Games Can Tell Great Stories – Even Ones About Dating Pigeons

<i>Hatoful Boyfriend</i> is a new frontier of weird in the world of dating simulator games.

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14 September 2014, 9:29am

Sometimes when OKCupid's fedora'd menfolk have delivered the hundredth "do u have any naked pics" message, you lose the will to look at a man's face ever again. Aside from the fact that never seeing manface again is totally impossible because men have now infiltrated every business and leisure activity available, thanks to Hato Moa's Hatoful Boyfriend – just recently remade in full HD – you can now opt for a fantasy dating experience with a pigeon instead. Couple this with an order to Tesco Online to have your groceries delivered to your house by a man with a bag over his head, and you could perhaps go a few days at least without having to deal with the realities of manface.

Hatoful Boyfriend is a dating simulator game that is delightfully bizarre: you roleplay a girl in a junior high school who is surrounded by dreamy and whimsical pigeonboy suitors. If you are entirely unsure as to why one might want to date a pigeon, you are joining a large club with its own DJ. But Hatoful Boyfriend easily convinces you that it is because of the genuinely effervescent conversation skills of fantasy pigeons, this kind of interaction something that doesn't often happen on, you guessed it, OKCupid.

The extent of the strangeness of the Hatoful Boyfriend experience was not apparent to me when I first began, because I play video games and write about them for a living, and we have dinosaurs with machine guns, piñatas who procreate after cannibalising each other, and superfast blue hedgehogs. You hear 'pigeon dating sim' and you assume you roleplay a pigeon who has a massive hard-on for other pigeons.

This is not the case: you are a human girl who lives in a future world where pigeons are talkative, can ride scooters and are excellent at marathons. Not knowing this information to begin with, in the screen where you name your main character I typed in 'Alan Partridge'. This started out hilarious, but I didn't know that the gender of your character was always set to female. The result was that in my first playthrough I really confused myself roleplaying a girl called Alan.

If you are familiar with the 'otome' genre of games – Japanese dating games centred around roleplaying a young woman pursuing several boy suitors – you'll be familiar with the tropes on show. This is a visual novel-type game based upon the reading and understanding of text. Most of the joy you gain from these games is from uncovering information about your suitors and using it to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right gift or conversation option, allowing you to subtly condition your target into thinking that you deserve to be pushed up against a wall and given an oral examination. This is exactly how Hatoful Boyfriend works, only the targets are pigeons, and their beaks are impractical for tonsil tennis.

Are you still with me? Yes. They are all assorted species of pigeons.

The thing is, part of the joy of the otome genre for me is looking at the cute fantasy boys, drawn in a manga fashion, sighing with their yukatas half open, draping themselves all over things and blushing or emoting about how it is their 'duty' to do something for you, the helpless girl who has been thrust into their life. Hatoful Boyfriend tries to acknowledge this at least by opening the game asking if you would like to see what your pigeons' faces might look like if they were manga-like humans. You don't have to say yes if you are a pigeon fancier, but it at least helps to think of them in the beginning as entities more likely to ask you out than shit on your head.

The pigeons are all very different from each other. Sakuya speaks in the lexicon of an Oxford fratboy twat and has spectacular ruffly plumage; Yuuya is a tall white pigeon, always getting into fights and who manages to sleaze on you often. Iwamine is the dodgy and paranoid school doctor who seems like the sort of pigeon that might get on some sort of pigeon offence register.

The way the translations are written is fantastic – the language use and tone of each pigeon (I can't believe I am even writing this) in particular is one of my favourite things about the game. Spoilt Oxford fratboy even employs use of the word 'prig' in his lexicon, an obscure word I am not sure I have read since I picked up my last Enid Blyton book at age eight.

Each pigeon has their own story strand. The idea in these kind of dating sims is to commit early: that is, to choose a suitor to pursue and then do everything you can to put yourself in the path of your Chosen One. The way this is structured is through choosing what you study – maths, gym, music – which will then up the stats Wisdom, Vitality, and Charisma. You are also asked at several junctures where you would like to hang out, and who you would like to hang out with.

These are the moving parts of the game: through several playthroughs you get to know where a pigeon will be, and what they will like, enabling you to shamelessly manipulate them into loving you. If you haven't 'committed' enough to a pigeon by the mid-point of the game, the game automatically ends so that you can start again without feeling the cold bed of romantic failure.

The strands are all dramatically different from each other, and are cutely well-written stories unto themselves. One pigeon purely exists to parody JRPG fantasy stereotypes, winkingly playing upon the battle mechanics of Final Fantasy-type games. One story leads you into the romantic troubles of a girl pigeon who happens to be part of a biker gang called the Hell's Birdies (???).

Occasionally some of the strands are too short, and sometimes the endings are not as satisfying as they should be. Some dramatic arcs were not particularly swooping. But one strand in particular really caught me by surprise: it was sad and emotive, and it was at that point that I decided that the game wasn't just some whimsical trip alone. It had actually managed to have me forget that I was a girl called Alan learning about the daily lives of pigeonboys.

It's interesting to think about what values this game reflects: really what is rewarded is pursuing each suitor's strand until the end, 'scoring' a collectible. In terms of our wider culture, this is an interesting outlook on life. Are boyfriends like a box of chocolates, in that you have to try each one, and then discard them when the next interesting candidate comes along? Games like Ute, for example, suggest that women should be playin' until they've spoiled themselves enough for marriage.

But Hatoful Boyfriend in particular made me think a lot about how much I am distracted by the visuals in games in particular: just because no human faces were available to communicate emotion, I had somehow assumed that I would not be emotionally affected by this game, or that I couldn't become interested in stories about pigeons' dating lives. It actually made it apparent to me how strong a medium games are for telling stories. I was affected by the dialogue, everything was weird but I did laugh at the jokes, and when it was sad, it was really quite sad.

You'll have to do quite a bit of replaying Hatoful Boyfriend in order to 'catch 'em all', and each strand takes about an hour to play through, so there is a handy 'skip' button at the top right hand corner of the screen for text you have read before. The idea is to 'collect' all the endings by dating each pigeon, which will then appear in your gallery. The music is upbeat and jolly, and for some reason includes Tchaikovsky's 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'.

This 2D pigeon game is available in incredible 1080p resolution, the feathered suitors are total dreamboats, and Alan was quite taken by the whole thing, all in all. Is there an OkCupid for pigeons? Perhaps the conversation is better over there. And pigeon heads are probably less amenable to silly hats. Do pigeons wear hats?

The HD remake of Hatoful Boyfriend is out now for Windows, OS X and Linux

@caraellison

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