What Desire: Haitoku no Rasen Showed Me About Storytelling, Game Design, and Myself
Content Warning: Contains spoilers if you haven’t played this game, I’d highly recommend at least one playthrough first which you can do for free via The Asenheim Project. Or just go full speed ahead, it’s up to you.
And while the screenshots and videos within are relatively tame and wouldn’t raise eyebrows if you’re reading this at work, there’s still going to be some sex talk so you might want to sit this one out if that makes you uncomfortable and you were hoping for more strictly Gamasutra type fare.
If you’re a game developer, especially an indie developer, you can end up seeing your own work in a vacuum by default. We think in terms of asset creation, flowcharts and dialog spreadsheets, finding the right talent and resources to help us bring it all to fruition, then sales figures and marketing strategy, and if people are talking about the game and daaaaamn it’s a lot.
We not only have to step outside of that vacuum, we also have to remember what made us want to make games in the first place. Because we’re looking at our own work, we over-analyze it to death. Is this line of dialog contrived, what’s going to land me this scathing review in Kotaku, are players going to be too disinterested in this part, that hair is three pixels off — sometimes we just have a hard time striking a balance between insurmountable perfectionism and getting shit done. We deliberate until the engine gets at least three updates, knowing someone isn’t going to like some design decision or another.
But when we make time to play games, be they new to us or revisiting inspiration of the past, we see the sum of all the assets, testing, notebooks full of doodles and plot ideas, beta testing, and assuming your game was made after 2010 — the inundating social media posts.
Sometimes that sum completely knocks you on your ass. As in you traversed this whole other plane then thought, “Could I possibly make something with this much impact?”
Rather than thinking solely in terms of all the buzz that could generate and all these moving parts: it’s about the sum, and that sum entails finding the balance between players and developers alike getting what they came from, then having their expectations reduced to smithereens.
Being a narrative-heavy game aficionado turned developer of similar fare, I initially stumbled onto The Asenheim Project earlier this year when I was writing about how Japan-native dating sims, visual novels, and their naughtier sibling, eroge, were groundbreaking genres that led to an onslaught of satirical dating sims decades after they initially delighted and inspired Western game devs. Seeing the vast selection of visual novels and dating sims on the site, some of which I’d heard of and played before, got me curious to try the ones I hadn’t. I eventually landed on Desire.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with games in these genres, here’s a quick lesson: eroge refers to games with erotic content, they may or may not have an intense story to go with them. Nukige is the kind of content explicitly designed to get off to. While dating sims and visual novels in the west are largely regarded as fare enjoyed by women, queer people, and other marginalized groups, the staple in Japan was bishojo games intended for young heterosexual men. That’s predominantly what comprised the JAST USA catalog which most game developers and narrative game enthusiasts stumbled upon by their early-mid twenties when PC gaming was going through that super awkward phase in the early aughts. Oh, I remember first opening True Love (Junai Monogatari) and my mind was blown because I’d never seen a game like it before, then oh dear god there’s hentai in my face.
Upon discovering other titles with sexual content like Three Sisters’ Story, where it plays out like a kinetic visual novel (meaning there are no alternate endings or major choices to be made) though it has branching characteristics (where you do have choices), it got me thinking about sex in games:
Do these sex scenes add to the story?
When, and how, is sex in a game gratuitous?
When is a digital portrayal of sex art, and when is it smut?
How much of the game’s premise does sex comprise?
Does sex in a game have to add to the story?
Sometimes, you can have the best story that was ever written but then it’s simply told in a totally disengaging manner. With Desire, I was expecting to see gratuitous sex because well, it’s up on The Asenheim Project with a 18+ warning and I’d seen the other titles on there.
But I was not expecting such a gripping story and better yet, for that story to cause me to have a laser focus on it without having branches, and possibilities.
Isn’t that what most movies, books, and TV encompass though? A story that keeps you enthralled and dying to know what happens next, what the characters’ motivations were, how soon plot holes will be closed, and then dishing about it with your friends?
With the devoted followings that modern game series like TellTale’s choose-your-own-adventure games and Choices have garnered, it’s obvious that story-based gameplay can attract an audience eager to play and talk about these games. “But how much of a market does a kinetic visual novel have outside of Japan with the 2020s imminent?” is a question I found myself asking as I’m looking at my own game in progress that, to date, takes up 17 tabs with about 3,000 lines each in a spreadsheet rich with branching dialog, endings, and possibilities.
Initially, Desire met some of my expectations despite the lush production values by early-mid 90s standards. We’ve got a clandestine research facility on a secluded island as our setting, and a horny cub reporter named Al is amidst a bunch of attractive women despite instantly telling us that he has a girlfriend, Makoto, who works there. Which partly explains how he was allowed on the secrecy-shrouded island to begin with, but I immediately was not drawn into the game at first because of this. “Oh, it’s going to be just like those games about horny schoolboys fucking their classmates and teachers, except it’s all grown up and maybe we’ll get a cool sci-fi subplot. Let’s strap in!”
