At first glance, Boyfriend Dungeon doesn’t seem like the type of game to stir up much controversy—but that’s exactly what’s happened in the days since its release late last week. From player outcry to last-minute changes to hate mail sent to one of the game’s voice actors, Boyfriend Dungeon has become the center of a storm that has unfortunately overshadowed the fact that it is, in fact, quite a fun game.
Boyfriend Dungeon, developed and published by indie studio Kitfox Games, is part-dungeon crawler, part-dating sim. (If neither of those terms is familiar to you, let me put it like this: Half of the game involves exploring a dungeon and fighting the monsters you find inside, and the other half is about getting to know the residents of a town by taking them on dates.) The gimmick is that the tools you use are, in fact, people who are capable of transforming into all manner of weapons (swords, axes, brass knuckles), and they’re also open to getting amorously involved.
Where things get tricky, however, is not in the gameplay, but in the storyline. The antagonist of Boyfriend Dungeon is an emotionally manipulative stalker, and the game’s main thrust involves the player figuring out how to deal with them and discovering how the antagonist’s actions have affected the other characters they meet. That is to say, this silly-sounding game gets dark.
The content warning displayed at the beginning of the game at the time of its release read as such: “This game may include references to unwanted advances, stalking, and other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with care.” But this message, some players argued on social media, insufficiently described the degree to which these themes would be present throughout the story, as well as unclear as to whether or not they would be avoidable. (They’re not.) In response, Kitfox issued a statement apologizing for the “inadequate” warning, and updated the wording just days after release. Now, it reads: “This game’s story involves exposure to unwanted advances, stalking, and other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with care and take breaks as needed.”
The new warning is much clearer about the nature of Boyfriend Dungeon’s content, but the fan reaction—particularly the harassment of actor Alexander Gross, who voices the game’s antagonist—seems telling of a bigger problem. Some complaints have argued for a version of the game without the stalking storyline included, which seems, if anything, to be demanding an entirely different version of the game itself. Dating sims, and games with dating sim components, are still attached to a larger story—it just so happens that Boyfriend Dungeon’s has less fluffy themes at its center than who the cutest romanceable character is.
Notably, other, similar games have also verged into darker territory, but without eliciting the amount of backlash that Boyfriend Dungeon has sparked. The biggest dating sim of the last few years, Dream Daddy, tackles infidelity and estrangement, and Stardew Valley, a farming game which allows the player to romance some of the townspeople, delves into the complications of family relationships as well as features an alcoholic character. Granted, these are both relatively optional parts of the game, whereas the stalker storyline in Boyfriend Dungeon is front and center.
To Kitfox Games’ credit, however, the story is well-written, drawing clear boundaries when it comes to healthy-versus-toxic behavior. The characters all shine, too, and it feels like a rare treat that all of them have distinct texting styles, especially because relationship-building through texting plays a major part in the gameplay. (Notably, the possible “boyfriends” include men, women, and non-binary characters.) Even the dungeons, which are the clunkiest parts of the game, are inventive; they’re shopping malls rather than typical dungeons, and boast mundane objects like cellphones and TVs as enemies.
The game has garnered a lot of attention for the controversy it has sparked, but it also deserves attention for the fact that it’s a unique, enjoyable game. Though the stalker storyline is certainly heavy, and it can be triggering for players who have experienced similar things in real life, it doesn’t dominate the game as a whole. Other storylines range from discovering a vampire to helping a K-pop idol deal with fame, so Boyfriend Dungeon has plenty more to offer. The dungeons can get monotonous—and, frankly, don’t control that well, as the character animation during battles feels curiously weightless—but they’re least crucial to the story, which is the ingredient that makes the game truly stand out from the crowd, in good ways more than bad.