Hatoful Boyfriend, 2011
The infamous bird-based dating game “Hatoful Boyfriend” was featured in a Humble Bundle for Valentine’s Day 2015 along with several other visual novel titles and, at the $35 mark, a cool promotional pigeon case for your favorite body pillow. The otome title, conceived by manga artist Hato Moa and remastered (at 60 flaps per minute) in HD by British studio Mediatonic, continues to garner “overwhelmingly positive” reviews on Steam, but is it really the exciting romantic comedy adventure the visual novel community chalks it up to be? This week on Under the Bed, we take a close look!
For most people (I suppose), the concept of a bird dating sim is shocking, fantastic, and not Call of Duty all at once. A dating sim for people who fetishize birds? What is Japan even thinking? To Hato Moa’s credit, while the original Flash game started as an April Fool’s joke, the concept of an all-avian dating sim is not just a gimmick used to receive press attention, although it has functioned as one. “Hatoful” is not a witty parody of otome games meant to bust character archetypes and genre cliches as much as it is an endearing and legitimate attempt at a dating sim, sans romance, by a person who just really likes birds. This is not a game that would be picked up by GREE, and when the prospect of romance is the main selling point of otome games, and one which coaxes the player to overlook lousy storytelling, the decision to write “Hatoful Boyfriend” as a friendship simulator means the script bears the full burden of sustaining the game, and “Hatoful’s” writing is just not strong enough.
The kind of humor you’d expect from a game about a human dating birds appears in short, mild bursts. The birds themselves aren’t actually the joke, and the universe pans out as though they were supposed to be humans but viewed through a birdoscope. They ride human scooters, read human books, and shoot human guns with neither opposable thumbs nor any sense of irony. Instead, the comedy is centered on your schoolmates’ wacky shenanigans, like track star Okosan and his obsession with pudding, which is the kind of zero-decibel non-humor you might expect from Lucky Star. I like Okosan, Okosan is cute, but I would not pay $10 for Okosan unless it was a real life one like Hato Moa’s bird on which the character is based.
Many of the potential suitors rely on otome stereotypes (we’ll throw “random access guy” for Okosan in there as well), like womanizer, boy next door, megane teacher, obvious sociopath, obvious narcissist, and bookworm. However, these classics were cemented into the medium because they work well in otome games, not pigeon friendship ones. What good is an obvious sociopath in an otome game if I can’t somehow cure him of his psychological disorder with my blind passion, and end up getting murdered for my efforts? Here’s a good litmus test: do people have to write what-if fanfiction to imagine what it’d be like to actually get with your otome character? Ok, slugger, you failed! (On that note, here’s a nice NSFW one about Shuu.)
“Hatoful Boyfriend” is fairly bare-bones for a $10 game. The GUI looks totally unfinished and each of the birds has one — one! — expressionless sprite, a sometimes lo-res photo of their species cut out in Photoshop with a black outline, which is fine if it’s a free title, terrible if you charge $10 for it, and OUTLOOK NOT SO GOOD when the lead and only developer is a freelance illustrator and mangaka. Hato Moa only draws the suitors’ imagined human forms, which appear briefly at their introduction and mostly serve to raise the question of why not just make a normal dating sim. I mean, come on. That doctor gives off terrible vibes but he is so cute. The backgrounds, SFX, and soundtrack appear to be mostly borrowed from royalty-free repositories (which in theory would work to “Hatoful’s” advantage, as I am classically conditioned to respond in a positive manner to the Irisu Syndrome menu sound) and there are no CGs.
