25 September 2021
Little known fact about me; I have a thing for gimmicky dating sims. I don’t know where I picked the habit up, but I love them unironically.1 And Boyfriend Dungeon’s premise seems scientifically engineered to hook me; date your sentient weapons, who are also people sometimes. Alright, sold. Say no more.2
In this article, we’ll discuss how Boyfriend Dungeon contrasts via gameplay both healthy and unhealthy consent models. We’ll also break down the anatomy of an abuser, by isolating specific emotional manipulation techniques that are employed by its antagonist.
Spoilers for the entirety of the game ahead; if you’d like to play it (which I highly recommend), maybe do that first! It’s only five or six hours long. Content warnings for: domestic violence, stalking, emotional abuse, and also I’m gonna say the word sex a couple times. 👻😱
Okay, so what even is this hot mess?
Boyfriend Dungeon is a visual novel with rouge-lite dungeon crawling elements, in which players alternate between randomly generated hack-and-slash combat sections, and flirtatious downtime with the supernatural residents of Verona Beach. Originally kickstarted by Kitfox Games in August 2018, it released last month on PC, Xbox, and the Nintendo Switch.
While the protagonist is player-generated (pronouns included!), they have a set character arc; your cousin Jesse, who has recently moved in with a partner, has graciously offered to let you live in his old apartment until the lease runs out at the end of the summer. Your character struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and a general fear of intimacy for reasons which are left undefined, which has your family worried about you. More specifically, Jesse has learned you have never been on a date before, and is determined to meddle, or at least net you some friends.
One of your first dates (with a fencing instructor who is incidentally sweet, buff, AND a sword) inadvertently introduces you to the game’s primary mystery.
As you explore the dunj, you’re joined by a cast of “weapon-people”; that is, individuals who can transform into a specific weapon roughly corresponding to their personality, who have awoken in the dunj to find their memories hazy and pieces of their weapon forms missing. Together you can face your fears, solve the case of the kidnapped weapons, and grow as people.
Outside the dunj, you can then use the cash and treasures you’ve collected to craft gifts for your new friends or lovers, and hanging out with them in the downtime allows you to increase your bond and unlock new abilities.
The cast is diverse, featuring multiple people of color, non-binary characters (plural!), and yes that’s a cat you see there.3 You’re free to set boundaries and define each of those relationships as strictly platonic, without missing out on content. Also unusual for a game in this genre is the ability to politely opt-out of sexual encounters, without necessarily closing off the romantic aspect of the relationship, which frankly is something more games should allow.
Most of the characters that you meet are kind, patient, and respectful of your needs. One notable exception is not. And one of the things that makes Boyfriend Dungeon such a mature take on dating sims is the way that the world contrasts the communication styles of these characters, drawing attention to predatory behavior and clearly demarkating it as unacceptable.
The vast majority of Boyfriend Dungeon is spent highlighting examples of healthy communication and sexual agency, such that when inappropriate behavior is modeled, it really stands out. Your relationships with weapon-people set the tone for what is appropriate in this world, and by extension our own.
So let’s start with a close analysis of one particular relationship. Then I’ll provide a few supporting examples to show how she is representative of the game’s overall theme.
Valeria is a dagger, and one of the first weapon-people that you meet. As of writing, she is the only female romance option in the game (with another teased in future updates). She’s slow to trust; her arc both explores the unique considerations women have to make in order to safely evaluate romantic partners, and also establishes the setting’s future expectations for enthusiastic consent.
When you first encounter Valeria on the floor of an abandoned mall, she chides the player character for picking her up without asking. Canonically, your character is unfamiliar with the culture of Verona Beach or the concept of weapon-people at this point; both of your available dialogue options in this scene are appropriately apologetic. The game even tests on this the next time you meet to make sure you have retained it.
These interactions demonstrate that in the world of Boyfriend Dungeon, weapon-people are not considered objects, even when taking the form of an object. It certainly would have been easier for the writers not to consider what the culture of a weapon-person would look like, and its inclusion is deliberate. There are no flippant or defensive dialogue choices here; you are allowed to make mistakes, but you must make it right afterward. In this way, these scenes are establishing the moral rules of the universe. The authors are not interested in entertaining the notion that the player could disregard Valeria’s boundaries.
Next we get to see Valeria navigate dating safety. Your first three dates are planned for public spaces; first a park, then a museum. Valeria is direct about her reasoning. She needs to gauge your intentions to feel safe. You’re also introduced to Jake, one of Valeria’s ex-partners who she has asked to stay close and check in on her during your first meeting. Despite the strained nature of their relationship, Valeria knows that she is vulnerable as a woman with no connections in Verona Beach.
