Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games)

Long-Live-The-Queen

I’m not exactly getting to this one in a timely fashion. Long Live the Queen is a visual novel/sim that has been out for a couple of years now, and people have been telling me to play it, and I’ve just been somewhat overwhelmed by how hard it is to get through. But now I have managed to win (once) and die (a lot of times), which is supposedly the correct proportion for this game.

The premise is that you are 14-year-old Elodie, the princess of a kingdom faced with internal and external strife, and you have to live through the 40 weeks until you turn 15 and are crowned. Every week you choose two subjects to study from a bewildering array (everything from Accounting to Divination, Elegance to Archery). Every weekend, you pick a weekend activity that affects your mood, which in turn affects your aptitude for different subjects. And each weekend you also face certain specialized story choices, which follow a consistent schedule. Winning is largely about learning which challenges are going to come up when and which skills you’ll need to have in order to overcome them, and training accordingly.

LongLiveQueenStats

Quite a bit has already been written about LLtQ: about how hard it is, about how it compares with Princess Maker and Varicella. I want to talk about the cruelty stat.

This sounds like it’s going to be spoilery, but it’s really only mildly so: there are so many moving parts in this game that even a detailed analysis can leave a lot still to be uncovered.

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story Demo (Tea Powered Games)

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Dialogue: A Writer’s Story is the tale of Lucille, a woman who is stuck on a novel, and who goes to her friends and relatives to find inspiration and work past her difficulties. The full game is not yet available, but a demo is free to download. My remarks here are therefore necessarily based just on the two scenes provided in that demo.

Dialogue has some aspects of a visual novel — in the screenshot shown above, Lucille and her brother are talking, and Lucille periodically gets timed opportunities to choose dialogue responses. All of the text is fully voice acted. There is a bar that shrinks as you run out of time to answer, as in Telltale conversation sequences, though there are also some additional dialogue powers that come into play and allow you to gain alternate dialogue lines partway through the timed session.

At the end of your conversation with Lucille’s brother, you get a little summary of how the game thinks the conversation went: were you pushy? neutral? I have to admit that its understanding of what I was doing and why didn’t really match my own.

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Cinders (Moacube)

only it was really too inconvenient, you see,
not least when it shattered on the staircase
I was running up to catch the last train…
Apologies for Breaking the Glass Slipper, Isabel Yap

When I’m drawn to adapt a traditional story to interactive fiction, it’s often because there’s something about the original that bothers me so deeply that I feel I need to address it. Part of the reason I rework fairy tales is that I have such a love-hate relationship with them: I was raised on them, read them avidly as a child, but consider them to have been terrible guidance in many many ways. Especially, especially, the Cinderella-style model of passive virtue for women that said, Don’t complain if people aren’t giving you your fair share. If people ask too much of you, comply anyway. Put yourself last in all circumstances. Endure anything that comes your way. Never speak up for yourself. In the end, your patience may be acknowledged and rewarded by someone else, but not, of course, at your own instigation.

This bit of feminine cultural programming is grotesquely unhealthy, not only because it subjects the model Patient Woman to a lot of unnecessary suffering, but because it actually makes it hard for other people to treat you well or for resources to be sensibly allocated. Other people cannot be expected always to guess accurately what’s a reasonable thing to ask of you and what’s an unfair imposition. When they ask something that’s an imposition, a lot of the time they’re relying on you to say no if no is the appropriate answer. If you don’t ever push back, you cast other people as the villains in your story without their necessarily ever intending to have that role. If you never say no, you allow your time to be spent frivolously on things that might not even matter all that much to the asker, instead of on things that might make a big difference elsewhere.

I’m still fighting to reprogram myself. I think maybe other women sometimes are too. Cinderella, I notice, gets retold a lot from the perspective of women who are trying to make the lead character a little less passive, a little less obedient. Rosamund Hodge’s novella Gilded Ashes explains Cinderella’s cooperation through a novel twist: the ghost of Cinderella’s mother still haunts the area, and reacts with such terrible vengeance towards anyone it perceives making Cinderella unhappy that the girl has to feign a good mood all the time, or face being responsible for the violence that will result.

Then there’s Cinders.

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Cinders is a visual novel adaptation of Cinderella that takes a shot at this same issue. It’s been out for a few years, but recently a friend gave me a Steam key for it, so I only played a month or so ago. It has a lot to commend it: the art is very attractive while not belonging to the usual anime categories; the story offers a high number of branches and subbranches; and the whole thrust of both story and mechanics is to interrogate the “be quiet, put up with being bossed around, and eventually you’ll be rewarded with a man” message of the original fairy tale.

