Does Hatoful Boyfriend’s absurdity add to its romantic comedy?

Group project summary, by leader Max Marcussen

Hatoful Boyfriend is, from the start, an absurd game. The premise of the game is that the player character, Hiyoko, is a human hunter-gatherer who’s been invited to the world’s best pigeon high school. Hiyoko interacts with professors, school doctors, fellow students, and a biker gang leader who’s also a parakeet, and tries to find love with a pigeon. But in spite of this absurd premise, Hatoful Boyfriend operates in much the same way most romantic comedies do. Many romantic comedy films involve absurd premises, like Sandra Bullock pretending she’s engaged to her subordinate Ryan Reynolds or business nemeses Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan by chance being best friends online. In most romantic comedies, absurdity doesn’t detract from narrative conflict, but instead ends up being what usually solves it. 

Geoff King argues that romantic comedies are compelling because their comedy and absurdity allows easy resolution of difficult and meaningful conflicts without sacrifice. The Hollywood romantic comedy offers “the utopian possibility of ‘having it all ways’ rather than facing up to difficult decisions.” These resolutions are made possible by romantically pairing two characters that represent broader thematic issues, such as Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly of You’ve Got Mail, with the reconciliation of those characters implying the reconciliation of thematic issues. “Social differences of class, power and the like are essentially secondary factors that can be stripped away to reveal an essential common humanity underneath.” This is made possible in romantic comedy through comedy and absurdity, argues King: usually such reconciliation is absurd, but the romantic comedy operates specifically within absurd and magical triumphs. These features are highlighted as the “defining features of comedy itself.” A reconciliation between Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly is made to be a proxy for a reconciliation between their ideological differences, with the neat and happy ending made possible through comedy and absurdity. 

Similarly, in Hatoful Boyfriend, an absurd premise should lead to reconciliation of broader thematic issues. A post-apocalyptic world populated entirely by pigeons would seem to qualify as a problem that poses deep issues that a human trying to find a pigeon boyfriend needs to overcome. However, in Hatoful Boyfriend, broader thematic issues are only hinted at in a couple of endings, with the proxy reconciliation of human Hiyoko and bird love interest taking center stage. Interacting with certain characters will reveal more about the world of the game, but the fact that Hiyoko is a hunter gatherer living in a cave or that sapient birds have taken over the world is mostly played for comedy. The characters almost completely treat Hiyoko as they would any other bird, and Hiyoko talks to the characters as if they’re people. There doesn’t seem to be any deep conflict between bird and person, and if there’s no deep thematic conflict, it’s hard to see where there could be a reconciliation. It’s odd to think of reconciliation of thematic issues if the game doesn’t really dive into those issues except to tell a joke. In romantic comedy, the conflict is resolved by comedy, but the pigeon / person split in Hatoful Boyfriend doesn’t do much to create conflict and simply serves to make the game more absurd and fun. Personally, I enjoyed Valentine’s Day’s transformation into the bean-focused Legumentine’s Day, but the game didn’t seem to be doing more with its absurdism than just telling jokes. Absurdity in romantic comedy films functions to resolve narrative strife, but in Hatoful Boyfriend, it seems to function to just add absurdity. The narrative of the game involves Hiyoko bonding with pigeons, but the fact that the characters are pigeons (or even the absurdity of a human and a pigeon dating) doesn’t play into narrative at all — the pigeons are treated as people, even being given human visualizations, and the gameplay and narrative plays out as a very standard slice-of-life story. Even though the comedy makes the game more enjoyable, it feels entirely separate from the narrative. 

Of course, narrative in a game functions differently from narrative in film. Geoff King tells us that “narrative in romantic comedy is a function primarily of character and character relationships.” This is as true in Hatoful Boyfriend as in You’ve Got Mail: the relationship between the romantic leads drives the plot forward. The player can choose who they pursue, and in so doing, choose which ending they get — but information on how to get specific endings and what those endings are is masked from the player. To end up with Sakuya, the player needs to keep interacting with Sakuya, inviting him to festivals and talking to him at the class hike. But in order to get the full Sakuya ending, you have to attend every music class, and in order to get the full Okosan ending, you have to go to every track meet. There are clear points where you must make choices between two romantic interests — for example, siding with either Professor Naneki or Doctor Shuu in an argument, or throwing Okosan out of Sakuya’s aristocratic Christmas party — but there are also points where the player is unaware how choices like what kind of bean to gift their crush might impact the story greatly. In You’ve Got Mail, for example, King tells us that “the viewer stands at the top of the knowledge hierarchy”: we know who NY152 and ShopGirl are, and the audience’s knowledge of Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly’s online relationship while they’re unaware of it is the source of a large part of the film’s humor. 

Perhaps a better film to compare to Hatoful Boyfriend would be To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Much like Hatoful Boyfriend, To All the Boys plays out as a high school slice-of-life story. In To All the Boys, the viewer mostly takes Lara Jean’s perspective, viewing the world almost completely through her eyes. The audience isn’t privy to Peter’s reasons for visiting Gen’s room and doesn’t know at the beginning of the film how the letters were sent out — while the viewer is omniscient in You’ve Got Mail, the viewer sees through the eyes of a character in To All the Boys, in the same way they see through the eyes of a player character in a video game. And, in the same way the audience is presented with Lara Jean’s story, the player of Hatoful Boyfriend is largely presented with a story, only able to make choices that choose which series of events is presented to them. The player has agency over which ending they get and determines their ending mostly through choices made in the first semester of the game, but by the end of the summer, the ability to make choices is almost entirely removed. Hatoful Boyfriend is therefore more film-like than any other game we’ve played, closer to a choose-your-own-adventure book than to a game — gameplay amounts to narrative choice. The choice of a visual novel format makes the game feel more like a romantic comedy film than any of the absurdity does — in a game where the protagonist can’t be omniscient, Hatoful Boyfriend finds some success as a romantic comedy by hewing close to the format of films like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

The characterization in the game also helped it greatly — most of the characters, while caricaturish at first, eventually become multidimensional and fleshed out, and it feels believable to interact with them. Even though the characters are pigeons, they largely feel like fully realized people, and the absurdity of the setting makes it possible for characters to be written more absurdly without sacrificing the romantic tone. But the fact that the characters are pigeons has no bearing on the romance. For this reason, I’m not sure if Hatoful Boyfriend succeeds as a romantic comedy game, or if it’s able to justify its premise. In most endings, the fact that the non player characters are pigeons is mostly for additional entertainment and comedy and doesn’t grant any substance beyond what is given by any dating sim. For the game to be more successful as a romantic comedy game, the pigeon setting should have been more central to the story, in the same way IMing is central to You’ve Got Mail. The pigeon gimmick attracted me to the game at first and gave it most of its entertainment value, but it ultimately had no bearing on the story or the characters. Hatoful Boyfriend’s premise is hilarious, but if the game had spent more time on the implications of the characters being pigeons, it could have been more successful as a romantic comedy game. Still, Hatoful Boyfriend remains a heartfelt at times, very entertaining romance game. Maybe it doesn’t matter that the absurd elements are disconnected from the story — even though the pigeon twist was unnecessary for story and gameplay and only granted surface-level comedy, it made the game much more enjoyable and allowed the characters to be much more absurd than they might otherwise have been.

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