[ I wrote the article below for Wireframe, a British game dev magazine which ‘lifts the lid on video games’. And, inexplicably, lets me have a monthly column. This one’s from Issue #21, in August 2019. ]
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gamer in possession of even a few RPGs, visual novels or Nintendo titles is likely in love with Japan. Our industry’s long-standing Japanophilia seems alive and well: Pokemon remains king with Sword and Shield, Octopath Traveller was a resounding success, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has its own otaku crowd, and the fabled Shenmue 3 has become the stuff of legend. But there’s one Japanese genre that’s strangely absent. Where are our magical girls?
Marvel knocks out superhero films like there’s no tomorrow, and they seem increasingly happy to court a female-centric audience with films like Wonderwoman and Dark Phoenix. My Little Pony rages on in nerd subculture, famous enough for a reference in Stranger Things 3. Roblox, one of the largest platforms for young gamers, features a galactic quantity of purchasable jewellery, glitter-wings, tiaras, magic wands and dresses with five different skirts, all of which tell me that girls’ interest in magical girls, even in the west, is extremely healthy. But while western games feature more female protagonists than ever before, and while magical girl IPs like Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura remain popular in our hemisphere, we appear to need more than a Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss to interest western game developers. And yes, that is a real attack.
The two blockers for western magical girl games that I can see are, firstly, the primary and perhaps exclusionary focus on women and girls, and secondly, the intense, ineffable Japanese-ness of it all. The latter is something the games industry has historically overcome. Parappa the Rapper was totally nuts. Katamari Damacy had some of the most surreal moments I’ve ever seen in games. Phoenix Wright continues to sell while also stupefying with its un-western rhythms and tropes. So yes, a magical girl game is going to be niche, but if it’s ‘niche’ in the same way as, say, Doki Doki Literature Club, there’s definitely some money not being made.
This leads me to conclude it’s the hyperfemininity which puts people off. If you’re not interested in make-up, accessories, jewels and a whole load of the colour pink, magical girls are probably not for you. And this isn’t what western feminism is. The female protagonists we see portrayed are strong, independent women who start out as Dora the Explorer and end up as Jean Grey. They don’t come from the moon, they don’t have a little sceptre with a heart on it, they don’t fight magical evil with an animal companion that can inexplicably speak, and they are almost never a princess. Our female protagonists usually do what the men do: fight crime. Drink. Wear leather. They tend not to overcome their Aristotelian crises by leaning into the girlish side of femininity, like Reese Witherspoon did in Legally Blonde.
I wonder if this is some infancy in our culture, if in a century’s time we’ll be comfortable enough with femininity to lean into pinkness rather than away from it when we style our feminist icons. Either way, it’s strange that games seem so disinterested in the genre, when they’re happily making and buying anime games, superhero spin-offs and what I can only call ‘tragical’ girl games like Lollipop Chainsaw.
There’s no shortage of cutsey, wholesome and magical games out there, and perhaps the culture gap is just too large to broach. But if you’re reading this and thinking, hm, if only there were a market yet uncatered for in this cluttered indiepocalypse… My dev, do I have a genre for you.