Hatoful Boyfriend

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Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel of the dating sim genre(ish), in which all of the possible romantic leads are birds. You are a female human attending an otherwise all-bird school, and you have your choice of pigeons, quails, and doves, each possessing a characteristic personality. What initially seems like a whimsical premise gradually develops a bit more depth; there’s even a website devoted to the writings of a prominent in-world pigeon blogger.

Quite a lot has already been written about Hatoful Boyfriend, often by people more familiar than I am with visual novel conventions — though the visual novel community, like the gamebook community, often seems so relevant to interactive fiction that it’s a little mystifying that there isn’t more communication. As with many other dating sims, the game is designed to be replayed to unlock new content: you begin by romancing different suitors and finding out their secrets, which then allows you to access a different ending to the story. In contrast with a lot of “ultimate ending” finales, though, the unlockable content in Hatoful Boyfriend is both much longer than the per-suitor stories, and of a different genre: a horrific mystery, rather than a romance, and one that does a lot to explain how a world of sentient pigeons has come about.

I couldn’t help thinking as I played about some of the arguments in Creatures Such as We, especially the idea that it’s hard to explore consent in a game in which all NPCs are prizes for the protagonist. With Hatoful Boyfriend, I felt that I was experiencing the opposite effect of this: the game expects you to play many times, and each time you must mold the protagonist in order to suit the tastes of the bird she’s pursuing. There are only a few characteristics of hers that remain absolute, such as her vitality and love of running (and that proves to have an important plot relevance, eventually). Otherwise, a lot of the potentially freighted moral choices dissolve with repetition and the fact that she has to take different sides of each issue depending on whom she wants to impress. The cumulative effect, at least for me, was that the protagonist came to seem less and less important, even as my playerly understanding of the other characters increased.

But then — well, let’s give this a spoiler jump first.

It takes at least four or five playthroughs to unlock enough to get at the mystery storyline, codenamed Bad Boys Love. This version of the game runs through the same initial choices and experiences as before, but then abruptly partway through the year the protagonist is brutally murdered, and the player takes on the viewpoint of other characters in order to investigate her death. Doing so elicits a lot of further information about the world, the past relations of the characters, and everyone’s motives: the mystery arc is much, much longer than any of the dating sim bits (though also, as far as I could tell, impossible to lose). And it felt fine to me to erase the protagonist because, as mentioned, her personality had already been so thoroughly whited out.

Visual novels often felt a bit slow and a bit overlinear to me: plot development happens almost entirely through dialogue, which is presented one gradually-printed sentence at a time, and though you can click to speed that up, it’s inevitably a slower process than clicking through almost any Twine story. (Clearly this is a thing that visual novel aficionados are used to and barely even notice, the same way that parser players are used to dealing with error messages, so I’m trying to get to the point where I don’t react badly to this.) Meanwhile, for reasons of genre convention, characters often talk in hints and ellipses, sometimes having an entire conversation play out in which one character hints at having an important secret but not revealing anything about it. In consequence, I sometimes find VN stories a bit watery: not enough salient information happening quickly enough, too little progression.

Hatoful Boyfriend does not exactly avoid these issues, but it gains energy from the fact that almost all of the characters have important relationships with one another, as well as with the protagonist; and those relationships are complicated and keep revealing more subtlety. This is a story about a community of people, in other words. A few runs through the dating sim lets us meet all the characters and learn something about what they want from the world and who they are individually, but then the mystery story allows us to explore how they change when confronted with extreme stress and the destruction of a lot of things they thought they knew about themselves. The mystery also includes some viewpoint swapping, as well — and viewpoint swapping that isn’t signposted very strongly in the UI. It works precisely because, by the time it happens, we know all the characters well enough to understand whose head we’re in.

Now that I’ve played that longer arc, the first few dating stories feel like alternate universe fanfic, or daydreams on the part of the characters: (mostly) happy might-have-beens that were revealing about what people wanted, but which did not pan out in reality. It’s a curious reversal of the usual play-multiple-times-to-win structure in which the player first experiences a bunch of failures and then gets to the “good” story with enough effort.

I don’t want to oversell this: the mystery is really very linear, and is solved by the characters rather than by the player. Most of the player choices exist mostly to determine which of two mandatory segments you’re going to read first. The tone shifts from goofy to gross with very little warning. Despite the world-building, there are a lot of issues that still don’t make a lot of sense (not least why sentient birds keep using machinery and buildings designed for humans even when the humans are largely out of the picture).

