Princess Debut and The Essence of Feminine Game Design
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Princess Debut is a rhythm game and dating sim released, to mild commercial success and critical disinterest, in 2008 for the Nintendo DS. It stars a teenage girl who, after trading places with her princess doppelganger in a parallel universe, learns ballroom dancing and wins the heart of at least one handsome prince with the help of her feisty talking animal companion. She finds magical accessories that transform into elaborate outfits. She spends perpetually sunny days in gardens and beaches with cute boys who are all interested in her. Princess Debut could only be girlier if her dance instructor was a horse instead of an anthropomorphic rabbit. (But that would mean striking a crucial Alice in Wonderland reference.)
What makes Princess Debut feminine, though, is not its pink menus, delicate soundtrack, or shoujo manga-inspired character designs. Rather, those external aesthetics are genuinely representative of an internal structure that whose priorities and techniques are expressly feminine. Its cover art — a petite teenage girl, gasping with delight, eyes wide as dinner plates, hair in a perfect up-do — is wonderful in itself, but what makes Princess Debut worth writing about almost a decade later is the way it delivers on the promises that happy face is making.
My working definition of feminine game design is this: design that intentionally evokes feelings of grace and harmony, often through qualitative and relational incentives. To explain how Princess Debut succeeds in those design goals, it’ll be useful to draw comparisons to a conveniently well-known piece from the same genre and era: the 2006 DS game Elite Beat Agents.
Elite Beat Agents (like its spiritual successor, Osu! Tatakae! Ōendan) might be even more aesthetically masculine than Princess Debut is feminine. Graphically, it relies on the thick black lines, sharp angles, and perpetually furrowed brows of shounen manga. The Agents look like they could at least make it through the first audition to be on JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. The EBA is presented as a kind of paramilitary organization whose members are deployed on missions to help people overcome various challenges through inspirational dance. (This makes slightly more sense in Japan, where Ōendan are essentially cheerleaders.) The Elite Beat Divas, distaff counterparts to the Agents, are accessible as protagonists once the player finishes the entire game on its hardest mode — an interesting move that places women in the category of impressive, capable, and decidedly Other. The game opens on a square-jawed middle-aged man with a Nick Fury eyepatch grunting the words: “Ok, men…”
Despite looking and sounding completely different, I hear Elite Beat Agents mentioned almost every time I show someone Princess Debut, often alongside the word “ripoff.” EBA did come first, and there are similarities between their rhythm mechanics (though only one has a romance element, sadly.) Both consist of touching the DS’ stylus to the bottom screen at rhythmic intervals. EBA includes prompts to tap certain areas, drag the stylus along a path at a set pace, and, at the end of each song, draw circles as fast as possible in the center of the screen. Of those three actions, PD only includes the touch-and-drag movement, which provokes questions of “ease” and “challenge” we’ll address later. It’s also important to note that PD’s prompts for action appear one at a time, while EBA will display multiple points, requiring sequential action, simultaneously.
The latter, at least once the player is past the first few levels, requires frantic jabbing, scraping, and spinning. Get a screen protector if you’re going to play it. It’s surprisingly physically demanding, and requires a significant amount of sustained player attention. It’s physically and mentally stressful.
But there’s no jabbing in the ballroom. The player still needs to pay attention, and they’ll get a jarring sound and image of a horrified-looking frog(?) if they miss a step. However, slow, careful arcs and occasional circular flourishes make up the Princess dancing experience. It’s not stressful, it’s relaxing. It makes you feel graceful. Sorta like a princess.
Taptaptaptaptaptaptap seems to raise your heart rate, and swoosh~ swoosh~ swoosh~ probably lowers it.
There is a tangible difference in the experience of these two games, but they also incentivize behaviours differently. Princess Debut revolves around relating harmoniously with other people. Like many dating sims, each potential love interest has a percentage meter, visible to the player, that represents the degree of affection they have for the protagonist. (The frankly dehumanizing reduction of things like care and intimacy to quantitative scores is a problem romance games are still having a really fun time with, btw.) This score increases or decreases depending on choices the player makes outside of dancing segments — essentially, people like you if you spend time with and are kind to them — but the primary way to raise affection is by dancing together.