It’s beautiful to be wrong sometimes.
Needless to say, Al’s antics and even downright misogyny at points were just barely the tip of the iceberg and I found myself in suspense for a whole week, having to play it all to the way to the end before I could go back to my clients and own game. But it turns out that you can have a totally engrossing interactive experience despite having a kinetic narrative device so long as it’s told in a manner that keeps the player at the edge of their seat.
Frequently, in branching narrative games, a problem that developers run into is thrashing the player with choice paralysis, or in some cases, uncanny agency. There’s definitely no choice paralysis here because you’re really not given any choices, other than places to explore on the map to try finding that next thing or person who’s going to move the story forward. Is uncanny agency at play in Desire though? Not really, since the player is aware it’s a kinetic story and they don’t have control over the outcome. Unlike in say, a game like Dream Daddy where your endings with each man you can pursue don’t really change provided that you attained a high enough heart level with them to unlock it. You are just given the illusion of choice in certain areas.
At my AdventureX talk in 2018, I got into how empathy can be cultivated in gameplay via horizontalism. The term is largely used in political organizing, but can come in handy for game design too! Namely in that when you think of game narratives vertically, it’s how long the story is and how expansive the game world is in turn. By taking a horizontal approach, you’re examining the same story and world through how that character experiences the world differently.
For some contrast where your choices will affect the gameplay, if not ending, Unavowed is an excellent example of this. You’re experiencing the same overarching narrative, but get to experience it differently depending on the profession your avatar has and which characters accompany you on missions.
Desire accomplishes this by Makoto’s perspective unlocking once you finish Al’s path. Interestingly, you gradually lose agency after Makoto tells her side of the story because Martina’s path opens and is pretty much nothing but clicking through the events while the epilogue, Tina’s chapter, is virtually all cutscenes that tie up (most of) the loose ends with the story.
But I just know you couldn’t WAIT for me to discuss all the parts with sex!
Holy toad tits. Where do I even BEGIN.
Al’s sex scenes met my expectations based on games like True Love, Runaway City, and Three Sisters Story. What I thought was interesting though was that the story was set up with Makoto being his girlfriend and he not only blatantly cheats on her, he shows no remorse for it: and better yet, the two never have sex. They barely even speak to each other throughout the entire game.
While multitudes of relationship dynamics in video games are now being discussed more lengthily than in decades prior, this is something that fascinates me as an avid gamer who was there in 1994 when this game first came out. There were so few representations of women to begin with, and it was rare that anything beyond “princess marries prince after third date, if even” or “fuck as many ladies as possible” was ever shown to the point that Leisure Suit Larry’s portrayal of women with sexual agency was pretty revolutionary (despite the series having problems of its own). But to have a relationship dynamic like this was just interesting to see in a game regardless of era, just especially so for the 90s given how young the medium was.
But once Makoto’s chapter began, that was when I truly found it impossible to step away from the game.
Maybe it’s just my perspective as a woman who was always dying to play as one in a game with erotic content, and virtually never saw that before. The closest example I can think of is Passionate Patti’s segment in the fifth Leisure Suit Larry game where she has the option to have sex with the recording engineer but it’s nowhere on the same level of detail as most eroge games. Most otome games (distaff counterpart to bishojo, that’s content by and for straight women) tend not to have explicit sex scenes. Most CG images barely go beyond a kiss, if even.
But that’s NOT the case here.
Right after Makoto’s chapter begins, the first sex scene we see is with…herself! She’s masturbating while fantasizing about her boyfriend and getting really into it.
While the CG art was still mostly meant for a male gaze, I found this to be groundbreaking because most media I consumed in the 90s virtually never discussed female masturbation. It was usually brought up in a very cringe-worthy manner where the woman in question felt mortified and/or ashamed. One of the most salient examples I recall was in American Pie where Tara Reid’s character Vicky is having a discussion with her friend played by Natasha Lyonne about being hesitant to have sex with her boyfriend Kevin, who’s starting to pressure her. The latter asks if she’s ever even had an orgasm by “double clicking your mouse” and states it’s no wonder she’s not excited about sex, as the former seems embarrassed by this.
But I felt slightly hoodwinked by this seemingly empowering intro because oh, there’s a great number of sex scenes up ahead. They’re mostly with the same guy and he sure as hell isn’t Al.
Makoto also has some sexytimes with a few ladies, and I love that neither man who’s ever been inside her becomes aware of this the entire game.
