I played Hatoful Boyfriend, the bizarre Japanese dating sim (where all the boys you date are birds), for the first time this week. Or rather, I spent a few hours with Hatoful Boyfriend, because I’m pretty sure what I was doing was doing was not “playing a game.” Like the (completely different) Persona series of Japanese RPGs/social sim games, Hatoful Boyfriend is structured around a single Japanese school year, from April through March. Unlike Persona, a playthrough of Hatoful Boyfriend, (if you don’t fast forward) takes between 50 and 75 minutes, involves approximately two minutes of interaction. Walkthroughs explaining how to get a particular ending typically involve 17-18 instructions. As in, you make fewer than twenty choices (not counting which elective class to go to ~5-6 times, since for any given track you’ll almost always just choose the same one every time) in the whole “game.” And most of these choices are barely choices at all.
So why is Hatoful Boyfriend called a game? It looks like a game, sort of. The choices you make look like dialogue trees. You can save your game. Occasionally three stats (Wisdom, Vitality, and Charisma) pop up on screen when you’re choosing which elective to take (from three corresponding courses). And there are multiple endings (somewhere between 12 and 20, I think Maybe 15, based on how many spots there are in the menu-based Archive?).
But playing Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t feel like a game. If like me, you spend the first half hour of your first playthrough getting to know two or three possible birdie BFs, the game will harshly let you know that birdie don’t play that. You click through screen after screen of dialogue and exposition, and then, every few minutes, you get to make a choice. Since the game forces you to focus exclusively on one bird at a time, most of the choices are no-brainers: spend time with the bird you’ve chosen. Defend or support the bird you’ve chosen. Visit the club or elective class clearly associated with the bird you’ve chosen. So in effect, you make one choice—which bird to court—and then select the associated option a dozen times over the next hour without having to think too hard about it.
Except for the other four or five choices the game will offer. These also require very little thought, only for the opposite reason: the cause-effect relationship between the choice and its effect on your courtship is nonsensical and wholly unpredictable. The only way to make these choices “correctly” (to get from the ‘blow it with this bird’ game shutdown ending to the ‘normal’ ending or the ‘normal’ ending to the ‘good’ ending to birds that have two endings) is either trial and error or a walkthrough. The bird you like is eating a bunch of beans he’s save up for a whole year so he can binge now? If you “join him,” you’ll spend a pleasant afternoon eating tasty food…and get the normal ending. If you “scold him,” the two of you will fight (physically) for the next hour, he’ll respect you more, and you’ll be on track for the good ending. But at another point in this bird’s storyline, allowing him to go crazy in a cafeteria is the good choice and stopping him is the normal choice. So good luck with that, gamers!
The stories are kind of interesting. The premise of the game—for some reason human civilization seems to have mostly collapsed, and you are the only human at a prestigious boarding school for birds (who have inherited the earth)—is weird and interesting and often funny. The characters are kind of standard “types,” but their stories go in incredibly weird directions and the fact that they’re birds is sort of fun, and definitely defamiliarizing in a way that lets you consider the oddness of the dating sim genre HF both embodies and spoofs.
But to get a sense of the backstory of this odd world, you have to play many of the endings. And each time you do, over half of the hour-long runtime is pure dialogue repetition and, as we’ve said, most of the choices are dull, foregone conclusions. Because of this, the game includes a fast forward button. I fast-forwarded through at least two-thirds of all playthroughs but my first to get to the bits that were different. This is a Terrible. Game. Design. You should not have to fast-forward through most of your playthrough on all but one playthrough of a game that’s almost not worth playing through only one time. The worthwhile part—the different birds’ stories and fragments of world backstory—are a serious chore to get to because of the awful repetitiveness and dull, almost non-existent gameplay. All in all, there’s a decent payoff, but a terrible price to pay to get to it. In the end, I only played a handful of playthroughs (mostly fast-forwarded) before deciding it just wasn’t worth my time to go any further.
The production values don’t sweeten the deal either. The graphics consist of simple, static backgrounds, character portraits (amusing bird shots), and dialogue boxes. The music is okay, I guess. And the gameplay, as explained already, is so simple it can barely be called gameplay. You click a choice from a dialogue tree once in a while and that’s it.
It was bizarre to me that a game with so little time spent on its design contained an easter egg leading me to a real blog written as if by a pigeon whose archives go back to November 2005—over half a decade before Hatoful Boyfriend was first released. Then I realized that it’s because the game was created as an April Fools’ Day joke in 2011 by a guy who just likes pigeons. So the game is like a fun side project for the blog, not a serious project undertaken for its own sake. From this perspective, the half-assed experience makes more sense. But it’s a shame, because it’s being sold as a game, which I don’t really think it is. A game responds meaningful to your choices and/or actions. In Hatoful Boyfriend, you choose a boyfriend then make a dozen no-brainer choices and a handful more that you get right by trial and error or checking a walkthrough. There’s no action, and the choices aren’t really choices after the first one (which guy to chase). It’s kind of a visual novel, only it’s barely visual and you have to fast-forward through a bunch of repetition to get to moderate doses of new narrative in each playthrough.
Hatoful Boyfriend probably would have been better off going the visual novel route—a series of short visual stories about dating different birds. Then the designer could have saved time on the non-gameplay, dropped the repetition, and expanded on the graphics. As it is, HF is neither a good game nor an enjoyable visual novel, since the bits of interesting story are separated by long periods of dull gameplay and repetition.
What do you think? Should Hatoful Boyfriend count as a game? Is the interesting narrative worth the bad gameplay and stupid repetition? Am I missing something? What other games would you say aren’t really games at all?