Tess Young & Geek remix
April 1, 2018

Disclosure: I back Tess Young, one of the creators of Pairanormal, on Patreon. In fact, I backed her because I heard about Pairanormal!

Developers and publishers took to April Fools Day with aplomb; there were stories about a Pokemon Go version of Final Fantasy XIV, Street Fighter digital card games, and Horizon Zero Dawn body pillows. Alongside this was a common joke: “MAINSTREAM GAME, but dating sim,” the implication being that this is a laughable idea. News articles promised dating sims for Mega Man, Dragon Ball Z Dokkan Battle, and Let it Die, among others. War for the Overworld, an RTS, actually created a playable version called Dungeon Hearts. I, like many others, thought “Yeah, but seriously: I want these.”

However, on April 1st, 2018, a new dating sim/mystery game launched for real: Pairanormal. Creator Tess Young stated on Patreon that Chapter 1 was available in what was described as a “not feature complete” mode, but with a large amount of bug fixes having been applied. Bug-squishing continued over the next few days, with Pairanormal v1.2 released on April 3rd, 2018.

When Chapter 1 was initially released, I debated playing it versus waiting for the “feature complete” version. First impressions stick with me, and I didn’t want my judgement unfairly affected due to some teething problems. However, I decided to plunge in as several bugs had already been identified and dealt with. During my playthrough, I experienced one bug where the game crashed after clicking on an item, and when I restarted it from the last save point, my name had been changed to the default. This bug, which has since been fixed, took me a little out of the experience, but didn’t affect my impression of the game overall.

Technical problems aside, I found Pairanormal to be an absolute delight. The premise is simple: You are a new high school student, cajoled into joining an after school club. So far, so average. However, there are a few things that set the game apart. For one, the club you’ve joined is focused on investigating the paranormal, and, as Mari (the club’s president) rather adorably points out, possibly dating these supernatural creatures.

Pairanormal, Tess Young & Geek Remix, 2018

Pairanormal, Tess Young & Geek Remix, 2018

The other thing that marks this out is that the characters are based on real people involved in video games. Youtubers Mari and Stacy of Geek Remix became involved in the project after Tess Young made some animated shorts of their Let’s Play conversations, then approached them about creating a dating sim which would feature them as characters. Cue Mari and Stacy then getting others involved, including Manga Minx, HoodiePanda, Todd Schlickbernd (who has moved away from YouTube to focus on video producing, editing, and podcasting) and Laura Kate Dale, AKA LauraKBuzz, a prolific journalist and podcaster as well as News Editor at Kotaku UK.

They serve as inspiration for the game characters but, as the game makes clear in one of its first screens, they are not exact representations of their IRL counterparts. This helps to establish a firm boundary with the player: no, you are not dating the people the characters are based on, so scratch that idea right now. I must admit, however, that I was concerned this would be an issue. I have followed the work of Laura Kate Dale for several years and wondered how weirdly personal this game might suddenly feel.

Pairanormal, Tess Young & Geek Remix, 2018

Thankfully, the writing and characterisation quickly overcame this. Though there is no voice acting, each character’s text is accompanied by a different dialogue sound, which allows for some non-verbal expression of tone. The writing itself establishes parts of each character’s personality, be it Laura’s quiet friendliness or Mari’s excitable enthusiasm.

Pairanormal’s format follows the standard static background of dating sim, with character profiles in the foreground and lines of text moving the story along. However, it eschews the anime style seen in many other games, opting instead for a different illustrative style that visually distinguishes it from other dating sims. Each character has an animation loop, rather than being static profiles; add to this the expressive faces and postures, and it gives the characters an energy and individuality sometimes lacking in other games in this genre.

Pairanormal, Tess Young & Geek Remix, 2018

This is Chapter 1, so some time is spent introducing the player to each character. To help, there is an investigation element, where the player clicks on various items and asks each character about them, thus developing a sense of who these characters are. It’s a mechanic that works surprisingly well to establish emotional relationships; rather than seeing them as achievements to be unlocked, the game helps them to grow organically by allowing the player to become invested in the characters’ stories.

So far, it appears your potential dates are human-only, despite Mari’s enthusiastic pursuit of supernatural romance. The game is focused around potentially dating a member of your club (and at least one other character whose role I won’t spoil). You get to chat and learn more about Mari, Stacy, Brett, Laura, Michelle (members of the Paranormal Club) and Todd (whose role I won’t spoil) during this first chapter, and the intended design is romancing one person at a time rather than having several relationships at once due to the amount of work involved in doing this.

Pairanormal, Tess Young & Geek Remix, 2018

However, not much progresses beyond these initial flirtations. This feels partly a result of the episodic nature of the game, but Pairanormal is also a mystery game. In Chapter 1, a large section of the narrative is spent establishing the characters as well as teasing details about the mystery at hand.

What surprised me most was just how touching the story was. It is a mystery focused on romance, but amongst that is a strong emphasis on friendship as a salve to loneliness. The music is an enjoyable and standout element, helping to underscore moments of humour, vulnerability, or general eeriness. It complements the writing, making emotional scenes that much more affecting.

As only Chapter 1 has been released thus far, I cannot say for definite whether the same standard will be maintained throughout the rest of the game. However, everything from this chapter is a good indicator that it will. A great deal of care has been taken with the creation of this game, from the characterisation and the story’s depth, to practical considerations like having different font options and communicating regularly on bug fixes.

Over the last few years, dating sim visual novel games have become increasingly subversive, throwing off some expectations (e.g. that the player is a heterosexual, cis male, that anime-style graphics should be used, etc) to become more inclusive. Pairanormal has this ethos at heart, asking the player to form emotional connections with a refreshingly varied cast of characters. This makes for a rewarding and intriguing experience, and one in line with a new tradition in dating sim games: creating stories and relationships the player is actually invested in.