Look. I'm good at romance/dating sims. I'm good at seeing the things it wants me to do in order to get the rewards of the heart (or the, uh, lower regions). I think a lot of people are because the games tend to hinge around you gaming the NPCs to reap some kind of reward. You take the character who likes animals on a date to the zoo. You wear a leather jacket to meet the rebel. You switch up your seduction (or entire personality) to tick person after person off your list. I'm a mercenary lovebot dispensing chocolates, offering an absolutely insincere shoulder to cry on and switching up my manipulations to suit my own transactional end game of collecting all the experiences.
So how the hell did Dream Daddy manage to get under my skin? Why do I now have a canon playthrough? How is it giving me warm and fuzzy feelings???? DOWN WITH THIS SORT OF THING.
The first sign that something was dreadfully wrong was my abandoned first playthrough. I had left my daughter, Amanda, at home having a sleepover with her friends. She's fine home alone – she's 18 years old and about to go to college. Maybe the fact that I even thought that at all was the first sign I wasn't playing with my usual sociopathic determination. Anyway, I wandered into a bar to watch the Sports Game on TV and struck up conversation with a barfly called Mary.
My character (Pip Butasadad, because it was me but as a dad) was scared of her predatory advances. Me, Pip Notasadad, felt Mary and I would probably get on well IRL. Wine and a certain eyerolly misanthropy.
Anyway, then Robert sauntered over. He was a man of few words with a tattoo on his hand, a leather jacket on his bod and all the rest of the character cues which telegraph BAD BOY in romance games. We did some whisky shots (is that a thing? Who doesn't savour whisky? DRINK BETTER WHISKY, DADS.) and Robert walked me home. That isn't the extravagant gesture it sounds like it might be because we live in the same cul-de-sac.
The tension built and he invited me in. Well, sort of invited me in but in a gruff, are we going to do this or what, kind of way. I said yes and then yes again when I could have tapped out and gone home. We faded to black and I woke up with a stonking hangover. Robert was not a morning-after spooner type and thus I swiftly found myself back home where Amanda had made breakfast. #blessed.
I carried on with the game for a bit longer but I couldn't shake the feeling that Pip Butasadad would just not have left Amanda for a night without telling her where he was. You get to customise his appearance at the beginning of the game but the characterisation is largely not your domain.
I'm used to romance games leaving the player character as a blank to better project your own ideas onto them but with this one there's a lot of personality imposed by the game. I think that's part of what gets in the way of the social manipulation for me. When there's no personality or existing relationships I can just treat the world as a playground with no meaningful consequences. Here Amanda and I have… not banter but the dad-daughter version? #dadter? Our conversation involves little flights of fancy, her eyerolls at my terrible puns, my confusion over some of her social media terminology…
They feel like real people with real warmth and I can't shake the feeling that he wouldn't have hooked up with Robert and not so much as checked in with her. That's to say nothing of the fact the game imposes a lot of social awkwardness on the player's character. He's not fond of making new friends, he worries about saying the wrong thing. That doesn't preclude a one night stand but it didn't help me shake the feeling it isn't what the character would have done.
I decided to start over. This time I was Patrick Wonderful (my male nom de plume using my actual initials) and I played the whole thing through to the credits. Patrick's look is perhaps best summed up as intergalactic professor-with-tenure realness.
I realised later that this outfit didn't sit well with his general shyness and not being a flamboyant cross between the professor from the PHD Comics and a pro wrestler. In my head I styled it out saying that he was over-compensating to try and seem zany and cool or maybe the cape was a conversation-starter at awkward functions?
Anyway. This time around I still met up with Robert but I called it a night when we got to his front door and slept in my own bed. My reward was my former roommate Craig inviting me to the gym at some ungodly hour of the morning. Craig is the one in the header image who a reader pointed out looks like Stewart Lee and now I can't unsee it.
I headed off and accidentally flirted with him on the treadmill. I knew I was doing well in picking my responses when hearts flew out of a character like a swarm of romantic mosquitos but I really kicked it up a gear with Craig. You can tell that you're having an even stronger effect because they start oozing aubergine emojis as well as hearts.
But Craig and I have been friends forever so I decided to rein it in. NO MORE AUBERGINES WITH CRAIG.
Instead I had my attentions on Joseph, a married youth minister who lived next door.
I didn't actually want to date him, I just wanted to find out what was going on with his wife, Mary, after a spectacularly awkward exchange between the pair of them at a barbeque. I'm a good friend.
I added him on Dadbook (it's positioned as a very basic and vanilla Facebook-type social media in the game but your character exclusively uses it to organise dates). Joseph and I made brownies for the church bake sale. There was an incident where one of his kids knocked something over in the kitchen and I looked around his living room while he sorted that stuff out.
Mary's part of the bookshelf was full of wine-stained romance novels. I would totally add this woman to my Whatsapp group. BUT there was also a plushy octopus on the sofa and a nautical theme to the room which very much tested my resolve on the homewrecking front.
Heading into the kitchen I met up with Joseph and we did a mock duel with spoons to amuse his daughter. It's things like this which feel very appropriately dad-ish. They're playful and warm and bely an actual regard for these digital kids and their feelings.
The rest of the baking session wrapped up with a tried and tested romcom moment where I wiped a blob of batter off Joseph's nose. You could cut the tension with a knife. Instead we cut the brownies and headed to the bake sale. I impressed Joseph further, I cringed at his acrimonious exchanges with Mary further, and I earned myself an S ranking on our date.
I… what? I WAS JUST HELPING WITH THE BAKE SALE! IT WAS NOT A DATE!
