Dream Daddy is the latest unlikely hit rocketing up the Steam charts, a dating sim where you romance a neighbourhood block of improbably hot dads. I spoke to creators Leighton Grey and Vernon Shaw to find out more about how they struck a balance between humour and sincerity, criticism the game has faced since release, and what it means to be a dad. Also ska music.
Dream Daddy is a hard game to pin down. On one hand, it's a giant dad joke, a tongue-in-cheek ode to beards, puns, and grilling implements. On the other, it's about sensitive subjects like queerness and toxic masculinity. In this interview, its creators talk about the tricky balance of making a comedic game while not turning homosexuality into the butt of the joke.
Nathan Grayson: Was Dream Daddy originally conceived as a joke, or was it always going to try to walk the line between sincerity and the ages-old philosophical question of — and I quote — "What Is Dad?"
Leighton Grey: From its inception, we wanted it to be kind of serious. I don't think we were ever 100 per cent going into it, like, "Ah, it's a big joke." There are so many interesting feelings and relationship dynamics tied up in being a father and having relationships with other fathers. Especially being a very queer game, it wouldn't have felt right for it to be 100 per cent a joke.
Vernon and I harped on this concept of sincerity a lot. When you tell a story to the internet, it's hard to tell a serious story at face value. You have to wrap in a couple of layers of jokes and irony and cynicism for people to really accept it. So yeah, I think we've always kind of struck that delicate balance from the beginning of development.
Vernon Shaw: The entire time we were writing the game, we were very, very worried about treating homosexuality as a joke. That was a chief concern, and that's specifically why we brought on consultants, why we brought our friends, to make sure the game was sincere.
Grayson: You mention that you regard Dream Daddy as a queer game, but I've seen some people say they feel like you don't go far enough in that respect. For example, sexuality is never explicitly mentioned in the game. By the end you're in a position where you might be dating somebody, but much of it remains vague. Why did you decide to take that approach?
Grey: We never wanted to make any of the dads' stories revolve around their sexuality, because I think there's already a lot of stories about that experience and there's so many stories that are really angsty, or solely about coming out, or just that mostly revolve around someone's sexuality. I think there are much more complex stories to be told.
I definitely agree with the criticism that we maybe don't really explicitly state it as much as we should have, but I think for the story that we were trying to tell, ultimately we just wanted to normalize it and maybe kind of have it in this slightly fantastical situation where it's just not really discussed and everyone's on the same page.
Grayson: You wanted to tell these complex stories, but I feel like they were held back by the game's three-date structure. I felt less like I got to know each dad and more like I peeked through a crack in the window to their world. Do you worry that you didn't get to tell their stories with quite as much depth and nuance as you would have liked? In an ideal world, would you have gone with a different structure and fleshed things out more?
Shaw: Making this thing with the Game Grumps, we had this ethos in the office that we wanted to do things small and right, rather than overly ambitious and potentially wrong. We really set hard deadlines on ourselves and made sure that our story was doable. We didn't want to overreach, so we came to the idea of the three-date structure with chapters. The big thing that we were looking for was to announce on Father's Day. Father's Day was looming over our head I suppose. I think we hustled to hit that date.
But there were very self-imposed limitations on ourselves because we wanted to avoid the sort of scope creep that happens in a lot of indie game development where you bit off more than you can chew and end up paying for that.
Grey: Yeah, if we had more time, and more resources, and different dates we could go on, I think it would have been great to focus on engaging with actual queer culture in a more meaningful way. But that's also not the kind of story we wanted to tell, in a lot of cases.
For example, I've seen a lot of people say that Joseph's past fails to reconcile his sexuality with his religion. That was just something that I didn't want to touch just because I feel like it's been done a good bit and talked about a lot. I just kind of wanted to have this scenario where this guy has already worked it out. The story isn't about him feeling weird about it. Also, neither Vernon nor I being gay men, we didn't feel like we had the authority to tell that kind of story.
Shaw: Because of that, I intentionally focused more on the idea of being a dad. Being a dad to someone isn't necessarily a genetic link to someone. We see it as what it means to care for another human being. We don't think that you need to be someone's actual parent to be able to care for another human being and be a dad to them.
Grayson: Another character who's garnered some blowback is Damien. You confirmed he's trans on Twitter, but you only hinted at it in the game. Was there ever a point where you considered not making his story about that, per se, but being more explicit about it?
Grey: It's kind of like with Joseph. I think we already do have, not a lot of narrative about how difficult it is to be trans, but some — because it is really difficult. But I can't think of many that are just about trans people being happy and being in love, you know? We wanted to do that.
I think a big goal for this was normalizing a lot of this stuff and just treating it like it's not a big deal. It was the kind of thing that, you know, if you are familiar with binders or, you know, or if you are trans or nonbinary, you know what you're looking for. If you don't know anything about that, it's just kind of, like, there, or maybe you don't know what it means and you decide to look it up and expand your knowledge.
Shaw: One emboldening thing I saw was saw a post on Tumblr where someone was talking about how [popular YouTuber] Jacksepticeye had accidentally made his character trans without knowing it, and then people told him online, and he acknowledged it and accepted it, and moved on with his Let's Play. I think that was a really special moment.
Grayson: You've mentioned that you consulted quite a few people, and that your team is larger than just the two of you and includes a lot of queer creators. Can you go into more detail about that?
