Back to school: 10 games that simulate school life

Where I am in the UK, kids have gone back to school and university for about a month now. As per usual, I’m not on the ball with these things but I got the idea for this list whilst playing Mana Khemia, a unique Atelier game with a school setting as opposed to the usual apprentice set-ups in recent games. It was a breath of fresh air and as I gallivanted about enjoying a rosy campus life, I began to think about what other games feature elements that simulate school life. 

The games below are not just set in some kind of educational setting (because those come a dime a dozen), but they also incorporate mechanics or themes that effectively emulate a school experience. So you won’t find Danganronpa or the dozens of visual novels with school-age characters in this article. Many are undoubtedly excellent but the setting often appears too extraneous to act as an integral part to their narrative or systems as a whole.  In COVID times, I imagine school life has taken a turn for the bizarre so why don’t you try some of these in the meantime?

Mana Khemia: Alchemists of Al-Revis (PS2/PSP/Vita) 

Let’s start with the game that got this list rolling. Mana Khemia features a school for fledgling alchemists and, like other Atelier games, the gameplay is split between performing alchemy and exploring different areas to gather ingredients and beat up the local wildlife. 

What makes it fitting for this list is the way it structures its systems to fit its academy-based narrative that extends across three years. Time passes in a termly calendar system bookended with Japanese school events like a cultural festival or graduation ceremonies. The player spends the majority of their time completing assignments for different classes. A neat detail is that courses are mandatory at the start of the game but by your second year you can pick elective subjects. Synthesis 101 might set assignments to create items with certain traits while combat classes task the player with defeating monsters. It’s not that different from your classic pick a quest off the questboard stuff but the facade makes it immersive. Assignments are graded with higher grades reserved for accomplishing bonus criteria. In a brilliant twist, if you fail classes, you’ll have to give up your precious free time with your friends and attend detention with the teacher instead. Doh! There’s also a cool rumour mechanic where you gain a reputation by performing certain feats that range from acting like a ‘delinquent’ by roaming outside the campus at night to shopping a bit too much at the school store. Hit up the rumour guy in the cafeteria for reputational buffs – he knows the stuff! 

Canis Canem Edit [Bully in non-PAL regions] (PS2/Xbox 360/Wii/PC) 

Schools are a bit dog-eat-dog, aren’t they? A hormone-fuelled microcosm of society where different cliques clash together and vie for dominance in an overly competitive, emotionally defunct environment? No? You might say, the western interpretation of schools is a bit different from the Japanese, which is usually filled with the Power of Friendshiptm and not kids chucking paper airplanes at teachers. 

CCE follows the misadventures of juvenile delinquent, Jimmy, who slugs his way to the top of Bullworth Academy in order to, ironically, put an end to bullying in this rather dysfunctional boarding school. As soon as you step through the hallowed doors, it’ll be like you’ve never left. Grimy lockers, cheesy hallway posters, and posh boy uniforms abound. However, beyond the superficial details, the game renders Rockstar’s open-world formula into a school setting well by substituting criminal hijinks with rule breaking and The Man with balding men in suits. The player plays pranks, attends classes (or more likely skives them), and fumbles their way through clumsy teenage relationships. Want to smooch someone just because you gave them chocolate? Sure you can! Attending classes has the benefit of teaching Jimmy skills to better wreck havoc. It’s fitting, really, in that it expresses an all important fact the education system attempts to teach: it’s not what you learn but how you apply it. 

Persona 3 Portable, Persona 4 Golden, and Persona 5 Royal (PS2/PS3/PS4/PSP/Vita and PC [Persona 4 Golden only]) 

Sorry, Minako, you count too.

Let’s get back to the safety of Japanese schools, shall we? Atlus’ Persona series would probably be one of the most recommended choices for games mixing everyday school life bits with kickass JRPG goodness. I’m focusing on the most recent Persona games here since, though earlier installments are set in highschool too, the later games go all in with the simulation elements. 

If you haven’t played any Persona game yet (and you really should), they basically follow students who solve big bad problems after gaining the ability to summon Personae, these quasi-mythological spirits that are sort of manifestations of their soul. Each game deals with diverse themes and is narratively and tonally distinct from one another but they share remarkably similar gameplay, especially in the elements that emulate daily life. What makes them stand out amongst other life simulators is that the player actually lives through every day of a school year. The calendar system is designed so that each day is unique and the player decides how to spend the protagonist’s time in a thoroughly immersive world. Answer questions in class, participate in afterschool clubs, get a part-time job, study, read a book. The list goes on. One of the best features of these games are the social systems, where the protagonists can forge relationships with other party members and certain NPCs. The characterisation and relationship dynamics are excellently written and make you feel like you are actually befriending them. After spending a year with these characters, I felt a tangible sense of loss when the game ended. I cried and so should you. Go (re)play these games!

