Turns out, it's hard work being a virtual girlfriend

Romance in games has become commonplace. In the M-rated RPG space populated by hits like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Witcher 3, it's assumed that there'll be some component that lets you strike up conversation, bond, and eventually have sex with a partner of your choosing. Dating sims have offered this same kind of virtual companionship for years - but these games have long been relegated to a small niche, given that they typically revolve around long (often adults-only) conversations in lieu of world-saving heroics. And even with their lower budgets and higher associations with a playerbase that's stereotyped as being socially inept, some dating sims attempt a feat that games like Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and The Witcher have yet to tackle: the sensation that you, the player - not your custom avatar or focus-tested hero - have made an emotional connection with a fictitious admirer.

But that kind of enthrallment can only be possible when the game and the player both commit to the suspension of disbelief. You need to invest yourself into the experience via your only form of input - dialogue choices - picking the selections that match your gut instinct (or the person you wish you were). And your enjoyment is derived from the game's output: believable responses, ideally in audible form. Given that most games in the genre are made in Japan, it's unlikely that an English-speaking fan would be able to understand their virtual sweetheart without subtitles, but HuniePop is a rarity that defies dating sim convention. Born from Kickstarter, developed by a small western studio, and driven by match-3 puzzle gameplay, it also just so happens to feature dialogue fully voiced in English.

Granted, this is a game that opens with a magical love fairy named Kyu pledging to help you amp up your swagger (be you a guy or a girl). You can date up to 12 different women simultaneously (including hidden companions like an alien and a catgirl), with no consequences or hurt feelings for sleeping around. The dialogue can be comically crass, in line with the game's self-described "abrasive western writing style". HuniePop is not overly concerned with realism, if the anime visuals weren't an instant giveaway. Yet it's important that each line be delivered with just the right amount of conversational candor, because the voicework is the fuel for the player's engine of suspended disbelief. For the voice actors depicting HuniePop's virtual girlfriends, the role is taken as seriously as any other.

"I think one of the challenges when you're recording this type of stuff is not making it sound cheesy or over-the-top," says Kira Buckland, who plays HuniePop's amicable flight attendant Lola Rembrite. In a genre meant to replicate the art of conversation, exaggerated voicework and cartoonish enunciations can tarnish the entire experience. "With these kinds of games, it's really easy to be like [switching to a sultry voice] 'Oooh, you got me something? Oh, how sweet!' or whatever," says Buckland. "But, y'know, people don't really talk like that. [Even if] this is creating an experience where the player can be removed from reality, and have all these beautiful women lining up to go on dates, you still want the experience to feel real or grounded in some sense."

The tricky part is making those responses resonate with a wildly diverse playerbase; as with any successful gameplay mechanic, they need to feel 'just right' no matter who's at the controls. "The player can be anybody," says Buckland. "I think the stereotype of people who play dating sims is the lonely otaku in his parent's basement, who's like [in a nerdy voice] 'I need a 2D waifu 'cause I can't get a real girl!' But there are people who just play because they like the characters, or story. Women play them too; I have a friend who's a lesbian who did a playthrough of it. I feel a good amount of the HuniePop fans I've met are female."

In the case of HuniePop, getting your freak on with these women is the ultimate goal. And though there's no actual intercourse depicted during the still-image sex scenes, you'd be amazed at how effectively the audio - orgasmic moans, breathy sighs, and elated squeals - can carry the eroticism, no excessively explicit visuals needed. Sure, it's a little awkward for the voice actors, but not inescapably so. "After that first time, it turns into 'this doesn't faze me anymore'," says Amber Lee Connors, who voices HuniePop's soft-spoken, spiritual yoga instructor Beli Lapran. "I honestly worry more about my deliveries than being made uncomfortable by whatever dialogue or sounds that are needed. Besides, you'd be surprised by how sexual normal sounds like gasps can come off without a visual! You become desensitized pretty quickly."

Keeping the really naughty stuff relegated to noises also helps put some voice actors at ease - and if you're comfortable, you're bound to give a better performance. "I wouldn't do anything with animated or explicit sexual content," says Brittany Lauda, who does the voice of Audrey Belrose, a bratty party girl who's a fan favorite thanks in part to a particular scene. "I try not to do too much NSFW stuff, so I probably would've had an adverse reaction if there were more detailed, sexual situations," says Lauda. "Like, I wouldn't voice a character in a hentai [sexually explicit anime] even though I've been given the chance. It just isn't me. I don't mind voicing potty-mouths though, it's all just acting. I just have a comfort issue with overly sexual content."

For all the fantasy fulfillment in video games, intimacy is still one of the hardest things to fake. Every player experiences human interaction to some degree, enough to know whether onscreen lovers have convincing chemistry, or if their relationship feels forced. Established characters like The Witcher's Geralt or your Inquisitor in Dragon Age serve as stand-ins during romance scenes; you're selecting their dialogue and responses, but you still act as an outside observer looking in on a budding romance. But dating sims typically take place from the first-person perspective, and your in-game love interest is addressing you directly. Ultimately, the success of any dating sim hinges on emotional connections that feel real, even if it's only for a moment. Convincing voicework can be the key to making that illusion of intimacy possible.

Thanks again to the voice actors! You can find them online here:
Kira Buckland: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Amber Lee Connors: Website / Facebook / Twitter
Brittany Lauda: Website / Facebook / Twitter