A review-in-conversation of wholesome queer hit videogame Dream Daddy, and the complex masculinities found within.
For several years now, queer and trans gamers have been demanding more from mainstream and independent games.
While sandbox, choice-consequence and open play form shifts in games have grown to eschew the earlier tendency for linear and prescriptive narrative, so too has the design of games moved with community pressure to make their own queer infrastructure. Queerness remains a possibility in many mainstream games – usually through curtailing gender restrictions on relationship building, opening up all genders to mutual romance – but is never a prescription. That queerness is rarely permitted to intrude upon core game design is part of a broader indictment on the hyper-normalising of gender and race hegemonies mainstream gaming culture. Simultaneously, masculinities in the gaming community have come under close scrutiny through controversies like GamerGate and the birth nouveau of the alt-right. Wholesomeness, or the performance of it, has also achieved its own online currency.
It is in this moment that Dream Daddy has arrived.
The dating simulator has a concise, somewhat baffling, yet compelling, pitch – you play a dad who has just moved to a cul de sac of other dads, who you proceed to date. There are three dates possible with each dad, and all designed to get to know particular dads better, the dad you decide to go on all three dates with is the dad you choose overall. So there’s plenty of incentive for multiple playthroughs.
Wholesomeness, or the performance of it, has also achieved its own online currency.
The game has soared among more conventional bestsellers in online marketplace Steam since its release in mid-July. Initial reaction to Dream Daddy has been predominantly positive. Previously, a game like this, a queer (and trans) dating simulator would have previously remained in its (albeit substantially large) niche. GameGrumps, the Canadian YouTube game culture channel and developers of Dream Daddy, came to be an accidental case study in the now of independent games – a queer, wholesome, progressive, gimmicky and shareable zenith that stands at odds with resurgences in dogma and conservatism in gaming culture.
Dream Daddy is not unique among independent games in placing queerness at its centre and doing more in queering the design of a game than offering queer choices, most notably Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator and the Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. But there is a unique buzz about this game; it has carried through the queer and trans gaming community to non-gamers and cishet gamers alike, and elevating the traditionally feminised and devalued dating sim genre. Dream Daddy thus also brings increasingly mainstream criticisms of toxic masculinity gently to the fore.
So, what is it about Dream Daddy and these three pillars (queerness, critical masculinity, and wholesomeness) of the cultural online backlash to edgy conservatism that make it such a game of the now? And is it doing them well? And does it devote its ethos in design and dialogue at the expense of other measures of game quality and design?
As spouses and queer gamers, the two of us played Dream Daddy and talked over tea to find out.
Alison Whittaker: We’ve both just finished Dream Daddy.
Vincent Bonanno: Can you imagine playing something like that when we were kids? I mean –
AW: No, I cannot! I didn’t have internet.
VB: I never thought I’d play a queer as dating sim.
AW: I’ll say. I still remember seeing that online hype and thinking it was some stunt or joke.
VB: You got a bit obsessed.
AW: I did – on the hype – but you knuckled down on that game! I did only two or three rounds, but you committed! By the end of it, I couldn’t stand hearing that damn background music from your laptop. How many did you do, in the end?
VB: Well, fair go, each play is a few hours at most, but I’ve just finished my last play-through with Robert (the Bad Dad).
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind him, but you can see his popularity in the Steam global achievements. Of all the dads, Robert is the most pursued. Everyone loves a bad boy.
AW: What if I said I detested every dream daddy?
VB: I wouldn’t go as far as saying detest. For the most part I kind of like them, although three dates isn’t a huge amount of time – but each of the dads grew on me a little, even Robert. But I do agree, if you sleep with him early on he is a bit of a dick about it, but I guess that’s your typical representation of emotional irresponsibility in the queer dating scene.
AW: You’re right – and Robert does seem to be getting the most buzz online. But he is so loathsome. Unceremoniously kicking you out the morning after; objectification at a barbecue. I get it – he’s gruff and aloof and that’s hot, but at some point you’re just idealising particular masculine states and ignoring maltreatment.
VB: I know you didn’t finish his storyline because you hated him so much, but I did. In the whole wholesome game, Robert’s the least wholesome dad. Like, at one point, the preferable answer your character can do when Robert is clearly not okay is to simply stay quiet, because Robert doesn’t ‘do small talk’.
AW: Is there some responsibility to model good communication if you make a game branded on wholesome, good relationships? Otherwise, are you exploiting the wholesome meme moment?
VB: I dunno. Constipated masculinity is always a lazy way of giving characters grit. Eventually, while drunk, Robert does express regret at being a shitty dad. Given the other dads have consistent and committed relationships with their kids, I think it was important to see his paternal flaws as part of the game’s wholesomeness.
Constipated masculinity is always a lazy way of giving characters grit.
AW: And you see other good dad–dad relationships play out. We both especially loved Damien (Goth Dad) –
AW: – but in choice consequence narratives you can easily bypass those storylines as a feature of the genre. Clearly, if lots of people are choosing Robert, they are opting out of wholesomeness and into gruffness. Do people want wholesomeness when they’re playing out their romantic fantasies?
VB: Those Steam achievement stats say…no.
AW: Damn, they really do.
VB: Well, what about non-dad relationships? Easily the most sincere relationship is between you and Amanda, your character’s daughter. You respect each other, you communicate and set boundaries. You make cakes, you watch the same TV. If you’re gonna date seven dads at once, you’ve gotta have a mature, reflective kid.
AW: Amanda was easily my favourite, too. But what could have been a dimensional, youthful character ends up being a background non-playable character who’s there for home comfort.
