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.)