The year 2018 was, for many, a little rough. Politics is a giant garbage fire, there's global warming, and Bethesda sent out nylon bags instead of canvas ones with a Fallout 76 collector's edition.
Rough news everywhere, but hold! One part of the world remains dedicated to escapist fantasy and letting us live our lives away from grim reality. And it’s time to look back on a full year of dating sims, and tell you which are the most gosh-darn smoking hot.
These are Kotaku UK’s favourites, and if you're unfamiliar with the genre these games are, for the most part, multi-choice visual novels in structure (but not exclusively). The order isn't especially meaningful, they’re all interesting for different reasons, but all will scratch that itch if you're after something a little gentler for an evening's entertainment.
I sure do Claire! Doodle Date is a short, comedic and ever-so-slightly creepy dating sim that reminded me of 2017's Doki Doki Literature Club, but with far less direct presentation of difficult subject matter.
Here’s the short pitch; You play an artist doodling in his notebook, who gets pulled into the world of the notebook to interact with the art he has created. The player character’s a bit of a loner, desperate for love, and as such decides to try staying in the notebook and looking for love within the works he has created.
The unique draw of this particular dating sim is that at points in the adventure, you’ll be asked to draw creations to become part of the world. From your dream romantic partner, to the outfit you plan to wear to a fancy restaurant, you create art that becomes a part of the narrative.
The story might seem fairly light-hearted, taking serious or dark events and playing them for humour, but at its core the game has an interesting examination of the power dynamics between a creator and their creations becoming romantically involved. When one partner is essentially a god, is it even possible to have a healthy relationship?
Dream Daddy — Dadrector’s Cut
Putting this particular dating sim on the list is slightly cheating, because the original Dream Daddy was a 2017 release, but the new Dadrector’s Cut of the game on consoles pulled me back in with a vengeance. No-one can deny these hunky dads have something about them.
Dream Daddy has a simple premise: you move to town as a middle-aged dad, and try to find other hot dads around the cul-de-sac to date. There’s trendy coffee shop dad, there’s knife biker dad, religious dad with unsettling twins, cuddly dad who is incredibly proud of how smart his daughter is, and my personal favourite, goth vampire dad who I would totally ask for fashion advice any day of the week.
When it comes to the world of dating sims, far too often the focus is on sex, tragedy, and high-stakes action. When it comes to homosexuality, all-too-often gay relationships are presented through adversity and strife. It’s rare to find a queer dating sim that makes being non-straight such an everyday part of life, as well as a dating sim that revels so much in the details of dating.
Dream Daddy focuses in on the fact that dating as a single parent has its own sets of challenges and rewards: things like finding a partner who will slot into your daughter’s life without needless friction.
It balances this with letting you create a dad who is basically Goku from DragonBall Z with a beer belly, then Pokemon-battle other dads for parenting points. Make them all marvel at the amazing things your daughter has achieved, and admit you are the dreamiest daddy.
Kitty Powers Love Life
An exception on this year’s list, because it's not a visual novel, Kitty Powers Love Life is half city builder, half relationship management sim. Themed around British drag queen Kitty Powers, whose brand of risque humour and English banter is the source of the game's charm, the player is tasked with helping recently matched couples find long-term happiness.
That's right: you're not the one looking for virtual love. Instead, you're in charge of a city in which newly matchmade couples are sent to live, which to me sounds like a recipe for disaster, but does make for a good dating game premise. You coach couples through their relationship struggles, trying to coax them up the path of reciprocal bliss, while also ensuring they have somewhere to spend their (hopefully) loving years together. It’s a unique spin on the dating game formula.
Kitty Love: Way to Look for love
I’m just going to be upfront about this: Kitty Love is not a good game. But I love it anyway.
A badly translated visual novel recently released on Switch, Kitty Love: Way to Look For Love is a game where you try to romance handsome men, although unfortunately you transform into a cat every time the sun sets.
You spend the day working in the flower shop chatting men up while you handle their orders, then spend the night getting washed by the same men because you got covered in mud on the way past their home. And people regularly wash random cats they find in their gardens. So you're hitting a fine balance here: try to form a romantic connection while human, and don't let on that you’re the cat who keeps rummaging through their bins.
The translation is in that weird middle ground where you can understand what was meant, but you have no real clue how they got to the choice of words used. To be fair, I doubt it makes any more sense in Japanese. The story itself is kind of sweet, but the best thing about this game is trying to work out how to date these men while being slightly confused about what the options actually mean. “But is it a cats foods? Would I be able to have them?”
As a trans woman, it’s rare I get to see my dating life represented the same as any other relationship. Trans people in media are often portrayed as deceptive, hiding their trans status and revealing it as though it were a heinous crime, or as sex objects to be fetishised and nothing more. Seeing us portrayed as people, as regular prospective romantic partners, is rare across the board.
This is why I was so delighted by Hard Coded, a dating sim where trans women are presented as real people with feelings and personalities, who just want love like everyone else.
Developed by a team of trans people, Hard Coded treats gender as the beautiful complicated fluid mess it is, and trans women with a realism and breadth that’s rare to see. It’s a game where trans women get to be horny without that being framed as sickness. It’s a game that acknowledges the reality of how many trans people gravitate to dating other trans people.
It’s a game where trans people are allowed to exist with a variety of body configurations, and none of them are made to feel more or less valid based on the physical choices they’ve made.
Back at Gamescom, when I got to see a developer play through 45 minutes of Cyberpunk 2077, a lingering worry I had was whether or not its depiction of a cyberpunk future would feel punk in its attitudes towards identity, and Hard Coded completely captures what I was getting at. This is a cyberpunk world where body modification becoming more common has lead to increased flexibility in identity. It’s a future where oppression still exists and where minorities still fight it, a world where deadnaming still happens but the people fighting to change that are the punks pushing the world forwards.
Hard Coded is a game about queer trans ladies loving and banging and fighting the system, and it’s pretty damn rad.
Last up on this year’s list is Monster Prom, a game about being an awkward teenage monster trying to find a date for prom, which is only three weeks away!
This relatively short dating sim focuses on comedic silly scenarios, challenging players to work out how to best impress teenagers who might be into evil dark rituals or blood sacrifice, and hopefully bag them as your hot prom date.
While Monster Prom’s great writing, snappy pace, and fantastic artwork alone would be enough to make it worth checking out, what tips it over the edge is that it’s the first dating sim I have ever played with competitive multiplayer support.
You and a friend can both hop into the game at once, fighting over romantic interests, sabotaging the other's quest for love, and seeing who ends up with that dreamy devil down the hall. It turns a funny idea into something even more amusing, and encourages sharing those dating sim laughs together — which, considering the genre, is such a nice feature it could be called inspired.
This post originally appeared on Kotaku UK, bringing you original reporting, game culture and humour from the British isles.