If Dream Daddy said anything especially clearly to me, it’s that old bisexual adage that bisexuals are wrongly thought of as people who ultimately only love men.
I played the game as if I were a bisexual man. The game opens with you reminiscing with your daughter – and you choose whether Amanda’s now deceased co-parent was a father or a mother. Only those two options. I chose ‘mother’ – the script called her other parent ‘dad’ anyway.
VB: Why bother?
AW: Right? Something about that became especially frustrating once I saw how Dream Daddy treated women.
VB: Like Amanda!
Amanda is apparently capable of two endings, one in which your relationship is good, and the other where it’s not so good. That threshold is so low, I would have to go back and actively be a jerk to her to ruin the relationship. Only 4.3 per cent of players got that ending, so. She’s so ‘easy going’ that you don’t have to put effort in to reap the benefits of that relationship. That’s a familiar story – like the ‘Cool Girl’ of daughters. There were so many fan-made guides to ensure perfect dates, but zero fan or in-game interest in parenting.
There were so many fan-made guides to ensure perfect dates, but zero fan or in-game interest in parenting.
AW: Amanda just locks you to the Dream Daddy premise. She’s almost there to show off your emotional prowess.
VB: And Mary, a woman you meet drinking at a bar. She’s made out to be a promiscuous alcoholic and neglectful parent, so you can feel okay about fucking her husband.
AW: I think as a side product of making love between men its focus, Dream Daddy makes a vacuum where their basic emotional thresholds are overvalued. Their capacity to do love stuff is so value-laden as wholesome that it reinforces low expectations. That’s not critical masculinity.
VB: Like the Dad Tips! They showed up on every load screen giving goofy dad advice – ‘brush your teeth’, ‘go ask your mother’. How is that wholesome? How is that undoing toxic masculinity?
AW: I feel like this game could have asked: why do dads get to be goofy parents? Have dad bods, dad jokes?
VB: Can we talk about Damien (Goth Dad)?
AW: Yes. I think for both of us, Damien was a highlight.
VB: Apparently he is trans. I almost missed it entirely, even though as a trans gamer I’m always scouring for hints of transness, even queer baiting. I found out through a screencap where he says, ‘To be able to wake up in the morning, pick from my closet a variety of cloaks, top hats and even binders that are period appropriate feels amazing.’
I’m annoyed transness has been boiled down to the most uncomfortable clothing item.
I’m annoyed transness has been boiled down to the most uncomfortable clothing item. No other trans issues are mentioned, I think the majority would have missed it. But at the same time, I’d be mad if there was a trans character whose entire identity was about being trans. So I guess I’ll be unhappy until there are lots of varied stories sprinkled across all games. But Dream Daddy has done something, so yay?
AW: And there’s that other binder thing.
VB: Oh yeah! When you build your playable dad there are three body options, and you can wear a binder. If you do, you lose your body hair. Good, but a bit much gender and body essentialism. Anyway.
Aside from being wholesome by becoming more casual about his personal brand, Damien unlocked some cool insight into this cul de sac community. Outside of the dads.
AW: I think Damien and Mat (Cool Dad) were the only characters that did this well. It was mostly left to them to move beyond the two-dimensional dad pick-up street, because their stories connected in a meaningful way with various other parts of the community. That doesn’t bode well for Dream Daddy.
So in the game you choose who you communicate with through ‘DadBook’. Since you can’t interact with non-Dads in a self-initiating way, the game feels a bit like a horny fever dream.
VB: Even though you’re in a cul de sac full of very eligible, smoking hot dads, none of them date each other? Probably for streamlined gameplay, but still!
AW: Yeah, but most other choice consequence games see their consequences reverberate further.
Even though you’re in a cul de sac full of very eligible, smoking hot dads, none of them date each other?
The game ends in a big farewell party for Amanda. There the player interacts with every character one last time, and this is where the choice permutations are most obviously centred on the player alone. That player-centrality meant that continuity errors were very noticeable.
VB: I was on that date with Craig (Fitness Dad), remember? The game assumed I went on a run with him on the first day, but I’d gotten coffee instead.
AW: Dream Daddy has sparkling narrative, smart dialogue, and big-hearted aims, but that could have been backed up by more contemplative game and narrative design.
VB: Yeah, look. There’s gaps, and it’s a little light on complex relationships, even though its relationships are very complicated and gendered. And it does seem to be pointed at a demographic that’s very here right now in internet culture.
AW: But it makes the mistake of reducing wholesomeness to a gag or aesthetic, rather than a way to relate and build emotional literacy online.
VB: Yeah, I agree. There’s a lot more to be done, but as far as dating sims go it’s nice to have something light-hearted and explicitly queer without any deaths.
I’m worried I’ve only focused on the negative. There are really good and healthy depictions of masculinity in this – unsurprisingly, mostly from the dads of colour. I’d like to go into it more, but Hugo’s (Teacher Dad) relationship with his son is really honest and what I imagine is a relatable struggle for a healthy and trusting relationship with an adolescent kid. Especially when compared to Brian (Rival Dad), who was really just a front for a whole heap on mini games and achievements, and Joseph (Cool Youth Minister Dad) who – spoiler alert – has a creepy cult-themed ending. Because this is a GameGrumps game, and is pitching itself to the mainstream, I hope it’ll reach outside of the expected audience, and potentially to young men who need it.
AW: It really is blowing this niche wide open. Plus, it was a lot more fun than dating you!
VB: Yeah, we’re moving to that cul de sac.
Dream Daddy is available on Steam.