Digital love – the value of relationships in Boyfriend Dungeon and Fire Emblem

By Neil Merrett

Fire Emblem Awakening, released on 3DS in 2021, developed by Intelligent Systems & Boyfriend Dungeon, released on Nintendo Switch in 2021, published by Kitfox Games

The digital nature of games means the medium is often built around giving a player a meaningful or satisfying sense of cause and effect from their actions.  While these mechanics were initially built around more simplistic tasks such as blasting spaceships or bouncing a ball past an opponent, gaming as a medium has evolved to look at more complex consequences such as romantic attachments and failed relationships.  Games such as Boyfriend Dungeon and the long running Fire Emblem series are two examples of titles that have sought to make romance an actual gameplay mechanic.

2021’s Boyfriend Dungeon shows that games can play a role in exploring the complexity, awkwardness and nuances of romance, lust and sexting – in this case as a background for a dungeon crawling adventure in a semi-fantasy seaside setting.

But it is certainly not the first game to try and convey the concept of love and coupling as a means to build immersion and dramatic tension into tried and tested game genres.

For example, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, developed by Intelligent Systems, allows players to pair different characters together during turn-based fantasy battles with the eventual aim of forming stronger relationship bonuses during gameplay. This is done as a means to encourage the player to think about how they might overcome one type of character’s shortcomings in terms of physical vulnerabilities or limited movement.  For example, a more cumbersome and less mobile axe battling warrior can be partnered in the game with a flying horse-riding Valkyrie to allow the player to cover more space and make progress during a turn on the battlefield.

However, a failure to swap in the right character in the pairing at the correct time risks leaving the player vulnerable during an enemy’s turn. So, flying your axe fighter into the middle of a battlefield may be one path to victory, so long as the player remembers to swap out their Pegasus riding warrior that is highly vulnerable to bow and arrow attacks before the end of the turn.

A large focus of the game is built around pooling certain character types together to create sufficient statistical improvements during battles. The more a set of characters are paired, the stronger the bond and relationship that they have and the more generous and powerful bonuses they will receive. One pathway in the game towards creating a powerful attacking unit is to essentially marry different male and female warriors in your team.

Unsurprisingly, the internet is full of guidance about the more complicated mathematics behind getting the right pairings correct.

Digital love

Fire Emblem Awakening – released on the 3DS handheld console in 2012 – seeks to build this partnership system into the game as a kind of relationship and romance simulator.

The more characters are paired in battle, and then interact in conversations between these fights, then the stronger their relationship becomes. Permitting that one or both of these characters are not felled in battle, and therefore can no longer be played if the permadeath option in the game is switched on, this relationship can blossom into a romantic attachment with the ultimate aim of siring offspring that combines both parents’ stats to create entire new characters for your army.

In earlier series entries such as Fire Emblem Awakening, these higher-level relationships were exclusively linked to heterosexual couples – with same sex pairings only allowed to lead to a strong ‘friendship’ forming between two characters that makes them into much better battlefield killers.

However, these bonuses are not as profound as the romantic couplings offered between male and female characters.

With the growing popularity of the series in western markets following the critical and commercial success of Fire Emblem Awakening in markets such as Europe and North America, the series has begun to address audience calls for some exploration of same sex romantic partnerships.

What’s love got to do with it?

The release of Fire Emblem Three Houses on Nintendo Switch in 2019 did allow for players to explore and encourage romantic partnerships between same sex characters.

Aimee Hart, writing for Gayming in 2020, noted that this latest entry in the Fire Emblem series did allow for a male character – if the player chose that particular gender for their main avatar called Byleth – to romance other men, albeit it with some complications. 

Hart wrote, “Regardless of who Byleth can romance, there are characters within the game who can romance others of the same-sex, such as Dorothea and Petra, Catherine and Shamir, Sylvain and Felix, and Hubert and Ferdinand.”

“Some of these characters are not even available to Byleth, possibly conveying that despite you being the protagonist, they just aren’t attracted to you like that. That or Dorothea has so much bisexual energy she can make anyone fall in love with her. I can believe that.”

Romance as a concept in the Fire Emblem series is less about love in a romantic sense, and more about mutual support and powering up units as a couple to cover up for a particular weakness.  Even the concept of sex is broadly reduced to a means of ‘creating’ new characters to add into the player’s party so the player can create a more well-rounded and accomplished squad.

These are not unrealistic motivations for committing to a life partner whether in-game or in everyday reality.

But there are limits to the concepts of love and romance in the Fire Emblem series, even with a more open-minded approach to sexuality seen in recent games.

Sword, sorcery and shopping malls

Boyfriend Dungeon by Kitfoss Games was released earlier this year and is a less traditional fantasy game of swords, sorcery and shopping malls, where romance, or at least dating, is very much a key theme and focus of the game.

