The Virtual Life – Trying To Get By In Dream Daddy
I loaded up Dream Daddy, a visual novel simulator, with a fair amount of skepticism. Everyone I know who played it loved it, and yet there was still some hesitance because the game, from the outskirts, seemed like a parody of visual novels that might inadvertently make its characters vehicles for bad or even cruel jokes. However, within a matter of hours I found myself thinking Dream Daddy would probably end up being one of my favorite games of 2017 because it has something that so many games lack: naked emotional honesty.
Most games are power fantasies. This does not mean, as many believe, that most games are about making players feel powerful by giving them a gun and telling them to kill bad guys. There are all kinds of power fantasies in video games, like leading armies to victory in Total War with a brilliant strategy or running across the football field to get a game-winning touchdown in Madden, or skillfully avoiding enemy fire with slick moves in Mirror's Edge. Few of them go out of their way to put players in a position where they are inhabiting characters who are awkward, clumsy, and trying to spin countless plates just to get through the day-in, day-out of existence.
Dream Daddy is different. Yes, there's a level of horniness to it. You're a dad trying to date other dads but it's not smut for the sake of smut, which is what many of the flash game dating simulators from the early aughts were all about. Instead, Dream Daddy takes time to create a cast of characters, all of whom have their own insecurities, quirks, and attractive qualities. Craig, for example, is an old college roommate who spends most of his time at the gym when he's not caring for his baby daughter, River, and seems like a bit of a Bro but over time his qualities as a father and as a genuinely kind person emerge. Hugo, arrogant but also understanding, is a know-it-all teacher who wants the best for his students but can be a stick in the mud. So on, so forth. These characters end up actually being people, with all their faults and admirable qualities, and so much of the game is about presenting your own character's anxieties to his love interest and vice versa, and trying to treat each other as understanding, kind human beings.
That honesty doesn't apply just to the romantic aspect of Dream Daddy, either. A large part of the game is caring for your daughter, Amanda, and doing the best you can to help guide her through her last year of high school. So we have not just a dating simulator but a legitimate parenting simulator too. For example, one situation has Amanda staying out late with friends. She doesn't answer her cellphone despite your many attempts to reach her. She finally comes home in the early hours of the morning. This isn't acceptable. But how harsh are you in handling it? Are you accusatory? Do you express how scared you were for her? In later sequences, you're her confidant and advisor, listening to her as she opens up to you about problems she's having at school, anxieties about her dreams and future. There isn't any power here. In fact, it's the opposite: there's a sense of helplessness that emerges because the world is the world and it has a habit of breaking people. All you can do is sit there, give the best advice you can to your daughter, try to support her in every way you can, and hope things work out for the best.
I find, after hours of shooting my way across battlefields near and far and zooming to the stars to conquer the universe, this sort of helplessness to be a refreshing experience that's surprisingly tense. We are, after all, talking about a game with colorful visuals where the end goal is to fall in love (with another dad) while being a great parent. It's a mundane sort of thing, really, but even the most mundane events have underpinnings of sorrow, catastrophe, and myriad anxieties. Will we get the job we want? Will we fall in love with a person we're compatible with? Will we be good parents? Will we this, will we that? Games don't need guns, war, murder, competition to create emotionally resonant and compelling experiences. Sometimes works about how hard it is to be a person on a day-to-day basis can be more fascinating than any of our grand dramas. And, surprisingly, it's Dream Daddy that emerges as one of the most notable examples of that I've played in the last few years.
For more on Dream Daddy, be sure to check out Elise's review.