Dream Daddy's dreamy dads have captured players' hearts. Riley MacLeod and Gita Jackson sat down to talk about what they were into and what they weren't.
Gita Jackson: Hi Riley! We're here to talk about dads! More specifically, we're here to talk about Dream Daddy: A Daddy Dating Simulator, which we've both played some of.
Riley MacLeod: I think you've finished a playthrough, right? I've only gotten through the part with the barbecue, which I think is setting up all the dads.
Gita: Yeah, I got two endings for Mat, the barista dad. I actually replayed the game quickly last night because I got the "let's just be friends" ending for Mat, which really annoyed me. So you haven't yet gone on a date? If you were going to, which dad would you pick first?
Riley: Well I did (spoiler warning!) sleep with Robert on the first night, which, as a gay man, I feel counts as a date. Other than that...I don't know! I'm intrigued by Joseph, the youth pastor, because I'm curious to see how the game handles religion. I'm curious what the backstory is with Craig your childhood friend, even though he's not really my type. But they're all very handsome, so it's hard to pick!
Gita: Yeah the men in this game are like… over the top handsome. Which isn't a bad thing, but it does make it hard to narrow down who you'll pursue. If you haven't played many visual novels — which I gather you haven't, Riley — dating someone in them is way less about the normal arse things human beings do on dates than discovering what their "story" is. In Mat's route, we talked a lot about his relationship with music, and my character helped him recover from some of the trauma over his wife, who passed away. For what it's worth, I hear that Craig's route is really cute.
Riley: I have not played many visual novels, so most of my notes on this game so far say "Ask Gita if this is a dating sim thing." I'm having trouble reconciling the idea that I'm supposed to be interested in all these men with the player character's insistence that he's awkward and don't need new friends, but I assume that's a dating sim thing to up the stakes? Is that a normal characterization for games like this?
Gita: Well, it depends. Although you can name your dad in Dream Daddy, it's less that we are playing as ourselves and more than we're guiding the hand of a predetermined character. In the other visual novels I've played, the main characters tend to be much more blank. Even if they have a backstory, the choices presented in text are less about "what would this character choose" and more about "what would YOU choose."
This goes as far as not allowing you to customise your character, but instead their character portrait has their hair going over their face and a shadow where all their features would be. Dream Daddy's arc is definitely more about "does this particular character need to open up or not?" Which is I guess up to you.
Riley: Which, instead of going to therapy, he deals with by dating hot men. I can get behind that.
Riley: As I said before, I don't play a lot of dating sims, but there was a lot of buzz about this game that convinced me to take a peek. You and I have talked about some of the things I was leery about regarding the game before, but for you, having played it through, what did you think?
Gita: I think we both were apprehensive about this game for different reasons. Sometimes dating sims about gay men come off as not really for gay men or about their experiences. I was worried that the joke-y nature of the title meant that the game wouldn't be serious about the issues presented here. Single fathers exist, and being a single father is not easy.
To my delight, the game is really more about being a dad than anything else. Even when I got the bad ending for Mat, I still had my daughter Amanda, who assured me that even if I wanted something more, friendship is still important, and she loved me very much. If we're being really real, I liked spending time with Amanda more than going on the dates. Less stressful, and she's just a delight. I want her to succeed and be happy ;___;
Riley: Yeah, the dad-iness of it is interesting. Unlike you, I was a little turned off by that — to me it feels like being a gay single dad is set up as being something magical or rare or funny, when of course gay dads exist in the real world. In the game itself the dad stuff feels kind of forced to me so far, but I think that's the tone the game is going for. It is interesting, as you said in your writeup, to have a game grapple with fatherhood. I'm not a parent and don't plan to ever be one, and this game isn't about the realities of fatherhood, but it is a sort of underexplored topic, so I can appreciate that.
Gita: Well, I know that I really emotionally resonated with the dad stuff because I know I want to be a mum someday. Amanda is the kind of daughter I want to raise. Later in the game, you have to help her through a very teenage problem, and not only did it really remind me of the kinds of things I needed help from my parents with when I was younger, it made me really think about what kind of parent I would be. It's funny to me that you say you're not into the dad stuff though — around the office, we call you Dad.
Riley: Maybe I don't want to be a dad because I already have my office children, haha. I actually don't like Amanda very much — she feels like 'your cool daughter' and it's all a little much for me, but that's the tone of the game.
Gita: I can meet you in the middle about Amanda. Sometimes her dialogue is very Diablo Cody.
Riley: From what I've played so far I feel like all the dads kind of walk around being like "I am a dad" and doing 'dad' things, and it feels like it casts dadhood as something akin to, like, being a pigeon in Hatoful Boyfriend. The game doesn't shy away from the corniness of this whole thing, so I think that's played up for effect, but it feels a little weird.
Gita: I'm not sure how integrated being a dad is into the dating here. There is an aspect of fantasy. Sometimes I wondered what my dad did for a living because, well, it never came up! He apparently lives at the beck and call of his daughter and can chill with his new buddies any time. However, when you get to meet your new dad friends, you have to grapple with their children.
