2012 Visual Novel, Developed by Hanako Games
It’s 2016 and it is all right for men to play games like this, I get that, I really do. Gender need not determine what one’s interests; we should all play what we want and like what we like. I know this, but despite that knowledge, it took me a long time to come around to actually playing Long Live the Queen (henceforth LLtQ). In the end I’m glad I did because what I found, behind the facade of a magical-girl-adventure, was a thoughtfully designed and subversive storytelling engine.
It’s really my flatmate’s fault. She has played a few visual novels, a genre I tend to stay away from (due to the lack of mechanical interaction), and she tells me stories about them. There is nothing that makes me want to play a game more than good stories—and Long Live the Queen is certainly a hotbed of them.
I did not think, when I gave it a go, that I was going to write about LLtQ. However what began to emerge as I played were a set of tremendously interesting mechanics. Alone, the game is a complex logic tree, but a logic tree none the less. There is not so much gameplay as there is a set of branching choices leading to different conclusions. The game, as such, lies in working out a path through this logic tree. Mastering this system therefore requires an understanding of how the game interprets inputs as choices, and an understanding of which of those choices will lead to the correct outcome.
The task the player is set in LLtQ is to shepherd a girl called Elodie, the crown princess of a fantasy land called Nova, through forty of the toughest weeks of her life. Her mother, the Queen, has just died and now Elodie must prepare to be queen herself. There are two primary ways in which one interacts with the LLtQ. First, during conversations one can occasionally choose Elodie’s responses. The choices available here are often conditioned by Elodie’s skills, what she knows and what she does not. These skills also determine when Elodie gets any choice of action at all. For instance, at one point the princess is approached by an inventor who has invented the printing press. If Elodie is lacking an education in economics she will not even be given the option to invest in the scheme.
The choice of which classes to take is the other main way through which the player interacts with the world. Every week one chooses Elodie’s activities for the week, and also what classes she will take. The activities range from sneaking out of the castle to going hunting in the forest, and each one has an effect on Elodie’s mood. Her mood is important because it decides how well she will take to certain classes. When feeling lonely, for instance, she will be better at learning how to converse with people, but less inclined to study stabbing people. There are a huge number of different classes to choose from, from decoration and dancing to fencing and pole-arms. How well Elodie has mastered these skills is ranged from zero to one hundred. Generally speaking each class taken gives around ten points in that skill. Try and teach Elodie something she is not in the mood for and she may only be able to scrape up a measly five or so extra points in that skill. However teach her something that she is in the mood for and she will rustle up between fifteen and twenty five points worth.
All of these classes are important, but Elodie can only take two per week. Also one cannot simply focus on a single skill and max it out at one hundred. In order to max out a skill, the two other skills in the same category as it must also be on at least twenty five percent. Get all of the skills in a single category high enough and Elodie gains a costume that she can wear which increases all the skills in that category further.
As a side note, thankfully almost all of these costumes are actually quite tastefully designed (the magical girl outfit is iffy), which was a pleasant surprise.
Taken together all the planning involved in raising the right skills at the right time is labyrinthine. There are some paths through the game that require minute planning. It was only after playing for a while that it clicked that there were some tests which I was only ever really going to be able to pass by using the right costume at the right time—because there would be no other way of getting one’s skills high enough. However, this complexity is offset by the fact that these systems are entirely determinate. There is no random chance in the central interactions the player has with the game. Therefore it is possible to work out, in a mathematically perfect way, what choices one has to make at any given point to produce some particular outcome. Mastery of this system, before one has completed a number of play-throughs, is impossible however. Understanding how inputs map to choices is easy enough, but outcomes are hidden. One cannot know the end before one begins.
Given that there are many, many, choices in LLtQ which will lead to the player character’s death, repetition is very much the dish of the day. What this is a form of exploration. In repeating the game one maps the space of possibilities, exploring the various branches of the tree. Failure often sheds as much light on the structure as success does. Knowing that there is a possibility of success in some or other situation in which one has failed implies that there is also the possibility of success there.
Once the puzzle is solved, replicating the solution is tremendously easy. What is hard in the game is working out how to take the actions in a correct order in order to achieve a specific goal.
One always knows when one is missing out. During every scene in which Elodie’s skills are tested, the game flashes up which skills are being tested for and whether or not one has succeeded in them. This can be somewhat disheartening, especially the first time one attempts to play the game. On my first attempt I do not think I passed a single skill check. After this abject humiliation I decided to start keeping a diary of which skill checks happen on which weeks. Doing things perfectly, however, is impossible. It is so, partly, because when one starts succeeding on tests events start to play out differently. Armed with my copious notes about what tests were coming up I managed to get a few key skills up to snuff and actually pass a couple of what seemed like important tests. Of course, at that point, Elodie was no longer a total failure of a princess. This meant that a bunch of things that happened in my previous play through ended up not happening. Thus my planning was useless and I was again in the wilderness of failure.