But the nail in the commercial coffin is “Hatoful’s” wonky interface. Mediatonic did the Steam remake in Unity, and Pigeon God only knows why when they’re entering a market of perfectly viable Ren’Py games which all did not have to bend over backwards to get their engines to work for them. There’s no rollback, and the skip function is ghastly — a single button in the top-right corner of the screen which needs to be pressed after every decision or scene change and skips all dialogue whether you have read it or not. (It also doesn’t work during some scenes and sometimes breaks your game!) The save function is disabled during choices and the only options in preferences are for volume and text speed, both already set at max. The skip function and overlapping between short story paths stretches what amounts to about 3 hours of fairly simple story content into a watery 10-hour playtime to see all the game’s material. There are 15 endings in all plus an epilogue, but paths barely branch between them, so finishing the game 100% requires viewing the same material many times, not made any easier by the incredible skip feature. Certain paths have both regular and “full” endings depending on various factors, like which electives you take, though the full endings are identical but for an extra short scene at the end.
Many of the game’s celebrants say the 10-hour wait is worth it. The most common rebuttal for a poor review of this game is that the reviewer went through one playthrough and called it a day (rather understandably), when little did they know that in addition to being a generic otome story with birds instead of people, it is also a generic sci-fi story with birds instead of people and sometimes a generic horror story with birds instead of people! Guided under the lazy veneer of absurdism, the game evokes a handful of other, ill-fitting genres in an effort to quash standard tropes while simultaneously treading the stepping stones of extremely generic plot points. Rather than meaningful subversion of any one genre, “Hatoful” reads like a Japanese peace conference where every genre sent their most obvious ideas to represent in one magnificent cliche conga line. The pigeon sweetheart Anghel is high fantasy’s representative, and talks as though he had been pulled out of a hilariously over-the-top magical swordfight anime, like a goldfish in his anime baggie dumped straight into the otome tank ten degrees cooler. Shuu is the school doctor who looks, acts like, and is a psychotic mad scientist with no qualms over slicing people to bits. He has all the cool, intriguing character depth of a Dixie cup, and most of his storyline is spent wondering if his character is actually as transparent as it seems to be and whether or not at some point he might as well be a neo-Nazi, just to round things off.
The argument is that the “real story” of St. Pigeonation’s is the hidden Bad Boys Love path which appears after you have completed at least one ending for each of the important birds. In this super edgy® version of “Hatoful Boyfriend,” the heroine is killed early on, and her best friend Ryouta teams with class aristocrat Sakuya to investigate her murder as it relates to the secret, sinister, and shockingly political history of the academy. In part, this serves to answer the integral questions of the “Hatoful” universe, questions the reader stopped asking after they were made to suspend their disbelief for the first 8 hours of the game. Why was only one human admitted to the school? How did birds begin to develop as an intelligent species? Questions as of yet unanswered by the Bad Boys Love storyline include: Why does the human live in a cave off of red meat and noodles while Sakuya owns a mansion?, Come on, they don’t even live in bird houses?, Shouldn’t eating poultry be illegal?, How does a bird play the piano?, Why are there only like ten people at this really prestigious school?, What the hell is a “Java Blessing?”, and other, less important issues.
Really BBL functions best as an AU; it raises more problems than it solves, and the solutions it does supply for the murder mystery are either insultingly obvious (“the evil doctor was evil!” *runs around*) or complete revelations because the protagonists can only acquire so much useless information before the more knowledgeable birds get bored and just explain everything to them. While we do get a few new interesting backstories, regular consumers of modern Japanese fiction like Anghel will want to cry uncle after enduring the story’s many extended flashbacks, secret brothers, and childhood promises.
This visual novel aspires towards otome and thriller sci-fi but doesn’t fully realize either, and you’ll find the darker side story leaves little impact due to a lack of CGs and flat, non-descriptive narration. “Hatoful Boyfriend” is not a party game to play with your bachelorette friends for a night of uproarious laughter, unless your bachelorette friends are the type to find tanabatas inexplicably hilarious, in which case they are so far gone it is too late to save them. “Hatoful” tries to ride its wacky premise out to the end with the least effort possible, so if you are not surprised or delighted at the prospect of bird photos where the people sprites are supposed to go then there’s not much this visual novel has to offer you.
Also I will never get over not being able to date the doctor. Hangups, man.