Note: Some images are NSFW.
There is absolutely no question that HuniePop is a pornographic game, it doesn’t really make great strides in hiding its nature but this seemingly hasn’t prevented it from being put under the same scrutiny as if it was a mainstream release. In the recent weeks leading up to being made available on Steam, it was subject to frequent accusations of sexism, racism, and misogyny. These accusations have come from both journalistic outlets who have actually played the game but also many of those who have and will never touch it, simply outraged at its very existence.
While I will attempt to stray away from discussion that revolves around holisms instead of HuniePop as a game itself, I do feel it is worth exploring the notion of proper contextualization especially when considering how one should ultimately judge or examine a particular work.
With the recent drama surrounding Hatred, the gaming realm namely the parts concerned with the actual distribution and regulation of games has to a certain degree, been put to the ultimate test. While gaming is currently strictly regulated by the likes of the ESRB and the collective conscious of what is deemed acceptable by the few major publishers and distributors who ultimately control what is made commonly available, there is still the sense that clear divisions are absent.
For example, one isn’t going to find a Brazzers or Wicked production on an outlet like Hulu or Netflix amidst standard Hollywood film productions. And furthermore, one likely isn’t going to find someone taking offense at the improper depiction of sexual relationships and human interaction in that particular realm. Pornography by its nature implies a certain fiction despite the real acts filmed and often reaches for what ultimately gets off a viewer regardless of political correctness or worries it could be read the wrong way.
And really one doesn’t need to look any further then the manner in which popular porn streaming sites like PornHub can so easily categorize and fetishize this degree of interaction into simple keywords centered around race, visual characteristics, or adopted roles.
This all bears mentioning because HuniePop regardless of whether it is truly offensive or not, or whether it is even a worthwhile “game” mechanically speaking, has unfairly been contextualized to be put under the same sort of scrutiny a AAA game like Bioshock Infinite might receive, in other words something that was intended for mass consumption. And this might be indicative of the absence of any sort of clear formalistic dividers in place within game distribution. On release, I saw HuniePop featured on the Steam front page among publicly acceptable titles like Dying Light, H1Z1, or Life Is Strange.
And it is completely in the realm of possibility that someone unaware of the genre, could mistakenly misconstrue HuniePop as an innocent venture from a casual glance. A bit ecchi for sure based upon its artwork, but there are also tons of anime-centric releases on Steam which never get the same sort of scrutiny boiling down to a cultural difference then any serious threat of actual sexist agenda.
And it remains to be seen whether rampage killer sim Hatred will make it onto Steam from being pulled off Greenlight despite being overwhelmingly upvoted and consequently reinstated by Gabe Newell himself, because it didn’t in fact violate any of Steam’s own rules regardless of its supposed upsetting nature.
But unlike Hatred, HuniePop doesn’t take itself seriously at all and it’s difficult to imagine after playing it, that anyone involved with its creation would actually attest to the game’s accurate portrayal of a segment of human interaction, women, or sexual encounters. The whole affair comes off as very deliberate caricature, more concerned with getting some kind of rise out of the player whether that is through explicit imagery, or ridiculously cheesy dialogue that is hard not to get a chuckle out of, none of it seems to indicate it should be taken as some sort of informal guide in how to approach reality.
None of this should suggest however that HuniePop should be free of criticism, rather that the context one should judge it should be shifted accordingly. For example, accusations of racism fall short comparatively speaking when considering what one finds on a site like PornHub which can casually breakdown categories into Asian, Black, Latino, and other ethnic demarcation. And while I can’t cite specific examples off the top of my head, I am sure an interested party can easily find the likes of Asa Akira or “insert other non-white porn star” in some form of deliberate ethnic costuming (both literally and in characterization) that would make anything questionable from HuniePop look completely tame in comparison.
So while it’s probably a bit racist that Kyanna the token Latino is a hairdresser and baby mama, or that Beli Lapran is stereotypically Indian as a yoga instructor, HuniePop is also a game that features a cat girl, alien bounty hunter, love fairy, and goddess all of whom the player can interact with. But more importantly, much like in the realm of porn, HuniePop while at times questionable in its characterization, never singles out any one victim or another to safeguard against. No one or thing is free from being potentially fetishized, and in this equalizing manner it is difficult to truly point the finger and cry out about any sort of actual offense.
What exactly is HuniePop?
HuniePop advertises itself as a “fully featured dating sim blended with classic puzzle gameplay and enriched by deep RPG systems.” From an interface angle, HuniePop plays much like any other dating sim or visual novel. Players take control of a faceless, nameless, and gender variable protagonist who is tasked with essentially learning how to bed a women through successfully dating and seducing them.
