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Thursday, May 16, 2024

'Raptor Boyfriend' Proves Absurd Dating Sims Are Here to Stay

Last year, the most embarrassing game that I played was a dating simulator on my phone called Love Island the Romance Game, based on a sleazy British reality TV show. I enjoyed flirting with the himbos and picking out bikinis for lazy days of sunbathing. The thrills are simplistic, and the conversations are vapid. This experience might be what most players expect from dating sims, but numerous development teams have subverted expectations for the genre.

Originally released in 2011 by Japanese developer Hato Moa, Hatoful Boyfriend is an absurdist trailblazer and avian love story in which you are the singular human student attending St. PigeoNation’s Institute, a high school for talented (and flirtatious) birds. The visual novel is surprisingly campy and saturated with wordplay. I played through this dating sim a few times to further investigate a mysterious side plot involving the menacing school doctor.

Another dating simulator that subverts audience expectations is Doki Doki Literature Club! The opening of this visual novel feigns a stereotypical aesthetic, but the facade is slowly ripped away as Doki Doki’s metafictional undercurrent is revealed to the player.

Personally, my favorite example of this genre is Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator. You play as an eligible dad who relocates to a comfortable cul de sac that contains seven attractive dads who invite you to cookouts, flirt with you on DadBook, and enjoy corny dad jokes almost as much as your character. In a WIRED UK review from 2017, Matt Kamen wrote that the dating sim, “stands as one of the best in the genre.”

Raptor Boyfriend, an upcoming dating sim set in a 1990s high school, appears to strike a tone somewhere between Hatoful Boyfriend and Dream Daddy. You play as Stella, a socially anxious teenager attempting to navigate her identity and choose from three cryptid suitors. Elements from both visual novels are found in Raptor Boyfriend. In a way, Raptor Boyfriend is an absurdist bildungsroman with nonhuman suitors like Hatoful Boyfriend and, similar to Dream Daddy, the visual novel is a queer fantasia that will likely appeal to the LGBTQ+ community.

Before the official release of their game (currently available to wish-list on Steam,) I chatted with Rocket Adrift, the independent dev team behind Raptor Boyfriend. The team is composed of three members: Titus McNally as a lead programmer and UI/UX designer, Lindsay Rollins as a programmer and character artist, and Pat Smith as a composer and background artist. Previously, the team worked together to release the visual novel Order a Pizza. All three members of Rocket Adrift contribute to the writing process.

We spoke about the inspiration for Raptor Boyfriend, their approach to absurdist comedy, and the difficulties they’ve faced as independent creators.

The lighthearted concept of a radical raptor provided an initial spark for this project. “We just really knew we wanted this image of like a raptor Sea-Dooing or like skateboarding or doing some sort of extreme sport with a letterman’s jacket,” Rollins said.

In addition, the team knew early on that this project would incorporate elements from '90s television. “TV teen drama stuff from like the 90s was an influence, I think, from the very beginning," Smith said. "So, we were really excited to get that kind of small-town, country vibe going in there and have a group of characters that all interact.”

“Once we knew it was a teen drama," McNally said, "all of sudden we had a list of moments that we thought could be in the game, and we kind of went through which ones we wanted to do from there.” Playing as Stella during her last year of high school, potential experiences include star gazing, dirt biking, and smooching.

The concept behind Raptor Boyfriend feels like a ready-made meme, so it makes sense that I first encountered the dating sim on Twitter. Polygon senior reporter Nicole Carpenter included the dating sim in her article “21 Indie Video Games to Look Forward to in 2021,” and a vivid illustration of Raptor Boyfriend’s protagonist Stella, lounging in her denim overalls while using a landline phone, was selected to represent the article on social media. The game captured my full curiosity on the strength of that initial image.

