Highly-anticipated indie game Boyfriend Dungeon debuted a brief playable demo at the 2020 Game Developers of Color Expo, where it was also featured back in 2018. The delightful combination of dating sim and dungeon crawler is (hopefully) releasing next year, after several years in busy development. Following a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in 2018, Boyfriend Dungeon is attempting to bridge the divide between visual novel storytelling and action-RPG roguelike, presenting the quirky neighborhood of Verona Beach as a setting for romance, dungeon dives, and self-reinvention.
Every weapon in Boyfriend Dungeon comes packaged with its resident personification, forming a cast of nine characters that accompany players on their excursions into each modern-styled dungeon area. Screen Rant got to play a tantalizing demo, where players could select an avatar, get their footing in the narrative, and sample the quick-paced combat, crawling through a mall and smashing cellphone demons and static-blasting TV homunculi.
Even better: Boyfriend Dungeon‘s creative director, Tanya X. Short of Kitfox Games (Dwarf Fortress, The Shrouded Isle), took some time to chat with Screen Rant about her new, chocolate-and-peanut-butter gameplay combo. With a charming, strange, and inclusive narrative, this is a title that everyone should have on their radar, even those unfamiliar with or previously resistant to dating sims and visual novels.
I first played the game at the Game Developers of Color Expo in 2018 and loved it back then, and all I can say is that this preview was way too short!
I was really excited to get my hands on it again. I’ve been hyped for Boyfriend Dungeon for a while, even though I’m never sure that I’m the right person that the game is angling for. I’m not hugely into dating sims, but I am hugely into ARPGs, roguelikes, action-roguelikes, and all that kind of stuff. There’s something about the combo that is really magical. I’m not not into dating sims at all, but there is something about melding these genres that makes this game special.
What I can say is that I am a fan of what a lot of dating sims try to do, but I also have found a lot of them very dissatisfying for various reasons. And that was definitely part of the motivation in making Boyfriend Dungeon, was that I wanted a dating sim for me and my taste, even though I don’t have many that I think are my favorite games. So, my main gamble and fear at the beginning was that maybe I’m a weirdo, and maybe there aren’t many other people that would like this combination of elements. But I’m finding that it’s not that weird – that a lot of people seem to enjoy relationships and dungeons. And maybe that shouldn’t be surprising, given the popularity of BioWare games or whatever.
I don’t remember this from the original GDOC demo, so maybe it’s new to the game, but there is a lot more going on, like the cellphone choices and conversations. I wanted to know how much impact this actually has on the game. It felt meaningful, but are the replies in the cellphone portions of the game impactful to the story?
I think that the game would feel extremely different without those conversations. Certain things would feel less meaningful, for sure. I think that there is a debate that we could have, after you’ve played the full game, about how we do the choices in general in all of the dialogues. There are very few times where you’ll be punished for making a choice, or have content withheld from you, or something like that. It really is more of an opportunity to express yourself and how you feel about this moment that you’re having with the character. And sometimes they’ll react a little bit negatively to that, but it’s not like suddenly you’re in a fight.
Oh really? So it doesn’t push that hard against the seams?
Yeah. What I try to do is recognize what the player is trying to put out there, what they’re trying to communicate, and I anticipate what kinds of things they’ll want to communicate, given the different situations. But I also wanted the characters themselves to be strong enough personalities that that wasn’t going to drastically change who they are, what they’re doing, and where they’re going. It was a tight balance.
But like I said, I’d be curious to know how you felt after you’ve played the whole game. I think some people will say that it’s not mechanical or crunchy enough, the results of your choices, but other people will have very strong memories of certain choices they’ve made, and it’ll scar them anyway, even though they didn’t get punished. They’re still like, “Oh no, I’ve made them cry!”
Yeah. There is this sort of expectation of impactful choices in dating sims because that’s the game-y part. That’s where it all lives. And so, because your game has this other life in the dungeon crawling parts, maybe those kinds of choices aren’t necessary. You have that other sticky game element, so you don’t need to totally rely on those choices. I guess you’re doing it pretty convincingly, because the impact felt like it was there.
Okay, so the artifice is steady, but: Is this the first action game where you can play a genderfluid character?