Mechanically the game consists of two primary systems. In tradition with its parent genre, HuniePop tasks players with talking to potential girls of interest in order to learn about them, but also to form some kind of ongoing relationship. This is largely done by asking questions, remembering the information, then correctly responding when asked. For example, a player could ask Tiffany what her favorite place to hang out is, then later subsequently be asked to relay that information in order to gauge whether the player actually paid attention.
Answering correctly awards “hunie”, which can then be spent within an RPG-like stat leveler that aids in the puzzle system of play. Conversing with girls however consumes a hunger meter which limits the amount of interaction a player can get done in a single period of day which there are four of; morning, afternoon, evening, and night. This can lead to constantly shoving food and drinks into a girl’s mouth in order to keep talking to her, which has its own interesting implications.
The bread and butter of the game however revolves around its puzzle system which consists of a match-3 game representing both the complexities of an actual date, as well as the ultimate bedroom showdowns. Successfully completing a date puzzle is what actually progresses a relationship to the next stage and awards “munie” which acts as an actual currency in-game to purchase gifts, food, or drinks.
In terms of its central narrative, the game is unsurprisingly simplistic. HuniePop opens with the player being approached at a local bar by a girl and subsequently becoming flustered unable to confidently respond. Later at home, the girl reveals herself to be a love fairy tasked with ironically getting the player off of playing video games all day and thrust into the outside world to actually learn how to approach women.
After a brief tutorial on the game’s basic mechanics, the player is freely able to approach eight different women. There isn’t any limits or guidelines on who players can interact with or in what order, and up to their discretion can either pursue all of them, a single character, or something in between.
The game also doesn’t have a proper ending or cut-off point, so failure is nigh impossible. If a certain currency is short or a date failed, players can simply try again the next day without penalty. With that said however, it takes at least four successful dates, then a following night date to ultimately bed a character and be rewarded with some steamy images and some audible moaning.
And surprisingly enough, the game isn’t nearly as focused on providing the player with steamy images as one might expect. While a first successful sexual encounter does unlock a special image per character, subsequent encounters simply fade to black with some audible moaning.
In other words, regardless of what the final verdict is on HuniePop, potential players of the game arguably must actually find the puzzle mechanics engaging in their own right to have any sort of proper incentive to invest substantial time into it. The ecchi portion of the game while significant, is ultimately not its central driving force or draw nor does it have lasting appeal.
On mechanizing dating
Likely the most ridiculous criticism I’ve heard of HuniePop is that it offensively boils down interactions with females into a puzzle game, where by doing so women are somehow depicted as shallow and simplistic in their desires.
The argument while idiotic, does have some relevance at casual glance. By framing the desires and processes involved in order to win over a women by a select few quantitative values, the depth of complex interaction is otherwise essentialized into simplified mechanics. Women are not so much mysterious humans with their own sets of motivations, attitudes, and depthful personalities, rather they are formalistic systems wherein a player can easily and somewhat mathematically manipulate to their own objectives.
Comparatively however HuniePop arguably achieves the reverse if anything. Examining games that have been conversely heralded as providing depthful mechanical and textual characterization especially those involving sex, the complexity of mechanical representation is difficult to argue for.
Taking Bioware’s Mass Effect as an example, if one were to breakdown the possible romantic relationship between Shepard and Liara, there is really only one value at play. A single value that denotes romantic interest gained by picking “flirt” or “romantic” dialogue options. It doesn’t so much take into account the particular differences from one character to another, rather merely expects players to know to generally pick dialogue wheel choices in the upper left quadrant (often explicitly marked with a heart or color-coded pink), or in non-romantic discourse click the upper right choice showing support.
HuniePop on the other hand is altogether more tricky and strategic when it comes to successfully winning any girl over, and no two are alike. The match-3 mechanic of play consists of players doing exactly what the term suggests, matching 3 of a kind or more in order to score points. Players are limited in the number of moves they have in a date and must reach a certain point total in order to succeed.
Different colored orbs or tokens represent different stats or values. For example red is seduction, green is flirtation, blue is talent, and so on. While matching any of the main value types awards points, to successfully finish a date, players must actually know to a certain degree, the girl they are dating.
For example if a player is on a date with Jessie, matching romance tokens are ineffective while sexuality awards significant bonuses. These differences in orb token preferences reflect the individual characterizations and are not merely arbitrary choices. Jessie as the game’s MILF, likely didn’t get to experience her younger years which has had the effect of her compensating for it now by being overly sexually forward and aggressively flirtatious. It is consequently no surprise then that she favors sexuality and isn’t into romance.