Life is like that I suppose. There is a sense in which Long Live the Queen puts the player in the shoes of a parent trying to prepare their child for the big bad world. It does not model this too closely of course, some children actually make it to adulthood. As an adult one knows, in a general and roundabout way, the kinds of things a child is going to have to deal with. One day they will go to school, and they will meet people who are total tossers. They will have to navigate that bitchy and cutthroat social space and come out at the end with something to show for it. One day, most likely (but not in all cases) they will fall in love, and most likely their first love will end in a flurry of tears and broken hearts. That is life, but how does one prepare someone for it? There is only so much time to teach a child, and only so much that they are willing to be taught at any one time.
One comes to care for Elodie in this sort of way while playing Long Live the Queen. One tries to peer into the future to discern the worrying shapes on the horizon. LLtQ gives the player a good deal of material to worry about, as one raises Elodie’s skills in internal and foreign affairs one is fed snippets of world building detail. Dark rumours, hints of war and old grievances swirl around Elodie. One tries to filter the signal from the noise and discern how best to prepare for the ill omens they represent. Failure to heed those omens results, almost inevitably, in death.
Some of the deaths are funny, it must be admitted. Particularly the deaths which are most certainly one’s own fault. However they are always a little bit distressing to me. They speak of a failure not simply to master a game’s system (although they do certainly speak of that), but also a failure to prepare a fragile human being for the difficulties of the real world.
The game revels, to a certain degree, in killing Elodie. Indeed, there are many, many, ways for a young princess in a magical land to die. The game provides a checklist (and medals) for the ways in which Elodie has died in past play throughs, just some one can keep a track of what deaths one is missing, so there is some small incentive given to collect them all. Given that the central puzzle of the game is attempting to work out how to navigate the logic-tree of the story I suppose this makes some sense—it gives players some incentive to explore the space of possibilities. However, it does feel rather odd to go in search of new ways to have a young girl killed. So much of the game is about forging this young woman into an unstoppable badass, yet so many of its achievements involve having her meet a horrible, sticky, end.
Of course, because the game is a visual novel, the only graphic depictions of Elodie’s end are on the medals the game gives out in memorial of them, so they are at least not fetishized.
Ah yes, let’s talk about that for a bit. LLtQ is a game about making a perfect princess, about shaping the life of a young girl. Deciding for her what she wears, what activities she does and what classes she takes. It is not clear exactly who the hell the player is in all of this. Either one is some sort of wise old tutor, or one is the part of Elodie’s brain that organizes her life. I hope it is the latter, because the former is kind of creepy. In fact the whole premise of the game is kind of creepy. I am sure that this is the point, in a roundabout way, and the game does try to minimize the creepiness as much as possible (no one is really interested in getting married to Elodie until she is of age).
Anime visual novels have something of a bad rep, and they have this reputation because there is so much goddamn porn in the same style. The most popular example I can think of from recent years is “Hunnie Pop”, which is a cross between a visual novel, bejeweled and a smut gallery. This is not a place of judgement, people like the porn they like, but these games tend not to respect women as human beings. They are reduced a set of stats to be manipulated. Skillful manipulation results in sex. Part of me wonders how much responsibility such games bear for the notion that women are sex-vending machines; put friendship coins in, boobs come out.
LLtQ, of course, is not like this. At least it is not like this in as much as there is no smut and no male protagonist who is manipulating Elodie into falling in love with him. The game clearly proceeds along with its tongue firmly lodged in its cheek, and will often call the player out for creepy behavior (there are some characters that take offence to being offered Elodie’s hand in marriage, because she is so young). Elodie remains however, a collection of stats. These stats are then manipulated to produce outcomes, so is there any difference? If there is a difference it lies in the fact that failure will follow hot on the footsteps of any attempt to shape her which does not recognize that Elodie needs to be many different things in order to survive.
LLtQ plays with one’s expectations of what it is that one must do to prepare a princess for being a queen. Elodie must become a well rounded person, not simply an elegant figurehead. She must learn how to intrigue, become conversant in finance and history. It helps also if she can learn to be an able military commander. She must learn to rule, but she must also become powerful in her own right. It will not do to leave her without any skills to defend herself from assassins and thugs. She must learn to fight. If one creates a well rounded human being, one might just make it to Elodie’s coronation and “win” the game. It is this, for me, which deflates the possible “creep factor” inherent in LLtQ. One is not trying to pressure Elodie into compromising situations, but rather trying to provide her with the tools she needs in order to survive.
LLtQ is a fascinating game. It is also a very enjoyable game with a sense of humor. There are dark rumors around every corner, and paying attention to the text scrolling past the screen reveals a strongly drawn world. It is very cheap, it is on steam, and it is well worth a look in if you are interested in a good story and a fiendish puzzle.