Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator is a visual novel from an unlikely source: Game Grumps, the YouTube phenomenon that launched in 2012 and quickly grew into one of the most prolific Let’s Play channels on the net. Billed as a “dad dating simulator,” Dream Daddy is truthfully more of a conduit for delivering the maximum number of dad jokes in the minimum amount of time. To that end, it is entirely successful. It’s a cute, relentlessly wholesome story, with razor-sharp writing that accurately emulates how human beings speak in this age and culture. It is also the touching story of a widowed father and his snarky daughter, a raucous tag team whose relationship overflows with love, sincerity, and earnest humanity. Dream Daddy’s writers demonstrate intimate knowledge of everyday phenomena like the unavoidable awkwardness of initiating a hangout with a new acquaintance, the understandable frustration of teenagers whose parents don’t understand them, and whatever dark force compels dads to wield puns as deadly weapons. Sweet manchego, the puns in this game are on another level.
But Dream Daddy is a gay dating simulator for straight people. Does that make it bad? No. In aiming to capture a wider audience, however, it erases the notion of queerness from its DNA.
The matter of LGBTQ representation in media is a battlefield I frequently dance upon. Having access to diverse characters in my games increases the likelihood that I will find a reflection of myself in the stories I consume, and even if I don’t, I’m at least exposed to perspectives that differ from my own. The trouble with Dream Daddy — a game that puts a gay or bi (and/or trans, as that’s up to you) man in the leading role — is that it is wildly inauthentic in the way it represents LGBTQ people. Its angle seems to be that queerness should be 100% normalized, to the degree that nobody should ever have to worry about disclosing their sexuality or gender identity, no matter where on the spectrum they may fall.
Okay, that’s great. But that’s not the world we live in. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told some variant of “it doesn’t matter if you’re gay; I still care about you” or “I just see you as a normal guy.” Which are fantastic sentiments, borne of the best intentions, but dammit, I am gay. That’s a part of who I am — not the only part, but an essential part. There’s a whole host of factors at play that have shaped me into the person I am today, not the least of which include the navigation of my sexuality as an adolescent, my exposure to queer culture, my experience in coming out, and, crucially, the fear of rejection or even violence that permeated so many of my attempts to make romantic connections with other men in the formative years of my life. Dream Daddy erases all of that context. You can date dads, but nobody so much as utters the word “gay.”
It’s escapism, sure. It doesn’t have to reflect reality. But for me, the excision of queer context makes Dream Daddy feel hollow, even false. Compare the tone of Dream Daddy to the works of developer Robert Yang; Yang’s games are frequently erotic, yes, but unapologetically gay. Their themes are informed by gay history and culture. Dream Daddy, meanwhile, says “nope, not going there.” It rarely depicts its queer characters in anything resembling romantic or sexual situations. (Except for in Robert’s route, maybe. He’s a firecracker.) I’m not calling for Dream Daddy to present explicit erotic content, but it’s more than a little unusual that most “dates” in the game feel like two buds hanging out — until the end of each story route, where they’re suddenly kissing, for some reason. It’s too safe, and it doesn’t feel real to me.
By sanitizing the romantic aspects inherent to queer dating, Dream Daddy succeeds in being a feel-good story but not a feel-good story, if you catch my drift. It is, at the very least, wonderfully inclusive, with avatar customization options that allow for significant flexibility in defining your dad’s identity. The entirely hunky cast of supporting dads is also quite diverse, though some of their sound bites are unusually low-quality and compressed. Maybe that’s something the developers can address down the line. As it stands, Dream Daddy is still a worthwhile endeavor thanks to the quality of its moment-to-moment writing. It’s just a shame the romance feels so sterile.