It is set in a faintly recognisable world that has beach bars, nightclubs, instant messaging platforms and enchanted dungeons. Here, adventurers wield weaponry in order to conquer their inner demons in the heart of neon-hued cavernous dungeons.  But outside of the dungeons, these weapons transform into sentient beings that need a little TLC and the occasional drink when not smashing apart bad guys.

The player is free to select their own gender identity, look and style for their character and then set out into a world where they can wield a selection of powerful weapons that can be levelled up to suit a range of gameplay styles.

Each of these weapons is able to transmogrify into the forms of humans and animals that the player is then charged to build literal relationships with.

Every weapon is a distinct character that represents a diverse array of men, women and non-binary people that you are tasked with getting to know and to potentially build a relationship with. If not outright love, the game allows you to indulge in at least an enjoyable summer romance with the human personification of a lightsabre while overcoming nefarious, or at least toxic forces.

It would be fair to suggest that the game’s basic premise could be viewed as problematic. Boyfriend Dungeon can be seen as reducing the numerous characters that the player can attempt to pursue a romantic or platonic relationship to merely tools or weapons that can be used and discarded at your whim.

But thankfully, the game is able to sensitively, empathetically and somewhat charmingly explore concepts of love, sex and friendship in line with more modern sensibilities about identity, responsibility to others and consent.

The player is free to decide on their own in-game identity and sexual orientation before setting out into a world of dating, polygamy and dungeon quests.

While sexuality is often a vital part of our identities at an individual level, the game encourages the player to explore the concept of dating and trying to build a meaningful connection with a range of characters with very different personalities. 

These include Sunder, an ancient Indian vampiric blade capable of turning into a hunk with a killer set of abs and commitment issues, or a strong headed female artist with some painful baggage from a previous relationship that can become a rocking set of daggers for players that enjoy stealthy, quick attacks. 

Sunder GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

If more sexually charged partnerships are not the player’s thing. The game does allow you to take on a pet cat that has arguably much more simple needs and can turn into a pair of bladed brass knuckles.

Within the unique rules of the game world, an adventurer, no matter how skilled, is not free to simply claim an enchanted blade without their permission, and it is not seemingly guaranteed that you will even survive a first date with a potential weapon to actually get to wield them across several dungeons.

There is an immersive sense of stakes within the dates the player may go on, particularly when realising that a potentially awesome battle axe just isn’t into you and won’t be heading into the dungeon with you.  Although it seems no player is capable of dating Jonah at present, is it nice to reminded that a relationship is a two-way street.

Stringing people along

Some of the more subversive parts of the game can be found in a player’s desperation to want to get their hands on as many weapons as possible, even after a disastrous date.

The hybrid mix of supernatural fantasy and the real world is a clever way to lower possible reservations about sexual identity in the game.  Sure, you may be a heterosexual player, or someone exclusively interested in same sex relationships, but why not engage in a summer long fling with a non-binary goth scythe that has a somewhat dark, pessimistic view of the world and some amazingly powerful ranged attacks that open up as you get to know them.

In a world where modern social media technologies are merged with everyday supernatural themes of magic demons and mystic weapons with souls, it is fair to conclude that traditional definitions of sexuality are largely an irrelevance in Boyfriend Dungeon.

A straight player at the end of the game may find themselves surprised to have got closest to a French Estoc blade that doubles as a suave financial advisor with daddy issues and a need for a strong supportive partner.  There is nothing wrong with a role playing game that lets a player live out dreams of being strong and dependable for someone.

The game also plays a little with whether a player favours dating and building relationships with certain weapons due to an emotional connection with their stories and personalities, as opposed to the fact that the same weapon can satisfyingly destroy a group of bad guys in a few seconds with a bit of practice.

Is it always selfish to want certain things from a partner as part of a relationship or a reality of the compromises we make to be with people through our lives?

A major focus of the plot is about the idea of healthy relationships and unhealthy attachments that can come from longing for things that are not always ours to have.

But as a central metaphor, the idea of players building relationships with the weapons they rely on to succeed in the game works well and is in keeping with the concept of levelling up in games.

While out clubbing on a late night date – something that feels fairly fantastical and otherworldly for a happily coupled up gamer in their late 30s – there is an option to question and interrogate one of your lovers about why he finds himself disappearing to the bathroom for significant periods of time.

In a real-world setting, this might be a fair question for a monogamous couple.  But what right does a well-dressed young singleton out on their sixth date of that week with as many potential partners have to question an ancient vampiric blade with a rocking torso on themes of commitment?

To live with a deeply flirtatious exotic vampire blade is ultimately to live with a deeply flirtatious exotic vampire blade – no one said that an adventurer had to be exclusively a one weapon guy.

Amidst the supernatural battles, levelling up and trying out new outfits, Boyfriend Dungeon also happens to be a fairly interesting dating sim and drama. What sort of partners are we to the people that we love and live with if we can’t stop to view the world from their sometimes magically enhanced perspective?  More importantly, if together it is possible to develop an attack that replaces our own health with that of fallen enemy, is that worth the possible heartbreak down the line of embracing the good times while they last?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s