Mediatonic on remaking Hatoful Boyfriend and dating pigeons

We talk to the producers of the newly remade Hatoful Boyfriend about dating sims, pigeons and more...

NB: This article contains mild Hatoful Boyfriend spoilers

Hatoful Boyfriend is a work of bewildering magic. This is, after all, a game where you play the only human at a school populated by pigeons. The pigeons appear on the screen as little more than static photographs of varying quality. Yet as you navigate your way through the story, and ultimately choose which of the school’s pigeons you’d like to fall in love with, something strange happens: this surreal world starts to reel you in. You forget that the pigeons are just static images on the screen, and become ever more absorbed by the game’s increasingly complex storyline. Before you know it, Hatoful Boyfriend has shifted from a breezily weird dating sim to something far more unexpected.

Hatoful Boyfriend began life as a joke; a homemade Flash game released on April Fool’s Day in 2011, and intended to parody the dating sim genre that is so popular in Japan. Spurred on by the enthusiastic response from players, manga artist and writer Moa Hato took her initial concept and fleshed it out as a much longer visual novel, creating the game using FamousWriter and a mixture of her own drawings, public domain photographs and stock music.

The game’s humour and sharp writing made it cult success, which continued to spread when a fan-made English translation patch brought it to unsuspecting players in the west.

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Three years later, indie publisher Devolver Digital has teamed up with UK developer Mediatonic to make a HD remake of Hatoful Boyfriend. Rightly leaving the original fan translation and simple graphics largely intact, Mediatonic’s 2014 remake adds a new story strand and ending (written by Hato herself), and serves to bring this unique game to a wider audience.

We caught up with the remake’s producers, Luke Borrett and Jeff Tanton, to talk about Hatoful Boyfriend’s making, the darker undercurrents lurking beneath its playful exterior, and the forthcoming influx of pigeons in games.

This is probably a question you get asked a lot, but it seems like a good place to start: what made you decide to remake Hatoful Boyfriend?

Jeff Tanton: We’ve got a few Japanese speakers in the studio, so like most people, we were aware that a Japanese pigeon dating sim existed – which obviously piqued our curiosity. But it was a guy called Ed Fear who worked with us initially, who played the Japanese version and came back to us and said, “This game is actually fantastic. Forget what you might think you know about pigeon dating sims.”

It really evolved from the conversations between him and [original creator] Moa Hato. I think, initially, he was emailing Moa just to say, “Whatever you’re involved in, any English translations, I can step into that.” Those conversations naturally evolved into remaking the original game, which only really works on old PCs, and you need a whack from a hammer and screwdriver to get it working. That’s why we decided to rebuild the game in HD and try to bring it to a wider audience. 

It’s an interesting game as well, because while the premise seems daft, there are sinister things lurking under the surface, and a lot of intelligence, too.

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Luke Borrett: That’s taken a load of people by surprise. The thing is, we really don’t want to spoil anything like that, but a lot of people come in expecting a quirky pigeon dating sim, and then walk away saying, “How did I get emotionally invested in this game?”

JT: I think that’s the absolute appeal of the game, though. Once we started remaking it, we downloaded every version we could get hold of and started playing it, and it bluffs you. We didn’t want to change the way it was marketed, because we realised that the initial appeal is the ridiculousness of the set-up and the concept. But the actual joy of it, what makes the game work, is the way it goes so very dark. It has you so emotionally invested in these photos of birds, essentially.

LB: It takes you so much by surprise. Moa has said that she originally made it as a parody of the dating sim genre, and when it started getting a bit more popularity, it spun off into its own story about this world full of birds. You think it’s all quirky and silly, but eventually it does get explained in a way that is really not expected.

JT: The bit where most people really start to click that there’s something a bit different going on is, about a third of the way through the game, the main character goes for a run, and flashes past these fairly pastoral scenes. There’s a dojo and a beautiful meadow, then it flashes through these city streets. One of these interspersed scenes is a whole bunch of skyscrapers that have fallen into ruin. And no one makes any mention of it whatsoever, it just glides past. It’s the point where you realise that there’s more going on than this silly pigeon dating sim. Though there is that as well! [Laughs] But the way it’s layered in is masterfully done.

It’s a timely reminder, I think, that diversity is important in gaming. Individual voices are important.

JT: I think that’s it. What I love about the set-up of Hatoful is that the abstraction of birds makes it a lot easier for people who’d normally feel awkward. Especially, like, straight male gamers – if you said, “Okay, sit down. You’re going to play this male dating sim…”

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It shouldn’t be an issue, but for anyone who [might have an issue], it does allow them to engage, to go to a really interesting place, to think about the way they respond to relationships, and to woo a hot guy in a pigeon university [laughs]. I think it takes people to a place where you can play about with ideas about sexuality and dating and all that kind of stuff.

LB: It’s really heartening, with all these things going on at the moment. One of the things I’ve seen an abundance of at the moment are YouTube videos of people going, “Oh, I’m a girl!” about 10 minutes in, and then they just roll with it. It’s heartening to see people give themselves up to this story, and seeing where takes them.

JT: My favourite comments are the ones that say, “I’m thinking of buying this, but ah, I don’t know. I think it would be better if I was a male dating female pigeons.” Like it would make any difference! [Laughs] You’re dating pigeons! You should probably just roll with it and see what happens. 

That’s the strange thing, though, isn’t it? Because in so many games you have no choice but to play as a guy.

JT: Exactly, you know? Suck it up, essentially. I think it’s nice to wear a different skin. For anyone who’s even slightly open-minded, the quality of the writing, just the naivety and the joyfulness of the main character, carries you along. Whether you’re fully invested in the character as yourself, or you’re watching it slightly removed, where she’s like a puppet and you’re seeing where she goes, she’s a real fun character to spend time with. And almost entirely free of judgment as well.

