On the surface level, Cheek 2 Cheek is all about butts.
A visual novel/dating sim made by writer Dream Sequence and artist Adam Rickert for GXDev, a queer-friendly game jam event, the game's outrageous art initially made me giggle. [Disclosure: GXDev was run by Matt Conn and Toni Rocca, both personal acquaintances of mine, and I spoke briefly at the event.] But it's a thoughtful project that uses its unusual aesthetic to say a great deal about body diversity and human relationships.
It all started with an exploration of the visual novel genre.
"Back in December when Adam and I were thinking about the GXD, we talked about what types of games prototype relatively easily and visual novels were right at the top of the list," Dream Sequence told Polygon. "I had been playing some visual novels such as Hatoful Boyfriend, Long Live The Queen, and Song of Saya last year, but was disappointed when trying to explore the genre further for more offbeat titles on Steam. Most of the games I saw on the service had very narrow definitions of beauty for male and female forms. It was rare to see these games display characters with varied ages, body shapes, gender expression, or ethnicity. In a bizarrely insulting move, games were often bluntly labeled for 'female audiences' or 'male audiences' with little or no consideration for queer players. Seeing this giant, scrolling wall of similar content irked us."
Cheek 2 Cheek is an inclusive response to that. In the game, you never see the characters' faces, but you do interact with, well, their rear ends. And the menagerie of humanity is expressed in those butts — there are younger folks, older folks, bigger folks and smaller folks. People of color. People from all over the gender and sexuality spectrums. And there are 11 different endings, none of which prioritize finding ones' "one true love" above all else.
In short, it's a visual novel that feels refreshingly real.
"I found it easy to insert queer content into visual novel tropes because, at their heart, the interactions of a dating sims rely on the emotional aspects of romance, not the physical traits such as gender, age, race, body shape, etc.," said Dream Sequence. "Also, many of the themes we were choosing to explore were not exclusively queer. For instance, the player character is written without gender-specific pronouns throughout the entire game. This way the player can be anywhere along the gender spectrum and not feel pushed out of the experience by a character not referring to them by their preferred gender pronoun. Sure, Cheek 2 Cheek could [be] gay, but it could be straight, or bi, or something else entirely. It's up to the player and their choices."
Tina Belcher, queen of butts
Hilariously, and endearingly, Dream Sequence and Rickert were inspired by the character of Tina Belcher, from Bob's Burgers. A butt-obsessed 13-year-old girl, Tina is one of the most honest and earnest depictions of awkward adolescence in all of TV.
"Tina Belcher is the ideal audience and author of visual novels"
"In my mind, Tina Belcher is the ideal audience and author of visual novels," said Dream Sequence. "She's a hopeless romantic and has a deep appreciation for character-driven narratives, as seen with her various erotic fan and 'friendfiction.' Her wild imagination can display real down to earth moments that still manage to operate with a logic all of their own. Also, like many other visual novelists out there, she has preoccupation for specific regions of the human form. Finally, the visual novel medium would allow her to express her unique vision by herself. She wouldn’t need a huge team of people who didn't 'get her' in order to make something special."
"More practically speaking, we found that Tina's butt obsession was the perfect way to draw attention to how the visual novel genre will often sexually objectify specific characters without alienating potential audiences," said Dream Sequence. "Early on, there was the temptation to make the game filled with dicks so giant that they would make Tom of Finland blush in an effort to flip the script on how frequently artists in the genre draw female characters in an overtly objectified manner."
A game starring only penises may have been funny, but the team decided that a more universal part of anatomy might be a better fit.
"But we quickly figured that this approach would lack the very distinct charm and innocence of Tina's fondness for butts," said Dream Sequence. "For instance, the show never really goes into why Tina is obsessed with butts, or exactly what she would do with a butt if she was to get her hands on one. She just is. It's as simple as that. There’s something cute and relatable about that in the way it captures the awkwardness of puberty and oddly specific sexual awakening can be. Having a game filled with giant penises could have made the same type of statement about character objectification that Cheek 2 Cheek strives to achieve, but I also think we are able to get more people to come along for the ride with us because on a very primal level, butts are just funny."
The game is playable right now on the Cheek 2 Cheek itch.io page, but it is a preview build, so only day one is complete. Dream Sequence and Rickert have plans to expand and polish it even further.
"Originally, we just wanted to make this thing that would make us giggle, but the response at GXD was incredible," said Dream Sequence. "Winning the 'such ridiculous' award for bringing the craziest thing to the table was something that we were really hoping for, but also picking up the 'Prismatic Award' for featuring a 'diverse cast of interesting characters, objects, or systems' had us stunned. And the reactions of close friends who have looked at the game since the gamejam has made us realize that the universe has spoken to us and it is clearly screaming, 'Finish this game!'"
"My dream of dreams now is to see Cheek 2 Cheek right next to Hatoful Boyfriend on Steam or GOG," they said. "I want it to help convince the other Tina Belchers of the world that it’s okay to be weird and that the world is waiting for their stories to be told."
Updated on Jan 19 to reflect that only day one is playable in the current build.