Type of game: Visual novel
Developed by: (original) Moa Hato (remake) Mediatonic
Published by: (remake) Devolver Digital
Year: (original) 2011 (remake) 2014
Played on: Steam
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! And no, I don’t mean Christmas, I’m talking about the Steam Summer Sale – which admittedly does have things in common with December 25th *insert fat man Santa / Gabe Newell joke here.* During this week or so of heavily discounted PC games our spending here at AddAltMode tend to fall in to 2 categories: the ‘big’ games we really wanted but were waiting to obtain at a bargain price, and usually at least one or two really odd games purchased either out of curiosity or just for the giggles because they were so cheap. This is why our (non-Borderlands) gaming has become particularly random and uh, farmyard themed (?) in recent weeks: with AddAltMode B playing Goat Simulator and me settling down with this um pigeon-dating simulator….
Yes, Hatoful Boyfriend is a pigeon-dating simulator. Don’t judge me. In it, you play as the only human attending St.Pigeonations, a prestigious Japanese high-school run and attended by sentient birds. Ostensibly the goal is to progress through the typical milestones of the school calendar: classes, holidays, sports days and festivals, while getting to know “everybirdie” (the game uses this and similar terms throughout) and to find that special “somebirdie” to pursue more intimately. I enjoy interactive fiction a lot. I’d never dated a pigeon before, or indeed considered dating one but I was intrigued by two things: firstly just how off the wall the premise was, and secondly just how many extremely positive reviews this title seemed to have garnered. Could a game about romancing pigeons really be so engaging, or does the world just contain far more pigeon fanciers (and not in the racing sense) than I’d realised? The sale price of £1.74 seemed a reasonable sum to pay to find out more…
I thought it might make me laugh for an hour or two. How wrong can you be?
No, I haven’t suddenly become a pigeon pervert but I did get suckered in, hook line and sinker. Because it turns out Hatoful Boyfriend is a much more intense, dark and engaging experience than I’d anticipated. There’s much, much more to this game than meets the eye…
Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel: as the story progresses characters appear as portraits, and locations are evoked via a changing series of static backgrounds. One of the first choices you’ll make is whether to engage the “powerful visualisation module” that provides human portraits to accompany each bird. With this enabled, the first time they appear, each dove, pigeon or partridge is additionally pictured as the kind of bishounen very typical of Japanese dating games. Displaying both bird and human simultaneously, these introductory screens epitomise the kind of double response this game constantly demands from its players. This could be any blue haired dating-sim flirt guy; except it isn’t because he’s a dove. These high school scenes of locker rooms, canteens and desks, feel utterly familiar and sterotypical; but if this is a school for birds, why do the classrooms and chairs all look so human sized? It’s a kind of dual perception that becomes increasingly unnerving as the story progresses.
In terms of choice making, there often isn’t a vast amount of it. This is a branching novel rather than a full choose your own adventure experience like some of the Choice of Games I’ve reviewed here in the past. The pleasure here is in discovery rather than influence. The act of clicking through the dialogue keeps readers actively engaged but there can be long passages – particularly in the first semester where all the characters are introduced – where there are no options or variations. The game includes a fast-forward button, which can be handy on repeat play-throughs, but be warned, fast-forward only stops when a choice screen is reached, so it’s easy to miss new scenes and dialogues if you use it too much. Choices that can be made include which clubs to join, and which classes to take each day. Studying maths, gym or music will affect your wisdom, vitality and charisma statistics which can have a bearing on how some (not all) story lines progress. And of course, there’s the all important decision of which birdie you’d like to pursue.
The immediate object of the game seems to be to pursue a bird until you get their particular ending. On Steam, the achievements to be earned are almost all tied to a specific character ending with some birds having more than one conclusion: usually a ‘light’ ending, if you pursued them but perhaps didn’t possess the optimum stats to fully connect and a “true ending” with a fuller, post-credits epilogue. The different stories that precede these endings have varying flavours which can seem quite stereotypical at first. For example, Ryouta – your best friend – is a bird next door type; bookish Nageki always lurks in the library; while the older Yuuya is more of a ladies
man dove. You can also go for the school doctor, Shuu: a very sinister partridge who always appears on screen accompanied by the tune from the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” (yes really). I found Shuu’s story one of the most engaging to play because it’s clear right from the start that he’s creepy and evil, yet the game still allows you to pursue him even when all your better instincts warn you not to. It’s interesting how the game recognises this twisted kind of playing-with-fire fascination and allows the player to explore it.
Shuu’s story makes the dark side of the game most obvious but as I progressed through the different narrative routes it became increasingly apparent that something is very wrong, not just in the St. Pigeonations infirmary but in the fabric of the game’s society. Initially Hatoful Boyfriend seems to encourage you just to accept that this is a world of pigeons and focus on befriending them. But then even as you embrace this oddness and start scheming which after school club to join to get me closer to, say, Yuuya, every so often the story will include a something that hints at the disturbing bigger picture. Some of these hints take the form of dialogue, such as when the protagonist refers to her “hunter gatherer lifestyle,” others are more visual. I already mentioned the feeling disconnect induced by everything in the school lookings so optimised for humans. There’s also the fact that while the ever-positive protagonist speaks of happily relaxing in her “glorious bode” the screen displays an image of a draughty-looking cave.
Hatoful Boyfriend may be packaged as a parodic dating-sim, but what kept me returning to it wasn’t the romance but the mystery: what on earth has happened that has led birds to become the dominant species, and where are the other humans? There’s actually a gripping dystopian narrative in play here, but to uncover it you do need to explore the romance options with each and every character. As you get to know everybirdie the real links between the characters and the true state of the world they occupy gradually becomes clear.
Once you’ve unlocked most of the endings the game gives you the option to “fulfill a promise.” Choosing to do so unlocks the “BBL” (Bad Boys Love) route; a very different game experience where the genre shifts from romance to whodunnit (complete with Phoenix Wright references). Here you play as one of the pigeons rather than the human protagonist and finally find out what’s really going on. This section is actually much longer than the earlier parts of the game. It’s rather light on meaningful choices: you choose the order in which to visit certain locations and there are a few fight scenes, both RPG and Pokémon style (yes really), where you choose your attacks but as far as I’ve found your decisions here don’t have much impact on the overall narrative, which always converges at a single point. This lack of agency could be dissatisfying – and certain reduces the game’s replay value – but fortunately the story is gripping enough that, the first time through at least, it should hold your interest. There are plenty of shocks, some really thoughtful and tender moments and a good dash of dystopian imagination. I was surprised by how much I ended up caring about these goddamn pigeons.
Hatoful Boyfriend is let down by its poor spelling: typos like “libary” feel pretty inexcusable in a professional English language remake and occasionally I found such errors distracting enough that they interrupted the flow of the story. But overall this was an enjoyably off the wall experience, a game that managed to be both darker and more emotive than I’d anticipated without ever losing sight of its own inherent ridiculousness.
If you enjoy visual novels and haven’t yet succumbed to the buzz of curiosity generated by this now rather notious title, I’d say it certainly is worth investigating. I experienced a lot of feelings playing through Hatoful Boyfriend: with the initial “what am I doing, I can’t believe I’m even playing this” embarrassment quickly morphing into a more benign amusement then on to intrigue, confusion, sympathy and surprise. One thing I didn’t feel was disappointed, although I can imagine you might be if you came to this anticipating some hardcore pigeon porn (!?!) The romance plots tend to be very restrained: sweet and wistful in tone rather than juicy. But for that, I for one am grateful; this game has already got me wondering what various other birds would look like if they were Japanese lady boys and my over-active imagination needs no further fuel.