Great stories do an exceptional job at making you forget how ridiculous games are. There are so many player-driven moments in games that would be absurd if they were given any narrative significance. They’re not alone though. Other storytelling mediums don’t have to worry about the minute oddities that games do, but they still have to sell satisfying stories set in strange scenarios, like inside an 11-year-old’s head or a theme park with dinosaurs. Just as it is with games, the stories that earn their emotional resonance despite their very unrealistic worlds are the ones we remember. But it’s not because of the weirdness, it’s because the best stories have the power to transcend the unfamiliar and say something deeply meaningful to ourselves.
That Hatoful Boyfriend, a game about dating teenage pigeons, is one of these stories might seem shocking when you see it, but that’s the problem: seeing it. To actually play this text-heavy, dating simulator game is to reveal a carefully constructed tale that grows bigger than its high school setting. The photo-realistic pigeons on top of anime backgrounds are not the point. They’re a quirky disguise that hides a cast of damaged and emotional characters for you to get to know over the course of several, repeated playthroughs.
Each journey through the game is colored by the character, or pigeon, you chase. The intention, or, at least the intentions of the player character, a human girl, is to start a relationship with one of them, but really it’s to see their side of the quickly-familiar story and to eke out more information about the game’s surprisingly-realized world. This means spending all the time you can between classes with the narcoleptic homeroom teacher, or the childhood friend, or the scheming doctor, or the superhuman (or is it pigeon?) track runner. And making the right decisions during the few, crucial times the game asks for your input, where you can join clubs, increase your wisdom, charisma, or vitality, side with classmates, and ask questions. After a few runs through the game, slightly eased with a fast-forward button, you learn to manipulate the variables in the way that lets you see that particular character’s storyline and ending. The usual high school story beats — anxiety, peer-pressure and the like –are replaced by the deeply personal and strange stories you glean from your fellow pigeons.
The most important moments happen later in the game, which means you have to flip through the dozens and dozens of dialogue text to get to the meatier conversations. It’s tedious even if you strategically place a save point after the game’s lengthy opening, and the story shifts don’t happen enough that you want to slow down. These pacing problems only surface because you’re so greatly incentivized to replay the game several times. And it wouldn’t be so bad if every conclusion was worth it, but some of the characters veer into melancholic or too-predictable finales.
But when they hit, they hit. The best characters open up as you try to do the same with them and eventually explain the context for their behavior throughout the story. One quiet pigeon you meet in the library has an especially tragic ending that makes you rethink every interaction you’ve had with him. And another character that appears to be preppy and egotistical spills about the pressure of his family’s expectations interfering with his actual desires. These stories, while told in many other ways before, get at empathetic truths that drill into you much harder than the game’s otherwise humorous tone.
Hatoful Boyfriend Review - Pigeon Decisions (PS4) - PlayStation LifeStyle
That’s not to say the rest of Hatoful Boyfriend is forgettable. The gags and the dialogue are not only funny and smart, but consistently true to the characters. It’s the kind of witty writing that wouldn’t work as well without an intimate understanding of how the world and the characters of the game work. It’s self-contained in an effective way. Unfortunately, those through lines aren’t always paid off in a way that makes all the compelling set up worth it. And as a result, that leaves an hour or so of strong writing that leads to nowhere. And considering that’s the real thrust of the game, it can feel frustrating, like the mark was only slightly missed.
But those disappointing moments are ultimately rare. Hatoful Boyfriend earns almost everything else it does. Like those fantastical and ridiculous movies and novels, it demonstrates an ability to rise above its base, absurd concepts and weaves several stories that last. It’s much more than it seems, and begs for you to play it and discover its depth.
Hatoful Boyfriend review copy provided by the publisher. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.