While the girl-on-girl scenes are utterly gratuitous and meant for men to get off to, it’s still noteworthy that it’s established Makoto had prior intimacy with Reiko as college roommates and they apparently did some experimentation back then. She also expresses some sexual attraction to Elena, the nurse, whose character didn’t seem to serve much purpose in the greater story as Gustav/Dr. Gates’ ex-wife who became a subject of his experiments. But most of all, you feel her grief when Reiko is assassinated and how she longs to be with her in a way that sounds like their relationship was more than just friends. It also makes you question whether Reiko telling Kyle to back off after your first sexual encounter with him was a sign of concern or jealousy.
Unlike Al, Makoto expresses regret and second thoughts for her sexual encounters on Desire. But there’s also a major point that some readers may find uncomfortable and if you haven’t played the game yet, may find triggering: Kyle’s over the top and horrific disregard for the word “no”.
Long before 50 Shades of Grey became an ubiquitous entry in our lexicon of media references, there was some shady dom portrayal in this visual novel. Ever since I did my first complete playthrough, I’ve been dying to find discussion of it in English ANYWHERE and didn’t have much luck until I came across this review from 2016.
I agree with the reviewer’s premise that it’s a fantastic sci-fi story and the production values are top-notch, but disagree that the sexual content takes away from all of it.
With that said, there’s PLENTY of wrongness in Kyle’s scenes as well as others. Consent is below the bottom of the barrel, for one. Kyle uses force to get what he wants from Makoto and I found the first few sex scenes incredibly troubling for this reason. While she does get into it and is having internal conflicts that she does find him attractive and wants to get into progressively kinkier sex acts with him, it’s very clear to see that this type of character could’ve done better.
Although I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the inside joke that spawned between a friend of mine who I showed the game to, because we were howling at some of the bad dialog. As in I think my next door neighbor called the cops because I was cackling like a fucking banshee on acid when this scene begins with music that sounds more appropriate for a fighting game than erotica, and Kyle delivers the line “Prepare to meet Mr. Meaty!” and I’m pretty sure I had an aneurysm at the batcave analogy.
I don’t know if this was the actual original dialog, or an intentionally flip translation as was infamous with True Love’s English localization.
However they were intended, the sex scenes in Desire actually do add to the story.
While a good number of the sex scenes were cringe-worthy, some were quite artfully done and as Makoto’s chapter went on, actually made me more interested. Because even if it seems all of the erotic content was just spuriously thrown in to pander to the audience interested in more thinly-veiled eroge and nukige content? The sex scenes DID add to the story.
The dubious consent with Kyle aside, whether her attraction to him swells out of manipulation or genuine love, Makoto goes from being shy and reserved to incredibly out there with her sexuality. This extends to her becoming more confident in other areas like the work she’s doing, and standing up for herself. Having gone through a similar transformation when I was 29, I found this easy to relate to. I can’t credit the man I was seeing at the time with every positive development I made, but he had opened me up sexually in ways that others hadn’t.
The sex scenes show that Makoto has become more comfortable with herself and is actually goddamn excited to take part in these licentious acts. She’s full of doubt and reservations at first, but then she’s thinking about Kyle and finds she likes being his sub. She questions whether she can be a bold and independent woman and like these types of sex acts, which is a struggle that several women have faced internally and externally after third-wave feminism.
Her internal conflicts aside, I found myself saying “Are you kidding?!” when once it’s been revealed that Kyle is the spy the whole island has been looking for, he tells Makoto he’s starting to fall in love with her. Genuine feelings or manipulation tactic? But it was nigh impossible not to get sucked in and start cheering for Makoto to take Kyle up on his offer to completely abandon Desire and start a new life with him. Which…she doesn’t get to.
While Makoto expresses remorse about her trysts, she also informs the player that what’s happened on Desire is not the first time Al cheated on her. So the two were perhaps not right for each other all along. What unfolds on Desire also unequivocally changes the both of them.
As for Al’s sex scenes, the only way they add to the story is that they’re showing the player that Al is a complex and not very likable character. But while he’s a cheater of the highest degree, it doesn’t make him any less of a hero for investigating the motives of Martina and the Foundation, and trying to save as many of the facility’s residents as possible when the shit hits the fan.
Rather, what I found the most troubling on par with the poorly-done consent was a scene where Makoto and Martina, a character known for displaying virtually no emotion, have a heart to heart talk and she expresses outrage that Al cheated on her. Martina states that if Makoto couldn’t love Al despite his flaws like philandering behavior, she doesn’t really love him. She then says that even if her husband held a knife to her neck, her love would be unwavering.
I was initially aghast at this scene. Once I got to Martina’s chapter, it made me break down in tears.
