I’ve been thinking about Boyfriend Dungeon a lot lately. As a lover of otome and indie games, I was really excited about it. In Boyfriend Dungeon, you explore dungeons and date human-versions of the weapons you wield. In almost every way, the developer hit a home run with Boyfriend Dungeon.
From an otome standpoint, there were so many great romance options! As a queer person, I was especially pleased to see romance options from all ends of the gender spectrum – nonbinary folks included! Every character had a complex inner-life and had a unique story to tell. Whether that story was grieving the loss of their grandmother or learning to confront their abusive father, every character felt very real.
Beyond the romance options, I loved being able to customize my character’s appearance and pronouns. Though seemingly minor, it really touched my heart. As I set my pronouns to they/them, when I met a nonbinary glaive named Sawyer, they declared that they were so happy to meet another non-binary person. These small changes to character creation and dialogue really stood out to me and touched my heart.
Before you leave your house in Boyfriend Dungeon, your inventory comes equipped with a turban and headscarf. That way, no players are forced to leave their home without a culturally and/or religiously important piece of clothing with them. All of these seemingly little things add to make Boyfriend Dungeon an extremely welcoming game.
In terms of gameplay and dungeon crawling, it is also an extremely forgiving game. You’re allowed to re-enter dungeons and, for those who might be unfamiliar with dungeon crawlers, there is a “Goddess Shield” option. This reduces damage by 50%, making it possible for more people to enjoy the story.
The inclusive nature of Boyfriend Dungeon extends to outside the characters and gameplay. Upon first booting up the game, I was greeted with a content warning. It let me know that there would be instances of stalking, emotional manipulation, and harassment in the game. I appreciated the warning as it gave me time to prepare for the heavy content. I knew what to expect.
As a long-time player of otome games, this warning was especially welcome. A lot of otome games touch on themes of emotional abuse, stalking, or have yandere routes. And, as you can imagine, despite being mainstays of the genre, players get absolutely no warning about the troubling content. With this experience in the otome space, I was really pleased to see that Kitfox took such care in letting their players know what they were getting into.
The game also let me know I would be receiving texts from “mom”. As someone who lost their mother when they were quite young, it is clear the developers thought carefully about inclusion when making this game. I don’t think I’ve ever had a game give me a heads-up regarding mother content. It was a warning that was very welcome and appreciated.
It Gets Dark
As you can guess from the content warning, the plot goes to dark places. The main character even confronts their stalker. Personally, I felt empowered being about to stand up for myself while playing. However, some players felt that they had been duped.
The game was marketed as a light-hearted romp where you romanced weapons. They did not know such heavy content was going to be front and center. Beyond that, they didn’t realize the game would force them to confront their in-game stalker. For some folks who had dealt with similar situations, the plot left them feeling deeply uncomfortable.
And this is where the push back began. As someone who isn’t super Twitter-savvy, I wasn’t even aware there was a conversation happening around Boyfriend Dungeon. I just wanted to see what other people thought about the game, as I was enjoying it.
On one side, some people were asking for Kitfox to be even more inclusive with their game. They wondered why if you could opt-out of texts from your mom, why you couldn’t opt-out of texts from your stalker. On the other side, folks were saying that to remove that aspect of the story would mean the developers would need to rework the entire narrative structure of the game. A change that is both costly and timely. In short, they found it unreasonable.
This is where, for me, it gets complicated. I’m by no means an artist nor would I consider myself a particularly smart thinker. However, I can’t help but think that Kitfox did their due diligence. Not only did they release the game with a content warning, they included a patch that makes the content warning even more detailed. I think this is a great inclusion, as it gives players a very clear idea of what they’re getting into.
If you read that content warning and choose to continue playing, that’s on you. If you’ve made the choice to play and it makes you uncomfortable – maybe it’s actually a good thing. Queer games are often heralded as wholesome. I can’t help but think of Later Daters, Dream Daddy, and Monster Prom. And, in a world where queer narratives are frequently marked by tragedy, it’s important to have these wholesome and nourishing stories.
Not All Stories Need to be Wholesome
However, for many, being queer can be hard. 11-28% of LGBTQ+ people have reported workplace discrimination in the last year. According to a study from the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 15% of the sample size reported having experienced stalking with the highest prevalence being in the trans, bisexual, and queer community. However, these same groups, had the lowest rates of reporting their victimization to police. There are a lot of reasons queer people do not want to go to the police. Discrimination, distrust, and victim blaming are a few of the reasons. That said, the why doesn’t matter much in this context. What I’m trying to highlight is that stalking is an issue that is very real in queer communities and is something worth being addressed.
And, to be honest, I feel like Boyfriend Dungeon does a good job of shining light on a real issue. Players should be very uncomfortable by the advances of the antagonist. Personally, my skin crawled as it reminded me of very-real interactions I’ve had with people in my past. If someone hasn’t dealt with this before, the game presents the issue with compassion. It also does a good job of giving players the resources and powers to confront their abuser. This is not something that is available to all queer people so, even though it is a fictional universe, the opportunity to do so feels huge.
Sanitizing Queer Voices
With the empowerment and power that I feel Boyfriend Dungeon gives to its players, I cannot help but feel uncomfortable with the call to remove a the narrative heart of the game. Queer stories are allowed to be messy. Queer stories are allowed to touch on uncomfortable realities. When we ask queer and inclusive studios, especially indie studios, to change huge portions of their game I cannot help but wonder what is to be gained by sterilizing these narratives to be easier to digest.
If you have trauma associated with these themes, KitFox warns the players and gives them an opportunity to opt out. This is more than I’ve seen in most any big-name game. I can’t help but think of how inappropriately sexual and aggressive Don Corneo is is Final Fantasy 7 or the themes of abuse in Persona 5. Those games don’t even give players a content warning.
So, why are we placing such a higher standard on small studios who are uplifting marginalized voices? If you approach Boyfriend Dungeon with an ounce of good faith criticism, you have to acknowledge it is doing a lot to make the game accessible. Requesting a small studio do major and costly revisions to the narrative core of their game is unreasonable. It is not a standard you would hold any major studio to.
The pushback Kitfox has received is disproportional. It got bad enough that the voice actor of the antagonist had to ask people to stop harassing him. To think such a small studio, with good intentions, could cause such an uproar feels ridiculous.
Supporting Indie Studios
I think this is the heart of why the Boyfriend Dungeon discussion makes me so uncomfortable. As a queer person, it makes me so happy to play queer games and experience queer stories. Some of these stories are wholesome and make me feel really good. But, I also think I learn and grow from hearing challenging stories that push me to think and tackle things that make me uncomfortable.
We aren’t going to get authentic queer stories from major studios. We are going to get them from indie studios. However, when indie studios get so much pushback when trying so hard, the incentive to branch out to tell messy stories is removed.
At the end of the day, it is your choice to play a game or not play a game. If you know a story about stalking is going to be triggering, Kitfox lets you know upfront that this isn’t the game for you. To demand they fundamentally alter their game is not fair. Queer stories get to be messy stories. They get to touch on dark and painful themes. If we are able to grow from the discomfort they cause, all the better.
Ultimately, to sanitize queer art is to silence queer voices. I fear for the future of queer art when I see the backlash projects like this receive. That’s why I’m always going to support small studios that are pushing on the boundary of what stories games can tell. I can only hope Kitfox isn’t discouraged by this and continues make games that make us think and feel about the world a little differently.