I love dating sims. I’ve been playing Otome games — narrative, choice-based adventures starring a female protagonist who can have romances with a traditionally male cast — since they were just simple Flash titles on the internet. But Boyfriend Dungeon is something different. Developed by Kitfox Games, it’s a hybrid that merges dating sims and roguelikes, offering equal amounts of hack-n-slash and relationships. While I enjoyed finding romance, summer flings, and texting potential partners, it was Boyfriend Dungeon’s approach to the darker elements of dating that encouraged me to form a personal connection to it.
Boyfriend Dungeon’s approach to the less lighthearted aspect of dating, which includes a stalker character who serves as the game’s antagonist, has been met with some criticism. While some players took issue with being unable to opt out of engaging with Eric, though, I was thankful for it.
Warning signs about abusive relationships vary, but one consistent element of abusive partners is their love of control. Abusive partners aim to control the people they target, which can slowly manifest over time or happen all at once. For me, it happened slowly. An unwanted gift, text messages that showed he knew more than he should, and finally showing up at my university in another city to surprise me. The obsession and stalking slowly built up. Eventually, the alarm I had going off in my head had its batteries taken out by friends who would see him as a machista man who was just going the extra mile.
I don’t know whether this was a culture push specific to my ethnic identity as a Latina, or the fact that we were taught that Angel stalking Buffy the Vampire Slayer at school was romantic, or that we widely saw Edward Cullen breaking in to watch Bella Swan sleep in Twilight similarly. Romantic narratives like these serve to show the audience how infatuated the traditionally female and male leads are toward each other, but they’re ultimately creepy at best. Boundary crossing is largely romanticized in popular media, convincing us that if a partner isn’t obsessively watching our every move, they must not love us deeply enough. While Bella and Buffy are fictional characters, the romance narratives afforded to them contain real-world implications.
The stalking in my own life escalated once I agreed to date him. Eventually, the relationship devolved into physical abuse. I don’t blame those around me for not intervening. No one taught my friends that his obsessive behavior was harmful, or that it would lead to something worse. And that’s exactly the problem I see Boyfriend Dungeon working to solve.
Unlike the pop culture characters I mentioned above, obsessive behavior in Boyfriend Dungeon is never depicted as coincidental or harmless. Eric is never seen as charming; he’s unsettling and creepy. Every single person around you all but screams this at you every step of the way. At one point, Seven — a character I was romancing at the time — attempted to outright fight Eric because he had continually violated the boundaries I established.
After finishing the interaction, I put the game down to sit with my feelings. Even in hindsight, I didn’t see Eric as stalking my character; instead, he was just annoying. It was then that I realized he wasn’t simply irritating but rather showcasing characteristics that were becoming increasingly threatening. It took another character to make me realize Boyfriend Dungeon was trying to tell me Eric wasn’t attempting to romance me — he wanted to control me.
From that point on, I began paying attention to the way other characters talked about the villain. Whether it’s your cousin or any of your romances, everyone around you works to warn you about Eric. I’ve now played through Boyfriend Dungeon multiple times, including a playthrough where I placated Eric and accepted advances — at least until I absolutely could not stomach it anymore. Throughout all the choices you make, the friends you connect with, and the weapons you eagerly romance, Boyfriend Dungeon never stops trying to teach you that your boundaries matter. Mechanically, it never stops pushing you into narrative choices with characters who want to protect you — not in ways that allow them to be seen as saviors, but that instead show genuine love and care. Seven and Isaac routinely step in to protect me from Eric, ask if I’m okay, and reaffirm the toxicity of the stalker’s behavior.
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Boyfriend Dungeon isn’t going to save everyone; some may not even be able to play it because of understandable emotional triggers. That said, Kitfox has done everything they can aside from adding a neon sign saying “stalking isn’t love” to inform the player how to look for red flags. Kitfox’s game doesn’t just deliver on thirst; it delivers on empathy. I can’t say this game would have saved me from the darkest point of my life, but I can say that it effortlessly offers a lesson I wish I hadn’t learned through painful experience. While I’m now in a loving and healthy marriage, the person I once was needed that kind of support.
One game can’t undo decades of media normalizing and romanticizing obsessive behavior, but it can start disrupting it. Boyfriend Dungeon is about setting and respecting boundaries and cultivating healthy relationships. Part of its beauty is that, if you don’t know how to do that coming into the game, Kitfox has crafted a narrative to teach you. Dating sims are vast and varied, and this one’s beauty isn’t its genre-blending: it’s in the empathy poured into every interaction and its efforts to teach you the difference between obsession and love.