A MONTH AGO, if most people had tried to predict what kind of videogame would become the game of the summer, very few of them would have guessed “queer dating simulator.” Yet, Dream Daddy did just that, with a pair of stunning usurpals: not only did it replace beloved first-person shooter Overwatch as the most-discussed videogame on Tumblr for the first time in more than nine months, but it shot to the top of Steam’s global sales chart, unseating battle-royale phenomenon PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. Not bad for a tiny game, created by two people, that upends so many notions about what works in a game—and about gamers themselves.
You don’t just date dads in Dream Daddy, though; you areone. The game casts you in the role of a single father who has just moved to a new town with his teenage daughter. Although the two of you have been on your own for a while, the death of your spouse—you can specify if they were male or female—clearly still weighs on your mind. You meet six other dads who just happen to live in the same suburban cul-de-sac, and with a little help from a Facebook analogue called Dadbook, the dating begins.
The result is something as sincere and funny as it is heart-rending, a self-aware, deeply humanistic game whose witty script makes even the most groan-worthy dad puns seem to sparkle. It’s a subversion of dating sims that is not just the best dating sim I’ve ever played, but one of the best games of the year.
At first glance, the game’s romantic roster looks like a who’s who of sexy stereotypes: the bad boy, the jock, the sensitive artist, the clean-cut hunk. Spend a little more time with them, however, and these facades dissolve, revealing complicated men whose passions, secrets and struggles cannot be neatly contained in cookie-cutter character types. Yes, the Goth Dad enjoys cloaks and long walks in graveyard, and the Jock Dad loves getting in his reps at the gym—but they both struggle to cope with rebellious children, shattered marriages, and the parts of their lives that they are ashamed to share with the world.
Leighton Gray, a 19-year-old student at the Savannah College of Art and Design who created, co-wrote, and art-directed Dream Daddy, is queer herself; when she and co-writer Vernon Shaw sat down to develop the game, she says, defying stereotypes was on the forefront of their minds: “We wanted to set up expectations and knock them down.”
A Romance Game Actually About Romance
Those complex characterizations not only make the story far more interesting, but they render obsolete the usual rules of dating sims. For all of the genre’s seeming emphasis on romance, dating sims often rely on a reductively transactional notion of love and sex, relying on a mechanic that independent game developer Arden once described as “kindness coins”: put enough compliments or gifts into the object of your affection, and receive sex in return. “A lot of times with dating sims it’s a matter of getting a read on the character’s personality, and telling them exactly what they want to hear,” Gray says. “That’s a really frustrating way to play a game.”
Dream Daddy, though, encourages players not to think about romance as a game at all. You can try to impress the music nerd or the academic with knowledge you don’t have, but chances are your fakery will fall flat. You might think that the best way to win points with a standoffish dad is through sarcasm; once you learn his backstory, however, you find that what he really wants is kindness. The heartaches and emotional wounds of the men you pursue are not obstacles to be overcome en route to sex, but fragments of real humanity that make them even more lovable—and often force you to reexamine your own intentions.
During the resolution of one storyline, you’re given an option when comforting one of the dads in a moment of personal crisis: you can tell him what he wants to hear, or tell him what he needs to hear. If you prioritize your desire to “win” sex over the well-being of your vulnerable friend—to treat him like a game, rather than a person—the result is guilt-inducing, even a little tragic.
Dream Daddy is an unabashedly queer game, but not performatively so; it’s far more interested in being than announcing. Some of the dads have had relationships with women before, some with men, but there’s no agonizing about their sexual orientation, and no more mention of it than there would be in a traditionally heterosexual romance. They simply follow their hearts, and any obstacles they face are a result of emotional and personal complications, not struggles with their identities. “We were determined to not make any of the dads’ individual paths about their sexuality or have their sexuality be their defining trait,” Gray says. “We can have narratives that are about queer people that are not necessarily about being queer. It’s about these relationships.”
When you create your own character, you also have the option to make him a trans dad if you wish, complete with the ability to choose chest binders. One of the dads, Damien, is transgender as well, though you can easily play through the game without realizing it; there’s no neon sign pointing at his gender identity, only subtle hints as you get to know him better. Like the rest of the dads, he is who he is—and he is allowed to be, without controversy. “The most moving [feedback] comes from people who are trans or non-binary people feeling really included in this experience,” says Gray. “Someone actually messaged me today and said that this game encouraged them to come out as non-binary to their parents. The game and the community surrounding the game was so positive and loving that it encouraged them to be themselves.”
If You Build It, They Will Play
Dream Daddy‘s success belies a long-held assumption of the mainstream gaming world: that making games about LGBT people is an inherently niche endeavor, one that limits your potential audience and sales. While the industry has taken marginal steps towards inclusion, queer characters still tend to crop up as sidekicks and subplots rather than protagonists.
But Gray sees something very different in the passionate response from Dream Daddy fans: an audience that has gone dismally underserved by an industry that has failed to either see it or acknowledge it, and one that is ready to show up in force when offered a full-course meal rather than just scraps. She points to game franchises like Dragon Age and Mass Effect, both which have amassed huge followings in part because of the in-depth (and gender-inclusive) romances they offer in between their battles. “I know so many people who play those games not because they’re interested in the combat, but because they want the romance and the relationships,” she says. “Younger women, women who are queer like me, and younger people in general are interested in more complex narrative experience from a video game.”
Nor does putting queer characters and experiences center stage mean that a general audience can’t embrace them as well. Gray notes that while queer people—along with women and people of color—have long been expected to sympathize with straight, white cis characters, the mainstream games industry remains reluctant to ask the reverse. And yet, this presumed lack of empathy or imagination hasn’t stopped lots of people outside the LGBT community from playing Dream Daddy and helping make it a hit.
“This is a very queer game but it has legs longer than what a lot of people might have considered niche,” says Gray. “I’ve seen so many people who are straight or who never play video games play it.”
The simplest explanation for its broad appeal is the most obvious: it’s just a really good game. But its subject matter—dads—also touches a nerve that resonates with just about everyone. “Dads are such a universal, emotional thing for people whether you have a good or bad relationship with your father, or no father in your life,” says Gray. “I think we all have really complex emotions towards [them].”
She also thinks there’s a particularly appeal for millennials who are accustomed to dating less… responsible suitors. “A daddy isn’t doing to forget their wallet,” says Gray. “You’re not going to be sleeping on a mattress surrounded by empty bottles of Mountain Dew. They’re not going to ghost you. A daddy who has their life together enough to take care of another person is probably more emotionally mature than a 20-something dude might be.”
If Dream Daddy’s hit status suggests any one thing, though, it’s that entrenched ideas about what kind of games can be successful and who wants to play them have less to do with reality, and more to do with the self-fulfilling prophecy that the industry has become. “The argument ‘oh, I don’t know if it’s going to sell’ isn’t going to fly anymore,” Gray says. “This is what people want, and you’re going to have to get used to it.”