Colonel Sanders comes in plenty of different flavors. Actor Darrel Hammond as Colonel Sanders. Norm Macdonald as Colonel Sanders. Rob Lowe. Billy Zane. RoboCop. Reba McEntire. Jim Gaffigan. A tattooed, CGI Instagram influencer. Now, there’s another (hot) Colonel Sanders in I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger-Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator, trading in his computer-created abs for anime-style tousled white hair.
Then there’s the real Colonel Sanders: Harland Sanders, the American businessman who wore a white suit and started the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain of restaurants. It’s from his likeness that KFC created the corporate icon we all know today — a fast food mascot who has become so far removed from the actual person that, as Adam Chandler wrote in Drive-Thru Dreams: A Journey Through the Heart of America’s Fast-Food Kingdom, “it’s easy to forget he was even a real person.”
Though KFC’s marketing has turned back to the Colonel as the company’s mascot, it’s distanced himself from actual man. The Colonel is now quirky, or cool, and maybe hot, but it’s not the man who sued the company for $122 million and said its gravy was unfit for his dogs. Not to mention, the Colonel had some problematic relationships with women; during a 1999 episode of This American Life, Colonel Sanders’ biographer John Ed Pearce said a woman from Kentucky’s Chamber of Commerce told him that “every time Harland came in, why, she had to beat his hands off of her.”
And so, hot Colonel Sanders is wiped of much of that context, aside from the white suit and glasses, and slapped into the fantasy world of I Love You, Colonel Sanders!
The dating simulator was spotted on Steam in early September and greeted with a mixture of confusion, intrigue, anger, and laughter — a reaction that’s nearly identical any time KFC launches one of its millennial marketing stunts.
In April 2019, hot Colonel performed Chippendale’s style dances in a video you were meant to send to your mom. In 2017, the Colonel starred in a romance novel called “Tender Wings of Desire,” bizarrely enough, also for Mother’s Day. That year, KFC also released a horror virtual reality training video game called The Hard Way. (Ironic, too, that most of KFC’s stunts are riffing on things typically marketed toward women, like romance novels and social media influencers, and often devalued because of it.)
Developed by creative agency Psyop, I Love You, Colonel Sanders! is less of a game and more of a marketing stunt, and that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Colonel Sanders dating simulator was created to grab attention and not necessarily hold it. It’s all part of a larger brand identity, and just the news cycle alone — highlighting the bizarre notion of a Colonel Sanders dating sim — created by the announcement is enough to satiate the marketing beast. And that’s exactly what it did. Plenty of us are talking about whether or not we want to bone KFC’s mascot. Though some were critical of I Love You, Colonel Sanders!, much of the cycle was like a laugh and a head pat: There goes the brands again! KFC didn’t have to release a game at all; the announcement itself did enough of the work.
But KFC did release the game after all, a free experience that took me just over an hour to complete. (On the Steam page, KFC said it had “multiple hours of play-through.”) The game begins by introducing the player-character, a new student at a culinary school called University of Cooking School, which itself is led by a corgi called Professor Dog. (Casually, Professor Dog goes by Sprinkles.) Other students include your best friend Miriam, two very glam bullies, a student pretending to be a ghost, a confused child, a piece of kitchen equipment, and, of course, a young Colonel Sanders developing his fried chicken recipe. (The real Colonel Sanders did not actually go to culinary school, a KFC spokesperson told Slate.)
Professor Dog puts his students through three days of culinary training before graduation in a visual novel–style story with vaguely playable mini-games, the most interactive of which has you take on an extremely moldy spork in a turn-based fight. There’s so little substance in all of it that it hardly feels like a game or interactive experience at all.
Throughout it all, you, as the player-character, are attempting to romance Colonel Sanders. The only real way to earn the Colonel’s heart in I Love You, Colonel Sanders! is by impressing him with your cooking prowess and knowledge, and you’re competing with one of the glam bullies to win his love. Ironically, like the Colonel Sanders dating sim, she’s all style over substance, often creating food that is literally too beautiful to eat; she won’t let a Professor Dog taste test her final meal. And so it’s easy to woo Colonel Sanders with your mashed potatoes and mac-and-cheese. (Not so coincidentally, KFC recently launched a product that’s chicken tenders mixed with mac-and-cheese.)
If you fail to win his love during the game, you’ll get a prompt to reverse any wrong answers you chose and right your mistakes. On my play-through, I won Colonel Sanders’ heart, but he didn’t want me to become his business partner. Bummer.
On the surface, I Love You, Colonel Sanders! is just a bland — 11 herbs and spices, huh? — marketing stunt with no substance, something plenty probably expected here. But there’s something more insidious to the game in its lack of substance and care for the genre.
Not so finger-lickin’ good
Dating simulators aren’t often respected in the mainstream, often considered a niche genre that’s really not that niche at all. It’s a beloved and varied genre in Japan, but one that’s spreading around the world. Queer players and women have embraced the genre for its nuanced storytelling mechanics and complex characters. Creators are using the genre to create stories that center on personal experiences that are otherwise unseen elsewhere in the industry, which could be why the “hardcore” segment of gamers refuse to acknowledge the worth of both dating sims and visual novels. Indie dating sims like Hardcoded and Tomai explore stuff that might otherwise be untold in games, like polyamory and trans-positive porn.
That’s why it’s frustrating for dating sim fans to see games like I Love You, Colonel Sanders! heralded for its wackiness, the corporatization of a genre that means so much to queer creators and others. It’s a genre the industry as a whole often struggles to respect, and now it’s being used and manipulated to sell fried chicken.
It’s not that I Love You, Colonel Sanders! doesn’t take itself seriously — there are plenty of great dating simulators that subvert tropes and are silly and self-aware. Something doesn’t have to be serious to be great. Where I Love You, Colonel Sanders! fails is that it feels like its mocking the genre, not iterating on it in any meaningful way. But again, it’s not like folks expected a revelation here.
KFC and developer Psyop are using the dating sim purely for the “what the fuck” factor of dating a fast food mascot, which feels acceptable in what’s sometimes considered a “wacky” genre anyway, at least, at times, in mainstream coverage. It plays into a “weird thing from Japan” trope, which is something the developers call on — though not explicitly — to explain away the many unearned weird things that happen in I Love You, Colonel Sanders!, like a spork monster and the culinary student that’s literally a kitchen appliance.
It’s an insincere invocation of a Western idea of what Japanese-inspired media, like a dating sim, is, a kind of casual racism that persists in how people think about the country. Lisa Katayama writes in a 2009 BoingBoing essay that American “fascination” with Japan could be because it’s considered an “altered, offbeat version of American culture.” Like Katayama writes, there’s plenty of super weird stuff in the United States, but something weird from Japan always makes the news. I Love You, Colonel Sanders! is not from Japan (developer Psyop is based in Los Angeles and New York) but uses the largely Japanese genre to make itself noteworthy, full of weird stuff for us to gawk at.
KFC has perfected the art of a marketing stunt. They’re making themselves quirky and weird and inserting themselves anywhere and everywhere — brand horniness being the latest big trend — in an effort to embed them further into our brains and our lives.
After all, KFC has already moved on from I Love You, Colonel Sanders! In what was, perhaps, the fast food restaurant taking aim on Popeyes, KFC announced a chicken sandwich: the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Donuts Sandwich. Goodbye, hot Colonel. Hello, hot donuts.
I Love You, Colonel Sanders! A Finger-Lickin’ Good Dating Simulator is now available on Windows PC. The game was reviewed on PC, using a copy provided by the company. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.