When I was in high school, I had a great party trick. It went a little something like this: In typical teenage-introvert style, I’d get uncomfortable being social for too long, so I’d slowly sink into the nearest dark corner. Once I’d found my crevice, I’d pull out my phone and get in position. It was time to play my favorite rhythm game, BanG Dream! Girls Band Party!
I didn’t do this with the intention of garnering attention from others — I just really wanted to rack up points in the game. I wouldn’t even play with the sound on, which defeats the entire point of a game that requires you to tap music notes to the beat of a song. Nevertheless, I refused to embarrass myself with the game’s unabashedly anime-style soundtrack, hence my silent phone.
Despite my cocooning, people would flock to me over time, fascinated by my quick fingers tapping the notes across the screen. My once-held shame for liking anime was long gone when I started playing; people had dozens of questions for me, finding it cool and interesting. “Is it hard?” Yes, but practice makes it better. “Oh my gosh, the whole game is in Japanese! Do you speak Japanese?” No, but sometimes I’d lie and say yes. “Can I try?” Sure, but you won’t be good at it. I’d let novice peers take their turn only to realize they could barely land five notes without failing, and I reveled in the feeling. I was respected — albeit for a very weird, niche thing — but it felt incredible.
Before I recall how this fairly confident practice became normal to me, I must flash back to my roots. Before finding BanG Dream!, I was a nerdy Catholic school student, resentful of the world around me and desperate to be understood. I spent much of my class time making fan art of my favorite anime and television characters. There were few students who liked the same shows I liked, so this was a relatively antisocial activity — but one day in art class, things changed. A girl one year older than me looked at my sketchbook and recognized a character from Love Live! School Idol Festival, a rhythm game based on an anime series I liked at the time. My heart lit up with joy, and we hit it off almost instantly. After a few weeks of talking in class, she stopped me outside my locker and asked: “Do you play BanG Dream! at all? They’re showing one of the concerts from it at a local theater soon; you should come with me!”
Never in my life have I worked so hard to consume media — the moment she asked me to accompany her, I dove headfirst into the medium of rhythm games and all they could offer. And boy, there sure is a lot. BanG Dream! is a multimedia empire; it’s a mobile video game first, but it has four seasons of an accompanying anime series, a full and ever-growing musical discography with live performances, a short-form comedy anime series and more.
This multimedia franchising is typical in the world of rhythm games. After all, they’re centered around tapping to the beat of music, and what is a music game without its own custom music? These games flesh out the characters that make the songs you tap along to. If you become obsessed with a song you play, you can even read the story of how the characters in-game wrote the song, from their interpersonal drama to their thoughts while performing it. They’re character-based first and foremost; check any popular rhythm game’s app icon and you’re likely to find a bubbly anime girl as the cover image.
The characters, of course, are where my love for rhythm games bloomed. BanG Dream! has a lovingly crafted cast composed of nine bands, each which contains five teenage girls with their own stories and inner conflicts. Each band varies conceptually, with their own silly names and themed outfits. For example, Poppin’ Party — the franchise’s titular band — is a colorful collection of close school friends searching for a “sparkling, heart-pounding beat” in their music. Meanwhile, in a sharp contrast, Roselia is a gothic-style rock band made up of the most emo girls you can imagine. So much creativity and love is placed into each band’s group dynamics, their outfits, their music — in-game, you can see animated music videos of the characters performing as you tap along. In the real world, the franchise is fleshed out further through actual concerts — many of the voice actors learned their characters’ instrument of choice so they could perform as the groups live on stage.
This brings me back to my lovely friend and the concert recording we were set to attend. We were seated for a pre-recorded showing of one of Poppin’ Party and Roselia’s joint live concerts, performed in Japan by the voice actors and recorded in high-definition so we could enjoy it in the United States. We were shocked to find such a niche franchise being promoted at a local Michigan theater — the clerk even had specially printed postcards for the concerts that hang in my room to this day.
