Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

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Regency Love is an iOS game set in a pseudo-Austen town; it is in the same general territory as a dating sim or visual novel, but with a structure that also owes something to roleplaying games.

The core interaction loop is that the player can select a place from the map of Darlington, their town; the place may yield one or more possible activities. The activities can either be quizzes about Regency life (how long should you properly mourn a sister? how much did muslin cost?) or social interaction scenes that are primarily dialogue-driven. From time to time, there’s an opportunity to do another quiz-like activity, a game of hangman in which you’re trying to fill in a missing word from a famous quotation, mostly from Austen. Doing quizzes and hangman gains you motivation points which you can spend to raise your skill in one of six “accomplishments” — drawing, needlework, reading, dancing, riding, music (harp and pianoforte and singing are not distinguished). Some of the social activities depend on you having a certain accomplishment level in a certain area before they will unlock. Other social events depend on what has already happened.

Using a map to pick the next little story you want to participate in also reminded me a bit of StoryNexus, though whether the underlying engine relies on anything like quality-based narrative, I have no idea.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

Before the game began I evidently paid NO attention to my governess.

I was never a great enthusiast for the quizzes and stats part of this game. The questions refer to information from Austen that is not provided internally, so you either already know the answers or you have to guess. There aren’t enough hangman sentences and quizzes to last the whole game, either, so you’ll see the same things repeat over and over again before you’re done. Meanwhile, your accomplishments are necessary enough that you can’t ignore this part of the system, but there’s not enough variety to what the stats do to make it an interesting choice which one you raise next. Somewhere between halfway and three quarters of the way through play I had maxed out all my accomplishments and could now afford to ignore the whole quiz-and-hangman ecosystem, which was a relief.

Based on your behavior, the game also tracks character traits, reflecting whether you’re witty, dutiful, etc. It displays what your traits are, but I never worked out exactly what was moving the dials. What I said in conversation must come into it, but I didn’t know which dialogue did what. Nor did I ever figure out how it mattered. Some events were plainly closed to people with less than 12 Needleworking, but I never saw an explicit flag that excluded people who weren’t witty. So the character trait system may have been doing important things, but it was opaque enough that eventually I started to ignore it.

What does that leave? Talking. Lots and lots of talking. I like talking games! This one made some slightly peculiar choices, though.

One: often your dialogue choices convey the same information and are different only in tone. Arguably, this is valid as a representation of a society whose manners were so constrained that only minor gradations of behavior were allowable. But it means that I frequently read each of the options several times before I felt I understood what difference my choice was likely to make.

Second: the dialogue choices run long, which raises UI challenges. How do you put up all that dialogue while showing a picture of the character you’re talking to and the text to which you have to respond, but without reducing the font to an illegible size? Regency Love solves this by showing one option at a time and letting you cycle through them. It’s not totally different from First Draft of the Revolution in this — which I feel honor-bound to admit to because, in Regency Love, I didn’t like the effect very much.

I think what made the difference here (other than the “it’s not my own work” bias) is that First Draft only sometimes gives you stacks of alternates, they’re rarely more than two deep, and the idea is that you’ll riffle through to the later ones mainly if you’ve rejected the first options, because they are quite different.

In Regency Love, there were often three or four dialogue choices to consider, so I needed to cycle through all of them to read my options, and then sometimes cycle through them a second time if I hadn’t picked up the nuances the first time, and then cycle yet more to get back to whichever option I’d finally settled on. So a single line of dialogue selection might take me seven or eight gestures to complete.

That's not what coveting is.

That’s not what coveting is.

Finally: sometimes it is trying so hard to reach Austen’s diction that it misuses words, which is grating to read. “Perchance” and “penchant” get swapped in at least one place. “Covet” is used to mean “conceal” or maybe “cover up”. I write this with the self-conscious vulnerability of someone who has also attempted modes of diction other than modern English. But it could have been better edited.

More positively: there’s quite a lot of content here, including several subplot strands involving various characters. There are two gentlemen you can choose to romance, and I believe (though I didn’t try this) that DLC unlocks a third. There are several female friends you can cultivate, who have different temperaments as well.

