There was a time where I might have declared myself “not a dating sim fan”. For various reasons, I just thought they weren’t my thing. But over the past few years, some games have come out that have not only challenged my perceptions of what my gaming tastes are, but also revitalized the dating sim genre by reinventing the conventions once considered key to its format.
Now, I say these are dating sims to play if you don’t like dating sims, but if you do like dating sims, you should play them, too. These games are simply the mold breakers that I think are innovative enough to be interesting to a general audience. If you want to see the ambitious new directions the genre is headed in, check out these five.
In Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator the player is a dad who can woo one of seven single men, all of whom are also fathers. In that sense, the game is already very different from most of its peers in dating sims, but also entertainment in general. How often do you see gay male fatherhood portrayed in a sympathetic context? Almost never.
Narrative-wise, the game suffers a few missteps (our writer Kenneth Shepard described it as well intentioned, but insincere). Even though it doesn’t always understand the minutiae of gay dating, Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator encourages a broadened definition of who dating sims are for, and who they can be about. And for that, it has my support.
How could you not adore Hatoful Boyfriend on premise alone? What started out as an April Fool’s Day Flash game eventually became a full release, with a remake delivered by Devolver Digital in 2015 that introduced it to an even wider world audience. As a dating sim, Hatoful Boyfriend manages to follow most of the genre’s rules, allowing the player, the sole human attending a high school full of pigeons, to attend classes and build stats according to the romance they wish to pursue. But, considering that it started out as a joke, not only does Hatoful Boyfriend have surprising depth and thoughtfulness, it also delves into the unexpected by offering a psychological thriller murder mystery once its first four narrative paths are complete. Overall, it’s an experience that far surpasses the novelty its name might suggest. As Carli Velocci wrote for us in 2014, the game is “part satire, part deconstruction of the dating sim” but “so much more than a dating sim or a parody of dating sims.”
The other games on this list have a very lighthearted or comedic tone, but Doki Doki Literature Club is all horror, starting out as a typical dating sim and warping into a glitchy, fourth wall breaking nightmare. As you woo the girls from an after school club, things take a dark turn; their interest in you quickly devolves into an obsession, and their behavior from there only gets more disturbing, resulting in a chilling and surreal comment on the nature of dating sims. Of course, you’ll only get the full experience if you play through it multiple times, and each is more traumatizing than the last. But despite how disruptive the game is, it is the perfect example of a genre breaker that improves upon the formula.
Some people think Monster Prom is too mean. I also think it’s too mean, but that’s what I like about it. Set in a high school full of demons, ghosts, and other supernatural baddies, Monster Prom more or less follows the dating sim format, but with a campy, otherworldly take that makes it really special. As the player progresses through a full three weeks at school, they decide what to do with their time, how to navigate social interactions with an intended prom date, and basically just scheme, party and blow off steam. It’s outrageous, sexy, irreverent, and hilarious, and hey, if you’re going to be reading panel after panel after panel of conversational tidbits, it may as well be funny, right? And to top it off, the game allows you to modify your pronouns and player name, and pursue any romance you want, regardless of your character’s identity.
Soon, the Monster Prom: Super Secret DLC Edition, which I got to play during PAX West 2018, will bring even more content to the game, including a big blue-skinned she-demon with killer abs that would make even a Gerudo jealous. I am going to date her so hard.
When I played the demo for Boyfriend Dungeon at PAX West this year, a teenage boy behind me announced very loudly, “I’m going home and telling my mom I’m gay for swords now.” The game, which was just fully funded three times over on Kickstarter (the thirst is real), puts its own spin on dating sims by adding dungeon crawling elements, allowing you to wield your potential paramours like weapons, giving way to the term “shack and slash”. With a moody, seductive style and a wildly diverse roster of seven potential dates, including a K-pop star, a cat (who doubles as a pair of brass knuckles) and two non-binary characters (one of whom is designed by Hato Moa, creator of Hatoful Boyfriend), it promises to be as inclusive as it is entertaining. I can’t wait until we’re all gay for swords now.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.