Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance

Sunrider Academy is a spin-off from the Sunrider series. Set in an alternate universe, Sunrider Academy reimagines the main characters as high school students. The Sunrider series is a collection of visual novels powered by the Ren’Py engine, with gameplay sections interspaced with VN storytelling segments. Where the original game was a turn-based strategy game featuring intense battles between starships and mecha, Sunrider Academy is a time/stat management dating sim.

I don’t play dating sims, and visual novels only rarely. If not for its tangential connection to the Sunrider series I wouldn’t even have picked up Sunrider Academy. That said, I enjoyed my overall experience with the game. But it could have been so much better.

In Sunrider Academy, you play the role of Kayto Shields, Vice President of the Student Council. In the beginning of his second year, he promises his kid sister Maray that he would get a girlfriend. When he goes to school, his childhood friend Ava Crescrentia, President of the Student Council, charges Kayto with turning around three sports clubs in danger of being disbanded by the school. And, Kayto has to keep his grades up to retain his position. The player must juggle Kayto’s studies, club affairs and love life over an increasingly hectic school year.

The common route, spanning the first few months, is chock-full of in-jokes and moments of hilarity. When you choose a girl to pursue, the humour gives way to drama, teenage angst, and romance.

Or tries to.

While Sunrider Academy delivers competent stories for all four routes, it is hamstrung by its Japanese influence. Sunrider Academy relies on a number of well-established VN, anime and manga tropes: the overachieving childhood friend, the moeblob, the genki girl, the emotionless girl, conveniently contrived clumsiness leading to predictable perverse positions, and so on. Tropes are not bad in of themselves, but the developers relied far too heavily on them to carry the plot instead of building on them to build better stories.

To illustrate this, I’m going to break down the romance routes in the story. Warning: unmarked spoilers ahead!

Chigara Ashada

I’m a pessimist, so I’ll start with the worst route: Chigara’s. Chigara is the captain of the science club. She’s a genius, but she’d rather be a baker. She is also meek, innocent and girlish, the very definition of a moeblob.

The conflict in her route is driven by her twin sister, Lynn. Where Chigara is a genius, Lynn is not. Where Chigara is all sunshine and bubbles, Lynn is broody and depressive. Chigara just wants to get along, but Lynn wants to take everything from her sister. After all, Chigara is the favored daughter — created by their parents to be the perfect girl.

As the story progresses, Lynn tries to impersonate Chigara and steal Kayto from her. Worse, Chigara gives in to her sister’s whims, allowing Lynn to take her place in the Academy. It gets to the point where Kayto can’t tell who is who anymore. [To be honest, neither could I; somehow Kayto could read them better than me.] This could have been the setup for a psychological thriller.

Instead, the story is resolved in an extremely convenient fashion: as Chigara coaches Lynn to act like her, the sisters find common ground to bond, and resolve their differences. By the story’s end, they have made up and stopped impersonating each other.

Heartwarming, certainly, but with one problem: Kayto had nothing to do with it.

Throughout Chigara’s route, Kayto becomes increasingly passive, focusing solely on his club responsibilities and studies. The entire resolution occurs off-screen, delivered only by exposition. The final reconciliation was also unsatisfying: it’s hard to imagine that Kayto would suddenly welcome Chigara back into his life after the sisters put him through so much emotional stress. The more likely and realistic outcome would be Kayto cutting ties with the Asadas permanently.

This is a romance story, though, and there must be a happy ending. There’s a simple fix for this: have Kayto refuse to give up on the Asadas, and instead push them towards reconciliation. Have him engage both sisters throughout the route, and convince them to make up. This makes him involved in his story, giving agency to the player. This would be far more emotionally satisfying than simply having Chigara say they made up.

Ava Crescentia

Ava is a perfect embodiment of the overachieving  childhood friend: she is the top student of Sunrider Academy, the President of the Student Council, and a stickler for the rules. She is cold and harsh towards everybody, demanding every student to obey every regulation, no matter how inane. Her default expression is a frown, and she almost never smiles during the story sections. She bosses around everyone she meets, earning the ire of the entire student body, and picks out Kayto for particularly difficult duties (taking charge of the problem clubs is just the beginning!).

So why is there a romance?

Kayto’s motivation is obvious. Being neighbours, they have a shared history stretching back years. Plus, Ava possesses certain ‘assets’ no hotblooded male will fail to notice. But Ava? There is no hint that she is interested in Kayto, or even respects him as a person. She is almost always seen giving him more work or berating him or otherwise treating him as an extra pair of hands to clear the never-ending pile of paperwork.

The moment she took the opportunity to make out with Kayto came as a shock, to him and me. She had been nothing but harsh and domineering, and he in turn (mostly) placative and resigned. Kayto himself thinks she sees him as little more than an insect. Why is she suddenly interested in him? Why is he interested in her?

Near the end of the game, she hints that she came to love Kayto because he had always supported her. But that doesn’t ring true with me. Loyalty and support are hallmarks of friendship; romance requires more than that.

The Kayto-Ava dynamic just isn’t convincing enough. Instead of a hard-won love, I see the classic signs of emotional abuse. At the very least, I see Kayto being a hen-pecked husband and an unhappy marriage.

