Iyashi, 癒やし, stands for healing. It is a rather non-standard game genre that some Japanese small-time developers have been bringing up to the surface at Comiket and sites like DLSite. There isn’t any official description for it, which is why so many lump it with Visual Novels due to its connections with the media format, but in reality it’d be more accurate to describe Healing games as Dating sims. Most might remember how Dating sim wasa term attached to many, if not all visual novels in the 1990’s because the gameplay and aim was to date when the play mechanics were broken down. Nowadays this doesn’t apply, so many VNs are static novels or route selections over managing stats and events. A VN fan might object to this, but VNs lack interactivity a Healing title must have.
To break down the overall play elements and setting, there are few rules that can be observed in these titles. First one is that even that the player is always inserted as the playing character. Characters, events and everything are directed to him, he is never second tier character or otherwise put in the background. The only time things stop, so to speak, is when the player simple wants to take in the atmosphere.
That would be the second; the atmosphere should be relaxing, non-confrontational and serve to ease out stress both with characters, events and design. Colours, music, characters, even shapes, should somehow reflect the idea of comfort and relaxation to some degrees. You could even say that all this should help for the player to escape harsh reality for the time being, which is part of the whole Healing thing. Nothing is pressing you on in these games, you do your pace and relax. There’s no need to be a control god or execution master. Slow pace, a slow burn, is inherent in the genre as one of is main pillars of design. While fast-paced action games can offer a rush and the high feeling you get after a successful play session and puzzle games can give you a large satisfaction after solving numerous hard puzzles that made your head hurt, Healing games really are about taking a break from the hectic everyday life.
Third element would be some level of simulation, which varies from simple route selections like with VNs, but at their most robust includes deciding character clothing, planning events, managing stats or Action Points via dedicated selections and most importantly, simulation of relationship. This relationship can be either with just someone close, but more often the idea dating and being with lover are used in order to convey the whole feeling of companionship and that someone is there with you. This where the whole aspect of sex comes in, and the reason most of Healing genre is R-18. Not that this should be any surprise, sex in itself is an important part of a romantic and intimate relationship, and simulating it somehow is part of Healing. After all, getting your rocks off is one way to relax.
Fourth is sometimes used, sometimes isn’t, but never-ending play has become more common with time, and this element is why the genre has crept itself into my interest (regarding the blog.) While some titles simply present VN-like direct path from start to end with some deviation, the more popular Healing games that are on the surface, including the Kickstarter I’ve mentioned constantly to the point of detriment, have no end. This means that the game usually has a day-night cycle and the player has to manage points to engage with certain actions that trigger certain events. Depending on the title, only certain amount of actions can be taken and the player has to decide which actions they go for. Some might advance the relationship, some might increase stats, some might open new options later down the line and sometimes you have to forgo doing any action to save action points for later cycle.
An intentionally endless game has to have large amount of unique content. Most of it also has to be behind some sort of barrier, where the player must make correct choices on the long run, and trial error doesn’t really end up in the game ending, just having that cycle end. This also makes the games somewhat repetitious, but unlike with most other games, or VNs, the intention of Healing games is not mass consumption in one go. Instead, the player should simmer in the atmosphere, take in the relaxing feeling and play these games little by little without any hurrying. This isn’t to cover game’s short length or the like, but is part of the whole healing thing that the genre is all about. Certainly, there might be a storyline that continues onward slowly but surely, like with 1room Runway Girl, or it might be largely static like with Konko. While 1room encourages player to slowly move and make the in-game life better slowly but surely, Konko on the other hand offers truckloads of unlockable content in form of clothing, accessories and event variations. While both of these titles aim for rather lengthy experience, especially if you only play a cycle or two per day, or do a cycle once per day, the other option would of course aim for a short burst of play.
Seismic’s Wolf Girl With You offers only three scenarios each cycle that have some slight variations to them, meaning that you’ll probably see them all in an hour if you just blow through them. However, this is a case of quality over quantity, as the game is fully voiced with all actions animated. The title took long-ass time to be developed, and promptly shot to #1 spot in DLSite sales and stayed there for a good damn time. Its delays and constant jokes of never happening made it popular among image board users, and is a rare case of game not failing expectations.
