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When GamesBeat first learned of Boyfriend Dungeon, we called it “Tinder for Swords.” It’s an apt statement.
The idea behind this role-playing game is fantastic — you romance weapons. They transform from people (and in one case, a cat) into weapons. You talk to them and take them on dates, such as a nice stroll by the lake or hacking-‘n’-slashing in a dungeon (such as a mall, because dating!). It’s also feels like a departure for Kitfox Games, though cofounder Tanya Short did tell us that it’s combines everything the studio has learned about making games.
I talked to Short about Boyfriend Dungeon. As someone who’s playing RPGs for nearly as long as they’ve been around, I’m quite intrigued by this one. After playing it at PAX East earlier this year, I found it to be a colorful, delightful blend of the visual novel-like interludes in Persona and a good-ol’ hack-‘n’-slash RPG.
It’s coming out later this year on PC. This is an edited transcript of our interview.
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GamesBeat: Why do you call yourself a captain at Kitfox?
Tanya Short: Because I believe we’re all a team, and “captain” encapsulates what I want to achieve. I want to lead the team well. My goal is to get everybody working together well.
GamesBeat: How big is the team at Kitfox?
Short: We’re eight, soon to be nine people, but Boyfriend Dungeon is a team of four.
GamesBeat: Boyfriend Dungeon Kitfox’s fifth game, correct?
Short: Sort of? Because technically it’s our third full game where we said we’re working on it together. It looks like our fifth because two of our games were published. Shrouded Isle, myself and another Kitfox worked on it with some externals, but it was a side project that we published at Kitfox. Six Ages wasn’t by us at all. It was developed by an external developer, David Dunham, who made King of Dragon Pass, and we’re publishing that on Steam. So it’s sort of our fifth. It’ll be our fifth release on Steam. But it’s this team’s third game working together.
GamesBeat: How did you come up Boyfriend Dungeon’s concept of romancing your weapons?
Short: I’d wanted to make a game where I could romance various kinds of people for a long time. As we started building the dungeon crawling element, we were trying to think of–how do you have a companion in the dungeon? It just made sense, and it was hilarious. I was trying to brainstorm all the ways you could have an AI with you while you were fighting monsters. We said, what if it was the sword? Everyone kind of laughed, and then we said, wait a minute, that’s actually brilliant. We went forward from there.
GamesBeat: When I find a weapon I adore in an RPG, I keep using it, even if I find gear that has better stats. Did this idea come from something like that? Or was it more about just finding a way to have both an AI and romance in a dungeon crawler?
Short: The reason why it made so much sense once we thought of it was because of this context of how a sword is an adventurer’s best friend. That’s your most reliable companion in any game. It’s just that usually they’re not treated that way. Usually they’re just an object that sticks to your hand and maybe has a piece of text on it. Who is there for you all the time? It’s your sword. Your sword is always there. You and your sword can go anywhere together and do anything together. That relationship you build up with your trusty blade is just being taken an extra step here.
GamesBeat: When you dive into a dungeon, is that a date?
Short: Yes! It is a type of date. There are other kinds of dates. But the core of your relationship is beating up monsters together, for sure.
GamesBeat: Why did you decide on making a trip into a dungeon as a date? Where does that come from?
Short: What else are you and your sword supposed to do together? [laughs] Unless you’re a serial killer I don’t know how else you’re going to hang out. We do have other dates. But honestly it really was, dungeon crawling with dating elements naturally turned into, you have this relationship with your weapon, which makes total sense for an adventurer in an RPG. And then the dungeon is the core of the game. It’s always been the core of the game. The fact that there’s romance in there doesn’t change that. When you go out for ice cream or when you go out for dinner or to the club, then obviously you’ll still have–you’ll still remember your lovely dungeon times together. That’s how you first meet most of the weapons. It’s the main way that you get to know each other.
GamesBeat: One of the things I was thinking about this was, did you or anyone on your team meet each other or date someone in the past while playing an RPG?
