Creator Tanya Short on how deep, complex characters brought Boyfriend Dungeon to life

How narrative choices, character complexities and representation helped indie breakthrough, Boyfriend Dungeon, connect with its audience

“I’ve certainly experienced some male friends who, as a teen, I would say ‘were weird sometimes,’” Tanya Short, co-founder of Kitfox Games and designer of Boyfriend Dungeon, explains. “It took me many years to figure out that the reason those moments stuck with me, like a burr in my sock, is because I was being manipulated, and my boundaries were being pushed.”

The charm of Boyfriend Dungeon comes largely from its unique characters, and antagonist Eric hasn’t been short on negative attention. He functions as the game’s main villain, both stalking and attempting to emotionally manipulate the player’s character. Unfortunately, far too many of us can relate to this nasty experience.

“Eric is a bit more intense and focused than any of my encounters,” says Short, “but I’ve also had multiple friends with more serious stalkers, and it can be scary – much scarier than Eric.”

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While there has been plenty of discourse on whether Eric’s gross behavior should have been depicted as explicitly as it was in Boyfriend Dungeon, I’ve been more concerned about the lack of negative attention on Sunder. Though Sunder doesn’t stalk or threaten you, he certainly isn’t the epitome of respect or moral behavior. He is intentionally secretive and emotionally unavailable, and allows a relationship to go on for a while before inevitably ending it. This begs the question: why include him as a romanceable option at all?

“When I was a teen, I was an absolute sucker for a mysterious stranger,” Short says. “In fact, when I started dating my first serious boyfriend, another well-meaning woman sat me down and said, ‘Tanya, he’s not a good person. You really should reconsider this.’ Her words had the exact opposite effect than they should have. So, I guess this is a letter to younger Tanya, gently helping her see where roads like this tend to go.” It’s easy to relate to Short’s experience, considering most of us can look back and cringe at our past love interests.

Boyfriend Dungeon. Credit: Kitfox Games

But this cliché, the sexy bad boy, is exactly what Short had in mind when creating Sunder. In fact, that’s the reason she chose to make him a vampire, despite the other love interests (barring the cat) remaining human.

“I felt that maybe an extra layer of fantasy might make any sting from Sunder’s storyline a bit more manageable and keep it fun,” Short says. “I didn’t want him to actually break your heart.” While the vampire element certainly made the story less serious, we all know there were still plenty of disappointed fans who were seeking to live out their vampire-boyfriend dream.

Though most of the other characters are human, the one other non-human character is Pocket, the dateable cat. Even for a quirky game like Boyfriend Dungeon, including a cat as a romance option strikes me as fascinating (and potentially problematic), yet the reason behind it makes all the sense in the world.

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“I vaguely remember that early on, one of my team members commented, ‘Dating sucks, honestly. I’d rather just hang out with my cat all day,’” Short laughs. “And when all of us nodded in understanding, it seemed like a good fit for the whole game and a hook for the Kickstarter in particular.”

The ability to spark romances with non-humans isn’t the only way that Boyfriend Dungeon branches out regarding romantic relationships. While the potential to date a cat is unique, the game bravely touches upon polyamory, making it stand out further. Shortly after meeting Valeria, you discover that she was previously in a relationship with Jake and his sister Jessica at the same time. Valeria’s background was uncomplicated and interesting to learn about, even for someone who’s never been in a polyamorous relationship before.

Unfortunately, the player does not have the option to pick more than one romantic partner at the end. “We decided exploring dual-wielding explicitly would add too much to the budget or scope of the game,” Short explains. “But maybe it’s something we could explore if we ever made a sequel! As it is, we support light polyamory more than most dating sims, since you can romance everyone to max level without constraint, punishment, or ‘cheating’ on anyone.”

And perhaps that would be a good move, considering the data the studio has collected from the first game. Valeria proved to be one of the most popular characters, according to Short. When Kitfox Games showcased Boyfriend Dungeon at PAX, Sunder and Valeria were the first two weapons found, because they were the “fan favorites” and the first characters that the team had created. However, the team agreed post-event that Isaac simply made more sense to kickstart the introductions, as he was a fencing instructor, and the player needed to learn how to fight at the beginning of the game.

