I really want to talk about a game that took a genre that I already shamefully enjoy and turned it into something really inspirational. I want to talk about Arcade Spirits. This game said “yeah, let’s take a dating sim visual novel and make it something more–something that can drive home a message”, and it did it really well. It had me cycling through a range of motions, shedding tears, gasping with shock, and laughing with joy. But let’s break it down a little bit, or I’ll just stream-of-consciousness gush about it.
First of all, the character creation is very inclusive. The only thing it really shoe-horns you into is being an able-bodied individual. Other than that, you customize how your person looks and the pronouns they use (she/her, he/him/ they/them). As someone who is always looking at cis character creation I always think to myself “uhh uhh, I have boobs, so the female LOOKS more like me technically, but it’s not how I feel, and I hate those pronouns… what do I do?!” It’s a bit of a teeth-grinder, especially if anyone is going to look at my character and invariably have commentary like “I knew you would choose the girl” or “Oh why did you want to be the guy?” I can’t win. This game let me win. I got to look androgynous and have they/them pronouns, a nonbinary dream.
Another thing I thought was amazing was they seemed to include ace/aro players as well. I cannot speak to that inclusion, but they definitely invited you to say if you were interested in having romantic options, or if you wanted to keep it strictly platonic. Even though I didn’t need the choice, having it there felt really personal and made me feel as though I was getting the best experience I could.
The Game Mechanics
The game’s plot revolves around the protagonist–you–needing a dream job after a series of failures. Your best friend and roommate hooks you up with this cool futuristic AI that can help you with this decision based on you as a person, and of course it gets a feel for you based on how you talk to people. Now, what I loved about this was that it says “here are the different personality traits you build up based on responses–do you want to know what responses correspond with what traits, or do you want to let it be natural?” The game actually tells you, “I know you can game this. You know you can game this. Do you want to?” I, of course, told it to hide the corresponding traits. I really enjoyed that at the end of every chapter it would tally everything up and tell me what kind of person I am. By the way, I’m mostly full of heart and compassion, but I’m also spunky with kickass answers. Honestly, the latter half is because I was trying to appeal to my chosen girlfriend.
Most of these dating sim type games have characters with one note. The zany one, who ONLY says goofy things. The artsy one who, no matter what, has paint on them and is talking about drawing something. The serious one who never EVER lets loose and that is their fatal flaw. It’s a little bit (or a lot a bit) dull. These characters are really rounded out. Sure, you have those sort of characterizations–the serious character IS always talking about numbers and following rules, but he also lets loose and plays pinball. He also spends the game trying to balance the need to face reality and temper it with having dreams and protecting other peoples’ dreams. The nerdy game-centric girl is always trying to protect retro game consoles and fix things, but she also loves to cook and is interested in Japanese culture–plus, she recognizes that in order to have a video arcade wonderland you have to have the ability to pay for things. These rounded characters beautifully compliment each other in ways that make them really come to life. I really cared about these people, and in the end when it summed up whether we kept in touch or not, I was really sad about the people I had drifted away from. It felt really tangible, and left lasting emotions I carried with me.
I found that the story actually followed the traditional eb-and-flow of a traditional tale. The protagonist starts with nothing and is given a rare but valuable chance. They fumble at first but slowly get the hang of it. There’s a challenge and they face it and overcome it. Everything feels perfect, like they are at the end of a happy-yet-dull story. Then tragedy strikes and they come crashing down. The protagonist’s friends rally them and they rise even higher, just for another, harder strike. Finally, they build up to a big finale and it’s make-it-or-break-it. Does the protagonist’s dreams come true? Or does the villain reign supreme? You actually have the chance to mess up in the end. Throughout the whole game I’m saving like a maniac because I have this fear I’m going to make someone hate me, but it’s really hard to mess up, you just end up taking a different path. But the final chapter you definitely can and they warn you of it. My first time through I made it by the skin of my teeth. It was incredible, it really felt like a true victory.
I DID mention that this is a dating sim. You definitely have the opportunity to woo some of these hotties, and boy did I enjoy that. You can start flirting with a character when you first meet him or her (everyone here has binary pronouns). From there you occasionally get a flirty option with them, but you also just generally build up your friendship by spending time with them and doing things that they like. They have one or two personality traits they value above all so the more choices you make that line up with that, and the more your personality lines up with theirs, the more likely they are to like you. There are a couple of opportunities to sneak in a “we’re just friends” or “we are going on a date” statements to people when you are hanging out with them, so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested. I also found that it doesn’t seem to matter how many people you woo in the beginning–you can flirt around all you like. To be fair, I only flirted with two characters, but once I made the decision to date QueenBee it locked me out of Naomi’s flirtiness tree with no hard feelings anywhere.
A couple of things I found really cool:
First: My relationship wasn’t easy or smooth at all. It was rocky. QueenBee is a really strong personality, and we almost broke up. It was really hard, and I really felt that tension. They don’t let you off the hook, either, with immersion-breaking dialogue like everything is okay just because it’s related to the plot. No, there are moments when you have to rely on your friends while you’re in a tough romantic spot and you have to say “Look, I know we have a lot to sort out but I need your help right now.” I feel like it really demonstrated a really healthy but difficult handling of a relationship in a way that most people don’t usually experience.
Second: I was a little bit wary about being nonbinary trying to date in this game. I was wondering how they would handle gender and gender presentation. It never flat-out asks “what genitals do you have?” but there’s always a sort of assumption that she/her pronouns means you don’t have a stick and berries. In games where relationships and dating are a possibility, though, I always feel a little frustrated when all of the characters are pansexual. I also hate it when I’m only locked to straight relationships. What I found interesting was the game seems to help you out with this. Let me explain.
Remember how I told you earlier that you have this little AI in your pocket that monitors your traits? She’s the one that tells you who you’re most compatible with. While talking to her about it, I said “What if they don’t swing that way or like me like that?” Being given that dialogue option I knew I had to ask it. I was shocked when she said something along the lines of “Don’t you think I already thought of that? I wouldn’t be matching you up with someone incompatible.” I can’t say for sure, but it makes me wonder if the characters do have sexualities that you can’t breach. I tried looking around on Google but it seems there is very little in the way of guides for this game.
I know I’ve done a lot of upselling of this game, and I swear to you they didn’t give me money for it, but I really wanted to emphasize that this game really gave me good feelings. Arcade Spirits talks about dreams and finding a balance in the world. It’s beautiful and gives me warm-fuzzies and makes me want to come back for more. If you want something to relax and just play and feel like you have digital friends, I’d highly recommend this game.