At one point during the dating simulation game Hatoful Boyfriend, I found myself walking through a park with the guy I had a crush on as he confessed his profound grief over a lost love—how her absence had broken something deep in his heart that he might never be able to put back together.
The catch, of course, is that he wasn’t a “guy” at all; he was a bird. But here I was anyway, getting legitimately choked up over whether or not a quail was ever going to love again.
The concept behind Hatoful Boyfriend is simple, but incredibly bizarre: it’s a bird dating sim. You play as the one and only human student at the elite St. Pigeonation high school, a girl who has to select her love interest from the usual panoply of boy-band archetypes: the shy nerd, the jock, the smooth talker, or even—gasp—the teacher. And again, all of them are birds.
Much like Goat Simulator before it, Hatoful Boyfriend started as a joke—a parody of dating sims whipped up for April Fools’ Day in 2011 by a manga creator who happened to be fond of pigeons. If you’ve never played the game—which recently got a high-definition remake by Mediatonic and a release on Steam—it’s tempting to dismiss it as a one-off gag. (Or as one Steam review put it, “easily the best pigeon dating sim out there.”)
But resist that temptation, for the birds of Hatoful Boyfriend are not what they seem.
The longer you play, the more you realize that the game is a bit of a Trojan horse: a seemingly ludicrous joke that slowly unfolds into something more affecting that it has any right to be, and then peels back yet another layer to become something far, far weirder than the idea of dating birds.
If you’re considering buying the game for the sheer weirdness factor, go for it: the writing is both clever and absurd enough to justify the price of entry. Avian puns abound, and while I could do without the seemingly My Little Pony-inspired pronoun “everybirdie,” there's a lot of hilarity to be found in substituting pigeons for people. I was particularly amused by Okosan, an academically-challenged track star on a quest to find the ultimate pudding (and whose human portrait is inexplicably just a bird in a suit).
But keep playing, and Hatoful Boyfriend slowly becomes something more: an exercise in empathy.
When you begin the game, you’re given an option to toggle on humanized portraits of each bird that appear the first time you meet them—essentially, anthropomorphic training wheels that make it easier to project sadness, longing, malice and romantic interest onto pictures of birds. If you don’t feel entirely comfortable thinking “I’d hit that” while looking at a digitized image of a pigeon, then this may be the option for you.
But the more time you spend forging connections with the beady-eyed bird boys at your high school, the more you start to genuinely feel for them as they share their stories of familial conflict, profound loss—and yes, even love. The fact that you are looking at a picture of a bird ceases to matter; or rather, it starts to mean something else.
The power of games often lies in their ability to project us into the bodies of others, and playing Hatoful Boyfriend can create an odd sort of tension about exactly who you think you are when you’re romancing sentient birds.
Human beings tend to be a bit narcissistic by nature; when we look at the world around us, we want to see ourselves in everything from animal behavior to inanimate objects. So when you start to experience feelings towards a bird, do you start imagining them as a human, as the portraits suggest? Or after seeing nothing but pigeons and for hours on ends, do you imagine yourself as a bird? And what would that mean?
Although you’re introduced as the sole human at your school, the first-person view of the game occasionally makes it easy to forget that you're different from everyone else. But this changes too; the feeling that you are something other creeps up slowly, through countless tiny microaggressions scattered throughout the game. A “hunter-gatherer” comment here, a back-handed compliment about your simian ancestry there.
The juxtaposition of birds as high school students also inspires some peculiar questions: Why does a school of birds have a club devoted to… birdwatching? How exactly would a human and a bird participate in a three-legged race together during a sports festival? Why do the birds have cell phones if they don’t have opposable thumbs? But most of all, why is a school and city populated entirely by birds full of buildings, vehicles and other infrastructure designed specifically for humans?
There's a thread of dissonance stitched in and out of many moments throughout the game’s multiple paths, inconsistencies that are initially easy to dismiss in the game’s sea of weirdness but eventually produce an uncomfortable feeling niggling in the back of your mind. It should.
Although it seems like it’s all part of the joke—akin to asking where the sentient cars come from in Disney films—pay attention and keep digging. You may find more answers than you expect, or some cases, even want.
Thanks in large part to its relentless weirdness, Hatoful Boyfriend might just be the greatest dating sim for people who don’t like dating sims (or don’t know that they do).
Admittedly, the game may occasionally get frustrating, especially if this is your first experience with a visual novel; it’s not always logically obvious how to unlock the affections and endings of particular characters by choosing different classes or dialogue options, nor is it clear what stats like “charisma” and “vitality” have to do with anything, and the only way to figure it out is extensive trial and error.
This is also very much a game you can lose; fail to win the tiny, rapidly-beating bird hearts of any potential suitors by the mid-point of the school year, and your spinsterhood will be punished by what I will merely call an abrupt ending. Although saving at critical decision points is highly recommended, the repetition may feel off-putting to the uninitiated. But hey, at least the bird jokes are funny enough to leaven the frustration—at least the first five or six times through.
Successful romance paths can also feel a bit brief, clocking in at less than an hour each, but take heart. Once you’ve unlocked all of the primary endings, you’ll have a chance to play through what’s called the “Bad Boys Love” or “Hateful Boyfriend” route, which is not only the longest story but the blackened core that lies at the heart of the game’s narrative Turducken.
And therein lies both the biggest problem with Hatoful Boyfriend and exactly why I like it so much: It’s not what it appears to be. Although the game delivers the absurdist humor that it promises on the tin, the tone of the game is hugely inconsistent, eager to skip from comedy to genuine emotion to horror without ever bothering to flip on the turn signal.
While this made it easily the most entertaining visual novel I’ve ever played, if you’re looking for simple, funny game about dating birds you’re almost certainly going to get more than you bargained for.
But if you think you’re up for it, go ahead and enroll at St. Pigeonation Institute and start looking for the bird of your dreams. The experience will be even stranger than it sounds.
Hatoful Boyfriend is out now and costs £7/$10 on Steam.