Violet (PC browser)

Violet is quite unlike the rest of the games on this list. It’s a bit of a cheat pick because it focuses on a graduate student and the vaguely school-like actions of said student but all well. As an interactive text-based game that can be finished in an afternoon, you play as the eponymous Violet who has to write her dissertation today but finds herself woefully distracted. The player types prompts to encourage Violet to sit down and write her bloody paper – only she’s missing her bag, she’s drunk something suspiciously fluorescent and Julia in the opposite office is trying to sabotage her. 

Violet will feel sympathetic to anyone who has had to force out an essay (or article) while battling against the forces of procrastination. The game is a series of convoluted puzzles that pulls you back and forth as you try to figure out the right prompt for each situation. Clearing one hurdle often opens up another as Violet seems dead set on not cooperating with your instructions. The combination of the player’s inputs (expect to type ‘write’ a lot) and the rebellious text cleverly recalls that sense of disorder when you want to work and tell yourself to work but you just can’t. Violet’s anxious, fluttering thoughts are wittily written, creating a strong sense of character both relatable and intriguing as you gradually uncover more details about her struggles. This game is unique in how it works against you to emulate the frustrations of such experiences. Like most essay-writing, the game isn’t necessarily enjoyable or smooth but it’s certainly a memorable undertaking.

Magical Diary: Horse Hall (PC) 

This game is what I’d imagine would happen if you crossed Harry Potter with a dating sim. It’s a short and sweet indie game with an impressive amount of depth and customisation for how you want to role-play your aspiring witch. 

Set in a school that is not Hogwarts, create a Mary Sue (default name) character to join Horse Hall. This is one of the more light-hearted games on this list, because what could be more fun than learning spells and hitting on a cute demon in magic school? The game covers your character’s freshman year and has an abundance of unique events. Expect embarrassing antics with dorm mates, a fraught competition to become student president and furious flirting attempts to grab a date for the May Day Ball. What decisions you make greatly affects the outcome of the branching narrative so there’s a whole lot of replayability here. Besides that, the day to day stuff involves attending classes to raise stats in different schools of magic while managing stress levels. Pick what to specialise in wisely because you’ll need to pass puzzle-style exams to avoid expulsion. Oh, and you can marry your professor, if you’re into that. 

Hatoful Boyfriend (PS4/Vita/PC) 

From the magical to the all out wacky. This is the likes of a school you’ve never seen before. Hatoful Boyfriend puts you in the shoes of a girl attending St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a school for birds. You heard right – birds and not even anthropomorphic birds. Actual photo-realistic birds. 

Hatoful Boyfriend is an otome game, which means you get to date the birds. The gameplay consists of visual novel storytelling and stat-raising to appeal to your fowl friends. The school elements are a bizarre mixture of the mundane and avian. It’s very weird. Your classmates talk about normal everyday things: athletic clubs, teachers, having a date for Valentine’s Day – but, they’re birds and it’s not Valentine’s Day but Legumentine’s Day, where everybirdie makes heartfelt confessions with seeds rather than chocolates. Many of the characters wouldn’t be out of place in your stereotypical school life anime. There’s the tsundere, the childhood friend, the hyperactive child – but, they’re birds. There’s a dissonance as you play the game and parse what’s normal, what’s for laughs and what’s foreshadowing. There really aren’t many school games like this and yet what is the normal school experience? Hopefully it won’t be anything like that of St. PigeoNation’s Institute. Hatoful Boyfriend is surreal, parodic, and also much more than that – play it blind and leave with your eyes open.

Detention (PS4/Switch/PC) 

Detention is an amazingly atmospheric game that manages to merge a historical setting with supernatural horror. Set during the oppressive White Terror period in Taiwan, which saw the suppression of political dissenters by martial law over forty years, the game focuses on a troubled girl in a stifling community and the repercussions of a secret book club. 

When I was curating this list, I had to include Detention. Not because this game is about school, but rather it uses the setting to such great effect. On one level, haunted school motifs are nothing unusual in horror games that often strive to disturb and subvert the familiar – just think of all the urban myths associated with schools. Once you remove the human, there is something innately claustrophobic about the layout of schools with narrow corridors and uniform, sterile classrooms. This environment is perfectly suited to convey Detention’s deeper themes and preoccupation with lingering ghosts. I won’t say much for fear of spoiling the shocking conclusion but beneath the horrific elements, the real issues at hand here – activism and censorship of free thought – are also complemented by the setting. After all, the next generation starts in the classroom. 

