From The Archives: Man, I Feel Like a Woman… Oh, Wait

What would you do if you suddenly found that you’d changed sex?

That’s the core question in Crowd’s X-Change, localized for us Westerners by Peach Princess. At heart, it’s an interesting question and, frankly, one that I have found myself pondering in quieter moments — as, I’m sure, have many of you reading this, regardless of whether you identify as male or female, or even if you’ve taken that next step and started to explore your gender identity further.

Either way, wondering if the “grass is greener,” so to speak, is a fundamental part of human nature, so of course I was always going to jump at the opportunity to play something that explored these themes.

What I found was… hmm. Perhaps not the best example of a visual novel you’ll ever come across, to say the least, though it is at least something that warrants a certain amount of discussion, if only because it’s quite a well-known title.

This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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In X-Change, you’re cast in the role of Takuya Aihara, who is, at the outset of the game, not a particularly likable character. Through an unfortunate combination of circumstances, however, he finds himself splashed with a mysterious chemical while cleaning up the school science lab and later discovers, to his great surprise, that he’s turned into a girl. Thus begins girl-Takuya’s grand adventure through womanhood, which is not an easy, umm, ride.

There’s nothing really fundamentally wrong with the core concept of X-Change. Gender-bending comedies are fairly commonplace and successful in Japanese media, and not just in the realm of eroge — consider the long-running Ranma 1/2, for example, which ran for 38 volumes of manga between 1987 and 1996 and subsequently spawned two different anime TV series, three anime movies and a whole host of other spin-offs. And, as noted above, it’s a potentially interesting subject area to explore.

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Which is why it’s a bit of a pity that X-Change takes a bit of a “lowest common denominator” approach and focuses almost exclusively on the sexual side of things — rather to the detriment of its overarching storyline. There is an overarching storyline, of course — Takuya’s attempts to return himself back to his more familiar form — and there are several endings to the game, not all of which are particularly positive outcomes for Takuya, but for the most part we are squarely in nukige territory here. (Nukige, if you’ve never come across that term before, refers to a particular type of adults-only visual novel that tends to put the sex before the plot, rather than the other way around.)

The sexual exploits that Takuya gets up to while in girl-Takuya form are many and varied, ranging from being raped on a bus to having sex with a classmate on the rooftop of the school under circumstances where the question of consent is… well, somewhat up for debate.

There’s a lot of rape in X-Change.

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Girl-Takuya, for the most part, appears to just sort of put up with all of it as a matter of course, as just something that sort of “happens,” and it gets to a point after a while where you, the player, stop feeling surprised that someone is violating Takuya yet again. This is not a particularly comfortable place in which to find oneself, though it’s perhaps open for debate as to whether or not the game is trying to make you feel uncomfortable.

Were the game itself not quite so gleeful in its portrayal of Takuya’s various violations as being in some way titillating or arousing, there might perhaps be some sort of meta-point to be made about the way that women are seen by men and that Takuya is just getting a rather extreme lesson in what it’s like to be objectified.

With the way the game handles these scenes and depicts Takuya’s reactions to them, though — girl-Takuya more often than not ends up perversely enjoying her various misadventures to a certain degree after a while — it’s difficult not to feel like an opportunity to say something a bit more profound has been lost.

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On the flip-side, though, X-Change is pretty up-front about what sort of experience it’s offering to the player, and thus most people who go into it will probably at least have some idea of what to expect, particularly if they’re familiar with other forms of Japanese media and the changes in Japanese society’s cultural norms over time.

The use of sexual deviancy and sexual violence in Japanese popular media is a side-effect of the country’s varying attitudes towards women over the years — attitudes which have changed enormously as the centuries passed. It took until 1946 for Japanese women to get the right to vote, and until 1986 for an Equal Employment Opportunity law to be enacted.

Even with the majority of legal barriers to gender equality in Japan lying in tatters — and this whole process happened a lot quicker in Japan than in many Western countries — it’s not so easy to deal with firmly-held societal norms and opinions that you can’t easily legislate against. Many older Japanese men, suddenly finding their power over half of the population stripped away from them, became resentful of their diminished “authority”; and meanwhile, some younger Japanese men just coming into adulthood suddenly found themselves without the benefits of power that their elders had enjoyed. This is a good thing on the whole, of course — yay for equality and all that — but these big societal changes did have something of a knock-on effect on the media.

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Specifically, some content creators used the fantastic nature of manga, anime and related media to express themselves, and to express opinions and viewpoints that were no longer “acceptable” to do so in polite society. That means media in which women were placed in positions to be dominated by men, and arguably the most extreme form of male dominance over a woman is rape.

The use of sexual violence in Japanese media, initially pushed underground by societal changes, became part of the culture surrounding those creative works, and consequently we still see a lot of these knock-on effects today in modern media that is firmly in the public consciousness. You can probably name a few notorious Japanese works that involve sexual violence without having to think too hard — even if you’re not really into hentai.

Some would argue that this situation isn’t particularly good for the representation of women in the media, of course, but there is at least a case to be made that pushing misogyny and sexual violence into the purely fantastic lands of creative, cultural works while simultaneously allowing “real life” to proceed in an ultimately more positive direction is probably a better way to do things than maintaining a society in which women do not have equal rights… so long as those clear boundaries between fantasy and reality are maintained. And most of us are intelligent enough to be able to do that.

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It’s worth acknowledging, too, that there are people out there — both men and women — who fantasise about matters such as rape, sexual violence and other forms of “deviancy” from the perceived norms of society, and that it’s important for them to have an outlet in which they can express, explore and question those desires without hurting anyone. Fiction — particularly interactive fiction — provides an ideal opportunity to do just that.

It’s an exaggeration to say that sexual violence and deviancy is “prevalent” in Japanese media as a whole — there’s plenty of popular material that doesn’t even touch on sexual content, violent or otherwise — but at the same time it’s not something that can really be ignored, either. The reasons for its existence, however, might not be what you may initially believe them to be.

I couldn’t say for certain one way or another whether X-Change’s creators have any particular grudge against women or whether they just wanted to make a gender-swap nukige in which the character moved rather rapidly from one sexual scene to another with minimal narrative justification. The actual female characters in the rest of the game besides the protagonist certainly aren’t treated harshly — in fact, a number of them exert a considerable amount of power over Takuya in various ways — but every time I think of this game I’m reminded of how often girl-Takuya is forced into sexual situations against her will or without her consent, and the questions that raised in my mind, despite how unabashedly erotic the on-screen images were clearly intended to be.

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Ultimately, I’m probably giving X-Change a lot more thought than it deserves — a single playthrough is over and done with in less than an hour and just one playthrough is plenty to give you an idea of whether or not it’s something you want to spend any more time with. For me, it ended up being a little too much porn and not quite enough plot — yes, such works do exist — but your mileage may, as ever, vary. Even with my mixed feelings towards it, however, I still think the core concept is a sound one, despite the execution being somewhat off in this particular title.

X-Change spawned two sequels, imaginatively titled X-Change 2 and 3, and a spin-off series known as Yin-Yang! X-Change Alternative featuring a similar situation but a different protagonist. I’m open-minded enough to give the other entries in the series a chance, as some of Crowd’s other titles — most notably Tokimeki Check-In – are rather fondly regarded by fans of the medium, and if nothing else I rather like their art style.

As for the original, though? Well. You know what you’re getting into from the moment you boot it up. And whether or not you’re into that is a matter of personal preference!


This article was originally published on Games Are Evil in 2013 as part of the site’s regular READ.ME column on visual novels. It has been edited and republished here due to Games Are Evil no longer existing in its original form.

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