If I have one other complaint, it’s that the plot developed slowly relative to the number of available scenes. I was initially chasing after a sour gentleman with (I surmised) a heart of gold, named Mr. Curtis. I visited him and exchanged sarcastic banter for many nights in a row. We went on trips. We quoted poetry. I made anachronistic feminist arguments, and he wasn’t completely dismissive, which was the most I could hope for. He gave me a touching gift. He invited me and my mother to his family home in Yorkshire. I was sure I was getting somewhere. I developed suspicions about his activities and they proved (very slowly and very eventually) to be right, but that was a good thing too. And still the wretched man did not pop the question. I gave him every encouragement. I don’t know whether I had the wrong character traits to make him propose, but in the end I gave up and pursued someone else instead. My second candidate did propose, but only after quite a long time.

Part of the issue here is that the game is working with simulation time rather than narrative time. It has you actually go on five or six nearly identical visits with someone before your relationship seems to progress. It is realistic for relationships to take time to build, but the downside is that there were a lot of scenes that consisted of going for a walk with someone and exchanging a few compliments and going home, without anything having changed from a plot perspective.

mmdThat may not sound like your kind of game. But if it does, I have another for you! Marrying Mr. Darcy is a physical card game, which I’ve played with 4-5 players. It is supposed to be playable with 2-6, but I’ve never tried 2 and suspect that it might feel a bit thin that way. Each player controls one female character from Pride and Prejudice, with the aim to marrying her off at the end. (I enjoy playing Caroline Bingley just for the perversity value.) You cycle through a deck of randomized events and gain opportunities to add traits such as beauty and dowry to your heroine, or (more rarely) to strip traits from other people. At the end, your heroine’s traits determine which suitors might be interested in courting her. Different heroines also receive different point values for marrying different men, so you’re not all competing for Darcy, despite the game’s title.

This pattern of building on characters with various modifying events is a bit reminiscent of Gloom, but in Marrying Mr. Darcy, there is much less focus on storytelling as you go along, and the modifier cards usually just say things like “+2 dowry”, rather than describing the event that led to this increase of wealth. So the feel of it in play is very much less about building a plot arc.

Like Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy is fairly lightweight mechanically. The randomness means that it’s hard to play as a serious strategy game. It’s more akin to Snakes and Ladders, a game about the caprice of life, dressed up with a lot of references to country dancing and afternoon tea. Both games apparently assume that their players find Regency trappings a kind of comfort setting and will enjoy spending lots of time imagining the ball gowns and carriage rides and strawberry-picking afternoons. Depending on audience, this may be justified. In both cases, I was almost the target audience, but I wanted more plot and more structured conflict between the characters. For all it may seem otherwise, a fair amount actually happens in Pride and Prejudice.

I am depressed that Regency Zombie is its own subgenre now.

Regency Zombie is a Thing. :(.

I regret to say, finally, that Marrying Mr Darcy offers an undead expansion in case you want to make your card game into a rendition of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I know I’m cranky and complain about zombies pretty much every time they appear, but I am especially tired of PPZ derivatives. You know how Onion articles are funny headline plus three cups tepid water? Brewing a whole subgenre by that process leaves you with homeopathic levels of humor.

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Regency Solitaire is a solitaire variant wrapped in a romance: play ten hands of solitaire, earn the next bit of story.

This is a standard structure for casual games with multiple levels, and Regency Solitaire shares more gameplay tropes and UI features with Diner Dash or the Delicious series than it does with visual novels. The pacing is odd, though: ten hands of solitaire take longer to play than the average time management level, especially if you mess up and have to replay several of them. This means that the story is comparatively attenuated; you may be starting to forget where you left off by the time you get back to it. And where many time management games give you tasks that are somehow related to the theme for you level, Regency Solitaire‘s only plot tie-in is that you’re supposed to “uncover” various props — teapots and necklaces and that sort of thing — by removing cards from on top of them. A prop will appear in one of your regulation ten hands, but this is a pretty light reminder of the ongoing story. The player never really gets to make any story choices, merely drive the plot forward via the labor of playing solitaire.

Regency Solitaire differs from the other two in a couple of other important ways. First, the game mechanics are solid: there are lots of different solitaire arrangement patterns and various power-ups that introduce new tactical considerations. I’m often suspicious of power-ups, and also suspicious of doodad-festooned computer versions of classic games. If you want to see a brilliant piece of game design stabbed in the neck with a sacrificial knife, look at “Adventure Mode” on the online Dominion server. You get power-ups so you can change what is in your starting hand, and special new goals, and all sorts of random junk. It pointlessly ruins the balance of the original Dominion without offering anything nearly as interesting in recompense. In my view, anyway.

