Recent years have seen video games being criticized for how poorly they discuss human sexuality. A lot of those critiques focus on how games depict sex (usually in a voyeuristic fashion that loses a lot of nuance), but it’s also important to consider what games choose to focus on when it comes to sex. That’s why I was so interested in Lucky Me, Lucky You, the latest visual novel from Ebi-hime (writer of The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns and Strawberry Vinegar). The only other time you see pornography directly depicted in games is when some Shadow Moses guard is reading it, but here we have a game that discusses pornography upfront. Unfortunately, it’s far from the nuanced take on pornography I was expecting. Rather than discuss the topic with any sense of tact, Lucky Me, Lucky You instead makes needlessly judgmental and untenable statements about its worth.
The game’s narrative premise is relatively simple: a college student (Nanami) and her friend (Ryo) journey across Japan to reunite the former with her first crush. If that was all there is to Lucky Me, Lucky You, I wouldn’t have nearly as many criticisms of it as I do. Unfortunately, the first few lines make it abundantly clear what’s going to take precedence throughout the rest of the story: harsh, sweeping judgments of pornography. They’re often presented as absolutes with no room for ambiguity: pornography is this gross, disgusting act and the only thing more deserving of shame is the person who enjoys it. It’s relevant enough at the beginning (even if it’s cynical and abrasive), where the plot wouldn’t get off the ground if not for the protagonists happening upon their friend’s pornographic DVDs. Yet it doesn’t stop there. It seeps into every orifice it can find, occasionally bubbling back up to the surface to remind you of its existence. Some character (usually Nanami) will let slip a snide comment about how this one guy’s a sick weirdo for being into catgirl porn, no matter how tenuous the connection is between that comment and the situation at hand. The story will inevitably move on as though that’s completely normal.
Granted, it’s made clear that many of these objections stem from Nanami rather than the game itself, but that doesn’t mean very much when the game is unwilling to interrogate Nanami’s perspective. For example, we’re not allowed to make our own judgments regarding whether or not Nanami’s opinions are justified, since rather than directly render the pornography through visuals, the game instead chooses to hide them behind text. And there aren’t any differing perspectives within the narrative to challenge Nanami. Every other character she meets either doesn’t discuss the issue or nods in agreement to some degree. Instead, Lucky Me, Lucky You is content to give Nanami a platform from which she can espouse her views unchallenged. More than that, even; the game subtly affirms those views. This is best seen during the ending where, upon finally meeting her crush, Nanami learns that the woman she first fell in love with was a corporate construct rather than the demure woman who sits before her.
This isn’t to say that Lucky Me, Lucky You is just criticizing pornography out of some knee-jerk conservatism. Judging by both the stream-of-consciousness narration and the actual content of that narration, Nanami is meant to be a Holden Caulfield-esque figure who seeks something more from a world she sees as interested in surface appearances, cheap thrills and phony performances above all else. However, that all relies on a number of faulty assumptions that Nanami’s own experiences disprove.
By far the most important of these assumptions is that surface appearances are inherently incapable of fostering deep relationships. It’s an odd claim to make in light of how pornography is the catalyst for Nanami remembering her first crush (in addition to being the catalyst for that crush in the first place). The game can’t even mitigate things by saying it only presents her with an opportunity to bond, because it’s the surface appearances she criticizes that help her develop that crush at all. There are descriptions of the actress’s emotions, but Nanami is quick to dismiss those emotions as phony. Not that she has any problem with this. She’s happy to describe her crush’s full lips, creamy thighs, cute incisors, and ample breasts in lurid detail. Meanwhile, her castigations of the porn she’s watching only ever trap Nanami in her own introspection.
And barring those faulty assumptions, the game can’t produce any reasons for why pornography deserves the ire that Nanami and company give it. We can’t say it harms the person watching it or those around them; without developing the character who actually watches this porn (he never even shows up), we have no way of knowing what harm, if any, it’s done to him. The fact that the protagonists have to sneak into his room just to find out he watches porn suggests it wasn’t a significant problem in the first place, or at least that they have much larger problems of their own than their roommate’s sexual proclivities.
In fact, the more I played Lucky Me, Lucky You, the more I realized just how much of a hypocrite Nanami is. Despite telling us that she wants more out of life than surface appearances offer, she’s the only character in the story who takes issue with how people look. Ryo may be spared her indignation, but other characters aren’t. She’ll confide in the reader how irredeemably ugly one of her classmates is, or berate a local cashier for presenting himself as a calculating casanova – only to employ that same persona herself just a few minutes later. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that in all these instances, Nanami contrasts these people against the eternal image of beauty that is herself. Were I to take a more cynical view of the narrative, I’d say that Nanami is a character founded in ressentiment; she protects her own pride by allowing herself to enjoy these forbidden delights while openly castigating them in front of others.
Yet there’s more to the story than that. In Nanami’s more introspective moments, we see Nanami not only scrutinize her own views a little more, but also a side of her that doesn’t show itself anywhere else in the game. We learn things like:
- How gravure photo albums made Nanami aware of her lesbian feelings.
- Her failed high school romances with other girls.
- How those who loved her harshly judged her for what they saw as deviant sexuality (parents pretending their daughter is something else, grandparents trying to fit her into their own traditions, etc.).
Were I to hazard a guess, I’d say these details are supposed to contextualize the story as being about frustrated youth trying to find their way in the world. In context, though, they feel very confusing and lend the game a darker tone than intended. We have to acknowledge the suffering she’s had to endure, yes, but these problems go much deeper than that. Rather than interpret that pain as something to learn from and become more accepting of other people, Nanami instead adopts the values of those who hurt her (she values traditional femininity in both herself and those around her) and uses them to enact that same oppression on those she perceives as beneath her. Hers is not a story of hope, but of deferral.
If I had to point out one strength from Lucky Me, Lucky You, then it would have to be the relationships between Nanami and Ryo. These kinds of relationships have always been a strength of Ebi-hime games (see: The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns), and this one is no different. Nanami and Ryo bicker constantly; they swear like sailors (warning: half of these swears are bound to be the word “retard”); and their interactions are completely aimless. Yet it’s exactly all that that makes their relationship so endearing. Despite all their quarrels, it’s still clear that they value their friendship, meaning those quarrels lend it a certain chemistry that makes things that much more endearing. It’s as though the game’s suggesting that these relationships don’t have to perfect to have value. And on a similar note, I like that the game goes a long while before explaining Ryo’s gender expression (he’s a guy who presents himself in a very feminine light), like it has more important things on its mind than explaining its characters’ fashion sense. I just wish the game could apply this level of clarity to its surface themes.