However, when Jake continues to tail you on subsequent dates, Valeria becomes angry with him. She’s okay with accepting help, as long as she asked for it. Jake later confirms this, noting that Valeria hates when people are protective or possessive over her. There’s a difference between adjusting a boundary, and removing it entirely. Jake’s behavior, though well-intentioned, diminishes Valeria’s agency, which she will not tolerate. They later come to an understanding about this and re-establish their friendship largely out of view of the player character. After all, your input is really not needed. This is about Valeria’s needs.
As a “Rose of Venus”, Valeria is an internationally famous graffiti artist and fugitive. After decorating the wall of Verona Mall, she texts you a photo of “this cool mural she found”, and offers to check it out with you sometime if you seem cool with street art. At one point she even asks you, totally hypothetically, what your feelings are about the Roses of Venus. Only after she deems you trustworthy does she allow you to tag along on her tagging, and might even let you help, you scoundrel, you.
Valeria’s hesitation has a legality component, but overall this is a solid allegory for the slow, painstaking process by which many of us share our authentic selves. Replace it with spiritual beliefs, family, hobbies, whatever, it’s all the same thing. A healthy relationship involves constantly evaluating whether a person makes you happy, and whether you feel safe being you around them.
In the end, Valeria’s story is about maintaining her own control. She establishes boundaries, and expects them to be observed, but they are in service of her. Valeria will not tolerate others making decisions for her, and is quick to correct folks who interpret closeness as a blank check to behave as they please. She is practicing a sort of relationship anarchy, 5 which is wholly at odds with the game’s antagonist.
In a game whose plot revolves around the intent of an abuser to take control away from the player, every protagonist explores questions of agency and consent in some way by.
I hope I’ve convinced you at this point that the game is being deliberate and instructive by placing positive role models in front of you, and is actively asking you to both observe and assert boundaries. Because now we have to talk about Eric, and he’s a piece of shit.
Eric is one of your first dates on Verona Beach, and the reason this game ships with a content warning. At first blush, he seems pretty normal. Charming, if a little arrogant. Once his foot is in the door, however, his behavior and communication style rapidly becomes more possessive and controlling, with the aim of molding you into a submissive partner. The game’s final act is a coordinated effort by you and your loved ones to thwart his stalking, unwanted advances, and oh yeah maybe a psychotic murder automaton he set loose. In any case…
But what if you didn’t have to draw on past experience to identify abusive relationship dynamics? Boyfriend Dungeon has tremendous potential for this; it can be used as a sort of primer for spotting unacceptable dating behavior.
Shortly after your first date, you’ll return to your apartment to find a rose on your doorstep. 6 Moments after taking it into your space, you receive a text.
While innocuous on its surface, this exchange belies Eric’s need to control the player character.
In a healthy relationship, gifts are expressions of affection meant to bring the recipient joy. In an unhealthy one, they are transactional. For Eric, it is not enough to have left you a gift (which, by the way, you did not express a desire for). You must acknowledge that the gift was received and express gratitude for it promptly, because that was the point of it.
Notably, he can’t even directly communicate something like “hey I sent you a flower today”. If you count his earlier foreshadowing, and the signed note that he left on the gift, he has communicated three separate times that this thing is from him before you can even respond. And yet, his text leaves his purpose plausibly deniable. What, who, me? Eric wants the player to initiate the praise, but can’t risk that you won’t give it by giving you space to process.
If you ask Eric not to send you things, this is his response:
And I’m really impressed by the efficiency of this game’s dialogue, because in just a few lines, Eric has:
In a healthy relationship, kindness should be for you. If someone says or does something kind in the pursuit of praise or reciprocation, they haven’t actually done you a favor. They’ve just put a promise in your mouth. You should never owe anyone anything for affection. If you feel weird about a gift or compliment, ask yourself, is this for me, or is it really for them?
Fast forward to the game’s midpoint, and Eric leaves another gift on your doorstep for your birthday. He even acknowledges your gift-giving boundary if you asked him not to do this earlier in the game. There’s a lot going on in this scene, too.