You know, I’m shy about making that announcement, especially since we don’t know when we’re releasing, and anything can happen. There was a game where you could play a mech pilot, and you could say your pronouns were they/them. It was pretty big… BattleTech! There we go.
It’s pretty unusual, and we did get a sensitivity consultant, as well. We don’t have any nonbinary people on the team, although I have several nonbinary friends. So I didn’t feel, like, completely out of my comfort zone [when] writing. But it’s interesting. For Boyfriend Dungeon, there’s very little that changes based on your pronouns.
But, you know, we don’t ask you to pick your gender. We’re specific about that. It’s really just your pronouns.
Definitely, and I thought that was interesting. And the in-game avatar could be anybody – they’re not particularly gendered in any way, either.
I know you’ve talked a bit about the origins of Boyfriend Dungeon being this thing about attachment and relationship to a weapon in a game experience. Is there something symbolically meaningful that the team has been trying to express about being attached to people and letting people go? Visiting other people or “trying” other people? Is there something broader like that being attempted in this narrative?
What I’ll say is, when I first described the conceit to my very writerly friend (who contributed, actually – she wrote one of the characters that’s gonna be in the DLC, the Hammer), she said, “Tanya, that makes me a little bit uncomfortable because I feel like, in modern romance, we already see each other as tools, and I don’t want to participate in that.” I don’t remember exactly what she said, but she was really like, “So, more romance as practical problem solving? I don’t know about this. Am I supposed to be used? Am I supposed to use other people?”
There’s a couple of times – the Dagger calls you out on it immediately, which is partially inspired by that conversation, but it’s really dependent on the character. For a lot of the characters, they sort of don’t think about it. They just participate in the wielding. And I felt like a character-oriented approach made the most sense to me. That the meaning of it and the metaphor of it, of holding someone as you grow, and letting them go again, and all that – it’s different depending on who you’re dating, right? What it means to you varies depending on your relationship, and every relationship’s different for every person. Some characters resist some aspects of that, and others lean into it totally happily.
So it’s… I’ll say that I don’t like explicitly deciding, like, “this equals this,” but it is fun as a writer to explore how different personalities approach those kinds of problems.
Interesting. Because of the Boyfriend Dungeon characters’ personification as weaponry, or as tools, or as things to wield as a form of attack, it’s different between them all. They all have different relationships to their own identities as weapons.
Interesting. That makes me think about the game in a more complicated way, too.
I’m hoping that some people will dig into that a little bit. It’s never super explicit. I’m much more interested in spending time on the silly jokes and banter, and things like that. But, you know, Estoc – he’s the tutorial character – he positions himself as your fencing instructor, and so he comments on your form and invites you to do fencing lessons. And at one point, you can be like, “Can I wield you during the lesson, instructor?” And he’s like, “That’s totally inappropriate!”
Meanwhile, Glaive is this long polearm, one of the nonbinary weapons. And they’re not ready to even think about the whole dynamic there. They’re still hung up on the fact that they’re kind of awkward, and they’re making you feel uncomfortable, and they’re like… You can’t really slice bread with them. And they’re thinking about, like, “Oh no, am I participating in a capitalist gig economy by doing this?” They’re just in this whole other thing, right?
And, I don’t know. I do think that there’s depth there, but I like to leave that to the reader.
That’s so cool. I love that idea that, like, while you, the player, are actually already traversing this idea of identity, personality, and acclimating to a tool, they’re also struggling with those dynamics. That’s part of it. They’re reckoning with an identity, themselves.
Yeah. Unfortunately, the one weapon that was the most explicit about it, we recently announced that we cut him to DLC. The Axe. The Axe is a vegan who is genuinely concerned about like, “Who decides what’s a monster versus a creature, and why do I have to be used for violence?” And he’s going through this whole existential self-examination – although he’s not super-smart, so it’s funny!
Anyway. I can’t talk about him too much; Jonah. I’m gonna look forward to writing and perfecting him based on how people respond to the main character weapons.
Again, this makes me think that Boyfriend Dungeon is secretly a game about identity, as much as it is about a game about romance and smashing monsters and stuff.
Hmm. I think it can be read that way. I think some people will come at it that way, and I hope that it fulfills that for them.