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Switch) 

To switch it up, we have a game where you play as the teacher instead – yes, a rather unqualified teacher, who starts off at the same level as the students and sends them on death-defying missions (and don’t get me started on the increasingly dubious blurring of professional relationships…) but you can’t convince me otherwise, Fire Emblem is a school simulator dressed up as a tactical JRPG.  

Three Houses sets the scene at a militaristic monastery handily located between three rival kingdoms and run by the imperious church. It’s not a Fire Emblem game without dragons, so clearly the narrative goes far beyond the scope of your typical school life drama. Nevertheless, it starts like one, even if the heirs of the nations are vaguely at each other’s throats already. As a teacher, you create lesson plans, give advice, and attend military drills school events. The setting is generally evocative of a traditional boarding school reflected through a fantasy lens, which accounts for some of the unrealistic details. I’m still wondering what fishing has to do with teacher aptitude. And what’s with the sauna ‘bonding’? Oh wait, it’s Fire Emblem. No, Three Houses doesn’t evoke the joy of spending hours on intricate lesson plans soon to be derailed by unfortunate circumstances, but golly it bangs the nail on the head sometimes. Every teacher can probably sympathise with Beleth’s grief with wrangling lost property when missing items are found literally five steps away

XOXO Droplets (PC) 

Hands up if you can name another game with a campus-based setting! XOXO Droplets is another stat-raising dating sim set in a boarding school. With hundreds of events and a sizeable script to match, there is plenty to experience across several playthroughs if you want to date ‘em all, although the day-to-day stat raising can get a bit repetitive. As a nice feature, there is an incredibly extensive demo, if you’re not sure whether to take the dive. 

What’s great about XOXO Droplets is that it doesn’t gloss over the less rosy aspects of school life. It feels like this game was made with a nudge and wink for graduates, as if to say, ‘Hey, you remember that awfully cringey time of yesteryear?’ The game writes teenagers as teenagers – brash, vulnerable arseholes who don’t know what to do but have to grow anyway. In a refreshing change for a stat-raiser, the player controls a mostly predefined protagonist who is best described as ‘jerky’ in the developer’s own words. The seven main boyfriend options are promised to not be much better. You can superficially garner favour with various cliques but don’t expect any heartwarming tales of friendship overcoming trials here. These are deliberately unlikeable characters. Awkward but tolerable once you resign to the fact that you probably weren’t that cool then as well. It could have been a cynical jab at this age-group but the dialogue and tone is more comical than biting. If anything, it makes you think how far you have come. 

Butterfly Soup (PC) 

Finishing off this list with an excellent indie visual novel is Butterfly Soup. If XOXO Droplets took the mick out of teenagers, this game portrays them in a more sympathetic light. The developer, Brianna Lei, describes it as a yuri baseball game inspired by Haikyu!!, which translates into a coming of age story about four Asian girls growing up and coming out in America where they have to face gender stereotypes, societal pressure and pushy parents. 

I believe Butterfly Soup best captures that ‘highschool’ feeling and creates a sense of nostalgia for a specific time like Night in the Woods did for post-school millenials. School isn’t just an arbitrary setting here but a necessary one to tell this story about a bunch of loveable weirdos traversing all sorts of social issues along with usual teenage awkwardness. The perspective shifts between four protagonists and shows how they each perceive and experience the same surroundings differently. The socially shy Diya has trouble widening her friend group, Noelle worries about her tiger parents, Min is the perpetual new kid, and Akarsha smothers the pressure she’s under with yaoi jokes. In this way, the multiple viewpoints demonstrate the diverse ways social anxiety can manifest, especially when you’re still growing into your own. Schools often have both a big and small part in people’s lives. At the time, they appear all-encompassing when you’re being scrutinised as a person and tested on various levels. Yet, those years are such a short period of life as a whole. Butterfly Soup’s wacky but heartfelt narrative conjures up the best and worst parts of such a transitional time. Regardless of whether you share the girls’ problems, the game makes them feel widely relatable by tapping into this shared experience. 

Final bell 

There you go. Ten great games that scratched an unexpected itch to relive my not-so-glorious-or-fantastical highschool days.

Have you played any of these? Did I miss any obvious ones? Let me know what you think and feel free to school me on any other similar games in the comments! 

Published by nonplayergirl

Long-time lurker turned blogging newb. Lover of all things otaku but especially JRPGs, anime and manga. Always adding something to the backlog. Probably descending into K-Pop hell right now.

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