LB: Yeah, and she’s not one of these characters where she’s a cypher you can project whatever you want onto them. She clearly has a character, and really characterful dialogue. You have the choices, you have the reins here, but as you learn more about the character, there’s a lot of fun to be found.

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Was translating the dialogue difficult?

JT: The translation was actually handled by Nazerine, who did the original fan translation, which we really didn’t want to touch at all because it’s such an excellent translation. What Nazerine manages to do, and she’s worked with Moa a lot before, is she doesn’t do an exact translation, but she does the best thing – she taps into the feel of what’s going on. So some of the jokes will be entirely unique to the English translation, but the spirit of the piece and the characters are entirely authentic.

LB: It’s completely iconic. It would have been like removing the photos of the birds, almost.

JT: Yeah, which was something that was floated initially when we started doing the HD version. One of the things that stuck out about the original 2011 version was that it wasn’t just a pigeon dating sim. It was also hilarious because it didn’t have drawings of anime characters – it just had fairly shoddily photoshopped birds in their place. One of the questions when we did the HD version was, “Are we going to redraw the birds?” And we were like, “No, it’s become part of the charm.”

For every photo we could upscale safely, we’ve obviously done that. But otherwise we’ve kept the birds exactly the same, because it wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t have that element to it. 

I think some are irreplaceable anyway, aren’t they? My favourite one, I think, is the image of the creepy school doctor.  

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LB: Shuu Iwamine! He’s my favourite, too. His plot goes places, that’s for sure!

JT: Yeah, how far have you got? Have you got to the creepy ending or the super creepy ending?

The creepy ending. I think I have to play through it again.

JT: [Laughs] Yeah, man. Honestly, it’s been joyful, this past weekend on Twitter, just seeing what pops up. People saying, “Oh my God, oh my God, I thought I was playing a happy game!” It’s not like we set out to traumatise people. But it is joyful. I’ve played through those storylines more than most people ever have, and I still feel like it’s a joy to experience the world and that writing. The Shuu storyline is the perfect example of exactly why we wanted to bring this game to a wider audience. Because it’s so much fun to give people one thing, and let them get excited about that, and we’re basically standing behind a wall laughing, waiting for the moment to hit where everyone’s going to start being traumatised! [Laughs] Because we’re terrible people.

LB: Shuu’s a really interesting one, because there’s one level of creepy and traumatising ending, then there’s an epilogue, all the Bad Boys Love stuff, where you find out the reason why it’s so creepy. It’s really well conceptualised – it’s the level Jeff was talking about in the storytelling where you enter for a bit of a lark, and then you realise that actually, it’s really well written.

I think it’s important as well that, every so often, a game comes along to remind you that games really can be about anything.

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JT: Exactly. That’s how we feel. We would describe Hatoful Boyfriend as a Mediatonic game that we didn’t make. We’re quite happy to shape the HD version, and bring it to a wider audience, but what appeals to us is this wonderful narrative. Hatoful Boyfriend knows what it is from the very first line. It started as a parody of dating games, but you just know that when Moa started writing that stuff, she had a very clear idea of how the characters would interact and the world they inhabit.

What’s incredible is the number of people who’ve bought into it so far. I think we’d have been happy if at least one major site gave us a bit of attention, but it’s just exploded, really. There’s been massive positivity for the most part. It just feels as though everyone was ready for a bit of pigeon love in their life! [Laughs]

LB: Some people were drawn in by the comedy, and that’s fine. But some people we’ve seen in early coverage have delved really deep and finding all this strange content.

JT: I think we hit at a time when the games industry needed a distraction. For various reasons, it’s been quite a difficult month. Then Hatoful drops, so people are like, “This is what I need right now.” Something that can prove that anything can be a game, really, as long as people have put a lot of love into it. If they’re actively trying to engage with the player then that’s great. 

Do you think we’ll get some more visual novels over here, because as a genre it’s nowhere near as popular as it is in Japan.

LB: It’s been on the rise lately. Phoenix Wright was the first breakout, and then there was Dangun Ronpa and things like that recently. But this is a whole other niche area, and we’re happy people are buying into it. Because we love that genre, and there’s some really special stuff in it. It’s very dependent on character and writing, but you can do some really special stuff with it, and we’d love to see more in the future, for sure.

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JT: It feels like a litmus test for us. When the game was announced, we got a lot of buzz on the scene from people who are into otome generally – dating visual novels. They were just hoping that Hatoful would make a splash, because then it might crack open the door for other examples of the genre to come through. We’re going to have to wait for the dust to settle and see, but for us, it’s been such an immensely positive experience that, whether it’s us doing it or a different company coming aboard, it does feel like the world might be a bit more ready for visual novels, which are obviously enormously popular in Japan already.

LB: We feel like there are better platforms in place now to get them out to the smaller audience that would have perhaps brought into them. Nowadays, I think you can find an audience for these sorts of things.  

Do you think it’ll also lead to more pigeons in games?

JT: [Laughs] We can only hope. What I like to think we’ve done is, we’ve lit the fuse. Give it six to 12 months, I expect to have a massive pigeon influx in gaming. In the games that are currently in production, I expect there are a lot of producers and designers sitting around tables in studios across the world this morning saying, “Okay. Pigeons: the next big thing.”

Bungie are probably saying, “Should we release Destiny today, or should we just cancel everything and get more pigeons into it?”

Hopefully that’s the impact we’ve made.

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LB: Pigeons in all the annualised franchises.


LB: Yeah, I’d play that, absolutely. [Laughs]

I think I’d play a first-person shooter entirely populated with pigeons.

JT: For sure!

Luke Borrett and Jeff Tanton, thank you very much.

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Hatoful Boyfriend is out now for Windows, OS X and Linux.

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