Eric’s gift is a set of metal ingots. Remember how well his business is supposedly doing? He’s a blacksmith. Again, this gift is about him. His attempt to feign ignorance is similarly half-hearted; he wants you to know that he has done this, and that he’s not sorry for ignoring your boundaries. In fact, you’re welcome, Elizabeth. 💢
Abusers gain control by eroding personal boundaries, and building dependency in its place. Eric is in this scene slowly moving the goalpost on your gift-receiving boundaries. If the player were to accept this interaction, it would be understood that they still don’t like gifts, but its okay when Eric does it because he’s just that nice. In this way, even an assertive person can be worn down over time by incremental violations of one’s agency, each setting the groundwork for the next.
A little later you have the option to explicitly beg Eric to stop sending you obsessive texts:
You deserve to be treated like a queen, [Player].
> please stop.
hehe sorry if I'm awkward or say too much. You're just so pretty :D
Small violations in boundaries like this can reduce someone’s sense of self-ownership over time by normalizing infractions and shifting blame to the victim for experiencing discomfort in the first place. In a healthy relationship the observance of a boundary brings joy to both parties by building trust and understanding. In an unhealthy one, any boundary is a only challenge to eventually be overcome.
In addition to knowing exactly where you live, and when your birthday is, Eric knows an alarming amount about your daily movements and who you’ve been spending time with.
In an early example at a cat cafe 7, you might spot somebody peering through the window. When your date, who is already uncomfortable, decides it isn’t a good fit, you receive yet another conveniently timed text from Eric consoling you for your rough luck on the date he shouldn’t have known about. Personally, my instinct was to play dumb with him at this point.
You’ll begin to run into Eric more and more around town, and he always seems to know things you didn’t tell him. At one point, he invites himself to your cousin’s barbecue, cutting into a conversation with a few of the attendees (and your actual date, if you invited one). On another occasion, he just happens to be at a bar you frequent, and lets slip his disgust at just how many dates you’ve been on with people who aren’t him.
If for some reason you do decide to visit him at his shop, he’ll take a passive-aggressive swipe at you:
Oh, [Player], find time in your busy love life to stop by?
And this list just goes on. Wherever you run into him, that initial politeness and social grace from your first date have largely deteriorated, and his attempts to convince you to abandon your entire social circle in favor of him become more aggressive.
In these scenes, Eric is using a combination of surveillance and isolation in an attempt to keep the player character vulnerable.
It’s common for abusers to “keep tabs” on victims, and increasingly, this surveillance is being done electronically via IoT devices. Every day conveniences such as phones, GPS systems, smart home assistants, and security devices like doorbell cams collect an immense amount of data on a person’s comings and goings. The risk of this data being misused by partners is even higher for folks who share a household, especially when only one partner fully understands how they work.
In a 2018 case in the UK, Ross Cairns was convicted of stalking his ex-wife Catherine after remotely accessing an iPad microphone meant to control her home’s security, heating, and lighting. Catherine noticed him referencing conversations he wasn’t present for, which led her to investigate how her home might have been compromised. Notably, even after finding the source and changing some of her passwords, she found it more difficult than expected to keep him out. The app manufacturer did not identify Ross’s continued remote access as a breach, and from their vantage point considered this “using the system as normal”.
Stalkers have more tools at their disposal today than at any point in human history, and many of them are willingly purchased by victims. UCL estimates that over 125 billion smart home devices will be sold by 2030, and domestic abuse shelters are noticing a sharp increase in the use of technology and covertly installed stalkerware to monitor, harass, and gaslight survivors.
Right, well, regardless of how Eric is coming across this information in Boyfriend Dungeon, his intent to isolate the player character is clear. He expresses disapproval of everyone you form a connection with; not just the weapon-people he is openly bigoted against, but the player character’s family, too.
It's crazy Jesse has a cousin like you. He's a loser. Or was, in high school. No offense.
> You're the loser. No offense.
I'm just being honest. ttyl hottie
> Don't call me that, plz
Abusers need to cut targets off from others in order to control the narrative in future abuse, and build a dependency on themselves. Having only one source of information allows them to more easily create doubt in the victim’s mind about whether their perceptions can be trusted. No wonder Eric would prefer being the only person the player character had ever dated!
New members of a given community (such as the player character) are therefore especially vulnerable, as they lack connections early on to help them spot and affirm potential danger signs. This is why predators can so often be found circling, say, kink or poly communities; they’re looking for folks who don’t know what to expect just yet. Incidentally, this is also a strategy commonly employed by cult leaders.
Fortunately, by this point in the game you’ve already assembled a support network of people who genuinely care about your well being. You can talk to them about your discomfort, and they’ll believe you, sometimes chiming in with validating anecdotes of their own. Without their care and wisdom, this game might have ended very differently, and real-life abusers know that, too.