Shaw: Our two main consultants were Will Wiesenfeld and Felix Kramer, and in addition to that, I put a call out post to close friends who were in the LGBTQ community to read over the script.
Grey: I was also having a lot of my friends who are queer, which is most of my friends, looking at the script and having long discussions with them about what they felt would work and what their experiences were.
Shaw: For the most part it was reading through the script with them, out loud, front to back. Then really just asking them questions about how the inter-character interactions would work out, and how real they felt.
Grayson: Did you talk to anybody who was older? Any single queer parents?
Shaw: Not necessarily in the LGBTQ sense, but there is a dad on staff at Game Grumps who I talked through the story with.
Grayson: You've been pretty public, Vernon, about the fact that you're a straight dude working with a queer woman to create this queer game. I've seen some people say they feel like Dream Daddy takes a sort of straight look at a collection of queer stories and topics. How do you respond to that? What do you take away from it?
Shaw: It's a very valid criticism. I think Leighton and I don't know what we don't know. What we didn't know, we definitely reached out to people to try and help us better understand. But at the end of the day there will always be blind spots, which unfortunately, we can't account for. All we can do is try our hardest to tell what we think is a good and inclusive story.
Grey: I think another aspect of that is a lot of the game and a lot of the humour in the game comes from, like, playing off of father culture, and what we know about fathers. I don't think it's a huge coincidence that a lot of things that we associate with fathers are very traditionally masculine, straight things. So it was something that I was kind of painfully aware of when we were writing this script.
But I also felt uncomfortable trying to delve out of that to a certain degree and risk potentially falling into stereotypes. I am always really interested when people are talking about how we failed to connect with their culture. I'm really interested in seeing what that would have looked like to people, and also if this inspires other people to make more content like this — how they express that and how we can move the dialogue about this forward.
Grayson: The dads are all pretty archetypal, and it seems to me that they each represent some element of modern masculinity. Matt's story was about how it gets harder to make friends as you get older and how society doesn't really prepare you for that. Craig's story culminates in a lesson about self care. Things like that. Since it's hard to tackle dad-hood without discussing masculinity, did you decide to put masculinity under the microscope as well?
Grey: Yeah, and I think it especially crops up in Brian's path, which is ultimately you admitting that this toxic masculinity has been driving this whole relationship, and you're jealous and you're projecting your insecurities onto Brian, and that's why you feel the need to one-up each other all the time. It's a really vulnerable thing to open up about your feelings with someone else. I know that kind of vulnerability is especially hard between grown men.
Shaw: I'm very glad that we were able to find a certain archetype that we could apply to each of these dads, not only in the archetypal sense of what is this person's role in your traditional dating simulator, but also in how do we find a way to flip that narrative and make it about what being a dad is. I think there's a commercial ad copy style of dad — like, the bumbling guy who convinces someone else to buy a hose. But in this game we were able to look at that and find a way to make it more real and human.
Grayson: A lot of the "dates" in Dream Daddy aren't really dates in the traditional sense. Some were flirtier than others, but many of them were, like, Adventure Hangs, and a couple paths culminate in friendship rather than romance. Why'd you call them "dates"?
Grey: I'm most interested in romance narratives where people become friends first. I think that's another issue with dating sims, just because of time restrictions. It often will immediately jump into a sexual or a romantic relationship; it doesn't really give that friendship or dynamic room to develop. We just call them dates because it just seems like the most convenient thing to call them, you know?
Grayson: That does put you in this place, though, where you get to know each other, and then you "win" by getting dads to smooch you. It's the traditional — and sort of fraught — video game relationship structure, in that way.
Grey: Yeah, and a thing I'm really frustrated with in media is that a lot of romance stories end after you kind of get to know each other. I think it sets up this false ideal of what relationships are supposed to be like and insinuates that that honeymoon period is going to last forever. But, with the time that we had, and what we wanted to accomplish with the story, that was just kind of what we had to do. I think that the cool thing about that is that it does encourage a lot of fan content to kind of fill in the blanks of what happens afterwards.
Grayson: Are you planning to release any DLC (Dadloadable Content)?
Shaw: Yeah, but we can't announce it yet.
Grayson: OK, time for my most important question: Is Dream Daddy canonically the story of an alternate dimension version of Tomas Kalnoky from ska-punk band Streetlight Manifesto? Because there's all this talk about how your character used to be in a ska band, and at the end of Mat's arc, you can pick Tomas Kalnoky as your stage name.
Shaw: So in this game, every bit of humour was a bit of humour that was a piece of mine and Leighton's personality. I think very early on in the game, we wrote in a gag about the Skammunist Manifesto.
The more we put that in, the funnier it was to us, and the more we included it, it was in the story. So, by the end of the thing, there was a moment to choose what your stage name was, I think it was like Franky Two Tone and Five Iron Study, which is a Five Iron Frenzy reference, and then just Tomas Kalnoky. I thought it was hilarious.
Interpret the ska portion of this game however you would like to interpret it. The world is yours.
Grayson: So it's canon, then?
Shaw: Please make a Tumblr post where you point out this timeline, and we'll be happy to read and approve of that.
Disclosure: A friend of mine, Jared Rosen, contributed some writing to Dream Daddy.