The theater was by no means packed. To my initial shock, most of the people there were grown men, the exact neckbeard type you’d expect from anime girl fanbases. They were decked out in merchandise, bringing customized glow sticks to wave to the beat and plushies of their favorite girls. I envied them in a way; not because I wanted to be a weird grown man, but because I was actually a 16-year-old girl like the characters from the game — where was my cool merchandise? My discomfort at the prevalence of these men was halted, however, when I saw some girls my own age enter the theater. They had glow sticks, too, and wore fabulous costumes of their favorite characters. They looked just as excited as my friend and I did, and I was happy to know that we weren’t alone.
When the concert started, I found myself moved to tears for seemingly no reason. I had heard these songs several times by then, immersing myself in tapping to their beats. But this? This was a whole new level of emotional resonance — I could so palpably see the voice actors’ love for the characters they play in the way they played each song. I was often in disbelief, seeing the voice actors on stage as their actual characters. The attention to detail in the replication of each outfit and hairstyle, the silly dialogues between each song, all of it melded to make a beautiful combination of a stage play and a concert. Sitting in that theater with tears streaking my cheeks, listening to music whose lyrics I couldn’t even understand, I knew that this moment was changing the trajectory of my life. My friend and I walked out that day closer than ever.
The rest of my free time in high school was devoted to this franchise; I joined online communities and made fan comics about the series, I made my own original characters and, most importantly, I played the game day in and day out. Since I play the Japanese version of the game, I have learned to operate on a different timezone. Eleven o’clock in the morning has become a precious time to me, as it signifies the time I can get on BanG Dream! (as well as every other Japanese rhythm game I play) and collect my daily login bonus (11 a.m. here is midnight in Japan). My online friends and I used to stay up until two in the morning on certain school nights — this is the time new information about in-game events would get leaked in Japan.
My heart would race upon seeing the new event artwork and character costumes; my friends and I would text each other utter nonsense, keysmashing in excitement. It was a time like no other. I was miserable in school, lost in adolescence, but these franchises — the music, the characters, the anime and the friendships I made along the way — kept me going. The friend I went to the concert with is still my best friend to this day, and I’m ever so grateful for rhythm games for bringing us together.
I was about 16 years old when I first entered the world of anime rhythm games — the same age as many of the characters of BanG Dream! Though they’re not real, I have always felt a sort of kinship to their fictional struggles and triumphs.
For a long time, the characters remained stagnant in the narrative, age-wise — they stayed the same age year after year, while I outgrew them. Oddly enough, entering college and seeing them still in high school stung a little. I felt more disengaged from the franchise than I wanted to be, fearing I was “too old” to play this game (despite once being surrounded by thirty-something dudes who play with no shame). However, the game’s latest major update announced several of the older cast members’ graduation from high school. This was an in–game event, and they released beautiful artwork of the characters celebrating their graduation and sharing what they planned to study in college. I couldn’t pull my eyes away, immediately drawn back into their world to celebrate alongside them. Their tearful smiles and ambitions motivated me in my own goals, reminding me of the times we shared together in high school. Though it may be shameful to admit, since they’re fake anime characters, they feel like friends of my own at times. I was happy to see myself growing alongside them.
Recently, I dug through my Google Drive and found my own recordings of an online BanG Dream! concert I watched back in 2020. It was a dark and silent night, about 1 a.m., similar to those times in high school when I stayed up for game events. Although I still play the game frequently, I’m definitely not the hyperactive fan I used to be. In an effort to test my love, I decided to give the videos a watch and see how they made me feel. Surely enough, I was transported to another world yet again. I hadn’t heard some of these songs in years, but I found myself knowing every word and quietly singing along despite still knowing zero Japanese. Once again, tears rolled down my cheeks because this franchise has gotten me through so much. I was reminded of my shimmering yet clumsy youth. The tumultuous years of high school, the throes of COVID-19 and the anxiety of my career search share the backdrop of hearty anime jams and the tap-tap sound of a note combo.
These fictional girls grew up with me, and there’s something oddly comforting about that. I wouldn’t be who I am today without them, without their music. I truly found something that makes me tick, my “lifelong hyperfixation.” Isn’t that great?
Daily Arts Writer Katelyn Sliwinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.