Not the case with Regency Solitaire. And this is not just because classic solitaire is somewhat dull and unfair and thus unruinable. It’s because the RS people came up with new ways to work with hidden and revealed knowledge, randomness, and card access, making it more possible to play with skill rather than just with luck and keen vision. This is a game that you could play and enjoy even if you have no interest in the historical period or the story.

Second, Regency Solitaire is not true Austen-iana. Instead, it’s school of Georgette Heyer.

Heyer was a 20th century novelist who did meticulous research on the Regency and wrote many dozens of romance novels and short stories about the period. (She also wrote some straight historical novels, which unfortunately I mostly find very dry going, and some more contemporary mysteries.)

Heyer’s characters tend to be wealthier and more highly placed than Austen’s, almost always aristocrats or incredibly well-connected commoners rather than Austen’s mix of officers and clergymen and naval captains; they fight duels and take mistresses and kidnap one another; they’re actually allowed to kiss on-screen, if not much more. Heyer uses a lot of period slang, much of which she unearthed herself by reading letters from the era, and unlike Austen, she routinely writes scenes in which no women are present. Sherwood Smith has a long, wonderful history of the regency romance genre and the difference between Heyer and Austen.

It’s escapist stuff, but smoothly crafted — Heyer’s prose, research, and incidental characters are all excellent. There are a couple I no longer enjoy as much as I did twenty years ago: the reformed rake hero of Devil’s Cub seemed romantically brooding when I was 14, whereas now he reads as violent and abusive. And Heyer’s novels are all ferociously, unapologetically classist.

The game’s author mentions that connection, but one can find the marks in the game itself. Regency Solitaire relies on various distinctive Heyerisms (“diamond of the first water” to mean an extremely beautiful woman, for instance). It also places its characters in a richer sphere than most of Austen’s. Our heroine’s family moves through London, Bath, Brighton, and various stately homes rather than staying put in one town: that by itself is proof that they’re not truly broke, as travel on that scale would have been expensive. Her family was originally well-off except that her brother has ruined their fortunes by gambling; this turns out to be due to a plot to ruin him, a little in the style of Peregrine Taverner’s averted fate in Regency Buck. At the end she’s set to marry an Earl; no mere Mr or Captain for her.

This story doesn’t really dramatize how the characters fall in love. The hero is very wealthy, the heroine very beautiful, they are instantly attracted to one another. The only problem in their way is the meddling of a neighbor, and the hero has no particular difficulty in disposing of him. But as a frame for the game of solitaire, it was almost spookily fitting. Solitaire is all about ranking and hierarchy and sorting things into their proper places: the analogy of sorting people into their proper places is here emphasized by the fact that the Regency Solitaire cards all have characters sketched on them. I’m not going to push the boat far enough to say that solitaire is an inherently classist game, but it’s one in which the primary pleasure is the pleasure of creating order and tidiness. The frame story and theming go very well with that mental approach.

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Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge is a rhythm game by Squinky. You’re dancing with Mr Darcy (as performed through the arrow keys or a Dance Dance Revolution controller if you have one; I don’t). He responds in Tracery-style procedural dialogue that combines actual Darcy quotes with variant words, and these utterances are then rendered in hilarious text-to-speech. So, for instance, on one occasion he uttered his famous line about the accomplishments required of a woman, but now they included skill at organic chemistry.

As in Interruption Junction, this is a game about communication but one in which the actual meaning of the words spoken is of less importance than the other dynamics. Indeed, not-quite-functional communication mechanics are at the core of a lot of Squinky’s work: see also the hesitant journaling of the protagonists in Tentacles Growing Everywhere, or the deliberate awkwardness of Coffee: A Misunderstanding.

I should say up front that I was really bad at this game and that I persisted in being really bad at it after many playthroughs. I’m not always terrible at rhythm games, and I can actually waltz a little in real life (better than this, anyway). But while I improved somewhat, I never reached a point of winning Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge. Darcy was spewing insults right from the beginning (“You would clearly be an elegant woman if it were not for your shambling”). By mashing buttons, however, I could get him to gasp in pain as though I had just stepped on his foot. As I got more annoyed with him, I resorted to this more and more.

