Games, Geek Culture, LGBTQ, Sexuality

Dissecting The Dream Daddy Discourse

There’s a trend I’ve noticed with more mainstream coverage of visual novels, and I’m going to be honest—I don’t like it. I’m happy games like Dream Daddy and Tusks are getting coverage. Visual novels are a vastly underrated and misunderstood genre, usually only coming to the larger games press’ attention when something weird (dating pigeons) or something controversial (Ladykiller in a Bind’s pulled scene) happens. And when they are covered, as with the recent popularity of Dream Daddy, there’s a distinct trend to paint them as a surprising success.

I realize that visual novels, and more specifically dating sims, are probably never going to be covered with the same fervor as the first-person shooter or role-playing game genres. They’re about romance and storytelling in a way that’s fundamentally opposed to the imagined gamer ideal—the hypermasculine, adrenaline-pumping, never-vulnerable alpha male with a gun the size of his leg and a gruff, no-nonsense voice. Asking that gamer to play a goofy, awkward dad who used to be in a ska band called Skammunist Manifesto is, naturally, not going to work.

But critics, I think, should strive for more than replicating the same bullshit attitudes that are so widely pervasive in gaming culture, which is precisely why I’m irritated with the way these discussions are framed.

Take this headline from Kotaku, for example:

Dream Daddy

The writer of this particular piece covered the gay orc dating sim—it’s called Tusks, and you can check out the demo here—just fine. But that headline, which claims the game is “surprisingly smart,” troubles me.

I’m not a visual novel expert, though I’ve played more than the average person. Spend some times with games like We Know the Devil, Rose of Winter, or Long Live the Queen and you’ll see that it’s not actually surprising that these games are smart—they’re largely text based, which means that they can’t just skate by on the adrenaline of shooting aliens or the thrill of solving a difficult puzzle. They need to be well-written, too.

Headlines like this one bank on the idea that there is something inherently lesser about visual novels. Perhaps it’s that they’re a genre largely known for their female audience, or perhaps it’s that games are still hung up on sex as shameful, a sort of backward retaliation to the old assumption that video game players are nothing more than lonely virgins in their mother’s basements. Whatever the reason, there’s a running assumption that visual novels, and particularly dating sims, are worthy of surprise when they’re smart.

Likewise, this Waypoint headline strikes a nerve:

Dream Daddy

Again, the content of the article is good–most of the coverage of this game has been along the line of, “Hey, this exists!” and “hey, it’s queer!” and I enjoyed Patrick Klepek’s take on the game as a father. But even though the headline isn’t quite as overtly surprised as the Kotaku piece about Tusks, there’s still an air of “get this” about it. Of course Dream Daddy is touching—it’s a game about a queer single father raising a kid who’s going through a tough time after the death of her second parent. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the game’s content, especially because it’s produced by the Game Grumps, a group of gaming YouTubers whose humor is sometimes questionable, but headlines like this one feel more like they’re coming from a place of puzzlement that a game about queer folks, made by and with the input of queer folks, could also be good.

It’s possible—probable, even—that these headlines come about because editors are looking for what’s most likely to make people click, and Dream Daddy is certainly not what the games industry’s Platonic ideal gamer is after. But that doesn’t mean that we should be courting that. I get it, a website lives and dies by its views, but when you look at the wider pattern of the way visual novels, and particularly the subset of queer dating simulators, are covered, you notice this as a pattern.

As a whole, the gaming community, not just press, seems to always be nervously giggling about queer content. Robert Yang, designer of the Radiator collections, which include games like Stick Shift and Hurt Me Plenty, has often discussed YouTubers’ responses to his games, which are typically based on homophobic shock “humor.” Players of Dream Daddy have been surprised by the lack of explicit sex, which, though the surprise isn’t in itself harmful, does have the effect of making the dad jokes and levity palatable even to let’s players who court audiences based on performing similar kinds of homophobic humor. They get to giggle at the fact that they’re dating men as a man as well as the game’s genuinely delightful humor without having to confront anything uncomfortable.  That’s not a fault of the game, of course–cute, fluffy queer content is always welcome–but between the homophobic response to game with queer content and the press’ complete surprise that such a thing could be good, it’s a theme that needs to be addressed.

Dream Daddy, Game Grumps, 2017That surprise in the lack of explicit sexual content is itself troubling. We tend to associate queerness immediately with sex, leaving little room for the quiet moments of warmth that Dream Daddy excels at. We expect to skip the formalities and get right to the banging, but even in a game like Ladykiller in a Bind, where explicit sex is an important and expected part of the narrative, it’s not all there is to offer. This association between queerness and sex is part of the reason games like Tusks and Dream Daddy get perceived as surprising for their cleverness—when people consider every interaction between gay men as pornographic, it’s no wonder they’re confused by the good writing.

It’s this element of surprise that troubles me every time a visual novel garners enough attention to reach mainstream press. We don’t express surprise when the latest entry in the Generic Whitebread Shooter franchise is actually good; we slap it with an acceptable seven or eight and move on to the next. You could argue that it’s because the Generic Whitebread Shooter franchise has an established consistent quality, but that’s not entirely fair—if we only pay visual novels attention because we think they’re weird or surprising, they’re going to continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented as something they aren’t.

These articles themselves aren’t the problem; I’m happy that visual novels like Dream Daddy, Tusks, and Ladykiller in a Bind are getting more mainstream coverage. Each one elevates the genre and medium in a new way, and are deserving of the attention paid to them. Let’s just make sure the attention we pay isn’t tainted by preconceived notions of what visual novels, and especially queerness, actually look like.

