This year I turned 30. I spent the past ten years of my life in New York City, running around in tight little circles. My life felt like a series of increasingly distressing part-time jobs, missed opportunities and failed expectations, a very melodramatic way of saying that I was a struggling actor in the most competitive city in the world. After several false starts, I decided to pick up and leave, an action that felt like a victory against a closed fist over my heart. I wanted a chance to breathe and to straighten my life’s trajectory, even if doing so involved taking a step or two back on the path.
But even though I suspected as much before I arrived in Dallas, Texas, I didn’t acknowledge that making one monumental choice doesn’t completely break your patterns. Patterns return to break over and over until the pieces are too small.
It took playing a game about raising a girl to really let that lesson sink in.
Princess Maker 2, a 31-year-old MS-DOS game by Japanese game studio GAINAX, had languished on my ever-growing wish list until I plopped it into my library during a Steam sale. In the game, you play a knight who saves a kingdom from doom at the hands of a demon king and is rewarded by the gods with a young girl to care for during peacetime. Your lucky protagonist gets to skip the diaper phase of childhood; your daughter is 10 years old, cute as a button, and completely unskilled at anything that might help her make her way in the world. Your actions during the game determine her path in life, whether she grows up to resent the world or proudly make her own mark.
You begin the game with a certain amount of money that you can spend on things like classes or clothes for your daughter, both practical and tactical. Eager to spoil my little girl, who I named Yukimi, I immediately shelled out for some kung-fu lessons and took her into town for some cake. I figured I could make up the money I spent on our excursion the following week.
As it turns out, you don’t get a weekly stipend. Instead, your daughter can earn money for your household by working part-time at one of many institutions in the nearby town. Choices range from a church to a nursery to a restaurant, the number of choices increases the older your daughter gets, and they all pay different wages (NONE of them are great).
This is complicated by the fact that when you start the game, your daughter is almost completely unskilled. She gets a small stat boost depending on her birth date from her guardian deity (a fact I was NOT aware of during my first play-through). As a little Scorpio, my daughter’s guardian Hades granted her a boost in sensitivity (go figure). This didn’t help me much at securing her part-time work. Most of the jobs available to you when she’s 10 require a certain amount of physical strength and stamina, and if your daughter doesn’t perform well at her job, she doesn’t get paid.
Little Yukimi tried her best, I think, but she got fired from the restaurant, the nursery, and the hotel pretty quickly, and brought home nothing to help her with her schooling (there’s no public school in this kingdom). Meanwhile, our weekly food budget kept chipping away at what little we did have, and it wasn’t long until we found ourselves in debt. Luckily the game mechanics don’t allow you to starve; your daughter will always have enough to eat. But as long as you’re in the red financially, you aren’t allowed to spend money on anything else.
You begin the year on your daughter’s birthday, which you choose for her at the beginning of the game. For my first run-through, I picked October 26th, my own birthday. This was a poor decision right off the bat, as it landed me right at the beginning of winter. Around the same time my finances bottomed out, our town was hit with a brutal storm, and because my daughter didn’t have a winter coat, she quickly caught a cold. There was a doctor in town, but he charged for check-ups, so I had no choice but to put her on bed rest until she recovered.
Shortly after my daughter got over her cold, she ran away from home.
I can’t really blame her? I’d only had her for three months and I was proving to be a really shitty parent. She came back eventually and refused to acknowledge my attempts at conversation (what was the world like, child? What did you see?), which was fine and dandy because we didn’t have time to talk. We had to dig our way out of this debt we’d accrued. I tried putting her through part-time jobs again and she eventually fell into a rhythm at the local hotel. The wage was middling but enough to get us back in the black after months and months of saving.
There are a couple of other mechanics in the game, but like in our world, they felt largely inaccessible without the benefit of higher education. My daughter grew strong from her work at the hotel, but she didn’t gain any other skills in the meantime. Every couple of months I could afford to put her through classes, but the lessons atrophied without repetition. I also was unsure at this point what skills would help her out, so it’s fair to say she didn’t get a focused education. When the town’s Harvest Festival rolled around, Yukimi couldn’t win any of the competitions because all she knew how to do was clean floors. She couldn’t even participate in the dance contest because I couldn’t afford to buy her a dress.
There’s one more mechanic in the game that made all of this more difficult: stress. If you work your child too hard, she starts to slack off at work, and if she doesn’t do her job she doesn’t get paid. You can give her occasional trips into town to have fun, but if you don’t give her spending money it only helps so much (if your daughter is feeling especially salty she’ll call you a cheapskate as you weakly turn out your pockets). Yukimi accumulated stress very easily, and this is fair. She’s a literal child. She shouldn’t have to worry about putting food on the table, especially since her father saved the kingdom from an actual incarnation of evil, which you think would exempt her, a celestial being, from the trials that normals have to face. My daughter had entered a perpetual cycle of work and nervous breakdowns just so we could avoid poverty.
Every once in awhile a fortune teller will approach you to tell your daughter’s future. I always opted in for this when I had the cash to do so, and while at the beginning of the game the fortune teller saw a grand future for Yukimi as an artist, by the time she turned 13 the answer was always the same: “Your daughter will grow up to be an ordinary housewife.”
