I've just finished a game whose story left me changed. At times viscerally uncomfortable, at others touching, it was a story of filial love, coming-of-age, the fragility of childhood and the bleakness of mortality.
It's called Kana: Little Sister, and it's an incest-themed sex game.
Hentai games - also called bishoujo (pretty girl) games, eroge, dating sims or simply H-games - all look pretty similar from a distance: vacant-eyed beauties in the anime style, arrayed in succession across a click-through, tenuous storyline. They seem like just another opportunity to snicker at those wacky Japanese, not a medium in which you'd expect to find an immersive, gripping story.
The bad rap's not entirely unwarranted. H-games rely on genre-specific conventions - plastic rationalizations to permit fantasy scenarios that frequently approach the ridiculous, even the morally reprehensible. Starkly-drawn archetypes are the norm - the nymphomaniac stepmother, the shrinking violet, the school's Miss Popular or the uptight school teacher. Your protagonist - usually a reserved, serious type - has the opportunity to biblically know them each in succession, and after the veritable explosion of wild oats, will usually choose one as a mate for life in one of the multiple endings.
But ironically, perhaps a bit like reading Playboy for the articles, many fans claim to play these games for the stories. The majority of the time these games are click-through dialogue over still images and descriptive prose, with the occasional break to pick a plot branch (think Choose Your Own Adventure) that helps to decide which of your often rudely-used playthings has now become the love of your life.
It seems rather paradoxical: In a game full of superficiality, stereotype and cheap thrill, why do players need such elaborate storylines?
Could it be because sometimes, they're really good?
Kana: Little Sister is well-ensconced as a fan favorite among H-gamers. It was originally released in Japan in 1999, and G-Collections published an English-language version in 2002. It's the story of Takamichi Todo's relationship with his ill younger sister, Kana, beginning in childhood and spanning their lives. Kana is a frail, sweet child with an uncertain future who may not live to see adulthood due to a kidney disease, and as her big brother, the protagonist has the opportunity to become the de facto custodian of her remaining days.
But it's not as simple as that. Early in the game, the young Takamichi must wrangle with his resentment toward Kana, both because of her continual fragility and because of the attention her parents heap upon her. Throughout his maturation, he must cope with his own revulsion toward Kana's morbidity and his fear of loss to become the source of strength little Kana so desperately needs.
The extent of the role Takamichi will play in his sister's life is subject to the player's choices, though he's inextricably involved, and the confusing sexual urges he begins to feel toward vulnerable, dependent Kana are unavoidable. The urgent investment he develops in Kana's survival and her future normalcy and happiness may evolve into a physical relationship, even romantic love.
Though this may not sound like a recipe for erotic entertainment, the game pulls no punches in terms of the sexual elements. The taboo, both of incest and of Kana's inappropriate age, is eroticized. And while such a thing might seem surprising to genre outsiders, the juxtaposition of heavy human sex-and-death fundamentals with darker-edged taboo is par for the course in an H-game.
Many H-games contain characters that are underage, in fact. The laughable pains the writers take to suggest the characters are 18 are absurd, given your copious opportunity to view them in explicit anatomical detail. Incest is par for the course; the frustrated mother character and the bratty little sister are familiar H-game archetypes. Fetish behavior is to be expected, too; play through a few H-games, and you're likely to be educated in some practices so niche you didn't know they existed.
H-games give the player an imaginary sex life without consequences or judgment. It's easy to extrapolate that the anything-goes hyperbole is geared to satisfy players with predilections they can't act upon in real life. And it's easy to condemn the genre as a cheap thrill at best, with its often ludicrous stereotypes and absurd scenarios. At worst, with frequent themes of abuse and women who fall in love with their rapists, you could define them as misogynistic, even deranged.
But analyzing H-games by their simplest elements still doesn't explain why the storylines are rife with complexity and melodrama. A closer look at H-games reveals that, under the layer of obvious, high-school-girls-as-paper-dolls entertainment, human sexuality is not so easily extricated from human psychology.