The boys’ love (or BL) genre, and yaoi in particular, fills me with all sorts of complicated feelings. BL was my first time seeing myself actually represented in the media I was interested in, and I’ve been ravenously consuming it ever since. As many long-time fans of the genre can attest, that’s kind of a mixed bag when it comes to psychosexual development.

Yaoi is no different from other romance genres, in that it’s filled with tropes that push past what could be considered ‘healthy’ relationships, often into domineering or downright abusive patterns. When romantic representation is limited to just one outlet, it’s easy to view these patterns as inevitable, or worse yet, aspirational.

That’s why I’m glad to cover this year’s Yaoi Game Jam, “a two month long jam dedicated to making games—visual novels in particular—featuring male-identified characters in queer relationships.” The BL genre has come a long way since I was a kid, and many creators are pushing against the conventions that have held it hostage for years. The event itself took a step in that direction by encouraging creators to submit “stories about all kinds of relationships between queer-identified men, from platonic to romantic, and everything in-between!”

When romantic representation is limited to just one outlet, it’s easy to view these patterns as inevitable, or worse yet, aspirational.

I didn’t have a chance to play everything Yaoi Game Jam has to offer, but here’s a brief list of the games I did play, and some musings on why they give me hope for the future of BL. Forewarning: some of these entries are NSFW.

A screenshot of Strawberry Daiquiri showing one person passed out on the bar, and one character saying to another, "Ah, his man of tonight." Strawberry Daiquiri, Bishounen Studios, 2018.

Strawberry Daiquiri

Bishounen Studios
Tools: Ren’Py, Paint Tool Sai
July 21, 2018

“An unnamed and soft-spoken bartender listens in on stories from Antonio, a man with a cybernetic eye, and Orion, a new face at the bar.”

Strawberry Daiquiri is a linear visual novel about a bartender watching romance bloom over his drinks. The player is almost purely an observer, which matches the voyeuristic bartender perfectly. It’s left up to interpretation whether you’re playing a boy with a crush, a bored worker, or just someone who feels entitled to others’ intimacy. That’s why I can’t say for sure whether the game is cute or dark, but it definitely might be worth a play to form your own opinion.

Yarrow Valley

Arcade Party, DarkChibiShadow, Special Agent Ape
Tools: Ren’Py, Adobe Photoshop, Paint Tool Sai
July 30, 2018

“What kind of flower will we find today?”

Yarrow Valley is a mostly linear erotic visual novel with some light flavor options and the requisite top or bottom choice. Playing through it felt like reading through some of the BL zines I’ve picked up over the years in that it’s really pretty, and the contained story leaves openings for narrative threads that couldn’t fit in its tight package. I really loved playing through this game because it was just plain cute. It almost completely revolves around two characters navigating that dangerous line between friendship and romance by bravely and earnestly speaking about their needs. The characters check in with each other during sex and make sure that no boundaries are being crossed. Intentional or not, the developers created a game where consent and caring are not just necessary, but part of what makes romance fun, and I loved that.

SoRiku Quiz Game

Sorah Daisuke
Tools: Unity, Clip Studio Paint
June 9, 2018

“Take the role of Riku and play a little quiz game with Sora.”

Well, considering I’m half way through Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, on my way to beating the whole series for the first time, I couldn’t exactly pass up the Soriku Quiz Game. It’s unfinished, so there’s no ending screens to enjoy as reward for all your hard work, but I still had fun playing through this Kingdom Hearts trivia challenge.

HOW DRINKING COFFEE DAILY GOT ME FIRED!

Dja_Redona
August 31, 2018

HOW DRINKING COFFEE DAILY GOT ME FIRED! is a fun game about coffee, office romance and daydreaming at work.

HOW DRINKING COFFEE DAILY GOT ME FIRED! is, unsurprisingly, a demo for a game about chugging a bunch of coffee. Despite its loud text, pop-up faces, and bright colors, the conversations with love interests made me feel like I actually had to listen and choose subtly different ways of phrasing a thought. It was an exercise in understanding possible paramours through the caffeinated haze of a work day. I wish there was the same opportunity to get to know the other characters, or at least not make fun of them on my first day. The fact that I only had mean or professional options when interacting with female characters made me feel a little squidgy, in a way that felt uncomfortably familiar in a yaoi game.

A screenshot of Well Met by Moonlight showing one character saying to another, "But the trees are packed together pretty densely here, so I can't even see the stars very well." Well Met By Moonlight, Jane Titor, 2018.

Well Met By Moonlight

Jane Titor
Tools: Ren’Py
July 29, 2018

“David’s life isn’t going quite like he imagined it would.”

Well Met by Moonlight is a bittersweet modern folk tale about falling in love with a stranger. I can’t say too much without spoiling the ending, but it’s nice to see a version of this particular story that doesn’t end poorly—especially after the amount of time I spent as a lonely queer kid, dreaming of finding romance in unexpected places.

Penguin Cafe

Npckcsdhizumi
Tools: Ren’Py
July 27, 2018

“A short visual novel about that weird in-between time where you’re not sure whether your date is going to show up or not.”

BL has this penchant for melodramatic circumstances that often situates it right there with young adult fiction. Trust me when I say I love that, but playing Penguin Cafe made me feel so grounded. It felt real in a surprising way. The visual novel is simple and requires a lot on the part of the player to make something out of it, but I liked that. When I finally set down my tomato clicker app and thought about where I was—I felt a real sense of melancholic peace about it. By the time I closed the game I had a huge smile on my face and a heart full of possibility.

A screenshot of Hart Connection showing four different characters. The dialog box reads, "I dunno if it's Max's horse person, but when we stopped to arrange the luggage, they rode up the ledge above us." Hart Connection, Pixels and Pins, 2018.

Hart Connection

Pixels and Pins
Tools: Ren’Py, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects
July 30, 2018

“The Hart Mercenary Company has a job. Escort an elven prince across country. Easy enough for the well-trained members of the mercenary guild.”

Hart Connection is by far my favorite game from Yaoi Game Jam 2018. It starts out with the interesting twist that you pick the character you play as, not the character you romance. Then it becomes a journey of self-discovery as you get closer to a prince who might want to be closer to you. What really struck me about Hart Connection was its willingness to engage me politically. I can’t think of any other BL game that is willing to talk about systems of oppression without making a weird fetish out of it. Not to mention it was fun, flirty, and genuinely entertaining to play. Hart Connection reads like a good fantasy romance novel, which I appreciate more than I realized I would.

This year’s Yaoi Game Jam really helped me envision a brighter future for the representation of queer men. Earnest relationships focused on mutual consent and emotional fulfillment, representations of intersectional experiences that don’t fetishize uneven power dynamics, and cute fantasies about personal (and romantic) growth; there’s a lot more to be found on Yaoi Game Jam’s Itch.io page, and I heavily recommend you check them out!

A genderless eldritch beast bound to mortal flesh. Interests include games, gardening, magical realism, and the complete restructuring of America’s political and economic systems. Once designed their own Full Metal Alchemist style transmutation circle for the weeb cred.

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