Aside from the main stat tokens, the puzzle board is littered with a few other modifiers of note. Matching bells awards an extra move, pink hearts increase the passion meter which adds an ongoing multiplier bonus, broken hearts take away points, and sentiment once built up can be spent on employing gifts.
The inclusion of the broken hearts is intriguing for a number of reasons. Primarily it adds an ongoing sense of tension to an otherwise casual puzzle mechanic. While it might seem easily avoidable from matching them up accidentally, from my own experience it is something that happens more often then one would like or expect. And the penalty from a broken heart match is most certainly catastrophic easily resulting in eventual failure.
The presence of broken hearts themselves aside from its mechanical inclusion, seems indicative of the very real possibility of an altogether good date going instantly awry. One miscalculated slip of the tongue or expressing a particular viewpoint that is at odds with your date. In this manner, the broken heart penalty is often not a small subtraction, but a frustratingly crippling blow which often spells doom even when a player has considerable moves left and has otherwise been performing well.
Sentiment while awarding no points themselves, gives its own currency type which can be spent within a single date. Players can earn gift items that perform certain abilities within a date, and more or less act like equipment from a traditional RPG. Because each girl presents a different approach, gift items as well need to be properly and strategically equipped beforehand.
For example a Blue Orchid which consumes all talent tokens currently in play makes perfect sense on a date with gym-rat Kyanna, however the same item would be rather ineffective on a date with Lola who seeks romance, and is not impressed by talent.
Ultimately it’s thoroughly difficult to discredit HuniePop on its mechanical sophistication. Regardless of supposed implications or questionable characterizations, the thought and care that went into its match-3 play deserves unquestionable credit. The puzzle play taken on its own, is thoroughly engaging being a balanced compromise between casual and strategic stimulation.
Dates can last anywhere from a few minutes to nearly an hour depending on the attention a player is ready to commit in regards to considering how many moves ahead they are planning. And the manner in which the puzzle matching actually draws into the characterization also deserves equal attention. Of which, isn’t merely present in the puzzle mechanic itself rather throughout the game seen in the manner in which players engage with characters in dialogue or gifting.
Although in regards to the match-3 system of play, it probably does bear mentioning how it ultimately translates into the bedroom encounters. While the basic mode of play remains intact, the player enters a no-fail state where they must match tokens of any type as quickly as possible. There is no time-limit or move counter, instead the point counter quickly degenerates so players must gain points quicker then they lose them in order to finish the encounter.
While the whole ordeal may not be the most subtle method of transcribing sexual tension and release, it does in its own crude way make perfect sense and ultimately function. It is almost as if players must seemingly go “faster and harder” in order to achieve a sense of climax while tension is still present before it quickly expires. And in this arena, the particulars of the token types get thrown out the window in favor of a more dexterous display of quick matching concerned more with constant interaction then slow methodical strategy.
Perusing the user reviews for HuniePop on Steam and sifting through comments on various Youtube videos of the game, the most contentious facet is seemingly whether or not HuniePop is well written or an atrocious mess. It is seemingly polarized with those who have enjoyed the game expressing surprise at the smart writing and voice work, while those in opposition hold the other view that it is childishly idiotic coming off as the Tumblr rantings of an adolescent teen.
And honestly based on the dialogue alone, it is thoroughly a hard call to make. Having played the game myself, I teeter back and forth from considering the game’s dialogue as embarrassingly bad to in its own way, somehow charming. I mean how does one honestly gauge a game that has me saying “Forgive me for saying this….but your body is straight bangin” as literally the first thing I say to a girl I have just met? And a good majority of the dialogue is similarly laughable, all of which is entirely difficult to actually take seriously. And to be honest, I’m not sure it was meant to.
If anything, much of HuniePop in its scope of conversational interaction is more geared towards eliciting a comedic response and a chuckle out of the player, then concerned with injecting thoughtful banter. And to be completely frank, it functions rather well. Watching Jesse Cox stream the game, despite what his personal feelings might be on HuniePop, it was hard to argue that he audibly expressed a great deal of enjoyment out of these conversations.
To cement this notion further, developer Ryan Koons himself in a supposed “field research” session where he went around to real girls and tried to approach them with some ridiculous pickup lines and methodology, seems to indicate the comedy of the whole experience. It is completely telling as well that Koon’s own choice of lines is quite similar to what one might find in the game itself, and while those he approach are obviously flustered, most expectedly realize the humorous intent behind them, and seemingly exhibit little to no offense. And the implied humor of the whole so-called research session indicates that Koons himself doesn’t take HuniePop’s own depiction of pickup artistry at all seriously.
