Let’s get something out of the way first: Hatoful Boyfriend is, indeed, a Japanese pigeon dating simulator. It is a game in which you romance pigeons. You, the central character, are not a pigeon – you are a girl, who is embarking on her second year at St Pigeonation’s Academy for Gifted Students, and every other student there is a bird.
It is not, crucially, a pigeon hentai game. This is not some grubby filthware, filled with lascivious coos and wandering wings, but an exploration of teenage romance – being unsure of each other’s desires, unable to read each other, and navigating the treacherous social minefield that is high school.
But with pigeons. I should underline that fact – everyone else is a bird.
The game does not let you forget this; it is not simply some dating sim where the devs have changed all the human boys to pigeon boys, say. Their limitations are well-known and often referenced. For instance, your homeroom teacher Mr Kazumaki is a quail, and he is worried that he will fly directly upwards into the ceiling when he is scared because that is what quails do.
Hatoful Boyfriend, in true dating-sim tradition, is primarily text-based with still images of characters and backdrops flashing up behind; you click through paragraphs, make choices at certain junctures, and see how those play out.
Will you, for example, choose to join the student council in an attempt to get closer to the dashing and noble (but terribly entitled) Sakuya? Will you train hard in gym to draw the attention of Okosan, the hyperactive track star? Will you investigate the tremendously creepy goings-on in the infirmary to shed light on Doctor Shuu, who is – and I do not say this lightly – the shiftiest-looking partridge I’ve ever seen?
The characters – who, again, I must stress, are all talking birds – are weirdly well-developed, in a high-camp sort of way. There is something more to be found underneath the surface of every single one of them, and it doesn’t take much to bring it out of them; this is a kind game, mechanically, and it’s not keen on punishing you for actions you didn’t know you were taking unlike many other dating/choose-your-own adventure games I’ve played in the past.
It is also a game that you must play more than once – around ten times, in fact – because there is a vast amount of story to be uncovered here. The fact that everyone is a talking bird and that you are the only human student is addressed only briefly in the initial playthroughs; there is an incredible sense of wrongness that bleeds throughout the whole thing. Why, for example, does our heroine live in a cave? Why, on her late-evening jog through the city, are there vistas of ruined skyscrapers, reams of empty streets? How did birds learn to cohabit with humans and, most importantly, how did they learn to speak?
I’m reminded of Assassin’s Creed 2, of all things; Ezio could find glyphs hidden in the world that unlocked puzzles, and from that, exciting footage of stuff that was pretty crucial to a backstory that was – right up until Assassin’s Creed 3 turned up – fascinatingly strange. It broke up the weirdness behind the game (that humanity was overseen by mysterious alien creatures that we once worshipped as gods, and now that somehow feeds into Non-Stop Parkour) into bite-sized lumps, and it was a wonderful rabbit-hole to throw yourself down.
Hatoful Boyfriend does the same; there are conspiracies at work, and things that are being left unsaid, and they are so vital to understanding what the hell is going on that I searched for them as hard as I could while - and this is important - going on dates with a rock dove.
I wasn’t kidding when I said that you should play it ten times because (and I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers here) once you uncover some of the mysterious events going on in the school and the puzzle has just started to piece itself together, you are offered a ridiculous, over-the-top, three-hour-mega-adventure that bundles everything together in a package so large and unruly it hurt my head trying to take it in.
Simply put, Hatoful Boyfriend is surprising; it is both so much more than a game about trying to start a life with a sickly rock dove, but at the same time, it makes the act of trying to start a life with a sickly rock dove both interesting and entertaining.
You know how, even if you don’t like watching football, you can probably still enjoy a quick game or two on Fifa – but if you don’t like trains, you definitely won’t enjoy tooling around in Train Simulator 2014 for an afternoon? Hatoful Boyfriend is the Fifa of pigeon romance and you should buy it for that reason alone. It is a very clever, very charming thing.
Hatoful Boyfriend is a game about building interspecies relationships with birds.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way and addressed the gorilla—or some form of giant bird—in the room, let’s talk about how that’s nothing but a distraction.
