The harem genre, whether it rears its pandering head in anime or games, is all about wish fulfillment. Whether it’s a group of gals from outer space who crash at a male protagonist’s dojo or anthropomorphized zodiac signs who take in a homeless female protagonist, the goal of any given harem is to appease every possible romantic fantasy of the intended viewer or player. This is accomplished through the growing attention of (and eventual outpouring of affections from) harem members, each distinguished usually by only a single trait, for the blank-slate protagonist, onto whom viewers are supposed to ascribe their own visage.
The first two seasons of the anime adaptation of The World God Only Knows (TWGOK), a manga by Tamiki Wakaki, are typical harem in many aspects, but they also serve as parody of the same. The show’s third season, however, adds the biting portrayal of the consequences of such otaku entrapments (namely dating sims) in order to deal with the hitherto unanswered-for consequences of applying the strategies of dating sims to the “real” world. Sure, those consequences take two whole 12-episode seasons to manifest, but from the first self-actualized sigh to an absolutely heartbreaking show of maintaining an obsession despite having to betray sincere affection, TWGOK Season 3 proves to be a powerful example of tongue-in-cheek commentary — using its very genre to criticize the same.
Keima Katsuragi, famed as the God of Conquests throughout the virtual world (and infamous in certain other circles), is a high school student who forsakes all absolutely unnecessary human interaction in favor of completing all the various routes in dating sims (dating simulation games). To him, the girls of these harem games are programmed for his conquest (given the appropriate sequence of events) and represent the feminine ideal. The logic behind their personalities has become so clear to Katsuragi that completing any particular route — that by which the player wins the affections of one of the love interests — in any particular game doesn’t pose the slightest hindrance. But then hell breaks loose. No, really.
After he’s goaded into unwittingly accepting a contract from hell because of his reputation as a playa, a demon falls out of the sky and teams up with Katsuragi in order to catch “loose souls” (escapees from hell who hide in host humans). And because the protagonist of this harem anime is male, of course all the loose souls come to inhabit females. What’s more is that the only types of girls said souls can possess are ones with a figurative hole in their heart. Katsuragi’s job, which he’s forced to carry out under penalty of death, is to fill those holes with love ... his (feigned) love — displacing the loose soul for subsequent capture by his hell-powered, purple-clad, janitor-turned-soul-wrangling-demon-assistant Elsie. After the successful seduction of his target (completion of the route), the girl forgets everything that transpired between her and Katsuragi. Then the show (game) starts over (resets) with a focus on a new girl (route).
Seasons 1 and 2 follow this to the letter, with intermittent interjections painting portraits of Katsuragi’s reluctant participation and complete exasperation in having to deal with flesh and blood instead of save files, yet never seem stale. This is made possible, for the most part, due to the show's strength in evoking a quick and shallow sympathy (a la dating sim routes) for the sad tales behind the holes in the hearts of those possessed. The main girl in focus may only last 3 episodes, but enough time is spent with each and with Katsuragi trying to woo them that a very sincere illusion of a budding relationship builds very quickly but surprisingly believably. Those who are unsympathetic or not suckers for tales about falling in love (or at least high school puppy love), however, will probably loathe this string of template romances for its redundancy.
The plot progression is repetitive, as it represents an intentional structure paralleled to a dating sim, but also slyly adds its own application of one particular metaphor: Katsuragi’s collar as a manifestation of his obsession with games. After all, the collar materializes when he enters into a contract with hell to capture loose souls by doing in real life what he prefers to do solely in games. Katsuragi will not be released from this duty until all the loose souls are captured. His obsession thus becomes his torment; Katsuragi cannot stop “playing” lest he literally lose his head. And with hell’s usual twist, what Katsuragi desired (to play games ad infinitum) is and isn’t exactly what’s bestowed. Playing off of the notion of the devil’s promise to transform an anime about an adolescent male obsessed with playing dating sims into a dating sim-themed harem anime deserves nothing but respect for how obvious the meta commentary is yet how smoothly it is applied. Then Season 3 takes down the safety net.
Because anime series, like games, need contextual excuses to further plot, Season 3 brings down goddesses that just so happen to take over some of the same girls Katsuragi formerly conquered. Unlike a possession by loose spirit, a possession by goddess has one serious repercussion: the revival of those individuals’ memories of Katsuragi’s wooing. Why are the goddesses on Earth? Because a certain demonic sect in new hell is threatening to transform Earth into the hell of old. But the goddesses aren’t at full power, so Katsuragi must re-seduce the former conquests in order for them to grant full power to the goddesses they host so that they might defeat the impending threat. Asinine plot devices aside, holding a blank-slate protagonist accountable for his crafted role is utterly fascinating.
Katsuragi is paralleled to the protagonists in his games, and all his saves files (conquests) merge into one gigantic feat of juggling; as all the girls hosting goddesses are fully cognizant of their flings with Katsuragi, he cannot let any see his re-wooing of the others lest his illusion of monogamy fail. But Katsuragi isn’t, by this point, heartless. By making all these girls fall in love with him over the past seasons, he’s warmed up to the idea of flesh-and-blood interaction in that (at the very least) it no longer makes his skin crawl. Thus thawed, his chilled yet beating heart also pumps some notion of conscience throughout his system in the form of sympathy for those he's had to trick. Suddenly, the feelings of these young women matter to Katsuragi (in terms of plot and conscience) — something that’s been rendered inconsequential by the TWGOK series until now. Elaborating on this, Season 3 eventually grows Katsuragi’s heart like The Grinch, while holding him to obligation.
Even with all the chaos of “the game” Katsuragi’s forced to play, the routes are more or less logical and straightforward — they just have a lot more restrictions and rules than the previous levels (seasons). Thus Katsuragi has no problems seeking out and re-seducing prior conquests who harbor a goddess. But factor a faux pas — a bad guess, someone he re-woos who is not one who remembers — into the equation and things get ... complicated. Emotions get involved. Illogical love happens and suffers rejection for duty. This moment is what makes Season 3 brilliant. Katsuragi finds himself falling in love during his own calculated advances, and the person he’s attempting to woo gets wooed off of her feet and onto her back. Because said successful wooing does not release a goddess within, Katsuragi knows he guessed wrong and must abandon this route. The difference? He feels genuine sympathy for the dejection suffered by the girl at the hand of his rejection, an act which parallels his M.O. from previous seasons of forsaking human interaction for the characters in games. This epiphany is the entire reason behind Season 3.
After near three seasons of coldly manipulating the romantic attentions of his female classmates, one route Katsuragi embarks upon turns out to be an Easter egg: actual love — something in which he cannot afford to indulge, regardless of his actual feelings/intentions, lest he fail and let Earth become the new old hell. Consequence has found Katsuragi, and it humbles him before his throne of conquest. He recognizes the emotions of a partner not as an end game but of continuance — something for future development. That this path cannot proceed because of his obligation (read: obsession) speaks volumes to addiction. Katsuragi may want to fall in love and continue with the real-life passion he’s discovered, but his contract with the game conquers all. That moment, turning away a chance at real love for a game mocking the same, is a warning. It's a metaphor for the dangerous addiction faced by those who’d confuse dating sims, harem anime, and the like for the real joy only to be found via the unpredictability of flesh-and-blood courtship.