The dad of Bokura no Kazoku’s made-up family is sitting cross-legged in a very ordinary living room, making animal-shaped shadows in the light of the TV. He’s doing this for his baby’s entertainment, woofing with enthusiasm as he moves his hands in a vaguely dog-like manner. His tiny son notices this display, crawls over to the spot where the shadow hits the floor, and then begins patting the “dog”, gurgling with delight the whole time. It’s a beautiful scene; an intensely private moment of pure love, a parent more than prepared to do something silly if it’ll make their child smile.
As you may have already noticed, this 2005 PlayStation 2 exclusive is visually very similar to their not well known enough Boku no Natsuyasumi series, and aims to capture the same general atmosphere of familial love and kindness too. That is where the similarities end. Bokura no Kazoku is essentially a stat-raising game, the aim being to turn tiny babies into responsible adults over the course of a virtual lifetime. The stats in question may not be as tightly intertwined as they are in Tokimeki Memorial 2, for example (there are five personality meters, four areas of growth, and an interest wheel), but Bokura no Kazoku makes up for this by giving you a minimum of three and a maximum of five children to raise, the quantity of offspring entirely dependant on the scenario chosen at the beginning of the game (apparently it’s possible under certain circumstances to have a sixth child as well, although I haven’t seen that myself). The decisions you make revolve around taking the kids on days out, their choice of school (and eventually university), and which books you’ll give them to read at key stages in their life.
Everything you do for any child has an unavoidable impact on the rest of your growing family. Those trips to the zoo, art gallery, and all the rest cost money – money that could be used to make sure your brightest child is able to attend a more academic school next term (it’s worth pointing out that the game does make a distinction between “Being gifted” and “Growing up happy”, with the two not always linked). Even if money’s no object, do you choose to go on a day out with one child and give them a boost in an area they’ve been lacking, or do you spend a little more wisely and take everyone out instead, knowing the exciting adventure that finally brings one child out of their shell might also be the event that tips another into (temporarily) being an over the top attention-seeker?
Even books need to be chosen wisely: These cause significant changes in their predetermined category when given, turning a daydreamer into a study-focussed student, boosting a child’s confidence, or softening an overly serious kid’s outlook on life. These books are picked from a small fixed list at set stages and this list persists through all of your children, keeping you from picking the same book twice. You can’t help everyone out in the same way even if you want to (even if they could use the same help an older sibling did) – and you must give them a book, even if its one that potentially does more harm than good.
As worrying as that may sound in practise it’s nothing that can’t be swiftly fixed with a few tactically chosen days out, especially as Bokura no Kazoku chooses to see each child’s personality meters less as a permanent judgement on how good or otherwise they are and more where they currently fall along a line between two opposites. Are they an introvert or an extrovert? Are they childish or mature? They can always be too much of anything, although exactly where the extremes lie (marked in red on their charts) depends on their age – nobody minds a boisterous toddler running at top speed around the house, but the same up-front attitude from a late teen is a bit much. The manual (in reality a large fold-out poster with some charming artwork on one side and instructions on the other) does warn that prolonged periods of undesirable behaviour and poor health can create truly unruly children (while also reminding players that a little bit of naughtiness is just kids being kids), but I found that nothing more than well-intentioned effort was enough to raise a happy brood, and there was never any point where it felt like the game or any of my pretend offspring were slipping away from me, regardless of how many of them I was dealing with at once.
So what does everyday life look like in Bokura no Kazoku’s world? Well, although the game is technically about a growing family, the parents and one conspicuously long-lived grandma are very much treated as side characters – dad has a job, mum stays at home and raises the kids, and that’s about as interesting as their lives ever get (although in the game’s only real nod to post-1960’s modernity, you’re just as likely to see the dad pushing a stroller or carrying the baby in a sling as they take an older child to school as you are the mum). The only thing that matters is the kids, each young life glimpsed through a sequential series of semi-random scenes ranging from their first words to time spent at school to those nervous early conversations with a future wife or husband. It’s almost impossible not to feel pride as you watch them grow up, sometimes subconsciously mimicking their parents movements, sometimes coming out with new interests and reactions that are all their own. On my first run through the daughter became a nurse, and one of the sons discovered a love of baking that developed over the years into a proper career.
All of this happens in a short span of time – I completed the game four times before writing this article, and two of those happened in the same day – meaning you’re always busy, and almost always see something new even when you’re playing a scenario you’ve cleared before. However this barrage of new isn’t able to cover up the fact that the experience just doesn’t come together as flawlessly as BokuNatsu’s endless slice of summer. It’s a lot easier to believe one little boy can have a few perfect weeks with his aunt and uncle than it is an entire family going through the vast majority of their lives without big said-what-can’t-be-unsaid fights, nobody losing their job through no fault of their own, or parents ever worrying where the heck their teen is after they promised they’d be home by 10pm. Thanks to this enforced veneer of innocence there are too many times when Bokura no Kazoku feels old-fashioned and sanitised rather than relentlessly wholesome (especially for a game subtitled “My Family Growing up in the 21st Century”), the glorious mess that is life smoothed away until it makes Happy Days look like a hard-hitting documentary.
As expertly realised as all those heartfelt scenes of domestic bliss are there’s no escaping the fact that the game’s multiple endings are based entirely around the number of kids you can get married off before the parents retire. I can’t help but recoil a little at the thought of marriage and babies being the grandest future the game can offer the children within it, especially as the Boku no Natsuyasumi series has always put such great effort into showing adults with interesting lives away from the expected treadmill – the travelling photographer, the artist, the small shop owner, the dairy farmer. The children here can still grow up to be animators, clothing designers, and all sorts of other diverse professionals too, but it’s always “better” if they get married and have at least one kid – ideally more – along the way.
There’s a sincerity to Bokura no Kazoku’s love for one very specific and mostly imaginary type of family that in the moment is nothing short of enchanting, but the subject matter it’s grappling with is too broad for such a shallow one-note approach to really hit its mark.