, as so far the only concrete evidence of it is that Leon’s noble stepmother is rude and mean and nasty to him. Which doesn’t particularly bode well for an interrogation of gender roles in a fantasy context.

While they’re not “bad worldbuilding” by default, it always does well to be wary of “social inequalities gone topsy-turvy” as a speculative aspect. Fantasy setups like “what if white people were oppressed instead of people of color?” or “what if it was illegal to be straight?” might sound like they’re posing philosophical quandaries that throw social biases into question, but often they just find ways, intentionally or otherwise, to hammer home real-world prejudices.

Case in point: a fantasy world where women hold the most political power that’s only used to justify casting women as unlikable villains who are so mean to the male protagonists doesn’t actually interrogate any power dynamics. At least I can be reassured that not all the women in the show are going to be like this: surely the otome game’s protagonist will be a lovely, likeable girl. She (and various other female characters) feature heavily in the ending credits even if Leon doesn’t meet them in this episode, so maybe that will lead to deeper explorations of this worldbuilding detail the show has just slapped on the table. Maybe it will lead to other, new and exciting problems. It remains to be seen.

Trapped in a Dating Sim offers some potentially interesting ideas but is helmed by a disagreeable protagonist and, through him, a general sense of disdain for the genre it’s supposedly inhabiting. This somewhat disjointed first episode leaves me morbidly curious but less-than-confident about where it’s going to take them.

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