Hatoful Boyfriend is more nuanced and compelling than it has any right to be.
Its outrageous concept is so over the top that it’s hard to view the game as anything more than a joke; something amusing but mostly held together by the mere fact of its existence. But these preconceptions, strung along by even its own marketing and description, are hiding the shockingly well written and emotionally stirring narrative underneath.
To be entirely clear, it is in part exactly what it appears to be: a harem dating simulator/visual novel, set in a world where birds have evolved to be the most intelligent species and humans have been mostly driven to extinction. Playing as the lone human student at Pigeonation Academy, you are tasked with going about your day, trying to scrape by in your schoolwork while wooing the bird of your dreams.
It’s an intentionally laughable idea, and one which at first can seem so ridiculous as to turn those less drawn to Japan’s stranger exports away, but its one which never dissolves into idiotic bird lover pandering (assuming that’s a thing that exists) or outright stupidity with its writing. Hatoful Boyfriend is entirely aware of its own absurdity, and treats it almost as an afterthought, to the point that the fact these characters are nearly entirely birds became irrelevant at least as far as being a very odd novelty.
Hatoful Boyfriend’s writing is unfathomably exceptional, both hilarious and comical, and heart wrenchingly sad and contemplative. Though it begins as little more than a silly teenage romance, it spends this time crafting characters that you come to care about, before hurling them into a plot darker and more precarious than I ever could have imagine. While there are certainly parts (and entire storylines) within the game which are nothing but comedy, allowing the humorous and charming side of the game to take the spotlight for a moment and provide more than a few laughs, it was when the subject matter moved away from this silliness that I began to finally see the hidden brilliance of the game’s writer.
It’s shocking to even consider at first, and even now as I’m writing this I’m rather stunned at what Hatoful Boyfriend manages to do with its narrative, but it handles its incredibly dark material with incredible grace and consideration. Calculated genocide, mass murder and biological experimentation, interspecies racism, and the value of family are not only touched upon, but discussed at length and in such a way as to not only allow you to take them seriously within the game’s context, but actually emphasize and become emotionally invested in the avian characters that once seemed so innocent and comical.
Hatoful Boyfriend made me laugh; it made me smile and appreciate its subtlely; and it made me cry. The spectrum of emotions I experienced throughout my handful of playthroughs (which should be considered a requisite, as you will the vast majority of the game’s content if you only go through it once) was something I never imagined this game to be capable of. It kept me playing for hours on end, up late into the night, and I’m still attempting to process all that I witnessed. It could very well be the apotheosis of a game you shouldn’t judge by its cover, and something that everybirdie ought to at least give a chance before writing it off as something it by and large is anything but.