Ultimately Eric’s motivation in Boyfriend Dungeon is to mold you into the ideal partner with or without your consent. His earlier gift of metal ingots is even symbolic of this, as the player later learns that he has been stealing pieces of different weapon-people (many of whom have also rejected him) in order to forge them into someone more obedient. As a suitor, he views you as an object that he can shape into something that suits him.
It’s a little on the nose, but I do know people that think like this.
But honestly, I found his inclusion in this game delightful, rather than triggering or stressful, because it provided me with a metric by which to measure my own growth. By sidestepping uncomfortable encounters, asserting my in-game boundaries, and having my observations affirmed by other characters in the world, I feel more confident in my own ability to prune unhealthy relationships from my life, and to advocate for my own needs. That’s very tangible, real world value created.
I could end the article there, probably, but there’s one other element of Boyfriend Dungeon that helps empower its players; one that I rarely see expressed in the romance genre of games. And it’s that…
The ability to pivot from one character arc to another is a substantial departure from established dating sim format, and is a fantastic example of using specific mechanics to emphasize and echo your game’s theme. To really understand what makes Boyfriend Dungeon special, we’ll need to talk about how the average dating sim works for a second. For regulars in this space, bear with me, I promise to keep this brief.
Most titles in the genre operate on the concept of a “route”, behind the scenes. Early in a game, you might be introduced to the possible suitors and given a brief interaction with each. The dialogue choice you select during these sequences adds to an invisible counter, and based on those conditions your beau is selected for you automatically. After this point, your “route” is locked in, and you will just so happen to bump into this character, usually to the exclusion of all others, throughout the game. The game ostensibly becomes about your relationship to the assigned character, with explorations of other routes requiring new playthroughs.
This structure has an effect on the depiction of consent in a game, by restricting the player’s ability to say no. Progressing the relationship with your route’s character (and thereby experiencing their pre-determined story) becomes your de facto win state. Since allowing deviations from that path would exponentially increase the complexity of a route, declining any advance usually triggers a loss state, ranging from “you are sad and lonely forever” to, in extreme cases, the death of your character.
That means if you learn that your partner is not who you thought they were, or otherwise decide you are incompatible, you can’t end the relationship without suffering an immediate and tragic end. Worse, you often can’t meet or consult with any other humans in the world like you can in real life. Your assigned partner effectively becomes your world, a magnet you are uncontrollably drawn to; if you please them you win, and if you prioritize your own needs, you lose.
There is no route, really; everyone is available all of the time. Outside of a few specific events, you are free to pursue each relationship on your own terms and at your own pace, with as many or as few of the weapons as you like. Defining one relationship as strictly platonic in dialogue or declining a sexual scene does not erase them from the story, affect your ability to spend time with others, or kill you. At most, it replaces a few lines of dialogue related specifically to the expression of their romantic love or sexuality.
By decoupling the game’s win state from the act of submitting to the desires of a partner, Boyfriend Dungeon provides the player with more agency. Since the “good outcome” is whatever makes you comfortable, it frees you to examine your own preferences, needs and boundaries.
It is my contention that this deconstruction of the “route” trope uniquely empowers Boyfriend Dungeon to serve as an apparatus for the self-expression of survivors of domestic violence. If more dating sims and visual novels were to adopt this approach, the genre as a whole could serve as a remarkable healing tool, potential which is largely untapped in the industry today.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
At the conclusion of fencing instructor Isaac’s arc, he invites you into his home for a potentially intimate evening. You have the choice to have sex with him, keep things platonic, or request to just cuddle for now. In most dating sims, there would be an obvious right answer, and you either choose it, or you get a bad ending. But since this game had established that there was no fail state for establishing boundaries, I was more free to roleplay and choose the option that I felt I would make in that same scenario.
I reasoned that, since Isaac had just had a falling out with his family in a previous scene, that I would be concerned he was in a vulnerable state of mind. He’d also expressed a predisposition to abstaining from premarital sex on religious grounds. So I chose to just spend time with him, no sex, and that was okay. I checked later, and sure enough, the game doesn’t pass judgement on you if you chose differently. It’s really interesting to see other folks playing and discussing the game, and having different reasoning for their choices.
Later, I noticed my own personal discomfort when the scene progressed with him changing into a bathrobe; it was appropriate for the scene the game was setting up, but it let me realize something about my own boundaries. Since I’ve experienced boundaries being blurred and crossed in similar situations, I would have requested he not do that. And had this been a game primarily concerned with choosing optimal dialogue to maximize someone’s Affection stat, I would have missed out on this opportunity to reflect on my own priorities.