You previously mentioned in an interview that visual novels frequently making you feel restless. Are there any that contradict that standard for you?
It’s always a blurry line, of what is a visual novel and what isn’t a visual novel. I’ll say that we’ve been very careful about using the term “dating sim” instead of “visual novel,” for that reason. I really have trouble with visual novels. I really do need some kind of system to really enjoy it. My first dating sim that I loved was Princess Maker 2. Back in 2002, I was playing the heck out of it. Even though it has so many problematic elements, I was just so into shaping this personality and seeing how it goes, encountering these different scenarios and things like that.
I really loved the modern – I would call it the successor – Long Live The Queen. Fantastic game! So good. I never finished it. It was really hard! I will say that, even though it might not be your favorite art style, I would absolutely give Magical Diary a try. Magical Diary is by the Long Live The Queen developer. Generally, Hanako Games does really cool work. I really liked Black Closet, also.
I was gonna say, they’re the same developer of Black Closet. Black Closet is all systems.
Yeah. That one’s super systems-[driven.] Magical Diary is much more of a traditional dating sim, but with magical university elements. Like, you’re sort of in a Harry Potter-esque school. If there’s some kind of system there and some kind of consequences for things, I enjoy it. I can’t just sit and read for 20 minutes. Unless it’s a book! I love books. I can read a book, but I actually have resisted e-readers for a long time. I don’t read books on my PC.
I like Hatoful Boyfriend too, obviously, since we collaborated with her on the design of one of the weapons. I really liked Hatoful. I thought it was fun. And I really liked Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball. Like, that’s a dating sim that is absolutely shameful in a lot of ways, but it’s also really fun to, like, buy gifts for the girls and play volleyball together.
I saw a Boyfriend Dungeon developer commentary where there were multiple characters shown on the screen, with different portraits presented. Is there some kind of a mix-up angle there? Will the weapons fight with each other for your affections? Because I was running the dungeon with Leah, the dagger, and the experience going through the dungeon is very private. It’s like, “It’s you and me, and we’re doing this. Now we’re at the fountain, and we’re spending time together.” And I was like, wait, I hadn’t really thought about the weapons interrelating or communicating. Are those functions in the game?
Not much. The characters, sometimes they’ll see each other. Sometimes if you pick up a weapon, the one you’re wielding right now will be like, “Hey, what’s up?” But they do explicitly, all of them, allow for dating other people. I decided that it was just too sketchy and too difficult to accommodate, like, someone wants to be monogamous, and then you have to cheat on them. It was just a giant mess. Everyone’s “polyarmorous,” and so that’s fine. But as far as knowing each other, some of the weapons do. Like, you’ll have them reference each other because they’re friends outside, but there isn’t, like, a deep exchange there.
Sometimes, they’ll come to your apartment. There’s a birthday party as a plot point. And, when you go to the final boss, you have to pick who’s gonna help you defeat this thing. And when you go to a Fourth of July barbecue, you have to choose your date.
But yeah, you don’t often see them talk amongst each other. And maybe that’s something we can look at for the DLC or something. People might enjoy that.
You mentioned DLC. That was announced not that long ago.
Yeah. Originally we were gonna have nine weapons in the main game. But for our sanity and for the game coming out reasonably, we decided that it would make more sense for the final two, the stretch goal characters, to be DLC.
Can you tell me anything about the music and the sound design for Boyfriend Dungeon?
I’m so excited for the music! I really feel like the soundtrack is incredible. There are three songs on YouTube that we’ve released so far: “Verona Beach Nights,” “Without a Weapon,” and “Spellbound.” That’s Marskye and the vocalist Madeline McQueen. Previously, he did the soundtrack for a game called GNOG. He’s just extremely talented. And McQueen is the perfect vocalist for the whole thing. Honestly, if I didn’t think that I’d have to be punished for it later, I would have released all of it by now because I feel like the world needs this soundtrack. It’s so, so wonderful.
There’s like 30 or 35 songs. There’s some dungeon music in there and some date music in there, but it’s very, very good.
For more from the Game Devs of Color Expo, check out Screen Rant‘s Onsen Master preview.
Boyfriend Dungeon has no set release date but is expected to arrive next year on PC.