‘Dream Daddy,’ the gayest game of the year, never uses the word “gay.” Let’s talk about that.
The elevator pitch for the new choose-your-own-adventure-style game Dream Daddy — which is enjoying staggering levels of popularity online, by the way — is that you play a dad whose goal is to meet and romance other hot dads.
At first glance, that caught my attention in a big way. (Explicit homosexuality? In my video games?) But then, I actually played the game myself and one thing became very clear: Dream Daddy, though earnest, well-written and endearing, isn’t actually about being gay. Yes, the man-on-man romance is inescapable, but Dream Daddy is first and foremost about being a single dad with kids. The words “gay,” “bi” and “trans” are never even used.
As a gay man, I found Dream Daddy’s lack of explicitly queer language incredibly frustrating. On the one hand, I’m thrilled that a game with queerness running through its veins is enjoying so much popularity, but Dream Daddy’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t feel like a game made for or by gay people. It doesn’t capture the experience of what it feels like to be a gay man and fails to engage with or invoke gay culture in a meaningful way.
Luckily, I had the chance to interview the creators of Dream Daddy — Leighton Gray and Vernon Shaw — about it myself. Here’s what they had to say.
“The driving force of writing this game was that we didn’t want any of the paths to explicitly be about the dads’ sexualities.”
The first time I realized Dream Daddy wasn’t actually about being queer happened early on. Specifically, when I realized every single dad in the game was an actual, literal father with a human child.
In the gay community, “daddy” is a term that describes a certain type of gruff, usually older gentleman. Whether or not they are an actual dad is irrelevant. So, when I heard the name Dream Daddy, I thought that’s what it was about: Daddies. The gay kind.
“A lot of people have said that this game fails to engage with queer culture in a meaningful way, and I absolutely understand that criticism,” Gray said over the phone. “But also, we didn’t want any of the [character arcs] to explicitly be about the dads’ sexualities. I think we already have a lot of media that spends a lot of time talking about those kinds of feelings and navigating coming out and grappling with your sexuality. I think those narratives are important, for sure, but I just want to fast-forward to the part where we can have stories about queer characters that are not explicitly about them being queer.”
Gray’s response feels fair, but while I was playing Dream Daddy, I couldn’t help but notice moments that felt entirely dissonant with my lived experience as a gay person.
For example, at one point, your character goes to a neighborhood bar alone to get a drink and watch some unnamed sports event on television — it’s jokingly and vaguely called “The Game.” As soon as my character entered the bar, I personally felt tense because, I, as an individual, don’t pass for straight in most contexts.
So, anytime I enter a straight space, like a bar or restaurant, I always have to check in with my surroundings, get in touch with the space’s general vibe and make sure it’s somewhere I’ll be safe. (Are there other visibly queer people here too? Is this room filled with loud, aggressive straight men? Did the bartender seem surprised that someone like me just walked through the door?Are people looking at the length of my shorts because they think my legs look cute or because they think I’m a deviant sinner who belongs in hell?)
That routine — entering a space that’s coded straight and taking the temperature of the room — is an everyday reality for me and for many of my queer friends. So, when my character simply grabbed a spot at the bar to watch “The Game” like it was nothing, I couldn’t help but feel like that was a missed opportunity for Dream Daddy to convey what it was like to simply exist in the world as someone like me.
I didn’t bring up that specific example in the interview, but Gray said the major reason Dream Daddy isn’t about the lived experience of being a gay man is pretty obvious: She didn’t feel comfortable writing about experiences that weren’t hers.
“We had a lot of consultants and friends who are queer that looked at this game and had eyes on it to make sure we were keeping it as careful and sensitive as possible — because even me as a queer woman, I couldn’t possibly completely 100% accurately capture the experience of a gay man dating other men,” Gray said. “So, I felt a little uncomfortable trying to delve deeper into what that experience is like exactly, so we stuck to the things we knew how to talk about.”
“We’re hoping we created and seeded these moments where people were able to learn more about themselves.”
Dream Daddy has flaws, but overall it’s successful more often than it’s not. And if a straight person goes into Dream Daddy thinking it’s all a big, gay joke and comes out the other side with more empathy for queer people, then our world is better for it.
“We went into this game with a very specific intent of the kind of story that we wanted to tell and we wanted it to be heartwarming and inclusive — and I think a lot of people got that out of this game,” Shaw said. “We’re hoping we created and seeded these moments where people were able to learn more about themselves and more about this culture while playing it. And we really hope we did that.”
“Early on we were always talking about, ‘Oh, we’re gonna lure people in with the dad jokes and the promise of kissing dads but then we’re gonna hit them with emotions and they’re gonna cry,’” Gray said.
“We even had someone play it early on who sent us an email who was saying, ‘You know, when I got to the part where Robert kisses you, I felt a little uncomfortable, and I was analyzing why that made me feel uncomfortable and why I felt OK with it in every other form of media when it’s a straight couple,” Gray continued. “And that’s kind of exactly what we were trying to do to a certain extent.”
In many ways, Dream Daddy associates itself with gayness in order to garner a rubbernecking interest from straight people — “Men? Romancing each other? Using dad jokes? That’s hilarious!” — but if that’s what it takes to get well-written queer characters into the mainstream, that might ultimately be OK.
“If nothing else, there’s no such thing as perfect representation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try,” Gray said. “And if that means that this acts as a stepping stone, if someone can use the success of this game to justify to higher-ups who are like, ‘I don’t know if this will sell well.’ And they point to the numbers and go, ‘This is exactly what people want and you don’t have an excuse not to do it anymore’ — I think if that happened, I would be super happy with it.”
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