“I’m so proud of her overalls. When we settled on that design, I was like, ‘That’s so '90s!’” Rollins said. During the process of creating original characters for the visual novel, numerous ideas ended up on the cutting-room floor. “The characters went through a lot of iterations,” McNally said. “In preproduction, we really tried to hone in on these characters and refine them. I’ve got to hand it to Lindsay. It was a massive challenge to try to make a sasquatch that looked like a teen and that looked like a datable teen as well.”

The character design for the Stella was developed with more ease than the character designs for her cryptid suitors. “The sasquatch and the raptor were the hardest thing," Rollins said. "The raptor, at one point, looked like a Magic School Bus character, and I was like, ‘This is wrong. This looks so gross.’” Rollins paused for a moment as she laughed. “The sasquatch looked like a weird old guy living in the forest, and we didn’t want to draw that comparison.”

“Dae was kind of challenging too," Rollins said of Stella’s third datable option, "because she started off not as a fairy. We originally weren’t even going to have her be a datable option, and then we were like, why not? As soon as we made the decision to make her a datable character, that’s when the fairy wings and the colors and the outfit came together.”

Curious about the writing process, I asked about their unique approach to absurdist comedy for this project. “We do love absurdist comedy," McNalley said, "but we also thought this project needed genuine moments. Our kind of rule was that a lot of things were fair game to make jokes about, but the deeper stuff—the kind of feelings or trials and tribulations that the teens were going through—we wanted to play that completely straight.”

“So it’s like, you can make a joke about a raptor and a skateboard or him having a feathery beard or whatever," Smith said. “But you can’t make a joke out of his trauma or his personal struggles or his feelings for Stella … That way you keep it about the stuff that is absurd, but you don’t joke about the stuff that is relatable to other people.”

“We played a lot of dating sims for research,” Smith said. While the entire team is passionate about visual novels, Rollins has the most first-hand experience playing dating sims: “One that I recently played that was really good was Arcade Spirits. I liked that one, and I think that’s kind of like the same feel that we’re going for.” A major question Rollins asks herself when selecting a dating sim is, “Does the artwork stand out to me?”

“We didn’t come into this as huge fans of the genre," McNally said. "We wanted to kind of shake it up a little bit.” Smith revealed that more of their inspiration was drawn from the broader world of visual novels than from the specific subcategory of dating sims. “To be honest, this game didn’t start off as a dating sim. It was just supposed to be a regular visual novel, and then we realized this is a romance game.”

Rocket Adrift is a part of Dames Making Games, a Toronto-based nonprofit that provides networking opportunities and resources to marginalized game developers, but the global pandemic has made it very difficult to collaborate in person and organically connect with the local community. “We haven’t really found too much in the way of a community that’s been interested in it, in our local sense,” McNally said. “Sort of everything that we’ve built, in a lot of ways, has been over the internet and for an audience that comes from all over the place.”

“We spent a lot of time working on these characters, not just the art but also the writing and their voices. I think that really comes through in the game,” McNally said. “There’s a lot of visual novels that kind of have a gimmick or a joke, and they don’t go deep enough, but we really tried with this project to make a memorable story.”

You might be surprised to learn that Raptor Boyfriend is not the only teenage dinosaur romance game anticipated for release in 2021. Carefully avoiding the dating sim moniker, Goodbye Volcano High will be released on PlayStation and is described on its official website as “a cinematic narrative game about the end of an era, and the beginning of a love story.”

When Goodbye Volcano High was announced last June during Sony’s “Future of Gaming” event, it received an overwhelmingly negative reaction from PlayStation fans who were not expecting this style of game to be featured as part of the next generation of consoles, and the developer, KO_OP, resorted to disabling comments on its YouTube trailer.

The video game community continues to expand, but remnants of the hypermasculine past are still prevalent. If I am ever able to acquire one of the mythical PS5 consoles, Goodbye Volcano High will not be at the top of my gaming queue, but I am glad that Sony is attempting to broaden its base. For now, I’m giving Dream Daddy another play-through on Steam. Excuse me, I need to go check my DadBook notifications and practice my jokes before tonight’s neighborhood cookout.

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