This is what I meant when I discussed horizontalism. Martina’s harsh life experience colored her worldview on things like self-expression and romance, and she clearly hates her husband Gustav/Dr. Gates with a passion but can’t bring herself to run away or find a way to end him. It’s hard to tell if it’s out of devotion to her research, or that he is literally impossible to escape and she can’t ponder life without him. He intentionally caused the death of their daughter in the name of research and is completely devoid of empathy or remorse, and it’s totally plausible that the abuse Martina endured for decades is what makes her so stoic.
Because forgetting to empty the dishwasher or being spotty with communication is a flaw. Cheating and threatening you with a knife are abusive and controlling behaviors which Martina unfortunately mistakes as love, based on her worldview. Since Makoto portrays the same “work above all” attitude as Martina, it causes the player to question whether Kyle is as irredeemable as Gustav, or if he’s got other desirable traits aside from his protectiveness, genuine interest in Makoto’s work and hobbies, and sexual prowess.
In searching for more context for Desire as well as other visual novels I’d played throughout time, I ended up falling down the rabbit hole over at Japan Powered. I would highly recommend the essays on this site because they’re extremely academic yet written in an accessible language, and the author does his best to be unbiased when talking about certain issues.
One of them that stood out to me and suddenly shed light on many games I played, this one included, was this piece about dating and marriage. Apparently, women are also expected to be stoic in the face of sexual violence and domestic abuse which could explain why Martina’s character is the way she is. No less, the fact that “like” and “love” are considered interchangeable made it clear that the abrupt ending to Makoto and Kyle’s story wasn’t an averted Third Date Marriage.
Desire showed me that games and humans are capable of being complex and sometimes unlikable with motivations that don’t always make sense. But in my quest for more knowledge about the game’s origin stories, I came across the most shocking thing of all.
I make games now. I’ve got one long title shipped to date as producer and then had to postpone two other projects I began due to technical scope issues, which led me to making my current game in Ren’Py. Since I’m telling a very American story, I don’t feel right using anime style graphics in it. Although seeing those baby-fine pixels depicting street scenes of Tokyo pulls at my heart just as much as VGA versions of Sierra games that brought me respite and put dreams in me.
As I tried to discover more about the creators of this game, one of the aspects that stood out to me the most was the soundtrack. For the visual novel and eroge sphere in particular, soundtracks often make or break the game but tend to not be on the memorable side. In Desire though, that music felt ALIVE. I was dying to learn more about the composer!
Sadly, he passed away in 2011 to a mysterious illness that seems to have stemmed from overwork. But as I read on about Ryu Umemoto in his memorian written by a close friend, I found myself most fascinated with this piece of information:
Despite their success, Kanno and Umemoto would soon find themselves in frustration over company directions and policies. While the games were highly regarded for their stories, the erotic content of the games were highly disputed internally.
Both Kanno and Umemoto were adamant that the intimacy between characters and depiction of such had a serious place in the video game industry, as they viewed it as a natural part of life and a tool which could be written to show motivation and character development.
Himeya Soft, however, was more concerned with meeting market demands and wanted the games to feature increasing amounts of sex, conflicting with both Kanno’s focus on character development and the sensuality of Umemoto’s music. Given the success of EVE and Desire, the duo took their chances and went freelance shortly after the release of EVE.
This fascinates the living shit out of me as an indie developer in America, a place where sex sells everything from toothpaste to tires yet our society is intensely puerile and backwards when it comes to discussion and media depictions. Because while you have gratuitous sexual content in many games these days, between distribution troubles and how people will react to the presence of sex in a game, it’s intensely difficult pitching that to a publisher. Indie developers may find themselves sanitizing their own work so that they don’t face an untenable loss of income from a game getting pulled due to content restrictions.
Change is slowly coming, emphasis on the slowly, but there’s a reason why and how Japanese eroge games wound up developing such a niche in America to begin with then wound up inspiring a whole other generation of developers.
No less, with a handful of erotic game developers in the states who were held back by the ESRB’s “AO” rating which was retail suicide back in the day, and the rising number of indie game developers making sexual content for statements and getting off to? It’s just fascinating that Himeya Soft wanted to go beyond making an eroge game that was just better than the other games out there, and have an engaging story to go with it. Eve Burst Error and Desire were mega-hits in Japan, but in my frenzied discussion of these games online and offline, it’s been difficult to discern how much of a hit they were in the US.
After I ended Desire with Tina’s prayer for happiness, it filled me with a resolve to make the best batshit crazy branching narrative game that I possibly can, with my fingerprint on it and both my work and that of my incredible dev team is going to make an impact in some way.
Maybe It’s Different When It’s Your Own will get essays like this dedicated to it, maybe it won’t. I only hope I can inspire the next indie developer who’s unafraid to mesh sex and storytelling to make what they want to make.