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My Daylong Dalliance With ‘Dream Daddy,’ the Surprisingly Heartfelt Dating Simulator

As a hopelessly heterosexual doofus who sucks at video games, I’m probably not the target audience for Dream Daddy. The dating simulator, available for $14.99 on the digital distribution platform Steam, puts you in the shoes of a single father who moves his daughter to a new neighborhood — one where all the other dads are extremely hot, and almost all are unattached. Over the course of the game, you flirt with them and sometimes hook up, but as it turns out, you spend most of your time just being… Dad.

This in and of itself is a fascinating twist for “daddy” as a term. In gay culture, “daddy” can refer to a man considerably older than his lover and in clear control of their dynamic — think “leather daddy” or “sugar daddy.” More recently, it gained traction as a meme that crosses all orientations: You can now find “daddy” at any intersection of sex and authority. So it’s funny to see a dating game capitalize on that trend only to recast the “daddy” role as literal.

That said, don’t mistake me; Dream Daddy is plenty homoerotic, and when you first customize your character, it looks as if cruising for dad-dick will be your top priority.

But long before you meet any eligible bachelors, you get to know your daughter, Amanda. She’s a plucky high school senior with a knack for photography who’s waiting to hear back from art schools. As you pack up your home to move across town together, you go through some old pictures and reminisce about Amanda’s missing parent, your late spouse (two of your initial choices include whether this person was a man or a woman, and whether Amanda was adopted or not). You banter easily, offering lame dad puns that she deflects with charming teenage sarcasm. It’s a nice relationship.

Quickly, though, you discover that your level of control in this narrative is rather limited. You have to click through page after page of text — your own interior thoughts as well as all the dialogue. I later learned, by reading some other reviews of Dream Daddy, that this format is known as a “visual novel.” Instead of developing your own personality, you adopt the guise of a socially awkward but good-hearted man trying his best to be, well, Daddy. As you and Amanda begin to explore the town of Maple Bay, you encounter a number of daddies in the same boat, including the musically inclined owner of a coffee shop, Amanda’s English teacher, a youth pastor who lives across the street and an old college roommate you recall being a total party animal. Also, a Victorian goth dude.

Being the horny guy I am, I took the first opportunity to fuck, going home from a dive bar with Robert, that brooding man above. Perhaps naïvely, I’d assumed that getting laid was a major accomplishment in the game, but Robert pretty much tossed me out on my ass with a hangover as soon as I woke up in the morning.

Still reeling from this rudeness while chatting with Amanda that day, I realized she was the true focus of the game. I talked her through a disheartening college rejection and began to see hints that something else was bothering her, especially after a meeting with her teacher, Mr. Vega. While flattering the other dads in conversation was easy — clusters of hearts flew out from their bodies when I was successful — trying to get her to open up was difficult. She was, however, incredibly informative when I asked her to explain what memes are.

By design, Amanda’s storyline takes a while to tease out, and in the meantime, you’re messaging your new daddy friends on a social network called Dadbook. By spending an afternoon or evening with each, you glean more of their background and chances to get affectionate — my bro-date with Craig, the college buddy, ended with him tenderly kissing me on the forehead after beaning me with a softball.

A lot of Dream Daddy’s buzz concerns its LGBT-friendly themes, particularly the inclusion of trans daddies, but it never harps on them; both Craig and I were previously married to women — he’s divorced — and we still got intimate with no mention of our orientation or sexual preference. Even my one-night stand with Robert felt pretty chaste, dissolving into a black screen before we got our clothes off. Pornography this ain’t, and it’s nice that the game doesn’t feed into stereotypes of gay men as promiscuous or hyper-eroticized.

In other words, even your interactions with your fellow daddies are more about fatherhood than romantic or sexual prospects, and some of the pleasure in trying to get close to them lies in your core, universal agreement: The kids come first.

Dream Daddy includes a handful of mini-games that enforce this idea; one Pokémon-styled affair involves trying to out-brag another dad about your respective daughters. Elsewhere, you’re simply discussing the joys and pitfalls of having children — comparing notes, as it were.

Who would’ve thought that a “dating simulator” would involve so much philosophy about the inner life of a parent?

In that sense, it’s less about normalizing gay relationships than it is an argument against the stigmas of single fatherhood. Dads can be embarrassing dorks; they don’t have all the answers; and yes, they might even make out with other hot dads now and then.

So what? Daddies gonna dad.