Growing up, I never imagined someone would make an explicitly queer video game, let alone one focused on dating daddies. But the most surprising thing about Dream Daddy, a recently released daddy dating simulator that's already racked up more than 1,100 "highly positive" reviews, is how wholesome it is. The game, developed by the wildly popular creators of the YouTube series Game Grumps, is not so much a comical dating sim — like the similarly hyped Hatoful Boyfriend, in which you date young male pigeons — than it is a visual novel about familial love and devotion. It's also, as many fans had been hoping, queer as hell.
That last point has elated scholars who track LGBT content in video games. Typically, they say, queer or trans characters in games are painted with broad strokes, to the extent that they're included at all. Sometimes, their sexuality is ambiguous or they're confined to background roles. Other times, their lust is weaponized for the sake of drama.
Dream Daddy, on the other hand, is notably progressive. It gives players the option of choosing a Dad with a binder, femme lips, or gender ambiguous hairstyles; their ex can be a man or a woman; and the game explores themes rarely seen in video games, like adoption in the context of a same-sex relationship.
"Bisexual and otherwise multiple-gender-attracted men are very rarely explicitly represented in games—and other media, for that matter—so being able to play as an explicitly bi man in Dream Daddy is awesome," says Alayna Cole, a scholar of queer video games. She added that the addition of trans characters was also "excellent."
Cole's database, "Queerly Represent Me," has long chronicled the range of roles inhabited by queer characters. It includes more than 788 games dating back to the early 1980s. Notably, nearly fifteen of the games featuring queer content were released between 2016 and the first six months of 2017. "It's pretty significant that so many have come out in the past 18 months," Cole says. She attributes the change to a slew of new distribution and archiving tools for emerging developers.
Dream Daddy is also unique for having a glorious theme song recorded by the musician Baths. In a Pitchfork review, the song was described as being reminiscent of "a vintage doll commercial jingle." Baths' Will Wiesenfeld told Broadly he wanted to create a ditty that was "totally saccharine, but in a widely digestible way."
"I needed to convince even the firmest non-believers that they could fall for these dads!" he said. While Wiesenfeld said he "doesn't have a daddy fetish," he acknowledged that he'd been collecting gay manga for years, especially material featuring hot older dudes. "Maybe I'm an expert on that realm of Dads," he said.
Tailoring games to vulnerable sexual minorities requires lots of sensitivity, though. A small uproar emerged early this week when users uncovered a supposed storyline in Dream Daddy's source code in which a daddy named Joseph is unmasked as a cult leader intent on killing all the other single dads' wives. While some fans didn't seem to care about Joseph's transformation, others thought the character typified the idea of queer men as predators.
However, it's unlikely the twist ending was ever meant to see the light of day. "It seems there's nothing in the code that 'starts' this series of events," says Cole. "People are speculating that it's an old ending that was removed for some reason or some sort of downloadable content that's meant to be released at Halloween."
Cole says she understands the backlash because the story doesn't seem to square with the game's larger themes. "People are confused and would like an explanation of what this dialogue is and why it exists in the game's code," she says. "People are also wondering why such a dark storyline has been included in a game that wants to be loving and joyful. At the same time, it's not unusual for dating sims or visual novels [to include alternate endings.]"
Leighton Gray, a queer illustrator and one of the game's creators, wouldn't go on record about the storyline; neither would Tyler Hutchison, the game's lead developer. "If someone does end up finding more about it…I will be very impressed," Hutchison said.
Even taking into account the storyline controversy, though, online reaction to the game has been largely laudatory. This has been a happy surprise for Gray. "I'm an extremely anxious person so I was convinced nobody would like this game and people would hate us," she says. "But the queer community has been so starved for quality gaming content for a long time. We usually get a single character, a short arc, a splash of representation. It's kind of rare to find queer content that's silly, fun, light-hearted and loving, you know?"
She says she drew her first "Dadsona" on paper a year ago before realizing she desperately wanted to play a game where she could date other dads. "I was shocked it didn't already exist," she said. On a trip to Disneyland with Vernon Shaw (of Game Grumps fame), she started joking with him about how they were going to scope out all the hot dads at the park. "I offhandedly mentioned that I had this silly idea for a dating sim where you date dads," she said. "He then shrieked with laughter and told me it was a genius idea. We proceeded to spend the rest of the day in ride lines coming up with all the dads we wanted to date." Goth dad, for example, was created while in line for the Haunted Mansion.
When Game Grumps first announced they'd be releasing the game, many other people (besides me) assumed it would be a steamy, horny dating sim. Twitter users celebrated the announcement by posting their own sexy Dadsonas. The fact that the game is so family oriented has surprised some, but Gray says it's more realistic this way.
"I didn't want to pull a bait and switch where you come in expecting to kiss Dads but end up also having to deal with kids but that's…kind of how it is in real life."