The dating sim genre, in its origins, has always pandered to the male gaze. My first exposure to dating sims “for girls” was Konami’s Tokimeki Memorial: Girl’s Side, a spin-off of their Tokimeki Memorial franchise. In the franchise’s main series, the player was a male high school student that could woo his female classmates; Girl’s Side, on the other hand, gave me the power to be a female high school student surrounded by male classmates I could fall in love with. Although it seems to be more of an expected norm now, this genre of women-catered dating sims is fairly recent: the Angelique franchise, developed by the Ruby Part division of Koei and released in 1994, is credited to have been the first “otome,” or maiden, game.
Now that the world feels like it has gotten smaller and international titles have become more accessible, women seem to be reclaiming dating sims and similar genres. There is no doubt otome games still pander to escapist fantasies of predominantly young, straight women, but it would also be reductive to say that other gamers have no appreciation or are not huge fans of them. Regardless of the avatar the player is given, it is empowering to have agency in attempting to build a relationship with whomever you want when sometimes it isn’t safe, comfortable, or accessible in reality.
As conversation and interest in dating sims have recently resurfaced in the mainstream gaming community thanks to Dream Daddy, we must take note that dating sims by western developers have already existed. Although text-based adventure games and forms of interactive fiction have long existed in the United States, the modern form of the visual novel did not get as much mainstream attention until more recently. The Ren’Ai Archive, for instance, is one of the earlier online initiatives that aimed to showcase western- and indie-produced visual novels. Playing titles from the Ren’Ai Archive was one of my own first dives into the genre that I once thought was specific to Japan.
Dream Daddy definitely took such misconceptions away. Written and created by Vernon Shaw and Leighton Gray, much of Dream Daddy’s production and talent was contributed by the minds behind the popular YouTube channel Game Grumps. Building up to its release, the game had already conceived a decently-sized fan community, only to receive backlash due to an interruption of sudden delays on its release date. Co-creator Vernon Shaw later released a statement clarifying the project was rushed, the team was overworked, and therefore the delays were necessary.
— Dream Daddy (@dreamdaddygame) July 14, 2017
Despite this transparency, some followers expressed frustration. As the labor of artists continues to be undermined by their own consumers, what risks do small projects take for an already niche market? Dream Daddy is a bit of an anomaly; largely due to Game Grumps’ own separate base online, this gay dating sim received more exposure to a mainstream market than almost any other. However, Dream Daddy still did not intend to cater to mainstream gamers; content for, represented by, and otherwise created by minorities continues to be held to different, if not unrealistic, standards. Video game development is not a simple task, and Dream Daddy being a dating sim makes it no different. However, that is not to say that all critiques of the game are invalid.
The experience is meant to be personal when playing a dating sim, and the player can sometimes remain distant from the creator’s intentions. Because of the heavy, iconic nature that differentiates visual novels from something like a text adventure, immersion becomes more psychological over perceptual. The question of whether the player is playing squarely into the creator’s intentions or not remains blurry. How much power does a gamer have over a narrative that is driven by self-insertion? At what point do demands meet the need for authentic representation versus individual entitlement?
At Paste Magazine, Kenneth Shepard argues that Dream Daddy is inauthentic on the queer dating experience, that it “[makes] for an idealized, almost insincere portrayal of its subject matter.” Dream Daddy has also faced an additional smidge of controversy when someone discovered the game had a considerably traumatic, bad ending with a particular character. Despite being cut from the finalized product, there was concern with a hidden sequence that essentially perpetuated the dated trope of queerness being linked to deviancy and evil. Meanwhile, other industry response has critiqued the game similarly. Dream Daddy’s queerness marks it as an “other,” and this queerness is somehow automatically synonymous with sex and the risque.
All in all, Dream Daddy nonetheless still faces tropes and challenges common in other otome games. There seems to be a genuine intent behind Dream Daddy’s creators to cover and appeal to more inclusive audience. However, developers have difficult questions to face, ones where there may be no real answers or concrete solutions any time soon. Many otome games (and video games in general) are still created through a heterosexual lens for heterosexual people, so who is Dream Daddy’s fanservice really for? Numerous voices, queer, women, and so on, have been drowned out by a louder culture that caters to the male gaze, and we must be mindful of media that continues the cycle of overshadowing other identities.
As dating sims move into the spotlight before mainstream audiences, writers and developers alike must start meditating on the contents they produce. In an earlier time when social media was starting to become significant part of fandom, Dramatical Murder, a boys’ love visual novel on the PC, had an underground following. Through the viral nature that is the Internet, if not additionally boosted by a later anime adaptation, Dramatical Murder soon unintentionally attracted a much younger audience. The game was heavily criticized for containing dark content that lacked much forewarning. In the present, as mobile games have grown into a more significant industry, Mystic Messenger has similarly achieved such popularity by way of social media channels and online communities. Developed by Cheritz, a Korean company also known for their other dating sims Dandelion and Nameless, players navigate Mystic Messenger through the guise of a fake messenger interface. Although praised for its unique premise and for capturing a global audience, Mystic Messenger has been criticized for its portrayal of mental illness. Defenders of both of the games, as with other games of non-Western origin, maintained arguments that there were simply differences in cultural values. It is easy to blame cultural values for certain standards and archetypes present in some narratives—if not also problematic to reduce certain cultures to ignorance of these conversations—but the reality is that all of these problems remain universal among dating sims, regardless of country of origin.
All of this is not to demonize Dream Daddy entirely—having played it, it is something I definitely enjoyed!—but recurring problems that most dating sims seem to repeat are not to be ignored. Why are so many titles of a game genre meant for personal escape oversaturated with trauma? More often than not, these portrayals of trauma tend to hurt marginalized identities the most for the sake of story.
However, as we balance between not burdening creators with impractical expectations of work, accountability for depiction and representation is still important and should not be forgotten. That is to say, the burden of fulfilling authentic representation shouldn’t depend on the identities of its creators either: Dream Daddy has had people of color and queer creators involved in its production. The reality is, finding the “perfect” narrative and depiction of someone is tokenizing, which can be as, if not more, harmful than lack of representation itself. Women can be cruel, and queerness can have heartbreak. The true problems lie within reducing people to specific caricatures of a certain ideal. Humanity is not a monolith, and we must maintain diverse narratives by not reducing different identifies to unrealistic ideals and perfect standards. (A fellow Bleating Heart Press writer, Clara Mae, has actually compiled a list of dating sims and visual novels by queer creators here.)
There are many takeaways from the Dream Daddy backlash that preceded its official release, calling for both the understanding of the labor of creators and the necessary accountability that encourages games to continue to improve. Although the thinning barriers between creator and consumer can be terrifying, there is something optimistic about better access to open dialogues to fulfill our own dreams within dating sims.