Most of what’s been written about infamous pigeon-dating sim Hatoful Boyfriend deals with the fundamental bait-and-switch of the game’s entire premise, namely the way in which it establishes itself as a jokey romance game and ultimately winds up as more of a psychological thriller. On the other hand, very little’s been said about its place within the wider tradition of the genre of otome games (romances with female protagonists targeted towards a female audience, usually with multiple endings) and romance games as a whole. This seems to me a fairly notable gap, since the way in which the game plays with expectations draws on the building blocks of the medium and goes well beyond “but then it gets dark”. Everything in the game serves as part of a very deliberate attempt to disrupt a genre which exists primarily in a sort of comfortable shorthand, and is largely complacent in being nothing more than simple wish-fulfilment fantasy. Rather than not being what it seems, Hatoful Boyfriend is exactly what it appears to be; it pits the tropes of romance games against themselves and rounds out its characters far beyond expectations, which serves to critique the genre’s chronic self-absorption and, in doing so, manages to produce something with wide-ranging and genuine appeal.
(Major spoilers under the cut – yes, this game does have them.)
Most games take their romantic leads through incredibly predictable arcs, wringing the bare minimum of drama out of tired stock characters. It’s not uncommon for a lot of games, particularly those designed for mobile platforms and packed with microtransactions, to straight-up allow you to choose a romance option solely from a short introduction segment and knowledge of the bread-and-butter tropes of the genre. There’s a strong sense of intertextuality in the medium, heavily informed by older tropes established through anime and manga; as AM Cosmos points out, otome games have drawn on manga since the very beginning, and this has proven a pull factor for many women who otherwise wouldn’t try video games. I’d argue that a typical romance game expects you to have cultivated a particular “type” or preference going into it, informed by other media, and thus can rely on very light character sketches to convey the nature of your romance options.
Hatoful Boyfriend leans on the shorthand of its genre by quickly establishing its love interests through well-worn tropes in a fairly vanilla high-school setting: there’s childhood friend Ryouta, aristocratic Sakuya, bookish Nageki, flirtatious Yuuya, hyperactive Okosan, overimaginative Anghel, and narcoleptic teacher Kazuaki. (There’s also the sinister Shuu, who doesn’t fit cleanly into any of these roles, but we’ll come to him in a bit.) And they’re all, of course, birds.
A quick recap: you play as a girl, default name Hiyoko Tosaka, beginning eleventh grade as the only human student attending the prestigious St Pigeonation’s Academy for birds. You progress through your school year and eventually wind up with the bird of your dreams. As each of your potential avian suitors is introduced, a screen pops up showing what they would look like in human form, designed for easier immersion into what is initially a deeply bizarre world. There are eight romanceable birds in total, and multiple corresponding endings: eleven in which you complete a romance arc, a bad end in which you fail to romance anyone (and get killed off!), and a sub-end which involves getting two other characters together and can be completed as part of any other route.
All of the characters’ individual routes are short, and most follow fairly reasonable trajectories within the boundaries of their tropes. Ryouta’s, Sakuya’s and Kazuaki’s play their roles almost completely straight, with those last two having the barest hints at some larger unresolved tensions. Nageki’s has a Sixth Sense-like twist, but it’s not especially difficult to guess even before its reveal and his character remains fundamentally the same despite that. Yuuya’s ending involves the revelation that he’s a secret agent working to keep the world from falling into chaos, while Okosan’s skews completely into the absurd as he ascends to become the Lord of Pudding. And my personal favourite – Anghel’s – seems to be ripped straight from a role-playing game, complete with music that wouldn’t be out of place in a final boss battle; this actually isn’t completely out of left field, considering Anghel genuinely views the world as some kind of fantasy manga and his route involves Hiyoko buying into that.
