I want to come to the defense of challenging art, but I found Boyfriend Dungeon to feel too safe. The weapon dating sim was met with a slew of criticism when it first came out, particularly regarding the handling of its stalker antagonist, Eric. The discourse was polarising, with some calling for his storyline to be made optional, and others coming to the defense of messy, difficult art, but having finished the game by the time the controversy was firmly framed as a matter of two opposing ‘sides’, I found myself on neither of them. Boyfriend Dungeon isn’t challenging, but I don’t think it ever set out to be.
To be clear, this isn’t to dismiss that some people found its content triggering – triggers simply are, and that’s not a judgement of execution, or taste. In sending unwanted gifts, appearing at events uninvited, and intruding on your dates, Eric is a list of red flags in character form, but that’s also quite literally all he is. Like the rest of Boyfriend Dungeon, he’s a moral about healthy intimacy.
Eric is a dark reflection of what happens if you can’t embrace vulnerability. Unable to bear rejection, he creates an ideal construct made of stolen pieces of the weapons you date, and literally powered by his self-loathing. In the ending, after defeating the construct, Eric finally finds his humility and apologises, confessing that he could work on himself in therapy.
It’s a little didactic, made more stark by the brevity of the game. Neither Eric, nor any other character, are allowed more depth than the purpose of their arc. Each route, whether pursued romantically or platonically, feels like a thesis about healthy relationships. You support Isaac to set boundaries with his father; Sawyer to be more independent; Valerie to trust other people with her past.
Boyfriend Dungeon is about its own meaning far above any emotional stakes. Even Sunder, who earns repeated warning texts about how ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ he is, thoughtfully sits you down at the end of your journey to let you know: it’s not you, it’s him. He’s learned about emotional maturity, and that he simply doesn’t have enough of it to commit. For all Sunder is pitched as the ‘bad boy’, it’s an incredibly gentle (and heavily foreshadowed) breakup.
When the theme running through each route is in some way ‘relationships’, and your primary way of interacting with them is by forming relationships, it’s impossible for them to not feel heavy handed. A dating sim that models healthy relationships isn’t inherently about them, but Boyfriend Dungeon is, to the extent that you aren’t ‘allowed’ to be with the emotionally unavailable bad boy even while all your relationships are only casual summer flings. The result is something that feels smooth and artificial, even while it takes pains to be realistic.
Boyfriend Dungeon is exactly the story about intimacy and trust that it set out to be, which means it avoids being challenging, messy or difficult. It is unambiguous and risk-free to a point, not trusting the player to read between the lines. At its best, it’s a supportive drunk girl in a nightclub bathroom saying how you deserve better. At its worst, it’s chiding you for wanting dessert while not having finished your vegetables.
Ruth Cassidy is a writer and self-described velcro cyborg whose DMs are open for pictures of mountains & your cats. Direct them to twitter @velcrocyborg