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Dream Daddy, the game of the summer, was an ode to evolving queer narratives

Was Dream Daddy a game for queer men, gamers, or fangirls? Yes.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Aesthetically, these seven hunky dreamboats couldn’t be more different. They range from a burly bear to a muscled jock to a fey Goth. But one thing they all have in common: They’re great dads — and over the summer, they became great boyfriends.

Dream Daddy, the hit dating game that took over gaming and fandom communities across the internet, was an odd choice to become the game of summer 2017. The game, which casts you as a fun-loving dad looking for love among the hot dads in your new town, has drawn praise as well as considerable criticism for its unprecedented take on queer masculinity, its arguably fantastical depictions of gay romance, and its marketing to a primarily female fan base.

Meet the gang.

Created by a popular group of Let’s Players (the colloquial name for YouTube’s game-vlogging community, usually abbreviated as LP), Dream Daddy is a choose-your-own-adventure dating game, with each dad embodying a hunky trope that takes you down a different narrative journey to romance. After its delayed July 20 release on the game-distribution platform Steam, it shot to the top of the charts to become the best-selling game on the site, immediately finding its rapt audience.

But who is its audience? The game has an obviously broad appeal, but it’s specifically targeted to a mix of gamers and female-dominated Tumblr fandom, which has a long tradition of embracing fantasy queer male relationships. This mix has made the game both a frustration and a relief for queer fans — some of whom argue that Dream Daddy is unrealistic and fantastical, even while praising the game for its variety of representation.

On one hand, the friendly, sweet, awesome dads of Dream Daddy are fulfilling tropes and narratives invented by fans who want to explore less traditional depictions of masculinity. On the other, the game has drawn criticisms of being fetishistic, designed less for actual gay men than for women and straight people wanting to treat gay men as play dolls. Meanwhile, its creators have said they don’t intend to be seen as “a queer game,” but rather as a game for everyone.

So which is it? Is Dream Daddy a refreshing bit of representation? Or is it a highly romanticized, fetishistic treatment of real gay identity? The answer seems to lie somewhere in between, and is wholly dependent on who’s playing.

Dream Daddy is a kind of visual novel — a popular choose-your-own-adventure gaming genre from Japan

It doesn’t get more utopian than your friendly local vampire putting the moves on you while the queer youth minister looks on approvingly.

The purpose of Dream Daddy is to meet, make friends with, and date a variety of hunky dads who live in the town to which your character, a fun-loving dad himself, has just moved with his teenage daughter. As you progress through the game, you meet each of the new men in your life. For instance, there’s secret romantic Robert, friendly goth Damien, and Joseph, a preppy youth minister who’s married with kids.

You’re given the option to date each of the dads — and each date becomes your game to win or lose. You can win your new friend’s heart, though how happy your ending ultimately is can differ depending on the character and the success of your dates. Along the way, you uncover each Daddy’s secrets and explore various themes related to romance, finding happiness, and just being yourself.

Dream Daddy is an English-language version of a Japanese gaming trope known as the visual novel — a kind of choose-your-own-adventure game centered on dating and choosing various characters in the game as romantic partners. Visual novels are often interchangeably referred to as “dating sims,” which are a very similar form of Japanese game that emphasizes your dating skills and allows you to rack up points and social clout as you move through the dating adventure. The most successful English-language version to date is a 2011 game called Hatoful Boyfriend, a dating sim that almost certainly became popular because of its unusual premise: You play a normal girl attending a school full of… pigeons. (“Hatoful Boyfriend” translates to “Pigeon Boyfriend.”) The game drew attention when it received an official English-language version in 2014.

Still, not even the viral pigeon dating game has come close to the cultural spread and buzz Dream Daddy received upon its release. That’s largely thanks to two factors — the people who made the game, and the people the game was primarily marketed to: fangirls.

Dream Daddy broadly appeals to gamers and female fans

We all know Robert is everyone’s favorite Daddy.

The creators of Dream Daddy were already popular gamers with a fandom of their own — the LP group Game Grumps. Game Grumps is both the name of the collective of YouTubers who play games and the name of the popular YouTube web series they produce. With nearly 4 million channel followers, Game Grumps was begun in 2012 by Arin Hanson and Jon Jafari and quickly gained popularity thanks to the personable nature of their LP videos. In 2016, game developer Vernon Shaw joined Game Grumps as a content developer and writer. Shaw, along with artist Leighton Gray, would go on to create Dream Daddy, produced by the Game Grumps in what would become their debut release as a game studio.

LP video culture shares a strong overlap with Tumblr fandom culture, in part because both are about collectively celebrating the things people love. Amanda Brennan, the senior content insights manager at Tumblr, told Vox the key to LP videos’ popularity is that they let the viewer “just hang out over video games” with their favorite hosts. Because the Game Grumps were already popular within the worlds of YouTube and Tumblr fandom, Dream Daddy had no trouble reaching its key target demographics: gamers and fangirls.

“It’s made for fandom and it’s made for fannish people,” Brennan told Vox.

Dream Daddy’s story fits a fandom-friendly narrative in a bunch of ways, beginning with the function of the protagonist’s daughter, Amanda. As players move through the game, they have to maintain their relationship with Amanda, a high school senior who’s experiencing typical teenage ups and downs as she prepares to go off to college.

The game allows players — many of whom are women Amanda’s age or older — to identify with her as she watches her dad fumble his way through awkward dating attempts and maintains a loving relationship with him. That may seem like an odd fantasy, but it’s actually quite common among fangirls, who’ve evolved a whole strain of fan narrative around imagining that their favorite characters or celebrities are their own fathers. The game also lets players, as the dad, relate to Amanda, who’s presented as a fangirl with an interest in boy bands and geek culture.