Short: On our team, no? Although I have to say, as a teenager–well, this is embarrassing, but I definitely had a few romances that were pretty important to me as a teenager that were all online in text RPGs, MUDs back in the late 90s. But no. My partner and I do play a lot of games together coop. Recently we were playing Return of the Oberdin coop. We just pass the controller back and forth. When you have common interests that’s what you do together, whether it’s killing monsters or playing video games.
GamesBeat: Who came up with the tagline, “Level up your love”? I just love that.
Short: That was me. Thank you very much. That actually predates the fact that it was a weapon. As I was thinking about combining the idea of dungeon crawling and romance, level up your love just made the most sense.
GamesBeat: And your weapons turn into people?
Short: Yes, yes. It was part and parcel of thinking about how to put romance in the dungeons. Your sword is your soul mate in this situation, where you’re together forever and fighting the monsters. But then outside the dungeon, you see the other sides of them, the other parts of their personality, which are human.
GamesBeat: Why does romance, weapons, and dungeons work? We’ve seen it happen in Persona, in manga and other stories. And when I played it at PAX East, I enjoyed the the interactions outside the dungeon even more than inside them.
Short: I think it is partly because we have a rich history of weapons — well, it’s not quite romance, but romanticization, in genre fiction. In pulp fantasy or high fantasy, even in the most famous high fantasy, like Tolkien, you have names for swords and this relationship between the Baggins and the history of their dagger. Even King Arthur’s legend and Excalibur, we think of Excalibur as having its own presence, more so than most other objects. It’s natural for humans to anthropomorphize everything, especially when it has a name. It’s a natural extension to think, what if they were more anthropomorphic? What if they had opinions? The talking sword history in D&D and such is very intricate and storied and compelling.
I think in terms of a relationship metaphor, it also has different aspects you can explore, whether it’s power dynamics or different aspects of teamwork. The whole idea of being used is a conversation that you and your weapon can have together.
GamesBeat: How do you keep this from crossing over into a fetishism, as a lot of people do with weapons?
Short: I think it helps that we’re making it not too — how to put this? Alienating, for different kinds of people. It is really more focused on the relationship aspect and less on the physical — ah? Physical aspect, let’s say. It’s a blurry line, between what a novel can offer as a fantasy. It can be in the eye of the beholder too. I’m sure some people will look at our game and think it’s a horrible fetishism around weapons and violence. There’s nothing we can do for those people except hope they try the game and see that it’s very sweet and sincere, even though it’s silly. We could make a version of this game that was cold and bleak and murderous, but it’s really not that kind of a game that we’re trying to make.
GamesBeat: One of your weapons turns into a cat. Can you date a cat?
Short: Well, you spend a lot of time together. Maybe someday he’ll let you pet him.
GamesBeat: The setting looks modern. That surprised me. Why did you choose this?
Short: I originally went with that because I felt like it was more romantic, actually. It’s hard to imagine what dating would be like in a world that isn’t like ours, because there are so many rituals and customs and expectations bound up in dating that–there’s an energy, a frisson when you have a moment with a character in a game that is kind of applicable to your real life. I think that’s hard enough to do already in an authored virtual world. To add fantasy elements, high fantasy elements, on top of that would just be asking too much. I was realizing when I played Storming the Gate–think about going to the movies or to a cafe or to dinner. What are the equivalents to that in a medieval fantasy world? There isn’t any. Personally I’m very interested in history. I’m not by any means a historian, but I know enough of medieval Europe, for example, to say that the modern of adventure taverns is completely ahistorical. There weren’t just inns hanging around to be restaurants for dates everywhere. You could hunting, or you could go fishing, but there wasn’t as much leisure time. There wasn’t as much–what’s the word? Disposable income. There wasn’t as much disposable income. Dating was very different. I don’t think it would be as appealing to the modern person, unless I took great liberties with my medieval fantasy, which I wouldn’t really enjoy.