And this ultimately leads back to whether the subsequent characterizations whether deliberate or implied are still offensive in light of its completely satirical nature. There is unquestionably moments from HuniePop when taken out of context which could be considered as potentially problematic. Most of this centers around the particular ethnicity of a girl or another identifiable visual trait, and the dialogue choices presented. More often then not, HuniePop rather shamelessly injects a type of response that keyholes these girls into a particularly simplified mold.
An obvious case of this would be the gift preferences of certain girls. For example, gifting Lola the black girl some watermelon or Aiko random Japanese paraphernalia. But the game itself is incredibly aware of this behavior and is framed within the context of comedy. HuniePop never takes the stance that the player should give the Japanese girl Japanese things, rather that the humor behind such a seemingly racist gesture is the source of affection itself. When gifted such objects, Aiko regularly expresses laughter and quite directly states in a playful manner that the player is “a huge racist” for giving her such an item.
Possibly a better point of comparison would be to contrast it to the world of stand-up comedy, another realm of expression that has often been cited as a point of offense by those simply unaware of the obvious contexts therein. Louis C.K. in one of his past specials had a bit that had him yelling “faggot, cunt, nigger” in a rather harsh tone. For those that actually heard the entirety of the bit and related material that preceded it, there shouldn’t have been any offense taken. However, that single line taken out of context could conceivably become a point of vitriol given it contains likely the three most offensive words within the United States currently.
I’m not suggesting however that HuniePop should be or is free of criticisms, rather if one were to seriously consider the implications of the writing for example of mega-bitch Audrey, then they also have to account for the presence of cat-girl Momo or love fairy Kyu. It would be as ridiculous as watching Sasha Grey getting face-fucked then considering it as an indicator of actual relationships or gender dynamics, or laughing at most of a jokes heard on stage, but then turning around and being offended by a single bit that might hit a bit close to home.
And whether one agrees with the intentional or unintentional implications of HuniePop’s depiction, it would be completely false to discount the attention that went into developing the various girls. The mechanical aspect of this seen in the puzzle match-3 dynamic has already been thoroughly discussed, but in addition the manner in which many of the underlying systems flesh out various characters is also telling.
Examining Jessie for example reveals a character who isn’t simply the over-sexualized cougar the game often throws at the player. Out of the few gift types she favors, Jessie is fond of Christmas items indicating her affection for her daughter born in December and despite being at odds with her. And while much of the dialogue in the game is geared towards getting a quick laugh or simply a series of formal questions that must be answered, much of the flavor text and dialogue does work in order to make these girls more then objects to be pursued or defined by their appearance, ethnicity, or other caricaturizing trait.
Lastly as often is the case, HuniePop like virtually any other game that has received a level of criticism never forces the player to make certain seemingly questionable choices. A player if they so wished, could always answer honestly and pursue a single interested girl in a monogamous relationship. Or they could be a complete dog and do the reverse. And in fact, it isn’t as if the player is the only one guilty of this, with many of the girls being as much of a “player” as the player themselves might choose to be.
Comparatively speaking, HuniePop in this regard isn’t all that far removed from what a potential player might find in mainstream fare. GTA IV had Niko similarly pursuing multiple women at once and with much less depthful relationships or literal justification. And while I don’t want to make the point that there is something wrong with GTA IV in this regard, it isn’t as if HuniePop allowed players to drive a girlfriend into an alley after a particular date went awry and shoot her in the face with no repercussion.
From a characterization context, one could weakly argue that given Niko’s criminal background, that such behavior might be fitting, but this argument falls apart when considering popular games in a similar vein that have actually featured a classically “heroic” protagonist.
Sleeping Dogs for example has players cast as Wei Shen an undercover cop who can also pursue multiple women. None of which leads to any sort of meaningful conclusion and are arguably portrayed worse then in GTA IV given their limited brevity and lack of any sort of thoughtful characterization. As a game centered on a focused and strongly written character of moral integrity, the whole mechanic seemed dissonant only serving to make Wei Shen appear as a thoughtless womanizer essentially breaking ties once a relationship might have actually evolved into something meaningful past a one-night stand.
In the end HuniePop’s writing is still arguably problematic, but not for the reasons many would automatically ascribe to the game based upon its encompassing premise. The issue is not simply a case of insensitive depiction, rather a questionable attempt at capturing the vernacular of real people while also recontextualizing Japanese archetypes into a Western mold.