Most people can give you a brief description of Hatoful Boyfriend without even having played it. It has received something of a reputation since getting an English Steam release despite being available as a Japanese download since 2011. It’s a game about dating birds and no, that’s not a metaphor. No, you’re not a bird yourself and yes, it’s from Japan. All of these things are accurate, but only to a point. The great thing about Hatoful Boyfriend is that it is all of these qualities and none of them. It simultaneously pays tribute to dating sims and shojo anime while also giving them a big “fuck you”—pun intended.
Granted there isn’t any sex in the game, but there’s just about everything else. There are several romance options and 16 possible endings and while each awaiting bachelor adheres to specific genre tropes (the forlorn loner, the bird next door, the troubled teacher, the mad scientist, for example) the endings aren’t always expected or restrained. Even the most basic of endings are complex, bringing up issues with human and bird life spans or turning into spy thrillers and family dramas that don’t always end happily ever after. The characters are also surprisingly detailed, especially considering the aforementioned archetypes they tend to fall into. As the protagonist sits down to learn about each of them, they reveal more about themselves, whether it’s the rich snob that falls under the pressure of family or the best friend riddled with tragedy. Some of the characters are better than others, leading to some of the endings feeling worth the 30 minutes to an hour each takes to finish. A few of the romances rely on sweet, shallow humor and lack any emotional connection with the protagonist, eventually falling into semi-predictable territory. In one instance, there is an eligible marathon-running bachelor that never develops an attachment to you, only liking you because you feed him beans, but he wants you to join him on his quest to find the “one true pudding” (don’t ask). Another one of the relationships feels uncomfortable because the subject in question doesn’t even try to hide how creepy he is, making motivations to romance him unbelievable. However, any inconsistencies get pushed to the side when you realize that each romance exists to contribute to the overall narrative. In the end, who you choose doesn’t even matter as long as you choose someone.
Hatoful Boyfriend takes place in the 22nd century, where birds have gained human-like intelligence and now go to school, join gangs, run cafes, and generally live in coexistence with the remaining humans, although not necessarily peacefully. Through the course of the game and in exploring each of the relationship options, you start to unravel a shadowy, despairing, surprisingly political post-apocalyptic world that, without spoiling too much, might just rest on your primate shoulders. You are the sole human student at St. Pigeonation’s, a respected academy for birds, and with that position comes a lot of responsibility. The romance outcomes are truly a matter of life and death here, which turns this relatively simple dating sim upside down. In between choosing which elective class you go to and deciding whether or not you want to get a part-time job, repeating the same events over and over through each new playthrough, you come to understand that you are caught up in a conspiracy that is so much larger than you that you couldn’t hope to reach its top, even if you did have wings. Each ending provides you with clues to why you are at St. Pigeonation’s and what the game’s true intentions are. It becomes slightly disjointed since you have to start anew to get each ending, but considering this is a dating sim, a genre based on completion on endings, it’s forgivable, especially since it manages to use each playthrough as a chapter to a greater story. How it rewards the player for sticking with the game is clever, providing you with teases to a story that, at times, leaves you slack-jawed.
The game takes pride in ruffling your feathers, straddling the line between satire and deconstruction of the dating sim. Each playthrough starts off with a cheerful introduction from the narrator, who takes each day in stride despite living in a cave and being the only human surrounded by birds. You know, the usual. The subsequent scenes manage to subvert the typical attitudes held by romantic protagonists by creating un-romantic or implausible relations with dysfunctional birds that you are forced to explore in order to complete the game. Despite each of these birds initially emerging as overused archetypes of the genre, they manage to break out of their shells. It’s hilarious in the sense that the player ultimately becomes numb to the idea of romancing birds, the absurdity and hyper-awareness of these human-like birds inclining us to be okay with what comes down to bestiality. It seems as if half the dialogue draws attention to species characteristics, whether it’s the fact that birds reach sexual maturity in the first year of their lives, or your own paleolithic, hunter-gatherer instincts, each conversation never flittering over the issues. That, plus the hints to a much larger picture, keep the player entertained. Being unabashedly comfortable with itself allows the player to accept the craziness that ensues.