While I left things open with Isaac, I shut them down with others. Sunder is a vampire fuckboy who texts like my dad, and I was quick to clarify with him that I just wanted to dance and have fun. I read his emotional unavailability and jealous tic as a red flag, and so I declined to take him home. We’d still dive the dunj occasionally as friends, and man is that awkward when it’s a romance themed one, but he respected my decision with minimal whining and without the game closing off any substantial content. I felt weirdly proud of myself for identifying behaviors I wouldn’t tolerate, and still getting a (virtual) friend out of it.
One last scene that really stuck with me; early on you’re given a few options on how you’d like to calm your pre-date anxiety. Again, there’s no wrong answer. You can distract yourself on your phone, or take a walk. I opted to scout the cafe at which the meeting would occur, and was delighted when the player character began counting the exits and planning where to sit. This is exactly the kind of the thing I would do, and I felt both affirmed by the game’s universe and also free to express distrust in the environment without impacting my “score”.
These examples simply would not be possible if the player needed to weigh their own personal comfort over the ability to progress in the game. By eliminating the genre’s primary win state, they are given space to be introspective and question why they are making certain choices (as opposed to, “I’m following the perfect ending guide, duh!”). The player is freed to learn about themselves.
But imagine you’re twenty, and you’ve never seen this before. Or worse, you’ve only ever seen this kind of relationship, and it’s your normal. It can be immensely empowering to experience situations like this from a safe distance, surrounded by people who are physically programmed not to let this shit slide. It creates an expectation in the player that they may not have previously had space to consider. I would argue that Boyfriend Dungeon is inherently educational and practically useful in a way that few games are.
And yet, for a survivor of domestic violence, these very things can be incredibly difficult to reach for. When your trust has already been violated, choosing to open up again is hard.
In real life, a failed experiment can be dangerous, but games allow you to dip your toes into unfamiliar situations both from a distance and at your own pace. One scene could take five minutes today, and another five tomorrow. The characters are infinitely patient. They’re not going anywhere, and if you slip up, there are no real life consequences.
I probably wouldn’t recommend the average dating sim for the purpose of relationship practice, because of the way they inadvertently disincentivize player-motivated displays of agency and consent. But Boyfriend Dungeon proves it’s possible to model something greater by tweaking the formula a little.
Every once in a while, a game comes along that is just precisely what you need at that moment in your life. That’s the space that Boyfriend Dungeon occupies for me in 2021. I’m in the process of rehoming to my own Verona Beach, and to be honest I’ve been really anxious about it. But playing this game has helped me feel more in-control. It re-affirms my confidence in my ability to spot toxic relationships, and to prioritize my own mental health. Also the OST is beautiful. Listen to this and just try to be stressed. You can’t do it.
I’d also just like to take a second to appreciate the thoughtful depiction of a world in which polyamory, gender transition and queer platonic relationships are all normalized.
More than anything, this game gives me hope. That somewhere out there is a world full of people who understand consent, respect boundaries, who are interesting and interested. When I play this game, I feel like I can do this, and that real, healthy love is attainable within my lifetime. I feel safer, and maybe even motivated to conquer my own dunj.
I think more people should be able to experience that sense of peace. 8
If you’re wondering whether what you’re experiencing is domestic abuse, there are always people who can help safely and anonymously.
The most popular one is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, based in Texas and recommended by the US Department of Justice for this purpose. Most states have their own, too!
And if you’re worried about your browsing history being monitored, then you can call the hotline directly at 1.800.799.7233 instead.
Stay safe, fam!
My digital polycule-slash-resume currently contains such nonsense as a pigeon, a computer, a sad dad, a transgender eldritch being, and three completely distinct casts of cats. Yes, I own three games where you can date a cat. No, I don’t know why. ↩
There were two timelines before me: one where I do not play this game and continue being a boring person, and another that has a meet-cute with a lightsaber. Obviously I’m going to pick that second one. ↩
(Where do I keep finding these?) ↩
Spoiler: they emphatically do not. ↩
Valeria is explicitly polyamorous in the game’s text, but because everything is a weapon pun in this game they call it “dual wielding”. ↩
An attentive player might notice at this point that Eric really shouldn’t know where you live. ↩
Something I love about this early date is that it never works out, no matter what options you choose. Because in real life, it’s okay not to be compatible with someone. It doesn’t have to be a reflection of your character. ↩
To the folks at Kitfox, if this somehow makes its way to you: thanks for making this game. It’s really important to me, and I wish I had something like it when I was younger. ↩