The recent discourse around Boyfriend Dungeon has distracted from something important: That it is a very good video game, which I like a lot. I hope to remedy that now. In fact, I like it so much that I felt the desire to sit down with the game’s director, Tanya X. Short. After a short conversation about breakfast, we talked through its development, future, and public reception.
Tanya X. Short has a storied career in the independent games space, having worked as a designer and producer on Shattered Planet, Moon Hunters, and Fit For A King, as a writer and producer on The Shrouded Isle, and as the executive producer of Lucifer Within Us. Boyfriend Dungeon is an isometric action-RPG and queer dating sim about falling in love with the many weapons you wield. Upon release it was met with controversy surrounding in-game content warnings and potential content removal over a stalker who is central to the game’s plot.
The following interview has been edited for clarity.
Renata Price, Kotaku: You posted a really great Twitter thread about the design process, and implementation, of damage scaling. I was left wondering, who was the hardest weapon to actually design and implement?
Tanya X. Short: I would say that Dagger was probably the hardest. And I think she still has some mild… controversies is a strong word, but the fans will either say she’s underpowered, or she’s way too overpowered. And it’s a problem of the AI and the way her particular powers work. You can control an entire room to take no damage, but it’s a risk because, if you mess it up, you take a lot of damage. So I would say I had to rebalance her abilities the most, and I’m still not confident either way that it’s not either too risky or too easy to play with her — different players have said different things. So I guess it’s close enough. But yeah, Dagger was a challenge given that I wanted her to feel risky, but taking a risk will always feel suboptimal to a certain type of player, who would rather take no risks and take forever. So, it’s very much a personality type balancing.
Kotaku: How was implementing character personality across all of the game’s different layers (texts, gameplay, spoken dialogue)? Were there any characters who were particularly difficult to get consistent?
Short: I feel like Laser Saber had a lot of iterations done because he’s a sweetheart. Seven is a sweet guy who cares, but he also has this affected cool, like capital “C” Cool, especially in the first bits while you get to know him. And so the dates needed a lot of revising because sometimes I’d err on one side or the other. Like, “Wow he’s actually being a jerk, right?” Or sometimes like, “Oh he’s being overly warm.” I want him to show that he cares but in a distanced way. And it’s the same for weapon forms. I feel like we did a couple of iterations on Laser Saber’s combat abilities, and it wasn’t until we had that final pass in 2020, where we ripped out the old combo system, that we went through and put in what ended up being the final combos and upgrades for all of the characters, and we added chain lightning in for Seven, and he felt really different and uniquely fun compared to the other weapons. He was one of my favourites to see develop.
Kotaku: And who was the easiest to work with?
Short: I mean, I struggled with all the characters at some point or another. I would say that the easiest for me was probably, and he’s a fan favourite, the cat. I have had many cats in my life and Pocket immediately seemed like a particular cat in my life and I just knew where I wanted his arc to go. And the only thing I really had to iterate on was making sure it was an arc, and not just an adventure around the town with your cat. That there was some kind of conflict and climax. But it was pretty easy, pretty smooth. Hanging out with the cat was not complicated. Cats are easy.
Kotaku: Hanging out with cats is easy. I’m always saying this.
Short: I mean it’s emotionally complicated but like logistically you pet them or you don’t. You go somewhere, or you don’t.
Kotaku: A very binary approach to cats.
Short: Of all the things in the game! I mean you’re petting or not petting. But there’s also heavy pets. There’s also gentle pets. Nothing’s a binary!
Kotaku: Speaking of binaries, I’ve been curious, how have y’all been feeling about the game’s public response? Both the outpouring of praise, but also the messier response around Eric’s characterization.
Short: We had our launch party the day after launch, before the discourse, and I remember the mood in the team was much lighter, much bubblier, for everyone. I mean, we had all felt a weight had been lifted. We had the game out there. The weekend was much harder, especially [for] people on the team who have social anxiety, who are on Twitter. I think that their mental health was impacted knowing that they were the subject of conversations that didn’t really concern them, you know? Thankfully, nobody got personally harassed. Like some people wrote threatening things, but didn’t tag us into it. So it clearly was more performative, not intended to scare. But it’s still stressful to see. I tried to separate myself from the work, I tried to. Like, I created it and now it’s its own entity, its own artefact, but it takes some effort, because we did put ourselves into it. And now we’re taking a couple of weeks off. So I think we’ll feel a lot better when we come back in a couple weeks.
Kotaku: I’m gonna jump backwards in time for a minute. You’ve used Kickstarter for both Boyfriend Dungeon and Moon Hunters, how do the logistics of crowdfunding, and the weight of audience expectations from the onset of the project, affect the way you approach a game like this?
