A few hours in
Nope, no smut. Sorry, horrible fetish fans! You’ll have to scour the internet yourselves.
So I attempted to romance Okosan. It went pretty well! As I expected, sticking mostly to gym class and attending physical events gave me plenty of time to get into Okosan’s mind, really find out what makes him tick.
It turns out that what makes Okosan tick is pudding.
Okosan’s story ends with him and me running away from school, to hunt for the legendary Pudding of Seven Colours. It’s a fun story, and sweet, and quirky, and it doesn’t at all lead to some weird pudding-related theological revelations.
Then, I ‘romanced’ Nageki. Yes, like I said I would. I can’t really say too much about his story, except that… no, actually, I can’t say that either. Damnit, everything is spoilers! But I liked it. It was less silly than Okosan and more straight-up strange, but definitely not any less interesting for it.
Then, just for fun, I tried doing a playthrough where I didn’t romance anyone at all! This turned out to be harder than I expected: much like Mass Effect, the idea of you chasing some tail is so ingrained into Hatoful Boyfriend’s structure that it will always pair you up with whatever bird you’ve had the most positive interactions with. Luckily, birds like Okosan and Yuuya actually have a binary win-lose choice at the end, so it’s easy to mess that up you want to.
That’s when I found out that failing to get with any bird leads to you getting murdered by Hawk Party assassins in the night.
After that, I romanced another bird. And then another. And another, and another, and…
It’s probably safe to say I’m enjoying Hatoful Boyfriend quite a bit. While I wouldn’t call its dating sim gameplay very involved by any stretch, the writing and world building are of a sufficiently high quality that I find myself coming back for the other stories. At the very least, Hatoful Boyfriend is not the throwaway-joke ‘haha, you’re dating pigeons’ game that I originally figured it would be: a lot of care and design have gone into creating a game that appears to be just that, while simultaneously containing some pretty interesting narratives.
I think what throws a lot of people off with regard to Hatoful Boyfriend is the combination of the ‘human-on-pigeon-dating-sim’ concept, and the photorealistic bird images. It… it feels like a cheap Flash game, to me, is basically the easiest way to explain it. I look at Hatoful Boyfriend, and I see a game that was rushed in three days because the designers thought it would be so hilarious to make this.
But while that still may have been the origin of Hatoful Boyfriend — I don’t know, it could have been — it’s clear to me now that judging Hatoful Boyfriend’s content on its weird looks and premise would be doing it a major disservice. Don’t judge a book by its cover, I guess? Just in case you needed to re-learn that lesson by way of weekly indie game review column.
But how does Hatoful Boyfriend make its weird premise work? Let’s see… how to best explain this…
Factor number one, I think, is the fact that the notion of ‘you’re the only human in a school of intelligent birds’ isn’t used as a throwaway joke. I mean, sure, it’s used for a lot of throwaway jokes. But the core underlying conceit is actually treated quite seriously.
Reckon this: you’re the only human being in a school of intelligent birds. You take bird classes, you eat bird food, you interact only with other birds, and you live in a cave. Why is this? One of the reasons Hatoful Boyfriend works as well as it does it because it cares about that question. Through a combination of direct explanation, environmental storytelling, and unlockable archive entries, it paints you an ever-expanding picture of its world.
For instance: at a set point in the game, your character decides to go running. This shot, one of the views you see while running, is worth more than a thousand world-building words.
And this approach is visible in more than just the world-building. While Hiyoko and other characters interact and talk like… well, like regular human characters would, the fact that they’re birds at a school for birds and you’re the human visitor is the ever-prevalent undercurrent. You’re a hunter-gatherer. You walk, you have hands and thumbs, you eat red meat. Even as a prepubescent girl, you’re still twice the size of any of these birds, and you can intervene in and decide on the outcomes of fights simply by picking a bird up and throwing it out the window.
Simultaneously, though, you’re also a prepubescent girl in a school of birds. It’s obvious, from a lot of dialogue, that your character has more affinity for birds than she does for humans. You say stuff like ‘anybirdie’, for Pete’s sake. ‘I had to skip out on flying class today… but maybe someday, I’ll be able to fly for myself’.
The effect of this is that the characters feel like they make sense. Both as characters onto themselves, and as characters in this weird, out-of-place setting. It makes for a selection of stories that are… if not ‘believable’ in the traditional sense, then at least as believable as they can be.
Cleverly, Hatoful Boyfriend uses its different character ‘routes’ to highlight different aspects of its world. Hang out with Ryouta, and you see a primarily character-driven interaction between two young friends-becoming-lovers. Sakuya gives you a little window into bird society. Yuuya and Shuu both have ties to the bird-government political systems. Anghel helps you see the hidden chthonian horrors underlying the fragile facade of reality. Nazaki deals with his personal loss, brought on by human-bird conflicts of yore. And so on, and so forth.
Bit by bit, piece by piece, the puzzle of this world of birds and men is filled in. And yet, never completely. I still have more questions than answers…
Gameplay-wise, Hatoful Boyfriend isn’t particularly impressive. The stat-based elective classes only come to the fore, like, five-or-so times. And I’m entirely unsure when your stats actually matter? I think they play into several endings… but simultaneously, it always looked to me like giving the right answers to questions was more important than stat points.
