I experienced my first crush in middle school. The subject of my affections was a girl who sat next to me in band class. She was a real catch, let me tell you. She met my incredibly high standards immediately. One, she was cute. Two, she talked to me. I was smitten and I had no idea what to do with the sensations I was feeling. Luckily, I had the advice of my family to lean on, gems such as “you’re such a smart and handsome boy, you won’t have any trouble finding a girlfriend” and “you’re a sweetheart, any girl would be lucky to have you.” The whole thing seemed like a slam dunk, really. So you can imagine my surprise when I told that young lady how I felt and her response was to – as nicely as she could manage – inform me that she didn’t really see me as boyfriend material. I had no idea how to process this. Everyone I trusted in my life told me that I was essentially the ultimate boyfriend material. There was no reason not to like me, right? So what was wrong with this girl that she wasn’t interested in ALL OF THIS? *gestures to a poorly dressed dork with braces who only talks about Star Wars*
To say I handled my rejection poorly would be an understatement. I went home and cried. My family tried to console me. “If she doesn’t see why you’re so great then she’s not worth your time anyway.” But I wasn’t ready to let go, so I decided to show this girl why I was such a likeable guy. I put on what we in the southern US call the “full court press,” an endless barrage of flirting at every conceivable opportunity. I made sure to whip out all the greatest lines: telling her she was cute and telling her she was pretty and telling her she was beautiful. But for some reason none of those worked and she just got more and more annoyed by my advances. It wouldn’t be long before I heard a term for the phenomenon I was experiencing: the Friend Zone. Despite how clearly amazing I was, this girl could not see me as anything other than someone she could be friends with. Frustrated and angry at her for putting me in this awful position that I so clearly did not deserve, my affection turned to disdain and I made sure to let her know that I didn’t appreciate this mistreatment at her hands. And if this girl was this way, then so was every other girl at the school, probably! Nice guys like me who didn’t respect boundaries couldn’t get dates at all while jackasses who did awful things like *checks notes* enjoy sports seemed to be getting girlfriends left and right. It didn’t take long for my frustration to be directed to other kids in the school, all of whom were idiots who were lucky if they ever got my time or attention.
Tone is hard to convey sometimes through text so allow me to be abundantly clear: I was a piece of shit during this time in my life. A spoiled brat who got everything I ever wanted at home, when I went out into the real world and faced rejection for the first time I had no idea what to do with myself. And I made it everybody’s problem, particularly the poor girl whose only crime was being polite enough to talk to the people sitting next to her in band class. There are a lot of terms for the way I was behaving at the time, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to describe my young self as an Eric, the antagonist of the indie dating sim and dungeon crawler Boyfriend Dungeon.
Eric is a blacksmith, a craftsman of weapons in a town where a number of the people living there have the magical power to turn into weapons themselves. For you as the player, he is your first date. He spends that date making it very clear why you should be uncomfortable in his proximity. Eric dislikes weapon people because he doesn’t see them as “pure” like the weapons he crafts at his forge. His weapons don’t have minds of their own – they are obedient to his will and fully under his control. Eric’s Nazi-adjacent obsession with “purity” alongside his disturbing desire for control in his relationships immediately position him as someone that you the player will not want to spend your time with. Unfortunately you don’t get much of a choice as Eric continues to send you text messages and gifts, flirt with you when you tell him to stop, and takes advantages of situations where you can’t leave his physical proximity to confront you about why you don’t want a relationship with such an “obvious” catch.
Eric is meant to make you uncomfortable as the player, and for me that discomfort hit in more ways than one. It was the discomfort of getting a taste of my own medicine, of experiencing for the first time the kind of shitty behavior that I myself had inflicted on other people when I was younger. It was the all-too-familiar discomfort of being shown a mirror and hating what you see inside of it, a sensation which we learn is also a key part of the broken ways in which Eric conducts his relationships. The fear of being unlovable and the desire for love you feel you cannot give yourself leads to an unhealthy desperation for love from other people. When you feel that someone is obligated to meet that need for you, their “failure” to do so leads to unhealthy reactions that hurt everybody involved.
I share my story and my similarities with Eric not to garner sympathy for his character or to be praised for becoming “better” – change is a verb and I will always be in the process of unlearning shitty behaviors – but because understanding the context from which I see the ending of Boyfriend Dungeon is useful for understanding my perspective on the ending of the game, which is the topic I really want to tackle in this article. That discussion will involve major spoilers for Boyfriend Dungeon, so if you don’t want to know any details about the ending until you have played or watched it for yourself then this is your warning that I am going to talk openly about the whole finale.
*final spoiler warning*
Each dunj in Boyfriend Dungeon is an expression of your own fears, so some might anticipate that the game’s final villain will be a manifestation of your deepest insecurities. This is not the case, as the final boss is not even truly encountered in a dunj. Instead, the villain of the game is a construct crafted by Eric. Called “Masamune” by Eric but Katana by most of the other characters, the monster is an artificial weapon person forged by Eric from pieces of all the weapon people who have rejected his advances. He strived to create the perfect weapon, one that would do exactly what he wished. It’s left vague whether or not Eric wanted this weapon to also be his boyfriend, but given that he specifically takes pieces from people he was attracted to I personally think the implication is strong enough to assume that his intent is to make someone not only who will serve him unconditionally in battle, but in matters of the heart as well. Katana does have a will of his own, though, and that will is tied up in Eric’s loathsome feelings towards the latest person who doesn’t return his affections: you.
