Hatoful Boyfriend is a game about building interspecies relationships with birds.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way and addressed the gorilla—or some form of giant bird—in the room, let’s talk about how that’s nothing but a distraction.
Most people can give you a brief description of Hatoful Boyfriend without even having played it. It has received something of a reputation since getting an English Steam release despite being available as a Japanese download since 2011. It’s a game about dating birds and no, that’s not a metaphor. No, you’re not a bird yourself and yes, it’s from Japan. All of these things are accurate, but only to a point. The great thing about Hatoful Boyfriend is that it is all of these qualities and none of them. It simultaneously pays tribute to dating sims and shojo anime while also giving them a big “fuck you”—pun intended.
Granted there isn’t any sex in the game, but there’s just about everything else. There are several romance options and 16 possible endings and while each awaiting bachelor adheres to specific genre tropes (the forlorn loner, the bird next door, the troubled teacher, the mad scientist, for example) the endings aren’t always expected or restrained. Even the most basic of endings are complex, bringing up issues with human and bird life spans or turning into spy thrillers and family dramas that don’t always end happily ever after. The characters are also surprisingly detailed, especially considering the aforementioned archetypes they tend to fall into. As the protagonist sits down to learn about each of them, they reveal more about themselves, whether it’s the rich snob that falls under the pressure of family or the best friend riddled with tragedy. Some of the characters are better than others, leading to some of the endings feeling worth the 30 minutes to an hour each takes to finish. A few of the romances rely on sweet, shallow humor and lack any emotional connection with the protagonist, eventually falling into semi-predictable territory. In one instance, there is an eligible marathon-running bachelor that never develops an attachment to you, only liking you because you feed him beans, but he wants you to join him on his quest to find the “one true pudding” (don’t ask). Another one of the relationships feels uncomfortable because the subject in question doesn’t even try to hide how creepy he is, making motivations to romance him unbelievable. However, any inconsistencies get pushed to the side when you realize that each romance exists to contribute to the overall narrative. In the end, who you choose doesn’t even matter as long as you choose someone.
Hatoful Boyfriend takes place in the 22nd century, where birds have gained human-like intelligence and now go to school, join gangs, run cafes, and generally live in coexistence with the remaining humans, although not necessarily peacefully. Through the course of the game and in exploring each of the relationship options, you start to unravel a shadowy, despairing, surprisingly political post-apocalyptic world that, without spoiling too much, might just rest on your primate shoulders. You are the sole human student at St. Pigeonation’s, a respected academy for birds, and with that position comes a lot of responsibility. The romance outcomes are truly a matter of life and death here, which turns this relatively simple dating sim upside down. In between choosing which elective class you go to and deciding whether or not you want to get a part-time job, repeating the same events over and over through each new playthrough, you come to understand that you are caught up in a conspiracy that is so much larger than you that you couldn’t hope to reach its top, even if you did have wings. Each ending provides you with clues to why you are at St. Pigeonation’s and what the game’s true intentions are. It becomes slightly disjointed since you have to start anew to get each ending, but considering this is a dating sim, a genre based on completion on endings, it’s forgivable, especially since it manages to use each playthrough as a chapter to a greater story. How it rewards the player for sticking with the game is clever, providing you with teases to a story that, at times, leaves you slack-jawed.
The game takes pride in ruffling your feathers, straddling the line between satire and deconstruction of the dating sim. Each playthrough starts off with a cheerful introduction from the narrator, who takes each day in stride despite living in a cave and being the only human surrounded by birds. You know, the usual. The subsequent scenes manage to subvert the typical attitudes held by romantic protagonists by creating un-romantic or implausible relations with dysfunctional birds that you are forced to explore in order to complete the game. Despite each of these birds initially emerging as overused archetypes of the genre, they manage to break out of their shells. It’s hilarious in the sense that the player ultimately becomes numb to the idea of romancing birds, the absurdity and hyper-awareness of these human-like birds inclining us to be okay with what comes down to bestiality. It seems as if half the dialogue draws attention to species characteristics, whether it’s the fact that birds reach sexual maturity in the first year of their lives, or your own paleolithic, hunter-gatherer instincts, each conversation never flittering over the issues. That, plus the hints to a much larger picture, keep the player entertained. Being unabashedly comfortable with itself allows the player to accept the craziness that ensues.
Regardless of whether the cropped photographs of real birds and the static backgrounds do much for you, the developer understands that it’s not going to matter. Hatoful Boyfriend is a game about dating birds and that’s never changing regardless of quality, storytelling prowess, or how attractive the guys/birds are. The game dares to ask the question “what would it be like to date birds?” and runs with it, compiling almost logical reasons as to why you are there. There’s a question as to whether a lot of it is there just for the shock value, or if it’s nothing but a novelty available for a few quick laughs between friends. This can be dispelled thanks to its trick: It’s so much more than a dating sim or a parody of dating sims. Once you discover the story within a story that is Hatoful Boyfriend, you’ll be tempted to see all the endings, just to figure out what the developer is up to.
Carli Velocci is a freelance journalist in Boston, Massachusetts. She has written for DigBoston and Gameranx and isn’t afraid of anything. You can find her on Twitter @revierypone.