This image is from the offical website for "Boyfriend Dungeon" developed by Kitfox Games

Would you date a sword? Would you date it if it was not just a sword (or dagger or any other handheld weapon), but a weapon that can transform between a metallic murder stick and a rather handsome human being? That’s the central concept behind Kitfox Games’ newest release “Boyfriend Dungeon,” a self-described “shack-n-slash” where you date your weapons to gain a deeper connection with them before slicing your way through enemies in dungeons together.

The game oozes charm, wholeheartedly leaning into its admittedly outlandish idea to provide three-dimensional characters and an addicting gameplay loop that makes you want to keep returning for just one more date/attempt. Made by a small team chock-full of queer developers, the game attempts to allow the player to romance (or not romance) any of the blabes (blade + babe? I’ll see myself out) that they choose. 

Having only spent a few hours with it, I can attest that the cutesy nature of the game belies a deep and long-overdue examination of modern adult relationships. Here is where things take a turn toward the divisive.

As part of this rumination on modern relationships, Kitfox designed the character of Eric, who serves as the primary antagonist of the game. Eric sucks. From the moment you meet him, he’s curt, rude, judgmental and controlling, and the fact that he immediately takes a liking to you no matter what you say is deeply unsettling. As the game progresses, Eric only gets worse; he sends you unsolicited gifts, he texts you constantly whether or not you reply and he consistently voices his disdain for swordpeople.

Eric is a brilliantly designed portrait of a stalker, of a dangerous man trying to entice you into a monstrously one-sided relationship where he has all the power and you have none. The other characters in the game are quick to both steer you away from him and protect you from Eric’s unwarranted advances during group situations, but generally, no one else is around when it’s just you, Eric and a phone. There’s no block button: He doesn’t listen when you ask him to stop and you will get texts daily. For the developers at Kitfox Games, Eric is the terrible relationship they are trying to get you to steer clear of in real life. Sadly, not everyone is in the position to handle this lesson.

Only hours after release, Twitter was filled with people upset about the disturbing nature of Eric’s character and his dangerous behaviors toward the player. Many people expressed how their excitement for the game curdled into fear and anxiety whenever Eric came around.

The character often triggered a traumatic response in people who had lived through real-life relationships, stalkers or manipulators. The outcry dominated the gaming Twittersphere for days, or weeks if I’m being honest; its repercussions are still being felt in ongoing discussions about the relationship between developers and players.

Many gamers began talking about consent, focusing on how they were never asked if they were okay with such dark, personal subject matter within their games, something Gretchen Felker-Martin at Gawker responded to. On the other side, developers from Kitfox and other queer studios went on the record with PC Magazine about their experiences of being targeted for backlash far more than their mainstream/straight counterparts.

The most common complaint — and something Kitfox immediately promised to fix and implement — were better content warnings. Even at launch, booting up “Boyfriend Dungeon” for the first time prompts the game to provide warnings about what to expect when playing. These warnings make explicit reference to the types of actions Eric will take within the game, with the updated warning reading: “This game’s story involves exposure to unwanted advances, stalking, and other forms of emotional manipulation. Play with care and take breaks as needed.” 

The updated warning garnered some praise, but there were still people taking to Twitter, upset with the mere existence of Eric’s character and his impact on the story. Instead of criticizing the developers for a lackluster warning, these fans wanted their specific needs and desires to be catered to. They didn’t want to be challenged, they didn’t want to be upset and they certainly did not want Eric in the game. 

What started as an issue over content warnings morphed into people wanting any difficult content to be removed from art so they can enjoy it without strife. With queer art it’s a particularly common occurrence — the sanitization of queer stories supposedly in the service of pure joy — and it makes sense: When you spend most of your life fighting, sometimes all you want is to experience something without reminders of the pain you’ve gone through.

But not every artist wants to make something shiny and squeaky clean; sometimes we have to face uncomfortable facts and situations to learn and grow in life. What’s stuck with me more than the harassment of the devs and voice actors is the misunderstanding that people seemed to have with the existence of content warnings. The concept itself is rather nebulous, so finally I may ask: what is the job of the content warning?

Content warnings exist as messages from the creators to an audience letting them know the gist of what lay ahead, a friendly pat on the back informing people of the challenging content and allowing them to turn around if they so choose. These warnings play before graphic episodes of television, and they even adorn movie and game trailers in the form of rating systems.

It’s hard not to feel that these warnings as they exist are fairly lackluster, boiling every possible disturbing event into the basics of blood, violence, sex, language or some combination of the four. An M-rating for the recently released “Twelve Minutes” does nothing to inform the player of the myriad of times they will be forced to drug, stab or ignore the pleas of your desperate pregnant wife. No matter how disturbing I find that forced action, it will feel hundreds of times more invasive and traumatic to someone who has a past of domestic violence or lost pregnancies. 

What adds to the difficulty is that, unlike film or television, games are interactive. The player doesn’t simply watch what’s happening; they actively take a part in it. Every time you shoot in a game, that’s your finger pulling the virtual trigger. Every time Eric sends you an unsolicited gift, that feels like an invasion of your personal privacy. Something being digital does not mean that it cannot feel real, especially when you are forced to participate in the interaction. There is not always an issue — it would seem silly to ask if the player is OK stomping on Goombas in a Mario game — but the more realistic the scenario, the more likely it can cause harm or discomfort to a potential player. No one is going to get all that complex, nuanced information off the back of the box; a more comprehensive warning system is absolutely needed.

Many indie games have already taken up the challenge of crafting a new type of content warning that informs players of what’s ahead without spoiling the story. The wonderfully queer magic school RPG “Ikenfell” contains a toggle to add content warnings as specific events pop up throughout the campaign. “Boyfriend Dungeon” was actually praised for a separate toggle that allowed users to not receive messages from “Mom,” a decision made on the understanding that not everyone has a happy relationship with their parental figures and would not like to be reminded of it. Many of these practices have already spread throughout other aspects of our lives such as social media. It may seem silly to some that “CW: food” accompanies a photograph of cookies, but to those who have struggled with an eating disorder, the message is a saving grace from a massively uncomfortable and unhealthy experience. 

As Kitfox learned, a content warning should be more detailed than a few words; placing care and effort into the messages is vitally important to making a game for as many people as possible. They are not about spoiling the plot of the game nor are they for allowing potential players to opt-out of main story beats that the devs find integral to the story they want to tell.

While we may be waiting a while for blockbuster triple-A games to hop on the trend, it’s important that we as a gaming community create and share our own solid content warnings to make everything as approachable for others as possible. Not every game will be for every person, but it’s good to have the correct information available to make those decisions.

Oh, and while you go about making the community better, remember one important thing: A good content warning informs players as to what is ahead and a great content warning prepares them.

Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at mdeitz@umich.edu.