It’s the spring of 2012, and I’m having my first real grapple with the fact that something might be wrong with me. No, I’m not obsessed with dating pigeons, not yet anyways, but I’m starting to suspect that my chronic anxiety and depression may be something serious, rather than me just falling short, being irrational, or childish. Everything I have to do during the day seems like an intense, high-pressure performance I can’t keep up with, but to get my mind off it all in the evenings I used a coping mechanism I retain to this day, even though I’m in a much better place mentally: I play weird games I found on the internet. That was the context for the Hatoful Boyfriend demo coming into my life. I forget where exactly I first heard of it, but it was presented as an oddball novelty (“dating birds!? Typical weird Japanese games…”) which is how many people are still introduced to it and after playing all of the routes in the original, as well as the Christmas-themed sequel and preordering the deluxe 1080p rerelease on Steam (now with added Java Sparrow route) I think it ultimately sells the game short. Saying Hatoful Boyfriend saved my life is obvious hyperbole, but it did improve it, and it is a very good visual novel even when the novelty of talking birds and a boarding school for intelligent pigeons wears off.
It’s hard to really mention anything about the overarching plot of Hatoful Boyfriend, beyond the budding friendships and eventual romantic confession scenes you can experience with eight different birds without going into major spoilers, so I won’t. What I think is more important about the game is experiencing it. Even if you’re reading this, I imagine it’ll be hard for you to go into the game without initially scoffing at the ridiculous setup, that you’re the first human girl to attend a school previously only for birds. It’s a take on a common premise for many girls’ dating sim games, that you’re the first girl attending a historically male boarding school, which gives you little competition and the most time and attention from the boys you can interact with. But then, Hatoful Boyfriend’s main character also attracts some unwanted attention… oh ok, I’ll stop there.
Hatoful Boyfriend is way more than just a send up of dating sim tropes using the absurdity of a human dating a pigeon to emphasize the ridiculousness of the genre. While there are, of course, some self-aware jokes and humour resulting from human-avian interaction, Hato Moa, the pseudonymous creator, plays it remarkably straight. While the dateable birdies may seem like two dimensional dating sim ‘types,’ at first, almost everyone, at some point in the game, begins to question why they’re having such intense or complex feelings about a character represented only by text and a stock photo of a bird. And then you just accept it. And then you’re one of us.
The community surrounding the Hatoful Boyfriend games includes long-time bird fanciers, and people who only began to fancy birds after playing the game. Me, I found a new source of happiness, appreciating the cooing, strutting co-inhabitants of the city around me in a new way, after I’d befriended them ingame. I made friends who had been through the same experience, of picking up the game on a whim because it was ‘weird’ and becoming enthralled. I’ve chatted with zookeepers, neurosurgeons, mothers, even people who offered me advice from their own experiences with GAD who all love the game. Its wide appeal and friendly fan community are certainly notable, but at the core is simply a well written, intriguing game. Take my word for it, after playing Hatoful Boyfriend it’s unlikely you’ll feel the same about birds. Or dating sims.