While I would still argue that HuniePop’s writing ultimately works for its intended purposes from a mechanical perspective, it does little in actually getting players to care at all for the characters they are supposedly building relationships with past reaching their informal win states. And while this might seem like an idiotic criticism to have of a game that is seemingly pornographic, HuniePop’s own large emphasis upon its writing seems to suggest otherwise.
However the efforts and methodology employed in realizing culturally genre-specific characters transplanted into the West is still intriguing while being far from perfect. On the one hand, HuniePop employs characters like Audrey as the classic tsundere but in a Western context simply comes off as a mega-bitch then having any sort of underlying charm. On the other hand however, characters like Nikki who would conceivably be cast immediately as the dandere are revised to a degree, to be more independent despite her social awkwardness. Nikki like the rest of the cast simply aren’t present to respond to the whims of the player, rather show a certain capacity of being separate individuals who are typically using the player as much as the player themselves might be. To a certain degree, this is seen in the fact that many of the characters are not simply static entities waiting in HuniePop’s game space for the player to interact with. Many of them have their own individual schedules which may or may not conflict with when the player might desire to seek them out. For example Lola given her occupation is often out of town, Momo the cat-girl is often asleep, and Celeste only comes out at night.
And in regard to the dialogue itself, it is worth mentioning that on the other side of the receiving end, player choice in what they are able to say has its own implications and possible criticisms. Often players are shoehorned into a specific tonality of response with all choices being entirely similar instead of providing the binary variability of something like Mass Effect or other popular RPGs. While this could be criticized for serving as a severe limitation, it could also be viewed as meticulous player characterization, forcing them to feel and appear as the awkward social outcast that they are playing.
Finally on the subject of the game’s writing holistically, HuniePop does seemingly have one fatal flaw seen from both the context of mechanical considerations as well as merely the pornographic. Simply put, the game puts forth little incentive for continued play past the first sexual encounter. As one Steam reviewer so aptly put it: “There is little to no reason to ever have anything to do with someone you’ve already banged. Move on.” While the game allows for extended play past the informal end to the individual narratives, there is little capacity for any further emergent incentives to be brought forth. Dialogue more or less repeats, and the state of a relationship doesn’t change upon the ultimate final night date.
This could have been rectified in a number of ways, key among them actually having the characters have some sense of character growth. The player obviously goes through a transformation themselves, it stands to reason that the various girls he or she interacts with should also similarly change bringing forth an actual incentive to play past some lewd still shots.
In full disclosure, I went into HuniePop purely to write a piece on it. Given that consideration, it wasn’t something I would have normally felt comfortable playing nor felt good about showing up in my Steam library given the implications. But the response the game received by some of its critics was what ultimately drove me to it, and furthermore seeing that instead of a negative response, player feedback was highly receptive.
On Steam currently, HuniePop has over a thousand user reviews and is rated as overwhelmingly positive. And unlike nearly every game that initially releases, HuniePop’s forums are absolutely barren of users criticizing the game’s quality, instead it’s flooded with threads of surprise and shock at its appeal despite its questionable subject matter. And with talk of possible Workshop support, HuniePop has proven to have a degree of appeal extending past its sexual narratives.
It is also worth noting that in the following weeks of its release, HuniePop has received rather positive reviews from a number of major outlets that have begun to give the game a fair shake. And while a number of these journalists have expressed some reservations, most had to admit they had an incredibly enjoyable time playing through HuniePop sinking countless hours into it. Personally from a single 100% complete play-through, I’ve clocked 17 hours thus far, which is a considerable amount for a title I went into assuming was simply going to be a throwaway experience, netting an expected several hours of play time for its low ten dollar price tag.
And personally I would be hard pressed to speak ill of it. While I didn’t go into HuniePop ready to criticize it, I surely wasn’t expecting anything to actually impress me. However that is exactly what happened, by being presented with a rather intriguing and thoughtful mechanical approach to a category of interaction not normally experimented with inside the medium. And even its writing whether of a questionable quality, got more then a fair share of laughs out of me.
My ultimate thought on the matter is that HuniePop presented an extremely promising system of play that nicely supplements the standardized mechanics of textual conversation, and is worth continuing in possibly a more complete dating sim minus ecchi considerations, especially considering they were a minor emphasis in the game to begin with. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the pornographic element of the game was a detriment, rather its systems of play far outweigh any appeal they might have held. In either case, while HuniePop would normally have been a game I would not have given the time of day, its proved to be intriguing enough that I would strongly consider anything else its developers have in store for the future.