Tonight, if you play your cards right, you could go on a date with a beautiful guy, a funny woman, a charismatic non-binary person, or if you want to get frisky, a horse prince with the head of a really, really good-looking man.
You don’t have to be attractive, charming, or single. Hell, you don’t even have to leave your house or put on pants. As long as you have a phone, computer, or console you, too, can find love.
Video game romance has evolved so much over the past few years… seven, in fact, but we’ll get to what happened in 2011 later. At some point, our digital love interests, which used to be mainly provided by major developers and relegated to subplots, became the focus of mainstream games.
Early on, love was mixed into games that revolved primarily around combat. The fan reaction to the romances in games like Baldur’s Gate II and Mass Effect helped encourage developers to further explore relationships in their games. This, in turn, helped those games gain fans who weren’t just there for the axe-wielding or dungeon crawling. Writer Patrick Weekes, who’s worked on both the Mass Effect and Dragon Age franchises for BioWare, likes to talk about the popularity of the romantic aspect of their games, often publicly joking that he makes “dating sims with a small save-the-world minigame.”
While games that centered around romance have been popular for decades (and there has always been a passionate audience for those games in the West), it was the ones that focused on aspects other than romance, like Persona 3 and Catherine, that had gained any real crossover appeal in the States.
That is, until 2011.
I’ve been speaking and writing about romance in games for years now, and there are certain games that come up in just about every romance-in-games conversation. When sitting down to write this piece, I made a timeline of games that contained romances that my friends and I just can’t shut up about and I noticed something. Prior to 2011, the games on my list were almost all from major publishers and they essentially all had romances as subplots, not main stories.
After 2011, there were all sorts of independent games you could play in just a few hours that were either focused entirely on romance (or, at least, didn’t have any combat in them) and the romances were just… really different.
So, what happened to change everything in 2011? As best as I can figure, it’s largely because a strange little Japanese game about dating pigeons hit the U.S. market. I had no idea that this is the conclusion I would come to, but here we are.
Hatoful Boyfriend—a dating sim where you romance pigeons—gained notoriety because of its off-the-wall premise, but it saw success because it’s a good game. It’s emotionally engaging, surprising, and the artwork is beautiful. The weirdness factor just served to get people’s attention.
What started out as an April Fool’s joke became a game that showed would-be indie developers exactly how far they could go with the genre and still achieve success. “Hatoful Boyfriend showed both commercial-minded indie devs and their publishers [that] A) weird niches are sometimes lucrative, B) romance as a niche might be bigger than initially appeared, and C) humor sells,” says Tanya X. Short, director of Kitfox Games. She would know. She’s currently developing Boyfriend Dungeon, a game where weapons turn into humans that players can date.
There isn’t much information about Hato Moa, the sole person in Hatoful Boyfriend’s original credits. All of Moa’s profile pictures are drawings of pigeons, and any signings Moa attends have a strict no-photos policy. Even still, Moa responded to my email within hours. I asked if Hato Moa was a pen name (it is, comprised of the Japanese name for pigeon and the name of an extinct bird) and what their preferred pronoun was (“that bird” was the first answer, but also she/her is acceptable). Moa said that the game was inspired by a “never-ending love for birds and Okosan, [that bird’s] lovely companion pigeon” along with the high school dating sim mode in Rival Schools, a 1997 fighting game by Capcom.
Moa admitted surprise at the reception the game received, writing, “I never thought so many people would love my pigeon dating sim, especially people in other countries.” But a lot of people did.
Independent games had begun to take root in the mass market by this point, and developer tools had also become more accessible. It wasn’t necessary to have a huge team and the most expensive hardware and software to make a game anymore, breaking down at least some of the barriers that had so long kept diverse voices from the space. If you wanted to make a vampire romance comedy choose-your-own-adventure-style game, you could. (I did, and I did. It’s no longer available as an app, but you can see the trailer here.)
“I've never been anything but indie, but it is nice that I can mostly do as I please,” says developer Jaime of Jaime Scribbles Games. “I always wanted to see more women in games that weren't prizes. Then, I think about people of color and how little they are represented. My games may only be a tiny blip in the mass of media out there, but I can do my small part in working towards more inclusion.”
While the AAAs kept making their games (and increasing the romance options in them due to player interest), indies sprung up everywhere. Suddenly, we had all sorts of experiences, from Save the Date where you had to rescue your date from getting killed, to Gone Home, to Jurassic Heart where you try to date a T-Rex.
All of these games paved the way for My Horse Prince (2016) a Japanese dating sim/tapper featuring a horse… who’s a prince… who has the head of an attractive man who cooks dinner and serenades the player by putting on a rock show even though he only has hooves. It’s a singular experience that has to be played to be believed.
That same year saw Firewatch . Not a romance game, exactly, but not not a romance game, either. Firewatch deals with love and relationships right off the bat with Henry’s wife and then with, sigh, Delilah, the voice on the other end of the walkie-talkie (disclosure: Cissy Jones, the actor who voices Delilah, is a personal friend). All it takes is one late night conversation to make you fall madly in love with that voice.
Then, in 2017, Dream Daddy hit the market like Hatoful did. The surprising premise of dating single gay dads helped it cut through, but it was the sincere writing and positive representation of gay men that gave it staying power. Boosted by Dream Daddy’s success, romanceable LGBTQIA characters are continuing to gain representation, like in the upcoming Date or Die which features queer, transgender, and non-binary folks as romanceable characters.
This year, we’ve been lucky to have Florence, released on Valentine’s Day, which takes romance in games in another new direction. It’s a casual mobile puzzle game where the puzzles don’t just take a backseat to the romance, they help the player experience the feelings between the two characters. The game’s creative director, Ken Wong, says, “Most chapters of Florence started with wanting to capture a particular feeling or an emotional beat in a relationship.” One of the most memorable moments of the game is when Florence has her first date with Krish and the player puts together puzzle pieces to complete speech bubbles.
The longer they talk, the simpler the puzzles get, showing how much easier their conversation flows. Wong says, “We wanted to portray what it feels like to feel really nervous at first, then gradually more comfortable with a new partner.” The result is a game that evokes the magical quality of young love.
Another notable aspect to this particular indie game is the fact that neither the protagonist nor the love interest is Caucasian. “I want a future where people like me can see themselves in popular culture, so it was very important,” says Wong, himself Chinese-Australian. “I wanted to show the world the Australia I know. A Chinese-Australian woman can be a protagonist. An Indian-Australian man can be the subject of desire.”
Now, it is possible to see yourself in a game. All you have to have is an idea, some technical ability, and the desire to create. It’s fun to see what people have already done with this freedom, whether they keep things in the natural realm like Florence’s tiny apartment, or they let their imaginations take them to alternate realities, like Hatoful Boyfriend’s school full of amorous pigeons. As consumer technology continues to become more powerful and accessible, more and more of the population will be able to use it. It will be fascinating to see what the next generation of game developers chooses to share from their real love lives… and their fantasy ones.