When I first heard about Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator on Twitter a few months ago, I must confess I thought it might have just been a meme designed to harvest irony likes. After discovering that not only was the game real, it was being developed and published by famed internet snark machine Game Grumps, I became certain that this was an off-putting joke destined to blow up in their faces. Friends, I can admit when I was wrong, and I’ve rarely been more wrong than I was in this case. In Dream Daddy, writers Vernon Shaw and Leighton Gray have used the medium of video games to craft an honest, heartfelt depiction of a modern gay romance.
In the West, dating sims and romantic visual novels have long been considered the video game equivalent of that one weird cousin your family refuse to talk about. A haven for misanthropes who struggle to make emotional connections in the real world, the dating sim removes the perceived social threat of an evening out with a possible partner by putting you a) behind a keyboard where you’re comfortable and b) within a few clicks of reloading a save if you mess up. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, the content of these dating sims frequently skew toward the creepy and distasteful, an accruing of points that can be traded in for still pictures of anime boobs and lewd voice over. They tend to distort the act of going on an actual date to the point that the one they present and the real world equivalent no longer resemble one another.
Thankfully, Dream Daddy prefers to keep things real. You play a widowed single father who has just moved to a nice new part of town with your eighteen-year-old daughter Amanda (played by Geek & Sundry’s Erika Iishi). Amanda is in her final year of high school and is waiting to find out if she got into university. Your relationship with her is a solid one — she’s a great kid with a good head on her shoulders, but she’s still prone to classic bouts of Being A Teenager. Your daddy, now (it is implied) in his late thirties/early forties, finds himself at a cross-roads. He’s single, about to be an empty-nester and without any real plan as to what life will be like without Amanda — the first time he’s had to confront this since his partner died many years ago. The neighbourhood that you have just moved into is a quiet little cul-de-sac in which, you discover, reside a collection of handsome, eligible, fellow fathers that fill out the Something For Everyone character roster found in many other dating sims — married men, ne’er-do-wells, bears, weirdos and genuine nice boys all. There is even a trans daddy in the mix (and I won’t tell you who they are because it’s both a surprise and information you have to work for).
Information mining is the key to success in most dating sims, but here it’s more about doing and saying what feels truest in the moment — just like a real date. Indeed, when you do start to get to know each daddy, the information that you receive only serves to flesh them out as characters, drawing you a clearer picture of who they are rather than being a kind of discrete currency that can filed away and cashed in for sex down the line. Are you starting to understand why I keep distancing this game from its genre stablemates yet? Dream Daddy is almost too pure to be counted among their number.
Each playthrough and, by extension, each date feels very natural thanks to some top-tier writing by Shaw and Gray. The script is light on its feet, genuinely funny and never feels forced or overly-tropey. It does this so that in the moments when Dream Daddy does ratchet the drama, there is a very real emotional impact. By the end of my first playthrough I was ride-or-die for Amanda, my extremely good kid, ready to throw myself on any grenade that might cross her path. This kind of attachment is borne out of great character work, and Dream Daddy spends much of its time helping you get to know these characters as deeply or superficially as you want.
The art style for each character is particularly high quality, but never needs to veer beyond a range of expressions and simple gestures to get its point across visually. Backgrounds and environmental art are similarly high quality.
I can’t say enough good things about this game. It’s a milestone achievement in queer storytelling, a heart-on-its-sleeve examination of life as a single parent, and a courageous leap for Game Grumps as a first-time publisher. Dream Daddy is the real deal. A more delightful surprise I haven’t had all year.
Score: 9.0 out 10
Highlights: Great writing; Great characters; Great artwork
Lowlights: The music is pretty terrible, in accordance with dating sim tradition (I’m reaching for nitpicks here)
Developer: Game Grumps
Publisher: Game Grumps
Platforms: Windows PC, Mac OS X