The significant exception is the character of Shuu Iwamine, the creepy school doctor whose ending can only be described as batshit insane. He’s a character who’s impossible to imagine in any other romance game, immediately coming across as a genuinely dangerous and terrifying individual and serving as a harsh deconstruction of the overplayed bad-boy archetype . Rumours fly across multiple routes about what really goes on in the infirmary – there are whispers that birds who go there mysteriously vanish, only to reappear as that week’s meal in the cafeteria or quill pens in the school shop – and when you choose to go after Shuu, you learn the gruesome truth behind these. His Christmas gift to Hiyoko is a freshly cooked bird, which feels deeply unsettling in a game which has thus far been about winning birds over, and for good reason. In the route’s pivotal final scenes, it transpires that you’ve inadvertently become complicit in the doctor’s crimes on multiple occasions: both through handing in the ID card of a missing student and thereby allowing Shuu to stage a cover-up, and through eating your Christmas dinner and helpfully disposing of a victim’s corpse. To make matters worse, the bird you ate wasn’t a random student, but Yuuya – a fellow member of the health committee, another one of your romance options, and the only student putting up any kind of resistance to the doctor’s dubious deeds. Shortly after learning of these revelations, Shuu attacks Hiyoko with a cleaver and kills her, taking her apart in the name of science. He then proceeds to go on the run, taking the protagonist’s preserved head in a jar along with him. So you can be together forever.
Shuu is also one of just two birds – along with Ryouta – who gets an outright declaration of love from Hiyoko in his ending. (The other routes range from her admitting a crush in Kazuaki’s, to Nageki’s unanswered revelation of his own love, to the ambiguous companionship of the rest). This is particularly chilling because of the way in which this confession scene, so often framed as the climax of the genre and played completely straight in the very same game, is twisted: when he asks your severed head if you loved him, your only options are “Yes”, “Yes”, or “Yes”. On every level, Shuu is a harbinger of the real game and its priorities, namely its odd marriage between as-they-are otome trappings and a genuine regard for story and character.
Of course, much has been made of Hatoful Boyfriend being a lot more than it seems, and once you’ve completed the majority of the characters’ paths, you unlock the Bad Boys Love route which comprises the true bulk of the plotline. (It’s also widely known by the name Hurtful Boyfriend, but I’ll be referring to it as BBL). This completely changes the tone of the game: it begins with Hiyoko’s death and dismemberment and goes downhill from there. Instead you play as her best friend Ryouta who, accompanied by Sakuya and assisted by the rest of the cast, are locked inside the school and decide to get to the bottom of both Hiyoko’s murder and the global conspiracy lurking around St Pigeonation’s. Bad Boys Love takes the plot’s occasional darker moments, which initially appear strikingly incongruent – all of Shuu’s route, plus the political-intrigue overtones of Yuuya’s and various other hanging questions – and weaves a coherent plot and setting around them. It turns out this peaceful school life is, in fact, a post-apocalyptic setting in a world where bird flu was a far greater threat; as a response, human researchers created a plague to wipe out all birds, but it backfired and instead granted them sentience. As a consequence, a war broke out between humans and birds, which only ended decades later after the death of most of mankind. Hiyoko is attending St Pigeonation’s as a sign of good faith between the two species, and her death causes the entire campus to go into lockdown and be surrounded by angry humans.
This lockdown and disruption all transpired because, as a child, Ryouta wished for peace between humans and birds at absolutely any cost; Shuu, overhearing this, promised to make it come true due to a vow he’d made out of respect and duty to Ryouta’s dying father. Unfortunately, the doctor could see no other possible solution but for one species to wipe the other out; in order to accomplish this, he decided to make Ryouta the carrier for an incredibly deadly virus that only affects humans, and spent a year weakening his immune system enough to make him an ideal host. Thus, rather than a direct attack by Shuu, it was Ryouta’s exposure to Hiyoko that wound up killing her. (And that’s only a fraction of the twists and turns which Bad Boys Love has in store; it also gives great development to the entire cast, with Sakuya’s arc being a particular standout.)
Hatoful Boyfriend deliberately subverts the player’s expectations by first drawing its characters in the most bare-bones and predictable fashion possible, and then giving them development that extends beyond their tired stock archetypes in surprising ways. You like Nageki for being quiet and bookish? He’s a ghost who died horribly, can’t be seen by most people and is incapable of leaving the library. You like Kazuaki for being sleepy and unassuming? He’s an impostor, real name Hitori Uzune, who’s Nageki’s foster brother and was driven mad by the need for revenge after his death. You like Ryouta for being the dogged childhood friend? He’s unintentionally the reason for Hiyoko’s misfortunes in BBL, all because of a wish he made long ago. It even manages to flesh Shuu out, transforming him from a villain who’s almost comically evil into a broken researcher still chasing the spectre of Ryouta’s father – the one bird he’s ever respected – and making him strangely sympathetic in the process.