GamesBeat: I saw that one of the dungeons is a nightclub. Does that say anything about the dating scene?
Short: [Laughs] It’s definitely a question of, why are these particular sites where monsters tend to congregate? Your different weapons might have different theories on that. One of them is actually the club owner. He probably feels differently than some of the other people.
GamesBeat: Seeing that, the modern setting, monsters hanging out in a nightclub, for some reason that reminds me of Persona.
Short: It might, yes, a little bit.
GamesBeat: What’s been your most successful game so far at Kitfox? Was that Moon Hunters, or Shrouded Isle?
Short: Moon Hunters has been our most successful in most ways, yes. I think Shrouded Isle made a bigger splash in some ways with its–I think that in Japan it had a bigger following. At least a very vocal community in Japan. But overall, Moon Hunters has sold very well for us and won a lot of awards. We’re very proud of it.
GamesBeat: At this point in Kitfox’s life, is it fair to say the studio is thriving?
Short: I would say so. Of course we’re always nervous about how the future will go. We’re fairly conservative in our investments. But we are growing, despite the fact that we didn’t release a game in 2017. Yeah, I’d say we’re thriving.
GamesBeat: How hard is it to come off of Shrouded Isle, dealing with cults, to dating weapons?
Short: It helps that Kitfox wasn’t really the developer of Shrouded Isle. In a lot of ways, for the team it felt more like going from Moon Hunters to Boyfriend Dungeon directly. But honestly, I think all of our games, including Shrouded Isle, they each have their own spirit. They each have their own style and appeal. They’re all system-driven RPGs in their own way. Shrouded Isle is obviously a bit more simulation and Moon Hunters is more of an action party game, but they all have systems. They’re all about progressing your character or community or whatever. In a lot of ways, Boyfriend Dungeon is very refreshing for us. Because it’s in a modern world, that can be refreshing creatively. You can draw new inspirations every day. You see references to the dating world every day. And then the lighthearted, warm tone of it makes it really fun to work on.
GamesBeat: What would you consider to be the design ethos at Kitfox?
Short: I think we’re probably more best practices oriented than a lot of small teams. The fact that we only have four people on Boyfriend Dungeon doesn’t change the fact that, from the beginning, we had concept documents and vision statements and pillars and things like that that we’ve been using for our design process. I think generally, our design ethos is extremely iterative. It’s very much based on building the base and trying to refine that as we go. But we are fairly rigorous about evaluating what we make and why we’re making it. Overall–our internal motto has been to make intriguing worlds to explore. Trying to, in each game, look at why the player is curious about this. What is pulling the player forward to want to know more? Each game answers that question differently. But I think that’s a fundamental part of each Kitfox game, this central mystery that the player wants to know a bit more about. They keep playing and understanding the systems until they can answer for themselves, what is this intriguing world? What is at the core of it?
GamesBeat: How does the player character get connected to sentient weapons? How does that develop? Or is that too much of a spoiler?
Short: I’m not going to spoil too much, but what I can say is that you arrive in town having never been on a date before. You’re coming for the summer because your cousin is there to take care of you. Your mom has been very worried about you. She sends you to go live with your cousin and he’ll teach you how to go on dates. The first thing he says is, you need to get a hobby. You need to work on yourself and find some interests, and then you can find common interests. The first interest he recommends is going to dungeon crawling. [Laughs] And so you go to the dungeon, and he sets you up with one of his friends with a weapon. You start your dungeon exploration that way, and then you end up finding more weapons, because of course you do, because it’s a dungeon.
GamesBeat: So sentient weapons are a real thing, a known thing in this world.
Short: Yes. Again, I don’t want to spoil too much, but they’re a known thing. They’re an ability some people have.
GamesBeat: Did anyone from the team have their mother send them to their cousin to learn how to date?
Short: [Laughs] I refuse to answer that.
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