I couldn’t imagine a worse fate.
For my second play-through, I gave my daughter a spring birthday and decided to right my wrongs from before. I would make sure she’d have a nice winter coat and that we’d start work early enough that we could make our way in the world. I’d spend the money we had on etiquette lessons so that she could talk to the fancy people in the castle, and everything would be FINE.
Everything was not fine.
I figured out that the quickest way to prepare your daughter for one of the jobs in town is to start her out helping your butler clean your house. This work doesn’t pay, but it accelerates growth on a number of stats that help you out once she enters the workforce. I sent her to work in the restaurant, which required MANY more skills than I’d anticipated (mood), and she was able to boost her cooking skills while earning us money. A useful trade! And one that might net her a trophy at the Harvest Festival.
But as this incarnation of my daughter’s childhood unfolded, I grew unsettled. Things were starting to resemble the position we’d been in before. We never fell into debt, but we never had quite enough to spend on classes either. The restaurant didn’t pay a lot, and more importantly, didn’t adequately prepare Kotono for the higher-paying jobs she could work as she got older (the owner of the hair salon had the nerve to call her “hopeless”). Her skills in the kitchen turned out to also be inadequate; without the artistic sensitivity that could only be gained with study, she failed to perform well at the cooking competition. We’d landed back in that same cycle of working to the bone, feeling too stressed to work, taking time off and working again. The only difference was that my daughter actually ran away from home MORE than she did during the first play-through, coming back with a status effect resulting from “straying from the path of virtue”. I shudder to think.
At this point, I wondered, what was I doing wrong? I wasn’t wasting money but I never had enough, and the only way to earn money reliably made my daughter too stressed to live. Each year went by much like the one before, with some stand-out moments (she did eventually win the cooking competition, bless her heart), and finally, she turned 18 and left my home to marry a rich man. However, PLOT TWIST, this man was rich in name only. He was knee-deep in debt and didn’t like that my daughter wasn’t sexy enough (excuse you, sir), so their marriage was an unhappy one. To my daughter’s credit, she left his ass but gained the title of Divorcee.
According to Steam, less than 2% of players get this ending. So not only did I fuck up my daughter’s life, I did so in a VERY unique way. I knew at some point I wasn’t going to make her a princess, but she tried her best and ended up with nothing, not even a job.
I felt very cold. The game felt rigged. If hard work didn’t pay off, what would?
After my string of failures, I took to the internet. Princess Maker 2, unlike real life, has some detailed guides on best play practices. I didn’t want to spoil things too much for my eventual victory (I had to feel like I’d earned it), but I definitely wanted to figure out how to make money early on so I could get my daughter some damn lessons.
There’s one mechanic of the game that I’d largely ignored during both of my previous play-throughs: errantry.
As an alternative to working or going to class, your daughter can wander the countryside and battle monsters, like your more traditional RPG. You have a choice of four areas to explore, each with different treasures you can find and then sell for cash. I’d barely touched this portion of the game before, mostly because it’s difficult without combat training, and the monsters don’t ease up on you just because you’re a girl. Yet here were the guides telling me that the best way to get cash fast was to go into the woods and fight.
Well, not fight. Not at first. First, before your combat skills are developed, if a monster approaches you, you run away.
This hadn’t occurred to me. The “run” mechanic in Princess Maker 2 is not guaranteed. There’s still a chance a monster will smack you down, leaving you to be carried away by Cube, your butler. I hadn’t imagined that trusting to luck and avoiding danger when possible was a valid strategy. No previous RPG I’d played had taught me so. But sure enough, my forays into the forests and deserts and mountains surrounding our castle town netted me a nice supplement to the part-time job of the day, and my third daughter, Lady, was able to keep up with fencing lessons until she could slay monsters with ease.
Now that I wasn’t cash-poor, the entire game opened up. Once I’d gotten into a rhythm, I accomplished a lot. During this play-through, I…
…attended a fairy’s tea party…
…met a unicorn…
…befriended a dragon…
…got blessed by an elf…
…made a deal with a demon…
…and finally got the damn hairdresser to tell my daughter she did a good job.
Honestly, the ultimate lesson from this game is that money matters a LOT. The game is very boring if you’re just playing to survive. But while I’d assumed the most reliable way to get money would be to work as much as possible, the opposite proved true. By exploring and tackling problems I wasn’t necessarily ready for, I was able to secure my daughter a more comfortable life. Because of her brute strength, she ended up enlisting as a soldier for the kingdom, with aspirations to become a high-ranking general. But I’m pretty confident that if I’d focused on other aspects of her development through a similar method a number of outcomes would have been possible.
Video games aren’t a direct analog to the real world, but this is the game that came the closest to addressing the problems I’d been struggling with my entire adult life. It feels easy and safe to push myself with low-paying but reliable jobs, but perhaps searching for opportunities out of my comfort zone could bring me more wealth and experience in the long run, albeit with a bit more risk.
And when in doubt, I can always marry rich.
Hollis Beck is an actor and writer who crafts narratives about queer identity, found family, and people who try very hard. Recent news can be found on her personal website, hollisbeck.com.