Dream Daddy, the Dad-on-Dad dating sim that became this summer’s gaming obsession simply through word of mouth, is a good game. Maybe even a great one. Yes, all the dads are super hot, the writing is good, it’s genuinely funny and heartfelt, but for me personally it meant a lot more. As someone who grew up with a single dad after my mom died when I was a toddler, it really made me feel close to him to be able to play as a dad with a similar backstory. But more than that, I appreciated how this game understands single fatherhood in a way that few other games have. And there are a LOT of games that attempt to wrangle this into their plots. Commonly called “The Dadification of Games”, this trend was most prevalent in the BioShock Infinite/The Last of Us era, but it’s far from a dying trend. The new God of War is even moving away from the more common father/daughter trope by giving Kratos a son.
Personally, I HATE the Dadification of Games. Not just because it often fridges women or ignores motherhood, although I really hate that part too, but because I lived that experience. It was just my dad for a very long time, and it wasn’t always easy. I’ve never felt like a game has ever captured it in a meaningful way until Dream Daddy. In so many games, the single father relationship is one used to elicit sympathy from players in a highly violent world. It’s there to provide emotional beats, but ultimately never really has anything to say about the experience. A daughter figure is someone to be protected, not someone with any real agency, regardless of any abilities they may have. The BioShock trilogy I often describe as such: BioShock—“I hate my dad”; BioShock 2—“Oh no, now I’m the dad and it’s hard”; BioShock Infinite—“Now I am the dad that I always hated.” It’s the response of an aging male-dominated industry imagining what single fatherhood would be like and what they would do, and not a reflection of reality. As Mattie Brice writes in her seminal 2013 essay, “The Dadification of Video Games is Real”:
“I feel like it stands as a ‘fuck you’ to this aging gamer/game developer population of men trying to keep their killing sprees and titillation while requesting to be taken seriously as creators and players.”
But Dream Daddy isn’t like that, which of course is easier since it is a dating sim and not a first-person shooter or action adventure game. The game is both a comment about the Dadification of games in general and a subversion of the trope that has been done so poorly for so long. The real joke of Dream Daddy, which a lot of people seem to misunderstand, is not “lol these dads are gay,” it’s “lol games are already so full of dads already they should probably kiss.” (They should.) But where I think Dream Daddy succeeds most is that while yes, it is a romance game and you can can romance every dad and have that be a meaningful experience for the player, the real love story of this game is between the MD (Main Daddy) and his daughter Amanda.
Amanda Ann Xena (which was her name in my personal playthrough) is easily the most fully realized daughter in videogames. She’s smart, spunky, independent, creative, and has been raised well (if I do say so myself). Much of the conflict with her has to do with coming to terms with the fact that she is no longer a child, and realizing that you don’t need to protect her even though you really want to; that she’s almost a grown-up now and you need to start letting her go. Failure to do so results in the “bad” ending, which honestly sounds horrible. (I have obviously never done it because I am an excellent video game father. Just ask Ciri. OK, you can’t, but take my word for it, I treated my girl right.)
But the thing that has always bothered me most about the Dadification of Games is how it doesn’t recognize the stigma there still is for single fathers. It’s definitely more normal now than when I was growing up, but so many people were very uncomfortable with the fact that my dad didn’t remarry right away after we lost my mother, and that he was raising us alone. (He wasn’t, really, I had tons of wonderful female relatives and family friends who stepped into that role when it was needed, but that’s not how it was perceived.) There were people who didn’t want my friends to sleepover at my house without a woman being there, for example. Yes, that actually happened. More than once! So, when a game sexualizes its daughter figures for the sake of a “male” audience that won’t accept them if they’re not (and many absolutely do this, particularly the aforementioned BioShock and of course The Witcher 3), it reinforces that stigma and, frankly, makes me really mad. It impoverishes the relationship between characters, but also the relationship you want the player to have with the character. But Dream Daddy rejects this as well, and the result is a genuine, affecting relationship.
Dream Daddy accurately portrays the joys and hardships of being a single father in a way that other games have not, in a way that goes beyond just not getting your daughter killed, or trying to protect her from the reality of a harsh world. They have inside jokes and favourite TV shows and they feel like a real family. They also have disagreements about both silly things and not silly things, and are there for each other in an emotional sense that is often very rare in games.
It also meant a lot to me that the MD in Dream Daddy is a widower specifically, though I wish the game had explored that more with some of the other characters in the same situation. There is a little bit of this, particularly in Mat’s route, but the three-dates-each formula really showed in these routes because I felt like more time could have been spent on going deeper into these Dads’ emotional lives. When your game is to a large degree about the internal lives of single dads, I think that’s really important and wish the game had spent just a smidge more time developing that. One very brief conversation about the dead spouse didn’t feel like enough, especially in Robert’s route. Robert clearly is very affected by this, but the game ends before you can really get into it.
The relationship I had with my dad wasn’t really like the one portrayed in Dream Daddy (we were never a particularly emotionally vulnerable family), but Dream Daddy still made me feel closer to my dad and his experience in a way that other games have tried to capture and failed. Being a single father isn’t easy, and the game acknowledges that with humour and sensitivity. I connected with it in a way I have never really connected with, say, The Last of Us. Not because it’s impossible for me to connect with an experience I will never have (being a dad in the apocalypse, which is always the case with these games), but because it tries to trivialize something that shouldn’t be. A daughter isn’t someone who needs to be protected or found, who is there just to provoke an artificial emotional response from the player. This is something the Dadification of Games so often fails to grasp. You can tell these games are written by people who have never actually experienced it, for whom single fatherhood is the worst case scenario. Dream Daddy is the first time it’s never felt fake to me, and that matters.