Life is full of tough decisions, but lately, few have provided as much anxiety as deciding which handsome fellow will be granted a third date with yours truly. "You know what they say about third dates," says the game, as my mouse hovers over the confirmation button. "They get pretty serious. Are you sure this is your Dream Daddy?" No, game, I'm not sure. Not yet.
Dream Daddy is a comedic visual novel where a bumbling but well-intentioned single father moves into a cul-de-sac full of attractive, interesting men, all of whom (naturally) take a quick interest in him. How you navigate forward—friendships, romance, sex—is your choice. It's a fascinating collaboration between the hosts of the popular YouTube Let's Play series Game Grumps, former Hot Pepper Gaming co-creator Vernon Shaw, and illustrator Leighton Gray.
Here's what I look like in Dream Daddy. It's extremely accurate.
Besides customizing your look, the game offers players an opportunity to shape some of your background. Playing as a man, the presence of your 18-year-old daughter (Amanda), and that daughter being non-white are constants, but it's an open question whether Amanda's other parent (who is now out of the picture) was a man or woman and if your child was adopted. (I went with a mother who birthed her, merely because I tend to role-play games close to my own self.) Dream Daddy is about interactions with other men, yet lets you choose a woman as your former partner, immediately presenting sexuality as something that exists on a spectrum. Nice.
Given how binary most other games are when it comes to sexual preferences, it was refreshing to play a game that just went "Look, humans are complicated."
If you're not familiar with the structure of a visual novel, it's mostly reading and making choices. Dream Daddy does include a few (bad) mini-games, but the main attraction is the story it's telling and your role in that tale. After being introduced to the game's suite of other dads, you gain access to a social network called Dadbook, where dads go to dad. The bulk of the game plays out from this social network; it's where you choose who to hang out with. Between moments with fellow dads, various subplots play out, including mounting stress over the most important person in your life, your daughter, preparing to leave for college.
I'm not familiar with Game Grumps' sense of humor (or politics), so I was worried about playing this. It wasn't hard for me to imagine a game about tender relationships between adult men, especially a comedy, resulting in a series of crude, ignorant jokes. And though I'm a straight white man who can't claim to know much about the ins and outs of queer relationships, Dream Daddy never feels condescending or hateful. It's touching, treats its characters like human beings, and goes out of its way to represent all sorts of situations, whether it's someone currently in a (troubled) marriage with a woman, a whiskey-slinging loner with a penchant for aggressive moves, or a recently divorced father of three trying to figure out if there's time to make relationships anymore. Some are black, some are white. Some are big, some are small. One might be trans.
It's also not clear that Dream Daddy's endgame is explicitly about sex? Though I've only played a few hours and been on a handful of dates with the conveniently located, conveniently sexy men in my neighborhood, most of the time, it's been about casual bonding and getting to know the other person, often in the presence of other people, or even your own kids. If sex is coming, the game is taking its sweet time getting there, letting you get to know people before doing the deed.
(It's a dating game and I know how it's supposed to end, which is probably why the game warns about committing to a third date: the situation's about to get serious.)
Thankfully, these quiet moments at a concert or in a record store are where the writing shines, crafting well-defined individuals with compelling backstories and believable banter. You have a limited amount of control over where the conversations go, occasionally getting a chance to choose between a few pithy responses, but no matter which answer you pick, the reward is strikingly real exchanges that had me smiling, laughing, and blushing the whole way through.
Dream Daddy is extremely funny, too. Lots of games can make you smile, but I was genuinely busting a gut on more than one occasion. And if you're someone who enjoys a pun, gosh, Dream Daddy might be game of the year:
You can't hear it in the clip above, but in reality, I was screaming "NOOOOO," while simultaneously cursing the game for getting me to actually laugh at puns.
My reported lack of sex isn't entirely true, either. It's complicated. After my daughter asked me to leave the house so she could have a sleepover with a friend, I headed to a local bar to watch The Game, where I found myself next to a friendly, mysterious man sipping on whiskey. We made conversation, did some shots together, and cheered on The Game. ("The Game" is what Dream Daddy calls sports. A great line: "I awkwardly turn my attention to The Game, which is playing on one of the TVs on the wall. As luck would have it, my team of preference is not only playing but is currently in the lead, which is always a good thing." Good.)
When The Game was over, the two of us walked home, and he invited me inside. Naively forgetting this was a visual novel, I quickly accepted, thinking it would be for something like a friendly night cap. Instead, I was pressed against the wall and kissing began in earnest. While the game doesn't describe your immediate reaction to the situation, the fact that you remove your jacket certainly suggests some interest. Then, before pants are off and it's down to business, the other man notices the hesitation and asks for consent: "Do you want to go home?"
I said yes, and they respected the decision—no drama. I'd barely had a chance to meet the other characters, and Dad Patrick wasn't the type to act so brash.
One last note: Dream Daddy does an excellent job capturing what it's like to be a parent, especially the desire to brag about your child's accomplishments in the presence of other parents doing the same. It's petty and ridiculous and yet every parent is guilty of it, which the game brilliantly translates to a Pokémon-like battle:
2017 has been a wild year for games, one that continues to surprise me. I've spent more than 80 hours with a competitive multiplayer shooter in PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, and despite the other games I could be playing right now, the one I want to get back to most is Dream Daddy, a nice game about nice dads trying to figure out what they mean to one another. 2017 has been a shit show for many reasons, but Dream Daddy? Dream Daddy is good.