Love Bytes: How a New Runaway Hit Game Is Wooing Single Chinese Men
From being single all his life, 25-year-old David Zhang suddenly found six women vying for his attention in recent months. All seemingly out of his league, they ranged from a single mom and a high-flying executive to a college graduate and a free-spirited party queen.
Except none of it, including the women themselves, is real.
Zhang’s suitors are all characters within “Love Is All Around,” a new dating simulation game designed specially for men that’s taken China by storm. Part interactive sim, part TV romance drama, the game offers escape into a world where love and relationships unfold according to a player’s individual choices — and they rarely ever lose.
What’s more, real actresses portray the six characters. For instance, Zou Jiajia, a member of the Chinese idol group SNH48, plays one character, while Dong Qi, known for her role in the film “Monk Comes Down the Mountain,” portrays another.
“Everyone jokes that this is just a fantasy masterpiece, but the more people play it, the more addicted they get,” says Zhang, who works in Shanghai.
Priced at just 42 yuan ($6), “Love Is All Around” has topped Steam China’s best-selling charts for weeks, with an all-time peak of more than 60,000 players and a 95% positive rating across over 29,000 reviews.
Most players praise the game for how it satisfies their desires for romance and fantasy despite having flaws in its storyline, acting, and quality. And the game’s format, which mimics the engaging, quick episodes typical of China’s highly popular online miniseries — often between one and 15 minutes long — adds to the allure.
But since its release, the game has also sparked controversy, with critics underscoring that it perpetuates the male gaze and gender stereotypes. While acknowledging the game’s popularity, experts tell Sixth Tone that its appeal among men is rooted in their fantasies of romantic relationships.
The game follows protagonist Gu Yi, a young entrepreneur in debt from his failed business, as he encounters six different women. It offers players control over the narrative, allowing them to shape the story through choices with simple mouse clicks at key plot points.
With over 100 story branches and 12 possible endings, the game weaves complex narratives. Each female character, distinct in personality, is inexplicably drawn to Gu, with storylines ranging from one offering to take on his debts to another proposing marriage.
Xu Nanqiao, a 33-year-old photographer based in Chengdu in the southwestern Sichuan province who’s been playing the game since its release, likens it to the cheap thrills found in zhongma novels, a web novel subgenre where several women compete for one man’s affections.
“People seldom care if the plotline is real. They simply play it for fun,” Xu told Sixth Tone, adding that its affordable price broadens its appeal.
For Zhang, the game offers an escape from real-world dating pressures. “In real life, some bad decisions might lead to the end of a relationship. But in the game, the same decision might make you more endearing to the characters,” says Zhang. “Why bother buying gifts for Valentine’s Day anymore? Even if I spend a lot of money, I still won’t have a partner. But in the game, you can spend 30 yuan to interact with six beautiful women.”
Kong Degang, a professor at Nanjing Normal University researching Chinese games, explains that compared with conventional dating sims, “Love Is All Around” offers a more titillating experience.
“In this game, players don’t need to work to earn affection. They are adored from the start, and the challenge lies in choosing the right partner without causing jealousy among the others,” he says.
Kong attributes the game’s appeal among male players to its resonance with traditional male fantasies in romantic relationships. He notes that, amid increasing debates surrounding feminism and gender, “Love Is All Around” serves as an outlet for fantasies and relationship anxieties. He says the game also addresses anxieties linked to perceptions of wealth and status in a society that places a high value on individual success.
For Zhang, the protagonist’s portrayal as a struggling entrepreneur resonates with many young men in urban China. “In real life, we’re often afraid to take risks or accept failure,” he says. “The game gives us the opportunity to start anew and fearlessly chase the love we desire, supported every step of the way. It’s utopia.”
While dating games for men have long been common in China, with some occasionally sparking controversy due to their content, the gaming industry’s focus has recently shifted to the otome genre, such as the hugely popular “Mr. Love: Queen’s Choice.”
These story-based games center around female players forming romantic connections with attractive men. This shift has attracted developers and investors looking to tap into the lucrative female-oriented gaming market, which is projected to reach 95.8 billion yuan this year.
But Sun Jing, an associate professor at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University’s School of Cultural Technology, says there’s a key difference. “Men tend to appreciate content that is real, visually impactful, and sexy. On the other hand, women often seek more emotional and intellectual connections,” says Sun.
And while she recognizes the commercial success of such games, Sun raises significant concerns about their portrayal of gender roles in games like “Love Is All Around.”
INTINY, the Guangzhou-based company behind “Love Is All Around,” credits its success to a deep understanding of male users’ emotional needs, influenced by the growing trend of miniseries-style content.
CEO Chen Yurong told domestic game research website GameLook that the company drew inspiration from a popular video series on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok. Titled “Meeting Her,” it showcases the encounters of different women from a personal perspective, and has over 10 million followers on the platform.
“We analyzed the reasons behind this success and identified certain user needs, emotional triggers, and value points. One significant reason for the product becoming so popular is its ability to provide emotional value in a very direct and straightforward manner,” Chen Tianhui, head of distribution and not related to Chen Yurong, told Time Finance.
Miniseries and short dramas, often spanning just one to 15 minutes per episode, have carved a niche in China. Known for their fast-paced narratives, they cover a range of themes from dramatic love stories to tales of revenge, giving viewers a quick escape from reality. A typical feature of these series is the use of cliffhangers at the end of each episode.
The format has become particularly popular on mobile platforms. A 2023 report by the China Netcasting Services Association revealed that nearly 95% of internet users use short-form video apps, and more than half of this user base specifically look for content less than three minutes long.
New to the interactive film and full-motion video market, INTINY did not expect that “Love Is All Around” would become a smash hit. “We estimated that some would like it and that we may just break even. We never anticipated that the product would become so popular, and it has now far exceeded our expectations,” said Chen Tianhui.
The unexpected success of “Love Is All Around” has also sparked interest within the wider gaming industry.
Yan Min, who manages a miniseries community, told Sixth Tone that since early November, he’s received requests from at least five video game companies hoping to explore collaborations with producers of miniseries.
INTINY announced on Nov. 6 a sequel titled “Love Is All Around 2” in collaboration with game company HippoJoy, but with a new target audience: female players.
And, in a clear signal of increasing partnerships between gaming and film industries, HippoJoy is set to work with the entertainment company Qishu Youyu, focusing on more interactive full-motion video games.
But can the success of “Love Is All Around” be replicated?
Professor Kong suggests that with the increasing reliance on AI, real actors may become “less significant.” “As AI and game production technologies advance, companies can achieve lifelike graphics without them,” he says.
He also points to another possible trend: “More and more companies will likely start catering directly to male preferences, a shift that seems inevitable given the success of games like ‘Love Is All Around.’”
Professor Sun, however, believes commercial successes don’t necessarily mean high-quality games. Considering the profit-driven nature of China’s game market, she says it often leads to a rush of similar games following a successful formula, thus creating a homogenized industry landscape.
She says, “If the industry continues to churn out games with similar themes, their success might be short-lived, lacking sustainability in the long term.”
(Header image: A Promotional poster for “Love Is All Around.” From Weibo)