Regardless of whether the cropped photographs of real birds and the static backgrounds do much for you, the developer understands that it’s not going to matter. Hatoful Boyfriend is a game about dating birds and that’s never changing regardless of quality, storytelling prowess, or how attractive the guys/birds are. The game dares to ask the question “what would it be like to date birds?” and runs with it, compiling almost logical reasons as to why you are there. There’s a question as to whether a lot of it is there just for the shock value, or if it’s nothing but a novelty available for a few quick laughs between friends. This can be dispelled thanks to its trick: It’s so much more than a dating sim or a parody of dating sims. Once you discover the story within a story that is Hatoful Boyfriend, you’ll be tempted to see all the endings, just to figure out what the developer is up to.
Hatoful Boyfriend isn’t about skipping classes on bird watching and making out with your pigeon boyfriend behind the gym. It’s about growth, learning to accept oneself, and pudding. It goes far beyond its silly visual novel/dating simulation facade with its wonderfully written plots, characters, and smart dynamics, though certain game mechanics feel a little arbitrary.
Your character is a feisty human starting her second year in the most elite all-bird high school, St. PigeoNation’s Institute. Yes, you read that correctly. No, it doesn’t make any sense, but rolling with the absurdity of it is part of the fun. I was relieved I didn’t have to waste time with the first year of school, as the focus wasn’t on my human character’s entrance into the all-bird institution, but was instead on the in-depth stories and relationships she shared with her classmates.
If you don’t use the fast-forward button to skip through the text, Hatoful Boyfriend takes a little over an hour to play through. To really complete it, however, requires you to replay multiple times in order to explore the alternate paths of the eight datable birds. This didn’t feel like a burden, because allusions to greater mysteries in other birds’ paths did a great job of encouraging me to replay it well over 10 times. I was intrigued by the potential for numerous endings shown in the gallery, and in mysterious documents in the archive that give little details about the world.
Like most dating simulations, Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel and only requires mouse clicks to progress, but it creatively uses that very simple interaction to build suspense and add to the mood. While one click usually gets you through a sentence or two of dialogue, sometimes only one word or phrase appear with a click. Regrettably, the stats system misses that mark. Wisdom, vitality, and charisma can be leveled up on elective days and through random events, but it’s not immediately apparent how leveling them benefits you. It was a bit annoying that it took me multiple playthroughs to find a benefit to leveling certain stats.
No matter your desired path, the beginning of each playthrough begins the same: You enter school, meet the datable birds, and rush through your first term. Though the writing is immensely enjoyable, the first term suffers from pacing issues. I bounced between so many events, it felt like time was passing by too quickly, which seemed like a wasted opportunity for me to get to know each of the birds better before deciding which to pursue. However, once you begin to follow the path of a certain bird, the story becomes more focused. The witty writing embraces Hatoful Boyfriend’s silly concept, using words such as “everybird” and “nobirdie,” and pokes fun at some birds’ real-world quirks, like the Fantail pigeon’s attraction to shiny things. However, the best part is the characters.
Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t pass up on the stereotypical male roles of a dating sim -- the shy guy, the playful bully, the best friend, and the popular guy, just to name a few -- but it pushes its characters past their stereotypes and led me to care and sympathize with each bird’s story. Surprisingly, it’s not awkward to date the birds. Better yet, the protagonist is just as interesting as the birds she pursues. As a self-proclaimed hunter-gatherer and the only human in the school, it’s fun to learn about her interests and personality as she interacts with the birds. In addition to cute new backgrounds that contrast well against the stock-photo pigeons, the Steam release of Hatoful Boyfriend adds a new scene for the only female bird, Azami. Her personality and path is hilarious.
Hatoful Boyfriend has a strange premise, and though it embraces that weirdness fully, it is able to surpass the label of silly dating sim by presenting interesting themes and characters through strong writing. Though it has some pacing issues and a seemingly useless upgrade system, the funny, meaningful stories had me reading right past them.
ONTDers who have played this - which birdie was your favorite? And ONTDers who haven't: go to Steam right now and pick this up, it's freaking hilarious.