And on the topic of ‘giving the right answers’: let me present to you Jarenth’s 100% Fool-Proof Guide To Picking The Right Answer. Say anybirdie asks you a personal question, one with two answers. The birds in this game like that question format a lot, so you’re bound to see it.
Always pick answer one.
Okay, not always. I mean, never take some doof writer’s advice as perfect canon. Some questions are way obvious, and in those cases, go on instinct. But if the questions are even a little bit ambiguous… I’ve found that in, like, 95% of the cases, answer #1 is the correct answer. Don’t ask me how this works. Just make use of my wisdom.
Really, there’s only three kinds of questions you’re asked to make in Hatoful Boyfriend. First, the two-answer Difficult Decision question. Second, the ‘two birds are fighting, which one do you like better’ question. And third… there’s a few moments in the game where you’re asked to make seemingly nonsensical decisions. Stuff like what Midsummer wish you should go for. I’m still not entirely sure what influence that has on anything.
Honestly? After Okosan and Nageki, I decided to just grab a guide to get to the other stories. I do that with these dating-based visual novels a lot. I understand that ‘figuring out’ the characters is supposed to be part of the fun… but slow pace and repetition being what they are, I find myself not having a lot of patience for possibly making the ‘wrong’ choices, and messing up my romance path. Sure, I could save before every branching path. Doing so would require perfect timing, since you can’t actually access the save menu when the choice screen is up, but it’s possible. But even then, you’re not playing smart: you’re simply brute-forcing the difficult options. I find guides preferable, at this point.
I play games like this for the story, not so much for the perfunctory gameplay. And Hatoful Boyfriend has interesting stories in spades… which is exactly why I don’t want to let myself be hindered by having to puzzle out its occasional moon logic. How should I know which bird likes which brand of beans best? You never told me anything about beans.
I enjoyed Hatoful Boyfriend a lot. In fact, I’ve completed more or less all the stories before getting to this part of the review! I only have the one optional ‘BBL’ route left, which unlocks after you do everybirdie’s paths at least once. I think I’ll play through that real quick, and then I can wrap up this review.
Er, I… wow. “I’ll play through that real quick”. Rarely have I been this wrong. Hatoful Boyfriend’s final story… Wow, I actually don’t know how to talk about this properly.
Okay, let’s explain it like this. Do you remember the 2012 game Little Inferno? Do you remember how that game looked like an inoffensive little time-waster for the longest time, but then you’d get to the end, and it would surprise you by recontextualizing everything you’d done so far? Hatoful Boyfriend ‘BBL Route’ does a similar thing. Except ramped up to goddamn eleven.
I don’t want to go too much in detail here, for fear of spoiling an incredible thing. But… the gist of it is that Hatoful Boyfriend’s ending story builds on everything else it’s made you do to get to it. You have to have played through each major bird’s storyline at least once in order to get to the ending, you see. Which means that, assuming you’ve been paying attention, you know these birds. You know their stories, their drives, their motivations, and the segments of the larger world they illuminate around them.
Hatoful Boyfriend uses the fact that you by-necessity know all its characters now to spin off a new, amazing story, one where it can take all the things it has previously explained and set up for granted to reach new narrative fields. It basically takes the hours you’ve spent each individual bird’s route, build a ramp out of those, and ramps itself to the fucking moon.
I know I’ve flipped from mildly optimistic to incredibly enthusiastic between the last section and this one, but that’s only because I want to convey to you how amazing this switch is. I was all set to verdict Hatoful Boyfriend as a fun, inoffensive, clever narrative game, and then…
This is videogame storytelling. The way Hatoful Boyfriend makes use of what comes before, the way it can assume you know all its characters intimately because it knows you spent time with all of them, is a kind of storytelling only videogames can provide. It’s repeated experiential learning applied to digital narratives. It’s a story that answers all the questions a curious player would still have at this point, using to full effect the knowledge that that player has experienced a significant amount of backstory already. It’s the culmination of a dozen what-if stories made to echo elements from each hypothetical timeline. It’s glorious.
Obviously, I’m now recommending Hatoful Boyfriend to anyone who enjoys clever storytelling in games. And just good writing overall, too. And if you’re fan of institutionalized weirdery, or if you just like pigeons, it’s a pretty decent game as well.
Basically, I’m comfortable recommending Hatoful Boyfriend to everyone. It’s only eight bucks on Steam, you can blow through it in a few hours if you’re so inclined, and it’s just such a good example of the power of clever application of videogame experiences to narrative design and experience creation. Plus — and I stress to emphasize this — it’s still a game about dating intelligent birds. And the one thing that’s intrinsically stranger than seeing those photorealistic birds on-screen for the first time, is catching yourself seeing past those weird facades to the characters within. Without even trying.
Congratulations, Hatoful Boyfriend. I didn’t think I’d ever gush like an idiot about how well-written and boundary-pushing a pigeon dating simulator is, but here I am. Gold star for you. Wear it with pride.