Nonetheless, as a piece of CYOA structural design, it’s pretty interesting, and it’s also a standout for handling a big set of characters who all have different attitudes to one another.

(Disclaimer: I received a copy of Hatoful Boyfriend as part of the judging process for Wordplay 2014, the Toronto-based festival for text games.)

18 thoughts on “Hatoful Boyfriend”

  1. Hmm—interesting review. IMHO the VN community is pretty insular with anime which makes sense on the other hand it’s not exactly open to new ideas either. I admit sometimes I don’t complete VN games because I just don’t feel like replaying the same story 3x-6x depending on what is required to unlock all the character’s stories. Not to mention I’d need a guide to get the Best Ending because of lack of flexibility for choices.

    1. Yeah, the repetition levels can definitely get to be a bit much for me as well. This one worked a little better for me because a) you only needed to woo a subset of the suitors to unlock the mystery and b) I knew in advance that the mystery existed, so I was more motivated to reach that point.

      1. I’ve read a few reviews but even knowing the secret True Ending I didn’t exactly feel motivated enough to play along. I think for VNs it’d be nice to have a option to start at a specific moment in a chapter but not tied to a choice either. Then my second wish would be having a good quick save/load system because I’ll be relying on that too for a while to read the full story.

  2. each time you must mold the protagonist in order to suit the tastes of the bird she’s pursuing.

    This is more common than your review seems to imply (well, except for the bird thing).

    …often felt a bit slow and a bit overlinear to me..

    Have you gone through any full-on kinetic novels? (There is one lurking on Steam which is 20 hours long.)

    1. This is more common than your review seems to imply (well, except for the bird thing).

      I think it probably is common in VNs, but less common in some other NPC-dating contexts; in Creatures Such as We, for instance, I felt like I was drawn towards certain characters *because* of their compatibility with the personality I had in mind for the protagonist, and as there was no requirement to replay, I could just stick to that choice. I’ve had similarish experiences with NPC relationships in other types of CRPG.

      Have you gone through any full-on kinetic novels? (There is one lurking on Steam which is 20 hours long.)

      Oy. No. The description makes me wince a bit. Can you pitch me why I should?

      1. Goodness, I wasn’t meaning to recommend that one in particular, just putting an emphasis on the “slow and overlinear”.

        If you actually want to try one (maybe to train yourself to read in that style?) best is to hit the Ren’Py Archive in the kinetic category to see if anything interests you.

        I think it’s totally fair to call them on it. I mean, I value the contributions of random folks who stumble into parser games and go ‘hey, that’s dumb because of X’ when X is just something we’ve been tolerating but isn’t strictly necessary.

  3. I love Hatoful Boyfriend so much that I gave away some free copies of it when the steam edition was released. I love the second half with a fierce passion, but I also love things like the route for Anghel, where it’s unclear if his vision of the universe is in fact true or if the protagonist has just wholeheartedly fallen into the same delusional viewpoint (and then it shifts into an RPG-style battle). For a dating sim based on a pun, it’s astonishingly complex and well-written.

    Many VN dating sims — HB included, as I recall — have fast-skip options to accelerate at high speed past any content you have already seen. It adds distinctly to a sense of distance-from-protagonist for me, but I do appreciate it from a tedium-relieving perspective.

    1. I did use the fast forward some, but I had to be a bit judicious with it because I found that it seemed to fast forward even into scenes I hadn’t seen yet, if there was no decision-making stopping point first. IIRC this is not a problem I have had with the Hanako stuff I’ve tried, so it may be down to a difference in engines used.

      And yeah, Anghel was very very odd, though I felt like I might be missing some jokes through coming to it all in English. (At least, there was some dialogue that suggested there had once been puns/jokes about accents, but they didn’t come through in English.)

      1. The fast-forwarding actually caused me quite a bit of trouble, since I didn’t realize how it worked at the beginning of my playthroughs. It’s pretty unfortunate that it is only based on choices and not on new dialog, which seems to be the standard and preferred method for most VNs. There’s also (afaik) no option to change that behavior, which is unfortunate.

  4. just curious–has anyone from the visual novel community had any thoughts (on design, craft, or the stories themselves) on any of the Versu stories that have come out?

  5. I think what I’m going to remember most from the game is Okosan and his pudding obsession, although the one that surprised me the most is the doctor’s (although to be fair, you get to the end of that one, and it’s as if the game is telling you “well, what do you THINK would happen?”).

    I was a little more disappointed by the PC’s disappearance in the last story because she’s almost the only female character in the cast–although it’s certainly less cringe-worthy gender-wise than a lot of VNs I’ve played.

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