The aptly named Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator from Game Grumps offers players an array of fatherly dreamboats to meet and romantically pursue after moving to a new city. Creators Leighton Gray and Vernon Shaw weren’t just content to tell a story of hunky papas finding love, though. They wanted the players to feel involved in the story, using a character creator to increase that bond between player and narrative.
This character creator would grant players a sense of ownership over the story, but also would tie into the themes of inclusivity and support that the developers wished to push forward with their work. In exploring a parent finding love, Dream Daddy would also explore a warm story of unconditional parental love and acceptance as well.
Gray shared this idea with Shaw during a shared trip, and the idea came together naturally. “Leighton and I have been internet friends for a long, long time now," says Shaw. "Last year, she was in town, and we were going to Disneyland together. On the way there, she had just casually mentioned a dating simulator where you play as a dad and romance other dads.”
“When Leighton said this idea to me, it sort of hit a bunch of checkmarks in my brain for what I think good internet content is," he continues. "So, we spent the entire day at Disneyland finding and rating the hot dads there. We went throughout the place just sort of thinking about the dads we would want to date. By the end of the day, we had sort of built an entire idea for what a plot would look like for a visual novel-style dating sim where you were a dad and your goal was to meet and romance other hot dads.”
Gray’s interest in "dad culture" clicked with Shaw, and the two, through some lighthearted research done while discussing the game together, found a shared interest in creating a heartwarming story of dads finding romance with other pun-loving dudes.
"I thought it would be great if there was a game where you could create your own 'dadsona,' and then date other dads."
Part of the initial spark for Dream Daddy had involved a fascination with players creating a place for themselves within another fiction, universe, or mindset – another shape of themselves that was an extension of themselves as another being. It was a shape of the self as someone else we may wish we were, someone we want to be for a little while, or a self that exists in a place we wish to be.
“I think it’s kind of interesting the way the internet creates these extensions of our personalities in different communities, like Fursonas, or Gemsonas for Stephen Universe," says Gray. "I think the natural extension of that, for me, just being fascinated with dad culture on the Internet, and the idea of daddies, was coming up with the idea of Dadsonas.”
For Gray, a fun self to create was the Dadsona, or a vision of the self as a dad. “I was so sure that had to already be a thing. When I found out that it wasn’t, I felt that I had to make that somehow.”
“I’m an illustrator, so I just kinda started drawing my own dadsona, and I thought it would be great if there was a game where you could create your own dadsona and then date other dads,” she continues.
"I think that a character creator adds to the immersion, and adds this extra layer of roleplaying on top of a story."
Dating hot dads was important, but it was the creation of the Dadsona that was key for Gray and Shaw. Players needed to be able to make that extension of the self as dad, or a vision of who they wished to play as a father, that was key to the experience.
For starters, it would create a bond between the player and the narrative. “Whenever I play a video game, I am much more likely to enjoy it if there is a character creator," says Gray. "I’m the type of person who will spend an inordinate amount of time making a character. I think that adds to the immersion, and adds this extra layer of roleplaying on top of a story.”
“I think it’s especially important in these games that focus on the narrative between characters – their interpersonal relationships," she continues. "If you look at Bioware games like Dragon Age or Mass Effect where they have really robust character creators, and then these long romance/interpersonal arcs, I think it adds this personal touch to the story. That was really important to us.”
Players could have been a faceless entity in the game’s world, and the romance may still have been effective. But Gray and Shaw felt that players would feel a little something more through being able to create a personal vision of themselves within the game’s world. Be it a version of themselves they wanted to see, a whole other person they wished to become, or even just a joke character, there would be that personal connection with the game’s world. The player would have been a participant in creating their self within the game, connecting them with the fiction.
This was somewhat at odds with genre norms. “Traditionally, in visual novels and dating simulators, the main character can be a sort of blank, projectable character," says Shaw. "There usually isn’t much to the character of a visual novel (with some very notable exceptions).
"I think putting the ability to create your Dadsona and have a dad character in the game with a – still very projectable – character, but with a bit more personality than a typical dating simulator added a lot to the immersion of the game.”
“I think it’s so much easier to build a meaningful, more real-seeming relationship when that main character does have a little bit of personality,” says Gray.
"If you wanted to make a really adorable, cute dad, you could do it. But if you really want to wild out and make a Monster Factory-esque monstrosity, then you totally can too."
Equally important was the desire for inclusivity – for players to feel comfortable about being themselves, whoever that may be or wish to be, within the world of Dream Daddy. This meant creating their own robust character generator, one that would let players unleash themselves in father form.
“My aim for that was to have options so that if you wanted to make a really adorable, cute dad, you could do it," says Gray. "But if you really want to wild out and make a Monster Factory-esque monstrosity, then you totally can.”
Players would be free to present themselves however they felt within the game’s world. They could take it as a joke and try to create the silliest version of themselves they could, or they could play around with aspects that might make them feel more at home as themselves in the game world. It was, after all, important for the player to express their persona however they felt, and really embrace their role in the story.
“We also wanted to make sure there were a lot of different racial options, body types (like the binder bodies). We just wanted people to see themselves represented,” she continues.
That connection with the fiction could not be as strong without the creators creating these inclusive elements. When being able to insert aspects of the self into a fiction through the character creator, few things can break that immersion as hard as not finding those elements of the self in there, or finding them poorly implemented as afterthoughts.
"I think a pitfall a lot of character creators fall into is that a lot of the assets only work with lighter skin tones."
“I think a pitfall a lot of character creators fall into is that a lot of the assets only work with lighter skin tones," says Gray. "I can’t count the amount of times I’ve gone into a character creator and tried to create a dark-skinned character. They have the option, but the way that the lighting is set up it, just doesn’t work. It’s clear that 'THIS WASN’T REALLY FOR YOU,' which is really messed up.”
Gray and Shaw wanted players to see parts of themselves within the character creator, even if the player didn’t intend to use them. In this way, the player could see themselves, or the possibility of some aspect of themselves, within this world. If the player were to explore the possibility of themselves as Dadsona, they would have to see every possible aspect of the self in there. Anyone could and should be able to see themselves as the father figure for this narrative to truly pull them in.
This took some effort and iteration. “One of the hardest things was making sure the character that was created fit within the world of the game," says Shaw. "We were working with a couple of different artists for characters and backgrounds. Making sure the styles matched up between artists was a challenge.”
Still, the challenges were well worth it, judging from the great sales figures, as well as the responses the creators have seen. “The most important thing to me is seeing people share their characters that they created," says Shaw. "I think that’s a really cool thing about this game, where people feel a certain ownership over their own character and are really proud to show it to other people.”
“Watching people draw fan art of their own designed Dadsonas is really fun and satisfying.” says Gray. “Seeing people’s interpretations of moments within the game – inserting their own character into it – is super cute.”
Dadsona fan art [SOURCE: lonely-mothman Tumblr]
This was that ownership and immersion that the creators sought – that sense that the player had felt that they were a part of the narrative, and had a home for themselves within it. In the creation of their Dadsona, the player could see themselves within the game’s world, and through the work Gray and Shaw did in ensuring as many inclusive elements they could think of, they opened their work’s arms to the people who would play it.
Funny, touching, or personal, players could create any Dadsona they desired. All would be welcome and loved, just like the connection between the player’s character and his daughter, and just like the creators’ messages to its players.