Boyfriend Dungeon is an isometric action RPG mixed with a dating sim. Both of its halves are about rejection. Shocking, I know, that a dating sim would also happen to include a lot of rejection. The difference is that Boyfriend Dungeon makes navigating the complexities of rejection its A-plot and threads it through basically all of its B-plots as well. Even the game’s two dungeons, three if you count the final boss, are themed around fears that clearly manifest in rejection. The game cannot stop thinking about it.
Boyfriend Dungeon’s main cast is made up of seven datable weapons, your cousin, and a guy named Eric, who sucks. Throughout the game you date your way across an idyllic Southern Californian town, delving into dungeons where you literally fight off your own fears as you go. All of the game’s relationships and its titular dungeons develop in parallel to one another. The game is paced in such a way that you’ll probably confront the Fear of Change at the heart of the Verona Mall at the same time you see your relationships shift more firmly towards friendship or romance. As you start the La Rosa dungeon, which is built around your fear of intimacy, those same questions of desire and emotional vulnerability emerge between you and your swordfriends.
At multiple points in the game, different characters will come up against the same problems at the same time. Valeria, dagger, international artist, and my wife, will struggle with trust and intimacy around the same time as Seven, the clinically depressed K-pop star who is desperately trying to balance his career with his mental health. This means every relationship can feel in conversation with the others. The game’s A-plot revolves around solving the mystery of who kidnapped your precious swordfriends and left them chipped in the depths of a dungeon. Spoilers, it’s Eric. And his story is the game’s most explicit confrontation with what rejection looks like.
Eric, the stalking creep at the center of Boyfriend Dungeon’s recent controversy, is one of the best depictions of a terrible kind of man that I’ve ever seen. He is familiar to any woman, or anyone with enough friends who are women, as the dude who will not leave anyone the fuck alone. Each version of this man exhibits the same basic behavior to varying degrees, but for all dudes who are...like this, it comes from the same place: a desire for control.
His most basic incarnation is irritating and unsettling, trying very hard to impress you by dominating the conversation with how smart he is. Eric is your first date in Boyfriend Dungeon, when you’re an incredibly awkward and anxious newcomer to a South Californian town known for being full of hot people. I have watched someone go on this exact date where someone is pushed out of their comfort zone only to have their date talk over and belittle them the entire time.
Your date with Eric, inevitably, sucks. While the player character is not overly developed, they still recognize as much. It’s obvious your character thinks Eric is a fucking creep. But the interesting part is how you choose to navigate said creepiness. Much of your in game dialogue is mediated through text messages, and the Boyfriend Dungeon team does a great job of translating all of their characters’ personalities into unique texting styles, including your own which often responds to or mimics the energy of your current texting partner.
These dialogue options are as fraught as real-world texting and involve navigating the complexities of tone and intent. Do you do a thumbs-up emoji? Say sure? Do you end a text with the dreaded period? These are questions that I, an anxious weirdo, ask myself basically constantly, especially in the early parts of a friendship or relationship. The dialogue options perfectly channel the silly dread of typing, deleting, and retyping the same basic message over and over again. But for Eric, it feels different.
Every time I got a text from Eric the question became, “How do I stop this man from texting me again?” Be nice to him and let him down gently? Doesn’t work. Be direct? Doesn’t work. Actively show disdain for him to his face? Doesn’t work. As he becomes increasingly persistent and the stalking behavior increases, a pleading tone starts to encroach into these options. The first time, “please stop,” appeared on screen, I had to take a second.
Throughout the entirety of Boyfriend Dungeon, the majority of your texts attempt to communicate the same central ideas but with different phrasing. Every dialogue option is designed to feel viable in the moment. You can be mad or direct because people have the capacity to, in a moment, choose to act mad or direct even when they usually aren’t. But “please stop” felt different. It felt like an acceptance that none of the other dialogue options will get the message across to Eric.
It exposes the desperate emotional undercurrent present in all of your interactions with him, that desire to just make him leave you alone. It also exposes that there is no “right” way to reject him. All of this is distilled into saying, “please stop,” to your stalker. It doesn’t work.
In my experience it usually never does. “Please stop” only ever makes the person angrier, or more self deprecating, or more persistent. “Just block him!” You may think to yourself, and I too have often said that. With real Erics, however, it is rarely that simple. Most of the time he is not a random date, he’s someone you know. A longtime friend, a colleague, a classmate. Eric embodies this too. Your cousin sets you up on that first date. He’s invited to the same Fourth of July party as you. He’s a shop owner that provides valuable resources and a member of the community that everyone seems to know—whether they want to or not—which is seemingly why blocking him isn’t an option in the game.
Eric becomes a showcase of how not to interact with another human being. And in continuously and unsuccessfully rejecting him, all the while growing your other relationships positively, your own fear of rejection begins to diminish. Boyfriend Dungeon is a game that teaches you how to deal with rejection through example. It all but begs you not to be an Eric.
If you’re like me, and you reject everyone but the Wife of your Life Valeria, the game instead presents you with different visions of how people navigate their own rejection. Seven needs space. He struggles with severe depression and does not want to make you handle his rejection for him, so he pulls away for a few days. But when he comes back he does so as a stronger person. You can still cuddle at the end of his arc. Physical intimacy is important to that relationship, and navigating it post-rejection is handled directly and with care. Sunder, the flirty vampire who will always leave you in the end, doesn’t know how to navigate a relationship with someone he isn’t fucking, and it shows. He is anxious and awkward and, until he gets bored, at least a little invested in trying to make things work despite his extremely hornt impulses.
Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most earnest video games I’ve ever played. It is genuine to the point of being awkward, frequently. But that awkwardness feels well earned by both the characters and subject matter. Dating, and building new friendships, should feel awkward and messy. It’s why the end of Eric’s story is such a weird thing to behold.
After you defeat Katana, the evil sword he made from your friends that exists as a physical manifestation of his own worst impulses, Eric can look at you head-on and admit the ways that he is broken. He says, outright, that love is synonymous with power to him. That he needs to “see a fucking therapist” or he’s going to keep hurting people. He says all of the things you always hope to hear after confronting the dude who will not leave your friend the fuck alone. And you can choose to believe in his capacity to be better, or not. But as he walks away, and your cousin tosses in one last, “Yeah you seem like a pretty fucked up guy,” I cannot help but think he can be better. Perhaps it’s the game’s earnestness rubbing off on me.
Boyfriend Dungeon has been called a wholesome game because of its aesthetic. And so people were shocked to realize that it was actually a game about navigating the complexities of stalking. I think this assumption was unfair, albeit not entirely offbase. It is not Boyfriend Dungeon’s aesthetic that makes it wholesome, but its genuine desire to see the fucked up weirdo at its heart become a better person. I hope it’s right.