This Cinderella has the opportunity to be passively obedient (“good”), assertively selfish (“bad”), or “smart” (here’s a spoilery breakdown of how stats are distributed over the course of the game). Being smart is usually a third-way path that acknowledges nuance and complexity in interpersonal matters while rejecting fantasies and delusions about magic. The conventionally “best” outcome, where Cinders marries the prince and then presides over a happy kingdom, requires a balanced behavioral profile. And whatever happens, the Cinders in this story doesn’t get any outcome without working for it.

I think there’s still further to dig into the Cinderella problem — the difficult thing in my experience is not so much about whether one should sometimes stand up for oneself, but about when, and how, and how to balance other people’s needs with yours when you’re out of practice making that calculation, and how to deal with the emotional fallout of standing up for yourself when you’re still counting your own “virtue” in terms of the number of other people’s tasks you did today.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the spin Cinders put on this old problem, and the fact that some of the happy endings didn’t wind up joining me with the prince at all, but let me have other lovers, or solitude, or even something approximating a career.

Hatoful Boyfriend

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Hatoful Boyfriend is a visual novel of the dating sim genre(ish), in which all of the possible romantic leads are birds. You are a female human attending an otherwise all-bird school, and you have your choice of pigeons, quails, and doves, each possessing a characteristic personality. What initially seems like a whimsical premise gradually develops a bit more depth; there’s even a website devoted to the writings of a prominent in-world pigeon blogger.

Quite a lot has already been written about Hatoful Boyfriend, often by people more familiar than I am with visual novel conventions — though the visual novel community, like the gamebook community, often seems so relevant to interactive fiction that it’s a little mystifying that there isn’t more communication. As with many other dating sims, the game is designed to be replayed to unlock new content: you begin by romancing different suitors and finding out their secrets, which then allows you to access a different ending to the story. In contrast with a lot of “ultimate ending” finales, though, the unlockable content in Hatoful Boyfriend is both much longer than the per-suitor stories, and of a different genre: a horrific mystery, rather than a romance, and one that does a lot to explain how a world of sentient pigeons has come about.

I couldn’t help thinking as I played about some of the arguments in Creatures Such as We, especially the idea that it’s hard to explore consent in a game in which all NPCs are prizes for the protagonist. With Hatoful Boyfriend, I felt that I was experiencing the opposite effect of this: the game expects you to play many times, and each time you must mold the protagonist in order to suit the tastes of the bird she’s pursuing. There are only a few characteristics of hers that remain absolute, such as her vitality and love of running (and that proves to have an important plot relevance, eventually). Otherwise, a lot of the potentially freighted moral choices dissolve with repetition and the fact that she has to take different sides of each issue depending on whom she wants to impress. The cumulative effect, at least for me, was that the protagonist came to seem less and less important, even as my playerly understanding of the other characters increased.

But then — well, let’s give this a spoiler jump first.

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Assorted Links

Boon Hill

Some while back, I posted about a then-being-kickstarted game called Boon Hill, all about exploring a graveyard full of epitaphs. That game is now on Steam Greenlight.

The XYZZY Award finalists are announced and IFDB has a handy list so that you can click through and play whichever ones you’d like to get to before voting closes.

Choice of Games is seeking more authors, especially authors with previous experience writing for interactivity. They pay royalties of 25% or, in some cases, work-for-hire fees amounting to $10K.

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Fungus is a recently-announced free Unity plugin for building interactive fiction. As far as I can tell it’s aiming for something closer to Ren’Py or AGT AGS than text-based IF experiences, but I haven’t had time to actually play with it yet.

Save the Date (Paper Dino / Chris Cornell)

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Save the Date is a Ren’Py game where you learn from repetition. The date you’re going on, with a woman named Felicia, keeps going wrong (to say the least), and you need to keep replaying in order to try to make it come out better. Felicia starts off as a bit of a cipher, but she develops a more interesting character over the course of the game, much of which consists of conversation between the two of you.

This is a replay game on the order of Shrapnel or (to a lesser degree) Rematch: some state from earlier playthroughs is preserved, which means that the game actually offers you new opportunities for action after you’ve played through certain branches.

It sort of has to work this way because it’s Ren’Py; you don’t have the parser’s opportunity to conceal commands whose use will only be obvious after a couple of playthroughs. Contrast Lock & Key or Make It Good, where a “winning” playthrough is theoretically possible even the first time you open the game, but would require phenomenal luck for anyone to accomplish without foreknowledge. Parser-based versions of this concept tend to be substantially harder than Save the Date.

Underneath the date concept, Save the Date is actually a piece about interactive storytelling, and I will talk more about how after the spoiler space. You may want to play it yourself; it’s not a large time commitment, and I am about to spoil it very thoroughly in order to discuss it.

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