"Is there a party in your pants?" You type to your virtual boyfriend. "I didn't make it to the bathroom," the lush-lipped Ken doll replies.
In the past few weeks, all my friends have been interested in one title above all others: A tacky Japanese app called Boyfriend Maker. This, at the most crucial time of year for reflecting on big hits and hunkering down with holiday blockbusters?
Scratch the surface of social media just a little bit and Boyfriend Maker, which lets players build and customize a princely, decidedly androgynous young man, dress him and have conversations with him, is the talk of the town among players of all genders and orientations.
It's a garish conflagration of pink, blue and J-Pop aesthetics. Though conversation is the primary game mechanic, it's awkward and occasionally busted. In a flagrant breach of fantasy, your 'boyfriend' will routinely remind you that conversation costs energy, and to get energy you're forced to share these 'romantic' conversations on your Facebook wall. You can pay to ask more questions if you don't want to wait -- the exact sort of setup Ian Bogost's Cow Clicker was intended to mock.
Social game designers have wrestled with energy mechanics and forced sharing -- yet here's a game that not only makes players delighted to participate in its virality, but motivates them to share jailbreaking techniques so they can continue to play the app even after it is inevitably yanked from the App Store.
Wait, yeah, that happened. Earlier this week, Apple removed Boyfriend Maker because dewy-eyed dream date's patter regularly bordered on the extremely sexual, racist and vulgar.
"I stole a car," my friend tried typing to her virtual boyfriend. "Correction: black guy stole your car," the placid Prince Charming declared in reply.
Obviously, that's a big part of why everyone loved it, putting Apple in the unique position of quashing an app for the precise thing that made it popular: Try to read this popular Tumblr (NSFW) devoted to screenshots from the game without laughing.
Somehow this game got on the App Store to begin with. Developer 36You disclaimed responsibility on the app's now-defunct Store page and on its website: "all statements of information contained in the responses, replies and/or answers in Boyfriend Maker are generated and powered by a 3rd party engine (API) and are the sole responsibility of such 3rd party engine (API) and not of 36You," it says.
According to PocketGamer's report, the current core of Boyfriend Maker is the chat bot SimiSimi, which users can 'teach' to respond to certain word triggers with essentially whichever responses they like.
The result can be terrifyingly intuitive, like song lyrics, primitively obscene, or whatever you'd guess the internet might want. It's impossible for 36You to anticipate or vet the bot's behavior, hence its disclaimer -- but shouldn't someone have maybe spotted this rogue variable in an App Store game marked for kids and up?
A lovers' spat
Seems neither 36You or Apple knew what could happen, especially as the integration with SimiSimi was part of an update that only went live back in August, effectively sneaking it in a sort of blind spot for users, 36You and gatekeepers -- the task of keeping up with SimiSimi would have been monumental for anyone.
As of press time Boyfriend Maker is no longer available on the App Store, and is unlikely to pass muster again unless it develops a more predictably-safe chat engine. Its absence is causing a veritable outcry in social media circles, though, and it's interesting to think about its spontaneous boom and what we might learn from it.
It's more than just the alternating amusement and horror at a fantasy boyfriend spewing casually-offensive gibberish that helped Boyfriend Maker become an internet sensation. Part of what compelled players to try the app out was the unique pleasure in experimenting with a complex and inscrutable system, to unpredictable results (some of which reveal the Boyfriend's ability to identify Pokemon, albeit imperfectly, and to sing The Eurythmics).
'I created this.'
Players were able to create and own their unique conversations and share them with friends; spreading Boyfriend Maker screenshots was a form of irreverent storytelling, and a community quickly formed around trying to up the ante, to create the most perfectly-awkward capsules of experience. To test the system to ever-more surprising and funny results -- all of which bore individualistic stamps, calling cards of I created this around every wacky accident.
That's not just because the app begs for sync with personal social networks, making the advertisement of humor easy; players also have crude but significant control over the Boyfriend's appearance. Some lines are just funnier spoken by a vacant-eyed, swoop-haired pretty boy you can dress in a shirt that says "Thug."
Boyfriend Maker's straight up weirdness managed to blithely defy best practices about the virality of social games and in-app purchases, which says a lot about the kind of content some demographics want to identify themselves with and share. It's not unheard of, either: fandom for joyous Eastern-flavored expressivity and a yen for unpredictable imagery helped an oddball little Korean pop song called Gangnam Style top the global charts.
Amid the mainstreaming of internet culture and the decline of Japanese influence in games, it could be that a certain audience is thirsty for the surreal feeling of media that feels just slightly foreign, that piques humor and imagination among what gets lost in translation.
One of the screenshots on the Boyfriend Maker tribute Tumblr prizes the day the app ranked an impressive 12th among iOS free apps. App developers have been on a metrics-driven quest for the perfect formula for fun, but the crucial internet audience that leads virality is always looking for something decidedly left-field, as well as something they can experience cultural ownership of -- concepts devs should take to heart.