“It’s a game that really speaks to the type of person I am,” Brennan told Vox.

The game also presents queer relationships in a way that is uniquely fannish — specifically very close to queer shipping and slash fanfiction, queer male romance written primarily by women for other women. The characters, as in many slash fics, exist in a distorted version of reality where everyone is gay and homophobia doesn’t seem to exist.

As with slash fiction, the primary purpose of Dream Daddy’s narrative is romance, and characterizations and relationship dynamics are a crucial element of the plot — far more than realistic depictions of queer sexual encounters and identities, the process of coming out, or the queer dating scene. In fact, Dream Daddy is part of what seems to be a growing trend of works marketed to fandom that present fantastical or optimistic depictions of male/male queerness for a primarily female audience (think Yuri on Ice and Check, Please!).

In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Gray, who is a queer woman, paradoxically stated, “When we started, I don't think we really intended this to be a queer game,” and then added, “The genesis of the idea for me was just about dads dating other dads.” It might be difficult to grasp why a game “just about dads dating other dads” wouldn’t automatically have been read by its creator as “a queer game,” but it makes sense when viewed as a fannish text; as a game that’s not intended to be about queer identity, but instead intended to be the kind of fun, sweet queer fantasy romance that women in slash fandom have been creating for decades. Brennan even pointed out that one of the game’s plots is essentially one of slash fandom’s most popular tropes, the Coffee Shop AU.

But while this approach has made the game extremely popular in fandom and more mainstream spaces, it’s confused and alienated a number of potential players — including some gay men.

Dream Daddy’s approach to queer identity has proven controversial

On the one hand, the game’s tendency to idealize male/male relationships and gay communities makes it a fun fantasy for all to enjoy — and the game clearly has found an audience among gay men as well as other fans.

On the other hand, depending whom you ask, the game is a mess. It’s made specifically for straight women to fetishize gay men. No, it’s a game full of straight men. No, it’s surprisingly devoid of pandering to straight people. It’s a game that gay men are ignoring. No, it’s a game that gay men are getting up in arms about at the expense of appreciating a meaningful queer narrative.

Part of the confusion about who is meant to enjoy Dream Daddy and who is actually enjoying Dream Daddy centers on the marketing. One gamer, Twitter user Pregegg, told Vox he “was worried at first, specifically because the marketing felt like it was aimed at the fangirl/slash fandom.” Ross McCarthy, known online as Mothmanfrog, told Vox he’d initially thought Dream Daddy “was going to be some sort of joke, as it was from the Game Grumps.” Mic’s Tim Mulkerin wrote, “when I heard the name Dream Daddy, I thought that’s what it was about: Daddies. The gay kind.” Each of these reactions reflect each of the groups meant to enjoy the game — fangirls, gamers, and queer men, respectively — but lend themselves to very different, inaccurate pictures of what the game is about.

The game’s much-discussed lack of realism when it comes to queer identity seems to further frustrate its players. Mulkerin pointed out that the game never uses the words “gay,” “bi,” or “trans,” despite having character examples of each. “Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people,” he wrote. “It doesn’t capture the experience of what it feels like to be a gay man and fails to engage with or invoke gay culture in a meaningful way.”

This lack of realism is both a bug and a feature; depending on whom you talk to, it’s either the quality that makes the game so refreshing and fun or the quality that makes it so frustrating. McCarthy, who plays a lot of dating sims, felt that compared with other dating sims, Dream Daddy lacks complexity and an even tone, especially when it comes to the issue of whether the characters and their relationships are handled seriously. “I think the presence of realism in some parts and lack of it in others hinders the game a bit,” he said. “I wish there would have been more depth and writing in some places.”

But Pregegg disagreed with the idea that the game’s escapism is inherently a flaw. “I personally think that the final game is a great example of gay romances,” he said. “It feels like any other romance game; it makes being gay feel regular. Sure, a little escapist, but we all need that.”

For Pregegg, Mulkerin’s sticking point about the word “gay” never being used in the game meant that Dream Daddy doesn’t “focus on a weird or fetish-y way on its gayness.”

“Being gay is never even really mentioned in the game, it’s just accepted, which has honestly been so refreshing and nice,” Pregegg said. I can just enjoy the game — it’s not weird to be a gay dad, my in-game daughter doesn't stress about me being a gay dad, no neighbors think it’s strange, I don’t have anything to fear except making a fool of myself on a fictional date by picking the wrong trivia answers.”

He added that he especially appreciated the game’s approach to fatherhood. “Gay men tend to have difficult relationships and views on fatherhood,” he said. “I have always wanted to be a father one day, so the game gives me a nice place to express that and feel accepted in that. It’s also nice seeing dads who are good, seeing gay dads who do a good job being fathers, seeing representations of what fathers should do.”

Both Pregegg and McCarthy praised the game’s representation, especially its transgender representation. “I’m gay and transgender,” Pregegg said. “It’s taken a long time for me to come to terms with my identity as a gay man … so seeing a game that not only embraced being gay so openly but also gave you the option to be trans without question, and featured a trans dad, was a huge deal.”

In general, even the harshest critics of the game still seem to give it an E for loving effort. Even Mulkerin bends the knee at last: “In many ways, Dream Daddy associates itself with gayness in order to garner a rubbernecking interest from straight people — “Men? Romancing each other? Using dad jokes? That’s hilarious!” — but if that’s what it takes to get well-written queer characters into the mainstream, that might ultimately be OK.”

If anything, instead of catering to the knee-jerk assumption that stories like Dream Daddy’s escapist romance are inherently fetishistic, the game’s broad success seems to indicate that there’s room for multiple kinds of stories to exist under the queer narrative umbrella. When written lovingly, romances like Dream Daddy allow self-exploration and safe expressions of queer identity.

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