“He was kind and had the most patience, so he’d be a great way to start setting the game’s tone,” Short elaborates. “We played around with the other characters’ introduction orders, but it was mostly loose — except for Rowan, who I knew I wanted to be somewhat mysterious and missable, as an exception to the general rule of how weapons were discovered.”

There are several characteristics that make Rowan distinct, from their identifying as non-binary to their classification as a mystic. Players can immediately tell that Rowan is unique by the way they express themself. “I always felt Rowan is non-binary in a very understated way; they don’t register gender as something that applies to them, and they focus elsewhere,” Short explains. “Hato Moa, the creator of Hatoful Boyfriend, actually gave us the design of the scythe character. It was clear to me very quickly that they were a non-binary, mystic-type character. I suppose we could have herded them into some gender category or other, but I didn’t want to.”

Boyfriend Dungeon. Credit: Kitfox Games.
Boyfriend Dungeon. Credit: Kitfox Games.

Boyfriend Dungeon includes a mysterious vampire, a creepy stalker, a polyamorous artist, a wholesome man with daddy issues, a datable cat, a non-binary mystic, a famous musician struggling with depression, and a cute non-binary student who is eager to learn. The diversity and depth of these characters suggest that Short has poured some of her own experience with people into their creation.

“I think any well-written character will contain elements of humanity the writer has observed in people around them, either consciously or unconsciously,” she explains. “I generally really like people as soon as I meet them, and this was especially true when I was younger. I felt – and still feel, but to a lesser degree than I once did – that most people are really lovable, the more you get to know them.”

These feelings shine through, proven by how players have found most of Boyfriend Dungeon’s characters to be endearing. Despite the remarkable, comprehensive picture we’ve gotten of each lovable partner though, Short explains that their construction wasn’t exactly a straightforward process.

“We start with a particular look of a character, a lovable trait, or an arc I want to try writing – sometimes even to fill in a gap in the overall cast,” Short describes. “I usually then outline their basic personality traits according to the Big Five theory and behavioral patterns, maybe a catch-phrase for them, and then I start drafting their six-date plots.”

The Big Five theory breaks personality down into five major components: extraversion, conscientiousness, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness. If you start mapping out the personality traits of each character from Boyfriend Dungeon according to this philosophy, you can gain clear insight into how Short thought of these characters as she crafted them.

Boyfriend Dungeon. Credit: Kitfox Games.
Boyfriend Dungeon. Credit: Kitfox Games.

But it wasn’t just personality traits that were meticulously pondered. The romanceable characters in Boyfriend Dungeon can transform into weapons, so Short had more work to do after mapping out their traits and behaviors. “We needed to keep in mind a consistent character design across their human and weapon forms, but also diversity to the cast as a whole, including ethnicity, gender, combat style, and color palette. So, it was a bit of a mix and match.”

Considering the numerous factors that went into Boyfriend Dungeon’s character creation, it wasn’t surprising to hear that there were some significant changes made before the game even hit the market. “We’re releasing an art book very soon that shows some old sketches for characters,” Short informs. “I think the biggest change was that Lasersaber used to be this time-travelling girl before we realized a K-pop idol was mandatory content. Someone recently commented that they were genuinely shocked that a game called Boyfriend Dungeon didn’t have a whip character, which made me start thinking.”

Boyfriend Dungeon has garnered a substantial amount of both positive and negative attention since its release. While Kitfox Games received negative backlash for its vague content warning – which has since been amended – the company has also amassed praise for Boyfriend Dungeon’s inclusivity of gender identity and polyamory, commentary on the importance of consent, and quirky gameplay.

But one question that many were left with after completing the game was: why must your character leave town instead of staying with their chosen partner? On this, Short decides to remain ambiguous. “I’d rather allow players and critics to speculate on that narrative choice, as I haven’t yet seen any thoughts on it and don’t want to steer that conversation.”

Perhaps the focus is supposed to be on your character focusing on their independence and continuing to face their fears – though that seems strange in a game centered around finding someone to date. Regardless, what we know for sure is that, just like our character leaving town, we will always remember the summer spent with our alluring weapons.

Stephanie Minor is a freelance journalist and occasional contributor to NME.

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