I mean, obviously there was a distinct romantic tension which shouldn't have been there because one of us was so very married but I didn't START the date thinking it was a date.
I should probably have tapped out then and there but I figured I'd Dadbook him again and see what the haps were this time. Just in case he needed me. As a friend.
We ended up chaperoning a church dance. I stole his heart by managing to convert an obscene banner into a strange but neutral message about Jesus and then cracked out my best dance moves (including but not limited to The Running Man and The Lawnmower) ending with a Dirty Dancing-style lift of Joseph on the dancefloor.
He then stole me away to his youth minister office and we bonded over our love of Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville. I'm not sure I can actually claim to be cool with a straight face if Amanda asks. But anyway, the date wraps up and I get an A. An A???? I did The Running Man and saved a church dance from obscenity!
While my Joseph shenanigans were playing out I was keeping an eye on Amanda because she seemed a little off. I'd catch her with puffy eyes as if she was crying and one of her teachers seemed concerned. She eventually cracked and told me about how one of her best friends had turned on her, taking the rest of the friendship group with her and dating the guy she knew Amanda liked.
My heart went out to her in the game and on my IRL side of the screen. It's because generally the main characters in romance novels tend towards the idealised. They might go through a bit of adversity but it's generally with a view to winning out in the end. This felt more like the crummy realities of being a teenager. It's highly simplified, obviously, and elides a lot of familial complexity for the most part, but there's an honest core in there which I found surprising. WHERE'S MY BLANK CANVAS FOR ENABLING MY PSYCHOPATHIC MACHINATIONS?
Anyway. Irate at my A rating from my previous date I messaged Joseph so I could take another shot at being an amazing date. (Apparently the lack of a blank slate doesn't entirely get rid of my awful behaviour). We met on his yacht! A yacht! A YACHT! And went out to sea.
There was a lot of drinking in his air of sea captaincy and meaningful glances. There was also wine.
Mining out another trope of romance fiction, we ran out of boat gas and were stranded until morning (the coast guard played Cupid and refused to pick us up until we resolved the romantic tension). It turned out Joseph's marriage to Mary was on the rocks and he was living aboard the yacht while they figured things out. We faded to black as we resolved our romantic tension and I returned home, a scruffy boat-based stopout.
I got a B.
I was furious. FURIOUS. That date was worth an A at the very least. I'm a really good date!
As the game wrapped up I hosted a party for Amanda to mark her graduation from high school and as a farewell party as she headed to college. I hung out by the mac and cheese station I'd hired for the event (can you get those IRL? Asking for a friend…) and Mary stared daggers at me across the garden.
Then Joseph came over. We sat together and he explained to me that he and Mary were staying together but that maybe we could still… NO, JOSEPH. I AM NOT THAT KIND OF DAD. I AM UNHAPPY WITH THIS PLAYTHROUGH AND PATRICK WONDERFUL'S DISREGARD OF MARY EVEN THOUGH IT IS JOSEPH AND MARY WHO NEED TO FIGURE THEIR STUFF OUT IN ORDER TO STOP HURTING.
My final playthrough was my canon playthrough. I won't run through all of the details because there were some twists to that particular story which I thought were cute (as well as some which were a bit heavy-handed). It also had the pleasing side-effect of giving me a far better relationship with Mary. Suffice to say it was with the local goth dad and was at least partially the result of me really liking his garden.
That was also the storyline where it felt like all the predetermined bits by the developers – personalities, events and so on – seemed to work best. My dad persona and his seemed to mesh better than others I'd encountered. I also changed a key choice in the character creation stage to better reflect the game.
You see, the game lets you pick whether your now-deceased partner as Amanda's parent was male or female and whether she was adopted or not. As Pip I went with Amanda having another father and being born, as Patrick I went with mother and born and as T Rex (don't judge me) I went with a father and adopted. As Patrick I ran into a few dialogue lines which ignored that early choice and spoke about Amanda's late father. It was really jarring because I think that choice is supposed to be meaningful in terms of how you're thinking of your character's sexuality.
Dream Daddy won't be for everyone because romance games and dating sims are an acquired taste. It's like whether you enjoy romcom contrivances and how that genre plays with or embraces tropes - you're either happy to take a very middle class cul-de-sac stuffed with gay and bi dads, often embodying particular gay archetypes (at least at first glance) but with complicated or difficul context stripped out/simplified, and all potentially interested in you or you aren't. That said, Dream Daddy had such warmth and heart that it kept derailing my attempts at a maximum efficiency playthrough and I kept accidentally warming to the dads and daughters and surrounding characters.
It reminded me of Life Is Strange in that it speaks in a way I'm not used to seeing in games. Dad banter and warmth and actual human humour. Name me another game where a character makes an awkward pun/joke that doesn't quite work and tells you they're going to workshop it. There are also some cute minigames – a proud parent face-off was my favourite, especially when you select the daughter option in the little Pokemon-style battle.
It has some shortcomings – the fact that it feels like some options aren't quite right for the character, that you only get three dates in a playthrough and thus it's hard to consider investing in another dad once you've started building a relationship with one, that it oversimplifies, that it feels vaguely like it's set in a Boden catalogue world, that while trying to just catch up with an old friend you can pick a chat option and send aubergine emojis flying everywhere, that there's a lot of dialogue to click through so you can accidentally end up selecting a dialogue option before you realise that wasn't just another chatbox… So it's not perfect by any means, but oh my gosh I was so glad to play it in the way that I was so glad to play Life Is Strange, and the fact that it reached second place in the Steam charts this week was the icing on the homemade dad cake.