When I was first contacted about checking out Best Friends Forever at PAX West 2019 the email just said “unannounced puppy game” and I was immediately in. What I didn’t know then was that I was setting up an appointment for a dating sim unlike anything I have seen before, and no, it’s not just because of the dogs. Best Friends Forever, developed by Starcolt and published by Alliance, is a diverse and inclusive dating sim that uses our love of puppies to help us find love in the game.
You play as a new resident of Rainbow Bay and define your character as you set up your Woofr profile, a dating app like Tinder but for dog owners to find each other. This is where the first step in inclusion is featured in Best Friends Forever. As you fill out your name and answer your personality questions you are given the option to choose your pronouns. While other dating sims would use this to set you on a linear path of romances this one allows you to choose from he/him, she/her, and they/them.
By including a non-binary option, Best Friends Forever opens up romance for all gender identities and by leaving all the romance options open, it allows the player to pick the person who they mesh with the most. In addition, the romance options are extremely diverse, featuring disabled, trans, and characters of color.
While it may seem small to some, the inclusion of a Black man in the game who has a darker skintone is a huge move forward in a genre that often privileges lighter-skinned characters of color. Truthfully, Best Friends Forever is the step forward in romance games that we need.
Plus, there are puppies, so it just gets better from there. In addition to being a dating sim, Best Friend Forever is the world’s first simulation game that combines pet care with the gametype. While you browse Woofr for a match, you’re also focused on training, petting, and playing with your own dog to form a bond. It would be easy to just have the dogs as a secondary piece of the game, but instead, the devs at Starcolt made sure to include them in the narrative.
As you interact with the game’s story, your dog interacts with your crushes, barking, growling and interacting with the story in the right-hand corner of the screen as you work through the dialogue. In addition to interacting with the narrative, when you aren’t meeting cuties in Rainbow Bay’s singles scene, you work on raising your pet’s stats to pass Paws Academy. Sadly, while playing the demo at PAX West 2019, the game glitched out here and I couldn’t continue to get an in-depth look at the care system.
That being said, knowing that there is an optional sandbox mode for just you and your dog is enough to know that the details have been taken care of. As I made it through the first look at training, I was able to see that my dog, an adorable Shiba Inu, had stats for manners, sociability, trust, smarts, fitness, and energy, each of which would be cared for by choosing a different task. At first glance, the UI was straight forward, with explanations for each choice of activity and intuitive icon art. That said, I wish I could have gotten a chance to dive deeper into the mechanics of caring for my pet.
Overall, my experience with Best Friends Forever was a good one. As a long-time fan of dating and romance sims, seeing one that looks to be inclusive from the first moments is both exciting and necessary. While games are becoming more diverse as more devs from marginalized backgrounds create work, or even if existing companies are realizing the importance of diversity, not every diverse game is inclusive.
To make a game inclusive, it needs to be welcoming, it needs to be respectful, and ultimately, it needs to be a space in which you can be your true self. Best Friends Forever is just that, and it has dogs. You can’t say no to inclusivity or dogs.
Best Friends Forever is set to release Valentine’s Day 2020 on Steam, Nintendo Switch, and itch.io.