Saturday, July 13, 2024

The aftermath and future of Boyfriend Dungeon with Tanya X Short

The future of Boyfriend Dungeon looks an exciting one, especially when you consider there are some more hot people on the way. Even so, Boyfriend Dungeon didn’t have a blissful beginning, and so we got the chance to speak with Tanya X Short, Kitfox Games creative lead to talk a little more about that.

Unless you’ve been blissfully unaware of the goings-on on social media, then you’ll probably have heard about the level of discourse that had plagued Kitfox Games’ dating-sim, Boyfriend Dungeon. It all started as most things do: in good faith. It then spiraled, with death threats to both the team and the voice actor of a certain character, with argument after argument about what Kitfox Games should have done differently, and so much more. Two weeks later and the original message about content warnings, and trauma, had been lost in the shuffle.

A month has come and gone, and it’s clear to anyone who has played the game that, despite the poor content warning, the developers clearly care about making sure you’re comfortable: you choose the flow of the relationships you’re in, you can opt-out of distressing text messages from your in-game mom, and the fact the game even has a content warning in the first place says a lot. There’s no ill intent, but that didn’t prevent some from feeling as though the game would be better with all triggering content removed. That… hasn’t happened.

In spite of the rampant level of discourse, Tanya X Short does believe that there has been some good to come out of it. “I think it’s great for creators to be sensitive, considerate, and collaborative with audiences, and I regret that an inadequate content warning might have hurt anyone.” She tells me over email. “It’s unfortunate that context collapse in social media means that any meaningful critique quickly spirals into hyperbole and threatening messages (almost entirely due to bad-faith passersby just acting on perceived vulnerability), but, I think overall we’re moving to have more complex discussions of interactive art as a culture. Two steps forward, one step back.”

Boyfriend Dungeon Eric
The stalking storyline put a few players off from getting the game

Video games as interactive art has been discussed so many times it doesn’t even feel like your beating a dead horse rather than flogging the ground it was lying on 20 years into the future. Yet, like most mediums that we see ourselves in, some have grown so protective over video games that it’s got to the point of entitlement. Ultimately, nobody is entitled to have everything they want just because they kick up a stink about it, but that hasn’t stopped people’s perceptions from being warped by that desire all the same: ‘we want the thing changed and we want it now.’ For the most part, this sort of thinking is what powers live-service video games: kick up enough fuss, and something needs to be done to keep players logging on and playing. It’s just good business.

But a live-service video game with millions of players like Destiny 2 for example is a far cry from Kitfox Games’ Boyfriend Dungeon. For one, Kitfox Games does not even come close to having the same numbers that are working behind the scenes, and second, the game they’ve created is queer in a way that speaks directly to queer gamers. Theres’ no hiding that fact, even if, according to Short, the game being explicitly for queer audiences was not what it was intended to be when the idea was first conceived.

The game has since changed to be the one we know and love, and now its queer creators have had to deal with the consequence of not just sending a video game out into the world, but a video game with a numerous queer audience that years and years of bullshit tropes and stereotypes have left them craving for something more. The word ‘more’ does a lot of heavy lifting, though. As much as we talk about the queer and LGBTQ+ community, everyone values different things because our experiences are all unique. While I would have personally hated if The Last of Us Part 2 had been a Bury Your Gays story, others would delight in it because Gay Vengeance is also a compelling narrative. The point is, what ‘more’ is cannot be defined by anyone but you.

With that background in mind, it was always going to be impossible for Boyfriend Dungeon to please everyone. It’s a statement that Short agrees with when I ask her about the reception to the game, and whether she feels that queer creators in particular are being held to an impossible standard. “I do feel that we’re held to a higher standard, and I do wish that standard was more evenly applied.” She tells me. I can’t help but agree. It personally rankles that Boyfriend Dungeon came under fire for tackling dark themes within a queer space, and yet other recent games like 12 Minutes – a game where misogyny and surprise incest goes hand in hand – is met with a resounding round of applause across the board. Of course, double standards are nothing new for queer creators.

Boyfriend Dungeon Tanya Short
Jonah the axe will reappear sometime in the future alongside a figure skating hammer

This isn’t to say that Boyfriend Dungeon is flawless or above criticism. One of the most upsetting parts of the game for me is how little it provides for fat players, making it impossible to create a fat avatar and once again making it obvious that even queer creators often only market skinny gays as attractive. At least the axe fella Jonah, a stocky guy who looks just as sweet as chocolate pudding, will make his way to the game sometime in the future. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. As for Short, she welcomes the criticism, stating that “it’s OK that what we make is never called perfect, because I wouldn’t call anything perfect either.” It’s just when criticism suddenly takes a wild swerve to telling developers to kill themselves, that’s when you probably ought to dial it back a bit.

In spite of all this controversy, the future of Boyfriend Dungeon and Kitfox Games looks optimistic. There are two new love interests coming sometime in the future: Jonah, a sweet and sincere Axe who looks like he’d be great at cuddles, and Leah, a figure-skating hammer who loves karaoke and dislikes the patriarchy. More importantly though, Short tells me there may even be a third dungeon on the way too. The more time I get to spend with these loveable weapons in the depths of abandoned places, the better!

Even outside of extra DLC, Short also tells me that they hope they can support modding for the game too. If you haven’t seen it already, there are a few creators who are replacing the sprites of some characters in Boyfriend Dungeon with their own original characters, or characters from other games. It’s nothing game-changing, but modding is such a valuable thing in games and Short wants to ensure players are able to create something that’s meaningful and appeals to them.

A lot of lessons were learned in the creation and aftermath of Boyfriend Dungeon, but for Tanya X Short there was one thing that was made clear: they’re going to keep on following their heart and making games that speak to them. If those games are as enthralling and intense as Boyfriend Dungeon, then the future does look bright.

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