There’s obviously something disordered about a communication context where one person is only able to “speak” by exactly following rules set by the other party. Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge dismantles all the warm fuzzy aspects of Austeniana — the clothes and houses so lushly depicted in some of the other games on this list, the fantasy of exchanging witty banter with a handsome partner, the idea that the past might have offered a less confusing and better-structured social context than the present. What remains from the original is only the entitlement and misogyny of Darcy’s early behavior. This is not using the late Georgian period as a fantasy to escape into, but bouncing its commentary off that fantasy.

Disclosure: I bought the first three of these games with my own money. I received Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Party as a supporter of Squinky’s Patreon.

If you are interested in Austen retellings, you may also want to read about Matches and Matrimony or about how we used Austeniana in the Versu project. Judy Tyrer’s multiplayer online game Ever, Jane might also be of interest.

8 thoughts on “Regency Games: Regency Love, Marrying Mr Darcy, Regency Solitaire, Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge

  1. One thing I do find weird about these games is how Austin, by my understanding, was satirizing the culture of her day, yet her works have come to be used in things like these as a way of romanticizing and celebrating it. (There’s a similar issue with The Great Gatsby, Don Quixote, and any novels intended as satire or criticism that end up outlasting the things they were commenting on, since they inevitably reproduce the seductive aspects of their culture while satirizing them.)

  2. Really enjoyed these reviews. I remember you saying once (when reviewing A Killer Headache) that you’d rather play an Edwardian drawing-room comedy than another zombie game: shame none of these games seem to hit the mark (well, wrong time period, but still).

    And your comments on the zombie expansion for Marrying Mr. Darcy had me laughing out loud. I take it you’ve been following Sam Kabo Ashwell’s “Year Without Zombies” post series?

  3. It frustrates me that none of these seem to be at all trying to capture the things that my wife and I love about Jane Austen, while treating as canon aspects that I, personally, don’t care about one way or the other. To us, Austen is not about some bizarre other world with its own rules and charming customs – it is about real people, who could exist in certain societies of today (such as the Orthodox Jewish communities we grew up in) in only slightly different ways. Austen doesn’t treat her characters like fancy but one-dimensional mannequins (as Georgette Heyer might) – they’re fallible but familiar human beings who are always approached with a combination of biting wit and genuine psychological insight.

    The only one of these games I’ve played is Dietrich Squinkifer’s, and its interpretation of Darcy offends me a little. I relate to the Darcy of the book, as someone with innate social difficulties who occasionally needs to be informed of what other people are going through because he can’t infer it for himself. If you’re in an environment that never acknowledges your privilege or the ways in which other people’s experiences differ, it is bound to cause problems, and it doesn’t make you the one-dimensional monster he is painted as in the dancing simulator. Even at the beginning of the book, Darcy isn’t barking orders at women the way the game presents. He’s minding his own business, muddling through things expected of him that make him uncomfortable, and trying to avoid dancing.

    His faulty expectations do eventually hurt someone, yes, but at the point where he is called out on it (and is understandably confused by the reaction), he doesn’t double down on the mistreatment like Mr. Collins – he changes. The extreme repetition of the game even within a single playthrough gives the impression of Darcy as an immovable force of society that you’re up against, which (while serving a valid point about social expectations) is very much not who the character is.

    • I know what you mean. To be fair, I don’t think Fitzwilliam Darcy’s Dance Challenge is either trying to be or pretending to be an accurate representation of the Darcy from the book; rather, it’s using the Darcy-construct (as much a product of Austen’s imitators and retellers as of P&P itself) in order to make its own point. (Darcy’s patchwork face and the way all the art is put together from snippets of other things is I think also a pointer to this.)

      I do wish there were more games that did a good job of exploring human relationships and human interiority; that’s partly what we were trying to do with Versu, and there’s a lot of work in the IF world that also goes that direction. I think there’s a specific challenge in adapting extant Austen work that way, precisely because the player already knows what’s going to happen and how both characters are motivated, and therefore cannot step into directing the protagonist from inside a position of ignorance. There are still ways to write around that: design the game so that the player is not controlling either of the protagonists; open out the plot with a variety of other possible incidents; introduce additional thoughts and motives. But these are still all sort of strategies for doing something other than what Austen did.

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