Hatoful Boyfriend, a playful, irreverent, dating visual novel game that mixes the worlds of love and ornithology into something quite unique and baffling. From Manga artist Hato Moa, released first in 2011 as a free to play title before expanding across various platforms with its release on the Playstation in 2015, it’s quite possibly one of the most unique premises I’ve experienced in a long time. Since its initial release, this gaming universe has expanded into digital comics, dramatic CD’s and a web series in 2014, the game has struck a certain chord and resonated with it’s fans that has seen it expand beyond a simple free to play premise and into something quite unique and distinctive. It doesn’t require a significant amount of time or investment to see to its conclusion, as such the temptation to explore the path less taken is stronger and more viable in contrast to expansive, open world games I could mention. That said, as observed in my opening remarks, its premise requires a certain leap of faith to buy into and immerse yourself in its colourful imagery and dialect.
Set over the course of a year, you follow the central protagonist of a human girl, the only human at the PigeoNation Institute for gifted birds whose seeming ambition and destiny is to find love and acceptance amongst her avian friends and peers, or not, her destiny is very much in your hands although a great deal of the reason and logic behind this premise requires a great deal of investment to put the pieces together. Alternatively, a quick search will detail the pandemic that affected society to the extent to the birds found domination and prevailed over humanity. It cut’s against my usual playstyle and mentality in gaming, rightly or wrongly, I enjoy the purity of that first experience, forming and shaping my opinion on the media before me and letting the decisions and consequences fall as they may. Here, it very much encourages you to return and explore alternate paths and endings, I just found the premise to baffling to take in. I never quite understood for example whether the birds were allegories for personality types, whether your character was inflicted with ornithophilia. I had to look up that particular attraction I didn’t even know existed. To many questions, to few answers.
Visually, the world was an interesting place to live within for even as short a period as I did. Whilst strictly a visual novel, with the text appearing on the screen it would have been nice to just look at the art of the locations with the text turned off, I can appreciate the charm of the environments with classical music playing around me, it’s a relaxing and welcoming, it just would have been nice to see it in its purest form without the UI over layed to the extent it was. Each setting is quite distinct in its presentation and appearance, the school classroom sand locations have a certain, aesthetic to them, equally your home in the form of a cave alluding to a deeper subtext to humanity’s fate, the optional restaurant you may find yourself working in, the temple and park that play a part in your journey. I enjoyed the bold, pastel colours of this art style, they intrigued me but elicited the frustration of a cluttered screen where I couldn’t just appreciate the artistry of this unique world. It seems like a very easy feature to add to showcase the worlds and environments that are inviting and distinctive. Though perhaps, overshadowed by the central premise.
I’ll concede to playing this without any foresite or knowledge beyond a vague recollection of its subject matter from outside sources. Therein perhaps lay my main source of contention, the game is distinct in introducing you as the sole human at the academy interacting with intelligent birds of various types, breeds and personalities, all the expected types are present from the aloof intellectual, the high society snob, the shy and downtrodden, pick a cliche and its represented amiably. To, personify and bring to life the personality types, depending on the version of the game you play, a depiction of the characters in human is available which serves to make the ‘attraction’ easier I would imagine for some, but personally drove a wedge into whatever romantic notion or sentiment it was attempting to foster. I sort of, enjoyed the whimsical nature of existing within a world of intellectual high thinking birds, whilst perhaps the adoption of human characteristics allowed certain familiarities to foster, the continual use of stock footage of the creatures in their natural form rendered any romantic sensibilities moot.
Perhaps it’s a personal subjective standpoint, but when I walk through London in Trafalgar Square, I don’t stop to take in the view of the pigeons devouring the scraps of the floor and get a little excited in my nether regions, it’s just not something that has ever crossed my mind. Each to their own, but if I ever get a parrot and you are that way inclined, stay away from its cage ok. Whether intentionally or not, the game is designed and targeted I would observe towards a female demographic, given the gender of the stated protagonist and as such, again, there was little to tempt me towards the romantic path even if I could push through the inter-species dating dynamic. There’s the genesis of another discussion there somewhere, playing as your opposite gender in games and pursuing the romance path in terms of your traditional preferences but here, the high school archetypes weren’t especially engaging in a romantic notion which personally, defeats the point of a dating simulation game but when in Rome, do as the pigeons do as they say, and attack the tourists at the Trevi Fountain.
The game eludes to a more complex system underpinning your choices and experiences with certain classes impacting on your wisdom, vitality and charisma depending on which you take. Again, for the purpose of clarity, in your opening initial experience this is never really expanded upon to any great detail before it comes to an end and as such does seem like a superficial token gesture to expand the ‘gaming mechanic’ beyond a visual novel. I did enjoy the small touches that attempt to build the world, in my playthrough as Yarloko Heazomi, I opted to work during the summer break at a local bird restaurant, interacting with the manager and various customers that populated this location at the expense, I think of a possible romantic option, the restaurants location card providing clarity of the setting of the game to some degree. The notion of living in a world of subservience to another species on the planet has been done to varying degrees of success over the years, the challenge against dominion of man upon this planet is creatively a fascinating avenue to explore especially in a medium such as gaming, though, and I’ll accept perhaps it’s my short sighted human perspective, I struggled to accept birds would prevail and take over functions of human society to such an extent. A fun notion, just not, believable.
My experience concluded in a grizzly fashion, with no desire or predication to further an illicit encounter with my avian peers, I was summarily executed and received the unenviable accolade of the ‘sad ending’ for my efforts. At first, I was somewhat annoyed by this, I had enjoyed living in the world, working my summer job at the cafe getting to know the biker bird, even the simple enjoyment of taking my classes at school, a soft version of Bully with the nature of the statistics providing a false sensation of achievement and accomplishment in progression. It left me wondering where I had worked hard and focused on my studies, why the game decided to punish me with my execution and death for not pursuing a romance. It took my friend pointing out to me this was, afterall, a dating game, if I wanted a happy ending, I had to date, get my freaky beaky on, lie back and think of Trafalgar Square as I got my bird. I’ll paraphrase his viewpoint here with the best spirit and intentions, finding fault with Hatoful Boyfriend as a dating simulator is akin to picking fault with any simulation game in earnest. This isn’t real romance, though I fear if it had been released in 2019 it would have been a a surreal Tinder esque simulation of swiping with your talons at the sexy birds, literally, before you.
I didn’t find romance or love, Yarloko was determined to fit into her unique and honored surroundings and focus her attention on her studies and financial stability. Maybe I was a little to ‘woke’ in my approach, indeed being the strong independent type here did not pay off with a grizzly death my eventual fate. Though this is expanded upon to some degree depending on your dedication to exploring the games many endings and circumstance, for me, to use its purest form, the lesson to take away, to use a worn out adage, it very much wasn’t the player, it was the game. When I opted to pull against the purpose of the game, it punished me in a brutal fashion. As such, whatever annoyance I felt, ultimately I have to accept and direct towards myself because this is a dating game, and if you don’t chose to date, then really, why are you playing it. I still contend, as a subject matter to elicit your desires, birds, especially pigeons are a very, questionable framing dynamic. At the very least, expand your repertoire, perhaps an aloof owl in the library giving your the roving eye as you study in silence. A soaring Eagle jock or speedy sparrow on the athletics track. Pigeons, despite the direct complement towards Yarloko and I presume myself, he said optimistically, aren’t the most renowned species of bird for their looks and appearance. But, if this is a game you play to make sense, you took the wrong turn.
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