Things get even more complicated during the final confrontation. After the first phase of your battle with Katana, the sword and its maker are psychically linked and the connection makes it so that Eric’s emotions directly impact Katana’s power. In this moment Eric’s self loathing overcomes his usual bravado and he describes how even as he acted out his shitty behaviors, he hated himself for them. Your response impacts how the rest of the boss fight plays out and varies in intensity from telling Eric that he was “doing his best” to putting additional pressure on him to explain why he behaved so badly. I used the opportunity to tell Eric that this moment of clarity was his opportunity to begin changing his behavior. For that choice, I was “rewarded” with an incredibly easy second phase where all I had to do was not die while the force of Eric’s self-hatred destroyed Katana for me. The fight came to an unceremonious conclusion, I told Eric to go to therapy, and then anything serious went out the window as the game transitioned to the obligatory beach party scene where I got to see all my sexy partners in swimsuits.
This was a difficult ending to parse for me not because I necessarily disagree with anything that takes place here, but because the time isn’t given to this very serious moment in the story to make it impactful. The responsibility for getting Eric to realize that he needs professional help falls onto you, the player, the victim of his stalking and manipulation. Meanwhile Eric’s pal Jesse, who is at least close enough to the guy to recommend him as a first date to his own cousin, never calls Eric out on his behavior and just dismisses their final conversation with an awkwardly-delivered “heavy.” (That’s not criticism of the voice actor, by the way, but rather the directing/writing decisions that led to this scene being so rushed to get to the ‘good stuff.’) Eric expresses his desire for forgiveness from the player but at no point is it made clear that that forgiving him to help him feel better is not your responsibility.
I think the reason I feel so let down by the Eric conclusion is twofold. The first reason is because this is the game’s main storyline. This is the part of the game you have to engage in order to advance the other pieces and the one that you must finish if you ever intend to roll credits and see the conclusion of your character’s time on Verona Beach. Yet despite Eric’s “character arc” being the one that every player who finishes the game will definitely see, it is given the least investment and the least rewarding payoff. The second reason the ending frustrates me is because the other stories show us what this game is capable of in terms of navigating the challenges of being in a relationship, including rejection. You can reject any of the characters in the game and not be in dating relationships with them if you choose, and how they handle their rejection is a great model for real life. Sawyer, for example, is legitimately hurt by being rejected at first and yeah things are kinda awkward. But they value being friends with you enough to push through, and it led to a really fulfilling connection that I enjoyed quite a bit. Sunder, similar to Eric, is pretty pushy at first in terms of what he wants from your relationship, but you get the opportunity to stand firm in your boundaries and that interaction is handled with grace. Good or bad, healthy or not, the way your relationships play out with the other characters in the game are given the attention in terms of writing quality and time spent to make them impactful and enjoyable to interact with. Eric, on the other hand, feels tacked on. It’s an afterthought, which is a pretty lousy way for the main story of your game to feel.
It ultimately boils down to this: dealing with such a human story of unhealthy relationship dynamics requires a significant amount of nuance, particularly if that story is also going to be the beginnings of a redemption arc for the person doing wrong in the situation. You don’t necessarily want to portray Eric as an ultimately good person doing bad things or soften the blow in terms of playing down the negative impact of his actions. But if the plan is to make him a redeemable character then I think some time needs to be spent showing who is responsible for starting that process and what everyone’s role in it is. Jesse or another of Eric’s friends should have nipped this behavior in the bud quite some time ago, telling Eric to stop being in relationships until he worked through his issues. Eric himself is responsible for the actual process of change, and for dealing with the consequences of his unhealthy actions. As the victim of his manipulations and uncomfortable behavior, I don’t believe the player owes Eric anything – not kindness, not forgiveness, and certainly not being the person who bears the responsibility of guiding Eric through his self-loathing and helping him to realize he needs therapy. That is a LOT of nuance to shove into a two minute dialogue at the end of your dating sim. This whole messy scenario needed time to effectively communicate the complexity of the relationship dynamic being shown, and out of all the story arcs in the game this one got the least attention.
I suppose if one thing can be said for this ending, it would be that there’s a decent chance this conclusion accurately reflects the reality for a lot of people tied up in these sorts of relationships. No closure, no meaningful apology, and no taking of responsibility by those who were really in the wrong, with the person who should be the least involved in cleaning up the mess being burdened with the greatest amount of responsibility. Whether it makes a good story or not, plenty of relationships do ultimately come to an end in this way. If it was the intent of the developers to capture this emotion for the conclusion of Eric’s storyline – for Jesse to be cautionary rather than likeable and for your character to be unfairly burdened with tasks that should not be theirs – then in that sense I suppose the ending would have pretty strongly accomplished what it was intended to do. But even in that situation, I think there would be value in making that more explicit in the text.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a really solid game. It portrays diverse relationship styles with a diverse cast of characters, and most of the story arcs do a great job at tackling what it means to love another person and how complicatedly beautiful that process can be. The weak finale will be a piece of this otherwise excellent title that will bug me, but I think there is a lot more value in the lessons to be learned and the happiness to be found in the other relationships highlighted by the game. So if you’ve only read this article about the game, I would encourage you to read further about the many things that Boyfriend Dungeon does well. I’ll finish up by sharing a few of my favorite pieces of media about why having this type of game out in the world – flaws and all – is so valuable and worth celebrating:
This one is a great discussion of the challenges bisexual folks in heteronormative relationships face and how the game tackles these issues well: https://www.thegamer.com/valeria-boyfriend-dungeon-bisexual/
This article was a really good read after getting my own thoughts about the ending hashed out, and helped me to see that there is a more generous interpretation for how the finale goes down: https://kotaku.com/boyfriend-dungeons-great-story-wouldnt-work-without-its-1847607513
The first thirty minutes or so of this episode of Waypoint Radio are focused on Boyfriend Dungeon and do a great job of describing the charm of the game’s writing and mechanics: https://play.acast.com/s/vicegamingsnewpodcast/episode419-nonbinarywitchscythe-orbisexualdagger-