Japanese Romance Apps Hit the U.S., and They're Amazing

Cosplayers pose for photos at Voltage's Anime Expo booth.
Cosplayers pose for photos at Voltage's Anime Expo booth.
Liz Ohanesian

Tucked inside the exhibit hall at Anime Expo was a small, pink booth. Inside, there were two cosplayers standing under soft lighting as people queued up to take photos with them. The guy with the fox ears and long, blonde hair is supposed to be Miyabi, a lead character in the new romance app, Enchanted in the Moonlight.

Games like this — more choose-your-own adventure story than conventional video game — have a history of popularity in Japan. Voltage, the company behind Enchanted in the Moonlight, has released 50 titles in Japanese and has 22 million users in its home country. The company hasn't been in the U.S. for very long — its San Francisco office opened in 2012 — but it's steadily increasing its presence here, and has 18 U.S. titles under its belt. This past weekend marked the company's first appearance at Anime Expo, a destination for all sorts of media emanating from Japan.

Inside the booth, a Voltage rep talks me through the demo for Enchanted in the Moonlight. We're using an iPad. Every tap on the screen moves the story forward. Dialogue pops up under scenes that are drawn in a way that resembles manga and anime. Every now and then, a multiple choice question appears. I have to select the protagonist's reaction.

When I start playing the app, the story is still in progress. I point to a sad looking man on the screen. "So, that's the nice guy who likes the girl, but she chose the jerk instead?" I ask the rep. He nods. The romantic lead, Miyabi, is a real piece of work. He's egotistical and possessive. I decide that I hate him and realize that I'm getting sucked into this world. I ask the rep if I can give this story a horrible ending. He says yes. I like this game even more. I start playing it on my iPhone when I get home from the convention that evening.

Screen shot of Enchanted in the Moonlight.
Screen shot of Enchanted in the Moonlight.

Enchanted in the Moonlight follows a story that's more or less typical for the genre. You play as a female character who takes on the name you give in the beginning of the game. You could use your own name. I don't. The story is told from the first-person perspective of the character you essentially play. She's an ordinary woman who works at a library. She's too busy for much of a social life, let alone one that includes dating. Her ordinary life, though, is changing. She's attracting a string of both hot guys and near-deadly accidents.

(This part is spoiler-ish.) It turns out that Anne isn't quite so normal. She has some special, supernatural gifts that are coming to light. Because of that, a few demons want to kill her. Some other demons— the really good looking ones— are willing to protector her. There's a catch, though. If she wants protection, she has to spawn a super human/demon baby with one of them. Your character will get to choose which attractive demon will be her protector/future baby daddy. Since the game is new, there are currently only two options: Miyabi, the obnoxious fox demon, or Chikage, an aloof "black -winged demon."

Voltage is co-founded by Yuji Tsutani and Nana Higashi, a married couple. We speak at the booth, partially through a translator. Higashi explains that they're basically updating the concept of romance entertainment for the smartphone age. Before, she says, women relied on television and books to get their dose of love stories. Now, they can get that on their phones.

Tsutani says that their work is related to manga that's created for women. I can see the resemblance as I go through a few different apps. It goes beyond the similar art style, where men are drawn with lanky bodies, angular faces and fantastic hair styles. There's a common trope in manga where one girl is surrounded by a bunch of really good looking guys, all of whom are vying for her attention. Each one will fall into a distinct personality type. There's the arrogant ladies man, the smart guy, the screw-up, etc. Romance apps follow a similar format. The difference is that you actually get to pick out your character's match.

Enchanted in the Moonlight is a supernatural story, but other Voltage apps take different turns. In Serendipity Next Door, a woman lives in an apartment building inhabited by potential love interests. When I played, I picked out the rock star who fails at normal life skills. So far, it reads more like a romantic comedy. Another app, In Your Arms Tonight, is about a newlywed woman who finds out her husband is cheating at the same time she encounters several other men who express an interest in her.

Romance apps can be addictive in the way that soap operas are. You might not like the characters. You may hate the twists that the story takes, but once you're in the midst of the game world, it's hard to put down the phone. The urge to find out what happens next is undeniable and the idea that you have a little bit of control over the story's outcome makes it more exciting.

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