Recently, Max Gentleman Sexy Business!, a raunchy Victorian mash-up of dating and business, finished its campaign on Kickstarter. The campaign far outstripped its goal of $8,000 and raised a whopping $38,405. Hotly on its heels is another campaign for Boyfriend Dungeon, a dating sim come dungeon crawler where you can romance your weapons. With only a few more days to go, Boyfriend Dungeon has also already way surpassed its goal and pulled a meaty $233,052.
These aren’t the only examples of developers taking a conventional dating sim framework and throwing in some crazy to shake it up a bit. You’ve likely played or heard of games like Jurassic Heart, where you court a ukulele-playing tyrannosaurus, or Dream Daddy, where you, a gay father, exclusively date other gay fathers who all happen to live in the same neighbourhood.
With an increasing number of games like these getting such a positive reaction, it’s time to ask why we’re so attracted to something as simple as a goofy spin on this established genre.
Back in the Day
Until a few years ago, the original Japanese dating sims as a genre were fairly straight-laced, with most games falling in line with the same set of rules: they often had a high school setting and the relationships were pretty heteronormative, with the earliest ones specifically being of the one guy/harem of girls variety. Love interests had set, stereotypical personalities you doggedly mimicked if you wanted to get anywhere with them.
These parameters, though they’ve widened with time, have become so established and so recognisable that inevitably people were going try to twist the rigid format into new and exciting shapes.
Hatoful Boyfriend was one of the first to get really weird with it. It released way back in 2011 and centres on a human girl looking for love in a high school full of pigeons. After the initial bafflement subsided, players fell in love with the game’s surreal concept and surprisingly good storyline, and for a small game with little to no promotion, word of it spread like wildfire.
Since Hatoful Boyfriend there have been a slew of other dating sims putting their own unique take on the genre, each pushing their own version of what could be described as a gimmick. It’s important to say here that a gimmick isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A twist, joke or publicity-grabbing appeal is fun if the audience is in on it too. The gimmick is the crux of these newer games and while all the gimmick may amount to is a novelty, sometimes that’s enough.
Jurassic Heart gets by on the charm of novelty alone, which is all you’re really playing it for. At other times the gimmick can seriously shake up the way a game works. Even Doki Doki Literature Club, a meta psychological horror masquerading as a dating sim, uses this concept to its benefit. As it blew up, much of the publicity that spread could be summed up as “it’s a dating sim, but it’s scary”.
So why do these gimmicky dating sims continue to do so well? Because they’re funny, basically.
A silly concept or a weird but shareable image is attention-grabbing, and anything that has the WTF-factor is guaranteed to generate hubbub. From potato salad to Hamlet enacted entirely by pugs, Kickstarter has proved time and time again that if an idea is ridiculous enough, people will throw money at it.
On the developer side on things, if you have a wacky concept you want to build a game around, a dating sim is going to be one of the easier ones to pull off, as standard visual novel format is low maintenance and fairly cost-effective to make.
When it’s Just Not Enough
But of course a gimmicky game isn’t always a good one. With an increasing number of what could be described as “a dating sim but x”, fans of these games are left to separate the good from the bad.
Games with better construction, writing and gameplay will usually be the most successful and will often end up being played and talked about long after they come out. Those without might generate sales or get a lot of early backing, but the excitement tends to fade fast.
You may have heard of a certain terrorism-themed dating sim that launched on Kickstarter this Summer. The Super Patriotic Dating Simulator has you play as your average all-American girl and super spy for the CIA. Your job is to infiltrate Isis but when you get to the headquarters you find that (surprise!) it’s full of cute boys.
Though it’s campaign was unsuccessful, you would’ve been able to romance classic terrorist archetypes like the suicide bomber, the beheader and the organisation’s brand manager. The game falls in line with many others like it in being able to get fairly far on edgy, random humour.
While you could pin its lack of success on the developer’s high asking price of $42,069, another reason is simply that we’re starting to become over-saturated with gimmicky dating sims. With this one in particular, once you get past the gag concept and laugh at the joke, there’s not much originality to keep you there. As soon as you hear about the game or see a couple of screenshots you get the joke, and have essentially already got all you can out of the concept.
It’s difficult to predict what the future holds for the current novelty dating sim boom. As the market becomes ever more saturated with quirky twists on the dating sim, will we eventually get bored of them?
Trends ebb and flow. With this latest push of games like Max Gentleman and Boyfriend Dungeon changing up conventional format and bringing in fresh gameplay elements, it looks like this trend is still evolving. This new breed of dating sims are set to be around for a while, but at least they’re starting to be interesting to play too.