Short: Well, for Boyfriend Dungeon and Moon Hunters, in both cases, we used Kickstarter primarily as a market research tool. Because we don’t have the tools and the, quite frankly, resources that a lot of the bigger game studios have to vet their ideas and their concepts. And we’re making riskier concepts anyway than these big firms probably would. And so it’s very, very difficult to do meaningful market research that doesn’t involve actual markets. Like if you want to know whether a customer will buy something that never existed before, you can’t look at the things that existed before. So in part, because we lacked the confidence that our games had an audience we use Kickstarter as an open ended question like, is an audience out there for this game?
And Boyfriend Dungeon? You know, in hindsight, it’s really easy to say, “Oh, yeah, of course in 2017 it went viral. Why wouldn’t it have succeeded?” But there are so many games where a gif goes viral, and nobody buys the actual game. Where it was better as a meme than as a game. And so the Kickstarter was our way of asking people, would you actually want to buy this game? Or do you just want to retweet it? And thankfully, people did. They said, “Yes, according to what you’ve written here, we want to buy this.” At least enough people said that, that we were confident. We were like, “OK, we’re going to make the thing we want to make.”
I do think that when there’s years in between doing a Kickstarter and releasing, which wasn’t the intent, but here we are, when there’s years between it lets people sort of forge their own realities that they get very attached to. And that’s a danger of long form marketing that we hadn’t encountered before, because we hadn’t made a game with this high profile. So I do think the expectation is exactly the right word. Managing expectations is the main job of marketing. And sales should be secondary. Like, you should set the correct expectations and then sell those expectations, in my opinion. And I don’t think that there’s anything incorrect or misleading about our Kickstarter, but some people definitely built up an image of the game in their minds from the materials we put out in 2018. And then, off they went, and by the time, you know, they reach the game and see the content warning, they feel disappointed [because] they thought it was a different thing.
Kotaku: Not to insert the interviewer too far into the interview, but I actually think a lot of the messier response to the game has been caused by people relying on some really strange expectations around ownership and genre conventions. Certain ways of thinking about art that lead to some really unfair assumptions about a game that handled some complex material with grace.
Short: Thank you. I do feel like some people, with what are interesting observations, seemed like they hadn’t played the game, and there’s no way to really know. I’m not going to go interrogate them and check their steam history and whatever. I think the phrase that keeps coming up in social media is context collapse. We had some nuanced, meaningful critique, and I love that. I think no art is perfect. And even if it was, there’s still critical thought to be had about it — even if there was no big flaw, talking about what art does and doesn’t do and says and doesn’t say is meaningful to the human condition. But because of context collapse, there were definitely bad actors who sensed a vulnerability. They said, “Oh, I see. There is a critique here that, um, it might be fun to poke out a little bit.” And, and it’s too bad that some people were engaging in bad faith, but I’m glad that conversation still happened.
Kotaku: So there are a lot of games about confronting physical manifestations of the character’s dread. That’s what Boyfriend Dungeon is, right? There’s Persona, et cetera, et cetera. In RPGs you’ll usually have a self-insert character who confronts the manifestations of other people’s fears and desires. How did you go about riding the fine line between making a character with fears and desires and an arc, with the expectation of being able to insert yourself into the text which comes with a lot of dating sims?
Short: It was tough. We definitely started with a full player insert. The protagonist was extremely volatile, depending on how the player was playing, and over time, as I narrowed down on the kinds of conflicts I wanted for the core plot, like what themes and problems you’re going to look at, it made more and more sense to give the player character a very basic arc. It’s very minor, it’s more of a C plot really, where you start out like, “Oh, you were anxious and didn’t go on a date.” And then by the end, it’s like, “Oh, you’re not anxious anymore, and you went on dates.” And so we did just enough there to prop that up.
But I mean, basically, when we added the minimum amount to have a character that we felt had had a little bit of an arc, we stopped. We thought, “Well, this is good enough,” because I wanted people to be able to use it a little bit as a fantasy vehicle. That was one of the pillars [of the game]. It’s a playful, romantic fantasy. And so there is a little bit of, “Oh, everyone loves me,” and, “Oh, I am braver. I’m gonna pick that option. Even though my character is anxious, I’m still extremely flirty tonight.” Maybe it’s magical? Who knows? Um, but exploring, it did mean that we had to leave the exact explanation of the fears a little bit vague, like we have a dungeon that’s a fear of intimacy. Well, how does that manifest? It’s some monsters, that’s about as far as that goes. And we just had more fun at that point with letting the player sort of fill in. What they see as, I think, a very common fear.