Despite the surprising depth of its characters, though, the game is never cruel and doesn’t punish players for believing its cast to initially be the sum of their tropes. In fact, when located within the wider genre of romance games, it makes perfect sense for an otome audience to conceive of these birds as just being the sum of their worn-out archetypes who exist for wish-fulfilment purposes. Most importantly, the game is completely aware of the intertextuality of the otome form, and the lazy language of tropes which allow many entries in the genre to get away with fairly minimal character work. It knows you expect complacency, so that’s what it gives you… right up until it doesn’t. Bad Boys Love tears down this illusion immediately and in the most brutal way possible, by dint of being a story which is not just about people other than Hiyoko but barely even has her in it.
Most otome protagonists are named by the player, and many aren’t even given faces; this is done in order to allow the player to fill these details in by herself and thus better connect to the narrative. Hatoful Boyfriend’s protagonist, too, has a name chosen by the player and we never get to see her face – but she feels a good deal more interesting and three-dimensional than most. Despite her different potential routes and partners, she has a reasonably consistent personality and sense of self: she’s well-meaning yet impulsive, proud of her barbaric hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and prone to outlandish turns of phrase.
Thus, her death at the start of Bad Boys Love only cements what should already be apparent to the player: this story isn’t about you at all. (This is further evidenced in BBL by the route’s near-total absence of choices after it splits off, which strips the player of all agency and relegates their role to bearing witness to a story much bigger than they are. Hiyoko does wind up playing a small yet crucial part despite her death, but she remains out of the player’s control.) The male cast are more than romance options designed for wish fulfilment or projections of audience fantasy. Rather, they’re complex people with their own problems and motivations and, as Julian Murdoch and AM Cosmos discuss, most of them would actually make terrible boyfriends to boot:
JM: They’re really deeply broken people. […] Ryouta has his redeeming qualities. However, he also is incredibly easily brainwashed and almost wipes out the human race. So that’s not so great.
AC: Not so great. He’s a little weak-minded, weak-willed.
JM: And then there’s […] Sakuya. He’s good, and he’s better after his ending when he sorta gets his comeuppance a little bit, that’s fine. But for most of the game he’s a total ass and you just sort of wanna slap him. And then there’s the guy who only talks about pudding [Okosan], which I understand, pudding is awesome […] but none of them are good. None of them are good!
Hatoful Boyfriend gives its male leads permission to be flawed, justifying their depth without romanticising it into broodiness. Their underlying problems aren’t fixed, let alone by Hiyoko, in any of their individual routes, and the events of Bad Boys Love leave almost all of them significantly worse off. (It is, however, worth noting that the endgame and epilogue do show most of the cast attempting to move on and grow on more than a token level.) It’s debatable if the game even has a “good” ending – most are happy enough within the context of their romances, but only Anghel’s ending involves confronting Shuu and only Yuuya’s fills in any details about the world’s wider problems – and if it does, it’s certainly not a romantic one. Bad Boys Love is the nearest it comes to delivering catharsis or closure, and even that comes an at incredible cost (Hiyoko murdered, Yuuya barely rescued from the brink of death, Ryouta stuck in St Pigeonation’s indefinitely until a cure for the virus he carries is found). Its creator calls her work a parody of the otome genre, but its commentary cuts far deeper than that. Hatoful Boyfriend is fundamentally a critique of the trend for romance games to be nothing more than comfortable wish-fulfilment, rather than striving to tell genuine stories about people and the ties that come to bind them.
Addendum: after all that criticism, it seems worth mentioning that I’m actually quite a big fan of otome games – I find games with romance arcs often possess a genuine interest in characters and their dynamics that’s sorely lacking in other media – and I hope this post didn’t make you think otherwise! But, as with any other genre out there, I find the majority of its entries to be fairly middle-of-the-road and struggle to get through them; in this case, it’s for many of the reasons discussed above (recycling of archetypes, complete ciphers for protagonists, a general feeling of complacency, and so on). Still, otomes seem to be gaining a lot of traction in recent years, with the number of fan translations, original English creations and official localisations all picking up, and I am pretty excited about this. Proof? Every time another game gets announced for localisation, I unironically consider buying a Vita.
Addendum to the addendum: I did buy a Vita, and actually didn’t wind up regretting it at all.