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:
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:
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.
That 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.