  1. DMaster

    August 10, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    My big problem with the idea of visual novels, from what I’ve seen, isn’t the misconception of being dating sims and increasingly smutty. My issue is that they fall somewhere between comics and animation, equating to a comic that takes much longer to read. Yes, there ARE choices, but I haven’t come across a “visual novel” and not an outright “video game” that puts out enough choices for it to actually matter as a game, and if I have no choice, I may as well just watch/read something instead.

    By all means, prove me wrong in this assertion. I’d love to hear of some examples that defy my expectation.

    1. Melissa Brinks

      August 10, 2017 at 11:52 pm

      I could sing about how much I love Ladykiller in a BInd, though it is, um, very smutty. I’ve played through one route and am halfway through another, and it’s one of the only VNs I’ve ever played that I never skip dialog on because Love is so consistently funny and sharp that I’m paying rapt attention so I can do better on the next playthrough. It’s not a game for everyone–for real, do some research on it because it’s a game about kink and social manipulation and it doesn’t shy away from getting dark–but there are multiple ways that your choices carry weight. Too nice, you’ll gain suspicion. Too mean, you’ll lose votes. It’s not just clicking through a story, it’s making calculated choices that are as much about being the kind of person you want your version of The Beast to be as it is about “winning,” whether that means completing the game, getting a good ending, getting all the votes, or sleeping with as many babes as you can.

      That said, it’s also possible VNs just aren’t your genre! Just like horror games and military shooters aren’t my thing, it could just be that you’re not into interactive storytelling in this particular format, and that’s cool too.

  2. Jo

    August 11, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Hi, it’s Jo!

    I’m glad you talked about the inherent sexualization of queerness, but you could’ve also talked about the inherent sexualization of visual novels. As a creator, that’s what I run into a lot — most peoples’ familiarity of the genre is still through Japanese modes of the game. On the Japanese side of the genre, a lot of companies are still using it to explore taboo sexuality. Check any porn site: the hentai sections are chock full of just playthrus of H games and dating sims, or rough edits of just the sex parts.

    I think that’s why when a VN breaks through the mainstream, there’s an expectation of sex, since the genre itself, as most people are familiar with it, is full of porn. The treatment of English-language VNs is different, but the term itself is still so highly associated with Japanese-style porn that it’s hard to throw off.

    There’s a bunch of articles here that really talk about it. https://bunnyadvocate.tumblr.com/post/159429107647/visual-novels-the-rise-of-a-medium

    The first one touches on the search terms in VNDB (English language VNs WAY prioritize no sexual content tags over JVNs), and if you go down to the next article about protags, you’ll see that what people are looking for in a JVN is usually a rape/domination fantasy.

    1. Melissa Brinks

      August 11, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      You’re absolutely right! I honestly didn’t know so many people assumed that VNs were inherently sexual until somebody tried to tell me that they are in response to this article; I knew there was that subset of VNs, but didn’t realize the perception that all VNs are sexual was so widespread. My own oversight, I guess! Thanks for the link, and I’ll keep that in mind for any future pieces I write on this kind of thing!

  3. Callum

    August 12, 2017 at 9:56 pm

    Couple things.

    You never explicitly declare that you are putting gamers in a box, and yet you seem to be treating the designated label as though it means something more than merely just “individuals who play video games.”

    Cite: “They’re about romance and storytelling in a way that’s fundamentally opposed to the imagined gamer ideal…”

    If you’re implying that all gamers share ideals, well that’s a fairly ridiculous assertion. And if you’re implying that “hypermasculine, adrenaline-pumping, never-vulnerable alpha male with a gun the size of his leg and a gruff, no-nonsense voice” is somehow an out-of-touch notion coming from game developers, sales figures would disagree as would any number of anecdotal players of that type of game, bearing any characteristic of identity.

    Then again, I’ve always thought the idea of a gaming community was a stupid one, given that it’s a definite stretch to try and unite people around nothing more than a hobby with massively varied interest levels and appeals to different, more commonly linked demographics.

    Secondly, and I’ll grant you this is more a general observation of the site itself than a direct comment on the above article, but-

    Why can’t comics be comics, games be games, and movies be movies? Isn’t there a thoughtless entertaining angle to all of these media that grant them leeway in being able to exaggerate, obfuscate, or otherwise run away with our conceptions of what is real and true?

    And IF you want to continue to ruminate upon these media by analyzing the cultural, sexual, societal etymology of them, if you will, then why do you so vehemently maintain a one-sided position when discussing such things? Is there no longer any merit to the presentation of opposing viewpoints? Have you failed to seek them out? Certainly there is no lack for opinions on the internet. And ultimately?

    Ultimately the articles I’ve examined (Major’s Body, Dark Tower, the above article) fail to present sufficiently broad analyses of their given subject matter. For instance, what of the notion that Roland as he was described in the Dark Tower had the physical characteristics of Clint Eastwood, not Idris Elba? Or what about the myriad of alternative interpretations the sexual themes in Ghost in The Shell can present besides the customary left feminist interpretation? I suppose I shouldn’t expect much from a site called Women Write About Comics, since right out of the gate you show your hand of pandering to identity politics…

    But as a lover of spirited discourse between opposing sides, I find uniformity of ideology and thought to be repulsive, and so do my best to try and provide at least a glimpse into what I would consider a constructive alternative. I am well-aware that in all-likelihood my comments may be pushed to the wayside or ignored entirely, yet perhaps there is hope for humanity yet. After all, I tried to display a measure of reflexivity in writing this comment, and attempted to refrain from being abrasive. Not quite political correctness, and perhaps even utter adherence would prove irrelevant considering current affairs, and yet I try.

    For your consideration,

    Callum

    1. Merri

      August 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      This comment reads like those weird spam emails I get where it’s just random words put together.

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