Seismic’s intention with this title, with all of his titles, is to convey the feeling of being together with someone, a homely feel with a girlfriend. While others succeed in this better than others, this is his intention, which probably explains why most of his titles are well received, though he has fully admitted that he wants to create original work next without resorting to existing characters. All these he has stated on his Youtube channel, where he sometimes streams his fish tanks or Street Fighter, of which he has few.
Perhaps that sort of approach is common with most of Healing games. It certainly reflects some of modern society, where there is a split between the sexes and certain interests and positions are simply scoffed at or outright disliked. While some would argue that Healing games are nothing but pathetic escapism for people who can’t get a real girlfriend, the issues why these titles exist much deeper than that. Then you have the issue of sexual depiction, to which some will have strong opinions on. If things continue as they are now in the global society at large, or worsen, it would not be impossible for Healing as a genre to find new venues and ways to push the genre forwards as the emotional gap between sexes become larger. That is where the interest regarding this blog lies; How do you design and develop a game with no end and yet have enough content for long-term play? Do you have that plot that runs alongside with each proper decision per cycle, do you insert lots and lots of collectables that require certain actions under hard limits, or do you simply ignore that and embrace repetition with quality?
Considering how limited budget most of these doujinshi (homebrew, indie, pick your poison) titles often have, things like full voice acting must make a large dent on resources. Then you have production of unique assets, most of which you probably can’t recycle all that easily outside recolors. Static images are always an easy way, though the more detail and time is put into them, the less images there will be, which might also mean planned content might be cut. While DLC and other forms of additional content are possible and even enacted (Konko for example added new pieces of clothing and content via updates) the base idea of leading the player along would go against the genre’s own intention and approach.
Setting itself of course would need to be carefully considered. Some would like a full blown fantasy setting, while others might want to the complete opposite with mundane life. Everyday home life or reliving best years seems to be the most popular setting, but considering school years before work seem to be the ideal time for Japanese, it’s not exactly hard to see why most things set in that period of life. Perhaps you could separate from this setting and have the player character set in adult life with an adult counterpart character. Maybe even have an option to choose when starting the game, but as mentioned, the more work there is, the more resources it takes.
While making a Healing game is relatively simple in terms of aim and concept, God lives in the details. With pretty much everything having to have some weight and be of worth, there’s not much free space to move around if something doesn’t work or just fails. It has to be fixed, it just can’t be one of the weaker parts of the game. Sure, there will always be something that doesn’t measure up to the rest, but with games with this relatively low amount of total content all that just has to matter and have the designed impact. An Action game can afford to have a stage with low quality design here and there, it’s passed through quick, and a RPG can have some bad sections that drag for a bit. A Healing game, not so much. It’s the slow burn nature that has to be dealt with some proper quality.
Looking back at the genre’s history, it has spun off from games like Princess Maker and other life/relationship simulations that were also counted as part of the whole Dating simulator label. However, Healing has been part of Japanese audio drama scene for much longer, again mostly produced by independent groups. Even Konko has two audio dramas that’s mostly about everyday healing, with some few more intimate scenes to boot.
Audio dramas are still damn popular in Japan. Most popular, even less popular franchises, get an audio drama or two. Healing is easier to do in audio format. In principle it just needs someone to talk nice things into the listener’s ears, but that’s of course simplifying things to a fault. Some are as long as three hours from what I’ve seen, and that must take serious writing, pre-planning and multiple recording sessions. Props to these people who are working on things they love.
What’s the point really? I hear Jacksie asking. Some relax with beer, others at the gym. Some play hard games until their eyes bleed and others simple want something comfortable. It doesn’t, and sometimes shouldn’t, be real but something they can take individual, personal solace in. Introverts tend to be able to charge when they’re alone, but even then human is a pack animal. Offering some form of virtual interaction might just scratch that itch other people can’t. A good possibility to consider how expansive a game for that purpose could be.