Their kids are a part of their lives. And all the fluffy dating stuff happens as you're dealing with the fact that your daughter is going through something that she won't tell you about. Emotionally you have to balance being concerned for your kid and being excited about a new possible romance, but gameplay wise, they never seem to interfere with each other. Overall I come away from Dream Daddy positively. But it's also got this problem of, well, it wants to Say Something but can't, due to the nature of the game, get too deep.
Riley: Right. A lot of the things I dislike about it so far can easily be chalked up to it being a kind of game I don't like. You and I (and lots of people!) have talked before about these sorts of games about gay men that don't seem to be geared toward gay men, and that really frustrates me personally. But when I see certain things in the game — this idea of gay dads being these sort of paper dolls you can play with — I'm torn between being annoyed and just being like 'well, that's the genre!' I can't, like, open up some bodice-ripper romance and then complain that everyone keeps ruining their clothes.
Gita: Ha! True. I will say that this game does seem way more about men being attracted to and dating men than other visual novels about gay men that I've played. This isn't the kind of game that turns into a hyper violent anime halfway through, and the issues of masculinity that get discussed in Mat's route are actually about things men who are fathers would worry about.
Men have a harder time making new friends later in life, and Mat actually talks to you about how hard it is for him to get to know people. On the other hand, the game is more resistant about talking about the actual reality of being an out queer man than I'd like. No one ever says what their sexuality is, as far as I know right now. On the mythological third hand, it's kind of nice to just play a nice game set in a fantasy-land where men can just be gay and it's fine.
Riley: Yeah, it is cool that there's a world full of happy and healthy gay men who are all friends somewhere. I didn't like the way the game treats Mary, Joseph the youth pastor's wife (oh jeez I just got that joke) — I met her at a bar and knew right away that's who she was, but she's portrayed as kind of a drunk and a bad mum. I assume that's to give you an excuse to sleep with Joseph.
That said, I did sleep with Robert that first night and the game gave me an achievement called "Bad Dad" for doing so, which really offended me. We had consensual sex while my 18-year-old daughter was with her friends. I fail to see how that makes me a bad dad, and instead seemed like it was trying to either set a tone for the game as being more about, like, love than sex, or, in a less charitable reading, a bit castigating about gay male sexuality.
Gita: Yeah, that pissed me off when you told me about it! Amanda very much takes care of herself and managed just fine when you were gone for the night. Sometimes, adults have sex! I was similarly weirded out by the way the game treated Mary. Maybe Joseph's route deepens her character, but "lol wine mum," is more than a bit dismissive.
Riley: I don't know, it kind of made me think, "Well, they got the misogyny in the game community right!" I guess that's where I struggle with the game — the way I want to approach it as, say, a piece of queer media, but it isn't meant to be read through that lens, which in itself feels a bit troubling.
Like in the beginning, you can choose whether you Amanda's other parent was a mother or father. I chose father, but then it comes up that your partner died, and I couldn't help read that as "oh look, this tired gay tragedy trope again," when obviously the same thing would happen if you chose mother. I worry I'm trying to make it be something it isn't, but at the same time the fact that it isn't disappoints me.
Same thing for the trans content in the game — much ado's been made on the internet about how your character can wear a binder, which people are reading as indicating your character can be trans. Damien, the goth dad, wears one as well, which one of the devs indicated meant he was trans.
As a trans man, that caginess bothers me. I understand that the character creator only extends to the chest, and so binders are a way to signify that given the available real estate, but like I've said to you, I find it an odd choice of signifier.
It's the only indication your character could be trans, though plenty of trans men don't bind, and I'm sure plenty of cis men wear compression vests too, for lots of reasons. I wished instead that characters could just be trans, instead of it being kind of hinted at via this very particular symbol that plays a complicated role in the lives of trans folks and then never coming up again.
Gita: I think it's endemic to the balance the game is trying to strike. How can it address issues of gayness without also making gay romance into a tragedy? How can a character be trans in the text without having his entire route be about Being Trans? In the end they do as much as they can. I come away from it satisfied, but I don't think you're wrong for wanting a game that really gets into these thorny issues. Right now, there just isn't one.
Riley: Right, I can see how that's a struggle, but at the same time it always reminds me that I want more than scraps. I don't want trans allusions — I want actual trans content. At the same time we can see that that inclusion has meant a lot to a lot of people.
I know that I'm in a different place in my life than a lot of folks — I have been out as a gay trans man for, damn, almost two decades now! — so the things that resonate with me and the things I want from my media are really different than people who are younger or exploring different aspects of their gender. So I'm struggling to reconcile the praise this game has gotten for those things with my own disappointment, while at the same time I am excited to see us talking about trans male characters in games, which we very rarely do.
Gita: I'm younger than you, and cis, and I think right now in my queer life I just want to play games where queer people are happy. When I'm older maybe I'll feel different.
Riley: You know, that's fair. I'm old and I want to be angry about everything, but it is nice to see queer people be happy in a game. Except for the tragedy that led to the premise of it. I mean, there's that. But anyway, I will keep playing it. I still haven't chosen between dudes, which is a nice kind of problem to have. Truly video games let us live our dreams.
Gita: That's a nice thought. Thanks Dad.