I've never actually played a dating sim before, but I'm confident in saying Hatoful Boyfriend is one of the weirdest ever released. It's a game where you play as the only human in a high school for birds, and your main goal is to woo your classmates: everyone from stuck-up doves to mysterious, aloof pigeons. There are ghost birds, biker bird gangs, crazy birds obsessed with pudding, and oh so many bird puns. Hatoful Boyfriend is probably the strangest thing I've ever played, and it's absolutely delightful.
There isn't much to the game itself. Hatoful Boyfriend is what's known as a visual novel, a sort of choose-your-own-adventure text-based story with pretty pictures. All of the action happens through text, and at certain points you can choose from a few options that will change how the story progresses. You can select whether to go to math or music class, for example, or which bird you want to accompany you to a party.
The handsome math teacher, who is also a quail
This fairly mundane gameplay hides a truly bizarre experience. Hatoful Boyfriend contains layers of weirdness that continue to reveal themselves the more you play. The fact that you're a human teenage girl in a school for gifted birds is strange, sure, but the game also takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where there are few humans left, most of whom live in essentially Stone Age conditions. During one scene, the handsome math teacher, who is also a quail, walked me home only to find I lived in a cave. And despite the differences in size and species, you can get awfully intimate with many of the birds at your school. Some relentlessly hit on you — using the fact that birds reach sexual maturity quickly as a pickup line — while others play hard to get.
These screenshots may contain slight, inexplicable spoilers
It's a seemingly playful experience, with goofy dialogue and upbeat art and music. But the more you learn about the world and its characters, the darker everything seems. Over the course of a few playthroughs I encountered suicides, scorned lovers, dueling pigeon biker gangs, and a faculty member who may or may not have kidnapped and murdered students. At one point a teacher asked if I could stay late to help out with classroom chores, and when I selected no, my character said that she instead had to "lay my bloodied sword at the feet of my great king." I have no idea what that was all about.
The game is actually a remake of a Japanese title, adding in new art and generally making it a much more polished experience. Hatoful Boyfriend was first released as a free browser game in 2011, and has seen multiple updates and spin-offs since then. When it came to the remake, British developer Mediatonic worked alongside original creator Hato Moa to make the experience better suited to an English-speaking audience. "The ridiculous romance in which you play a human with a penchant for pigeons captured our hearts some months ago," the studio says.
"I love pigeons and hoped more people to love them too!"
With its bizarre set-up Hatoful Boyfriend feels like a parody of the dating sim, a genre that’s proven to be surprisingly enduring in Japan. But even though it may have started life as a joke, it spawned a cult following that lead first to a commercial release in Japan followed by this week’s debut on Steam. It's weird, yes but it also feels incredibly sincere. When asked on Tumblr where she got the idea for the game, Moa said simply that "I love pigeons and hoped more people to love them too!"
The game works because it’s more than just a one-note joke. Instead, it’s a surprisingly well-realized world. Hatoful Boyfriend presents an incredible contrast between an upbeat dating sim where you're just trying to date a cute boy (each bird has a rather fetching human anime avatar) and what seems to be an absolutely horrific future, where birds have more rights than humans. It's such a weirdly unique universe that I just had to explore further to learn more. You can actually "beat" the game in a single sitting, but there are multiple endings so you'll want to play through several times to see everything (a fast-forward feature makes it easy to skip past dialogue you've already read).
Sometimes you'll get the boy, other times death will visit you in your sleep. But every time something weird will happen.
Hatoful Boyfriend is available now on Steam for $9.99.