To make this romance work, the route needs two major improvements. There needs to be more signposting of Ava’s intentions and emotions. She has a sugar and ice personality, but the writer focused on the ‘ice’ aspect to the exclusion of ‘sugar’. The script needs to make her attraction to him more obvious from the start, giving Kayto hope that he has a chance.

As for Kayto, he needs to be stronger and far more decisive. He comes off as a Typical High School Boy, which is the wrong approach to take. For instance, after a key moment of intimacy, he said, “Well, after we did that, I thought we were going out.” This comes across as wishy-washy and utterly cringeworthy. A better line would be, “After doing that, why wouldn’t we be going out?” This signals strength and places the ball in Ava’s court, forcing her to examine why she did what she did and to face her growing attraction to Kayto. Likewise, he should stand up to Ava whenever she makes idiotic decisions instead of quietly following orders and getting into worse trouble.

Women like Ava only respect people as strong as they are — any less and they simply will not give the time of day to, much less consider as a romantic prospect. To make this story work, Kayto has to step up his game, and Ava has to show more vulnerability.

Asaga Oakrun

This route is a marked improvement over the other two. Instead of high drama or contempt, this route is filled with passion. Asaga is the very model of a Japanese genki girl, and she drags Kayto right into her orbit. He mans up and proves himself worthy of his affections.

Eventually. The weakest point of the story is in the middle, when Kayto finds himself overwhelmed. Asaga becomes increasingly intrusive, and her personality leads to clashes with other clubs and the Student Council, causing Kayto more trouble. It all comes to a head during a climactic Student Council meeting (puns very much intended), and Kayto decides to break things off with her.

Fortunately for all involved, the lovers reconcile quickly. But a bit too quickly for my tastes. Kayto stomps angrily away from the relationship, Asaga apologises in tears, and they make up.The remaining drama in the route is due to external shenanigans, which reinforce their feelings for each other — but not necessarily how they act. What I would have liked to see is how they influence each other for the better: Asaga becomes less impulsive and puts in more effort in paperwork and studies, while Kayto lets himself relax and be more spontaneous. This is only vaguely hinted at the penultimate story section, the day before the Most Definitively Final Exams.

Sola

Sola in this game is a mysterious girl adopted by the head priest of the city shrine. She speaks with a flat register, but uses formal and sophisticated vocabulary. Unlike the other routes, this one is tied intrinsically to the main Sunrider storyline. This Sola is in danger of being erased from the universe, and Kayto must find a way to save her.

This route was the route released as the public demo, and the devs clearly put in a lot of time polishing it. The route mixes moments of drama, intrigue and tenderness. Unlike the other routes, this Kayto isn’t wishy-washy or indecisive: he swears to save Sola, refuses to give up on her no matter how hard she tries to convince him to abandon her, seeks solutions, and at the climax confronts a de facto god — and wins. Likewise, Sola also shows character growth — though I have to say, it’s easier to show character growth for someone already established as a flat, if eccentric, girl.

This route would have been magnificent, but for the ending. It boils down to Kayto telling the abovementioned god to give Sola back, and the god agreeing just like that. There is no drama, no sense of resistance, no insight into the god’s motives or actions. It just happens. A far more satisfying ending would have Kayto debating the god — and winning. A crowning moment of awesome is a far better fit for the game than a deus ex machina.

Gameplay and Story Segregation

Sunrider Academy is a stat management game, and the gameplay layer is painfully segregated from the story elements. During the girls’ routes, there are moments when the characters are betrayed or in emotional distress. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t affect the stat building sections. Kayto can continue to improve the stats of a club led by a girl who hurt him as though nothing had happened. This is, frankly, quite jarring — but this may be due to engine limitations.

Throughout the game, you are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the girls. You can give them gifts, engage in conversation with them, or attempt to charm and flirt with them. During the common route, this is key to raising their affections, which unlocks their individual route. But afterwards, save for the girl you’re pursuing, this mechanic has exactly no impact on the story that I can tell.

More than that, there seems to be no penalty for flirting with or charming a girl who isn’t your girlfriend. None of the girls show signs of jealousy, and there is no impact on your chosen girlfriend’s affections. When you think hard about it, it kills immersion.

Not for Dating Sim Fans

The developers took a gamble by jumping into an entirely new genre for their spinoff. While I recognise their courage, I think they have much to learn about writing convincing romance stories. In romance VNs, players want to see the hero and heroine(s) grow together, to be given a sense of agency through meaningful decisions, and to experience a realistic facsimile of romance. This requires excellent storytelling and a keen insight into human nature beyond faithful recreations of anime and manga tropes. VNs are novels: they live and die by their characters and writing, and the writing here isn’t up to scratch. Further, I think the devs could have tried to close the gap between gameplay and storytelling, improving overall immersion.

Ultimately, if you’re not a fan of dating sims or stat management games, Sunrider Academy offers repetitive clicking through huge swathes of the game on easy or waifu mode to unlock story content that isn’t quite up to par. Quite fortuitously, on Steam it’s currently being offered at a 60% discount. But to properly enjoy the game, you need a walkthrough or risk missing key events necessary to propel the game.

I think Sunrider Academy will appeal mainly to people who enjoyed the main series. The writing isn’t as tight as I would like it to be, but fans would appreciate the humor and references. Gamers or VN fans seeking a plausible romance should look elsewhere, or at least wait until the game is on sale.

 

Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance
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