And we’re now talking about, for the updates, having a third dungeon. And again, it has to be a relatively relatable fear. Like if we put in an extremely unusual fear that wouldn’t make it invalid. But it would make it much harder for that unspoken association, and make it much more awkward. Like, yes, this is a fear of sentient cars, or something like that. It’s much harder than a fear of change.
Kotaku: I mean personally I’m terrified of sentient cars.
Short: That self-driving cars are reality, in some ways makes that more reasonable to be afraid of, than change. Does anything change? Nobody knows. It doesn’t seem like it sometimes.
Kotaku: I’m always saying this. Speaking of updates, actually, some of my colleagues were curious when they would get to interact with a certain burly Axe boy again.
Short: We’ve promised that we will be updating it with Axe, who’s a really chill surfer guy. Many people have kissed at this point. Um, but he’s a bit shy about his weapon form. So we’re seeing how that’s gonna play out. And a figure skating hammer, who is struggling to control her emotional difficulties.
Kotaku: A dev team after my own heart. I, Renata, am personally thanking you for that last one.
Short: You’re welcome. We have multiple people on the dev team who are very excited about Hammer. I wish we could have included her in the launch but she’ll be good in the update for sure.
Kotaku: Actually, I’ve noticed that you refer to characters specifically as their weapon type. Is that a holdover from early development?
Short: It’s more that we’ve renamed the characters a few times. So I got into the habit of calling them by their weapon because it was much less common to change the weapon. Whereas the character names shifted a little bit more. The axe — I think you can still find reference to his old name — I think his old name used to be Owen and now he’s Jonah. Talwar is currently Sunder. But he used to be AJ.
Kotaku: I could not see Sunder as an AJ, that’s wild.
Short: He also used to have a tracksuit.
Kotaku: Woah woah woah woah. Wait. Pause. You’re telling me that suave, shirtless, leather jacket wearing vampire man used to be named AJ and wore a tracksuit?
Short: Well we know he goes to the gym right.
Kotaku: And I guess the weird tracksuit wearing old guy at the club is definitely a kind of person who exists.
Short: I mean, it’s like he’s 200 years old. How does he know fashion? There were all these things that were like yeah, it sort of makes sense. But it doesn’t communicate the character that we actually want. Like I forget what AJ stood for, it was an Indian name.
Sunder was named after our animator who did the transformation cutscenes. His name is literally Sunder. And when we hired him, we were like, “First of all, you are amazing. You are a God of animation. But second of all, can we name our sword Sunder, please?” And he was like, “Yes, I’m honoured. I also have long luscious hair.” And you’re like, “Perfect.” Sometimes the universe gives you what you need.
Kotaku: With so many swordfriends, how did you go about deciding who you’d meet first? The game does a great job of pacing out new meetings.
Short: Again, trial and error. Everything in game design is always trial and error. But it came back to me actually sitting down and mapping out how I wanted the player experience to feel. And I wanted them to feel rewarded for exploring and to feel like there could be a surprise any moment. That is a treasured feeling in games, when you really feel like you should just keep playing a little bit, and not in a sketchy, addictive way, just like a curiosity. Trying to both encourage and reward players for being just a little bit curious and looking around one more corner, and giving them something that they didn’t expect or that they had expected. That’s always the best when you have to expect something but you’re not sure what, and then it’s there! That’s the best feeling and discovering weapons was like the ultimate one of those, right? I feel like there’s an alternate universe where we made a boyfriend dungeon where there were 50 weapons and you could only go on one date with each and we would have been a very, very different game with a lot less to say, which is why we decided not to go that way. But then we could have scattered them everywhere and that would have been even more interesting in some ways.
Kotaku: Break open a trash can. New weapon!
Short: Exactly! Then we could’ve had two cats.
Kotaku: Wait, it could’ve had two cats… Are you sure you made the right decision?
Short: We’ll never know for sure. If someone wants to give me a few million dollars for Boyfriend Dungeon World then I am here.
Kotaku: Well, I know you’re busy so I’ll ask you the stinger. Just the worst, most generic question you can imagine. Pick your favourite child.
Short: Pocket. The cat. I mean it’s just so easy to imagine he’s on my lap. You know, I’m gonna be working on the update and hope I have Pocket nearby. That’d be so nice. But no, it’s it. It really depends on who I’ve worked on most lately. If I work on a weapon, I remember because I always pour myself in and when I write them, I’m pouring in what I love about someone like a crush I’ve had. And I remember like, “Oh, yeah, that’s really great. I forgot I’m really fond of this, this trait and this way that they respond to things.” Whether it’s that they’re excitable, or that they’re a little bit grumpy, or that they, you know, they’re opinionated or whatever it is. That’s what makes it fun, really falling in love with them every time I get to write more with them.