Oh my god, you guys. I’ve been waiting to bring this team and their amazing game to your attention, and now the time has come and I have no idea how to coherently put my thoughts on virtual paper in a way that isn’t me just shrieking in delight. Mirroring my descent back into the genre, the fine folk at Illus Seed recently released their first game—an otome game—that plunged me straight into feels hell and left me wishing on every star for more.
With the successful funding of Asagao Academy: Normal Boots Club, writer Cara Hillstock and artist Danielle (perhaps better known as Unicornism online) decided to band together to form Illus Seed, an indie studio which wants to emphasize the importance of choice in their games. Their mission statement is more eloquent than I could ever put it:
Illus Seed is based on the philosophy of choice. Although it isn’t often reflected well in games, in life you are constantly making choices that impact your future, often in ways you can never see. We navigate these choices based on emotion, logic, past experience, behavior, projected outcome, and our beliefs and values. Unfortunately, we rarely get a chance to test the consequences of adhering to our values in different situations, and these values can often conflict — should you be honest to your friend, or lie to save his feelings?
Illus Seed aims to examine the illusions we weave throughout our every day reality. Perhaps one of our games will plant the seed required for you to make a choice, make a decision, or see things differently.
This desire couldn’t come through more clearly in their first release, the aforementioned Asagao Academy.
Right here is the portion of the post where I say under normal circumstances I do not support shipping real people—it’s kind of fucked up. And so if Asagao Academy turns you off because it stars several real life gaming YouTubers (of Normal Boots and Hidden Block fame), I can understand. However, what pushes this into not-creepy territory for me is that every YouTuber involved, along with their significant other if they have one, approved of this project. Indeed, each character is actually voiced by their respective YouTuber. In fact, everyone involved with this project seems to absolutely adore it. I can’t tell you how many streams and YouTube videos I’ve watched with the YouTubers gushing over how much they enjoy the game and appreciate what’s been made.
Now that that’s out of the way, Asagao Academy follows the story of Hana Mizuno, a transfer student who has just been accepted to the academy via scholarship. Nervous and suffering from the trauma of some past event, Hana fears that she may never fit in at Asagao. However, her fears are momentarily soothed by the presence of her roommate Mai Sasaki—a bubbly girl who doesn’t always think about the consequences of her actions. Though Hana and Mai become fast friends, Hana sees one route to never being picked on in school again: befriending the extremely popular Normal Boots club. While she weaves her way through the social intricacies of high school life, Hana must balance preparing for a video game tournament while also wooing/dating one of the Normal Boots boys—or their in-game personifications—alongside regular schoolwork and exams. (And the prom is tomorrow! No—kidding, kidding.)
For their first game, Illus Seed has created something incredible: not only a game, but an entire community. The game itself exhibits fantastic art, music, and writing that was way better than I anticipated. The characters are tropey and fantastic (it’s the kind of thing you want from a good, fluffy otome game), and the game has no trouble breaking the fourth wall and pointing out the ridiculousness of a dating sim taking place in Japan starring a bunch of mostly white, American characters. In terms of appropriation, I think Illus Seed managed to avoid it for the most part. Placing it in Japan, to me, felt more like a way to emphasize the tropes and increase the ridiculousness of the situation, but the Japanese culture itself isn’t used as a prop to add a sense of “foreignness” to the story. The characters native to Japan point out the “whiteness” of the boys when applicable, and the one character whose arc is about being an embodiment of the Japanese traditional arts is canonically (but not in real life) half-Japanese and struggles in part due to his mixed race.
While some of the the game’s aspects are less than perfect—mechanically speaking and in regards to representation—I really only have one true complaint. Whereas Asagao makes a point to emphasize that people in its universe can have same-gender attraction, and there is no homophobia, no one is explicitly shown as being in a non-straight relationship. This could have been helped by one thing: Mai. Why. Can’t. I. Date. Mai? This is a sin and should be rectified immediately.
This being Illus Seed’s first game, I literally cannot wait to see what they come up with next. Seriously. I’m already one step away from refreshing their homepage every day to see if the next game is out yet. They’ve made an impact on me, and so many others, and I really do have to thank them. So I implore you, please check out their site here, their Twitter here, and the game page for Asagao Academy here. The game is free to download and play, and with seven routes (plus two hidden routes), each a sizable length, you’re getting one hell of a deal. And if you can donate to them, please do so (available on their itch.io page or their “about” page on Illus Seed’s home site). They really do deserve it.