Dancing is always partnered, and harmony is explicitly the goal. During rhythm gameplay, along the top of the upper screen, little avatars of the protagonist and her partner start each sequence in opposite corners, looking at each other. Successful play causes them to slowly slide towards the centre, and get hearts for eyes. The desired outcome is not to obtain or destroy, but to draw near.
Success for the Agents, however, is unidirectional. The bar at the top of the screen goes forward (good) or backward (bad.) The people you’re motivating with your dancing either succeed in what you’re trying to get them to do, or they fail. The Agents don’t seem to relate to anyone, except each other, and that relationship is static. They move in perfect sync whether completing a move or stumbling. Though the Agents are a force for good, and help others with their own stated goals for the most part, they are still primarily concerned with exerting influence.
This might be a good time to mention that I don’t consider relational incentives to be inherently more interesting or impressive. What I find impressive in both games I’m analyzing is the way they establish consistency between aesthetics, mechanics, and experience. Both games give the player few mid-song breaks, for example. During these breaks, EBA displays an ongoing animated narrative, in which boldly-coloured figures and text zoom and crash onto the screen. PD shows happy stars floating gently across a pastel sky.
The two works are compelling mirrors to each other, but their critical reception couldn’t be more different. EBA was heaped with praise in almost every review I could find; words like “ingenious,” “addictive,” and even “miraculous” effuse from every major outlet. The only negative responses seem to be people insisting on its inferiority to the Japanese original — which, I have to say, is very videogames.
Princess Debut, on the other hand, seems to have been all but ignored. You can dig up some mildly amused, mostly dismissive reviews by people who essentially shrug and guess that, well, tween girls might be into this?
I’m not saying my precious pretty princess game isn’t flawed. If I were tasked with reviewing it, I’d have to mention the prevalence of cheap, synthy, vaguely inappropriate versions of public domain classics (the jived-up cover of funeral favourite “Danny Boy” stands out in particular.) The motion-captured dancers move fluidly, but when the character designs are pasted on their models, the result is less anime and more #animegao. But I don’t think any of that has much to do with why Elite Beat Agents is a critical darling, while Princess Debut remains the kind of long-forgotten 7/10 that ends up in an exhaustive critique on ZEAL. I mean, EBA’s soundtrack kind of sucks, too.
Debut’s middling reviews seem to express a kind of boredom, a lack of connection with the material. The contrast to the frenzied praise for Elite Beat Agents may be related, in part, to assumptions about “challenge” and “ease” pervasive in mainstream response to videogames. This IGN review sums it up nicely:
“Because Elite Beat Agents is such a unique rhythm game, it’ll be rare that you’ll be able to get through most songs on the first try — in fact, in the deeper levels, you’ll be playing through the same song dozens of times to beat it. But even with this repetition, Elite Beat Agents never feels repetitive. It has this “I can get this…one more try!” element that’s hard to shake. A specific song might kick your ass over and over again, but it’s hard to get discouraged because the design is so addictive, and you’ll know that kicking its ass will take just one more attempt.”
Let’s compare that to IGN’s take on the challenge offered by Princess Debut:
“The main problem with the game is the slow progression. There are eight different dance styles, but players have to unlock each one through the story mode. In order to level up enough to get new songs players have to play the same songs over and over again. The game is really easy too, so mastering the songs doesn’t take long. So the game becomes repetitive and a bit tedious early on in the story mode.”
(I’m not trying to pick on IGN; they’re just one of the few outlets that have remained active for over a decade.)
Both reviews mention playing the same songs over and over, but one says “addictive” and the other says “tedious.” One sounds energized, and the other sounds bored. If challenge in videogames means frequent and repeated failure, then yeah, Princess Debut doesn’t have much of it. And I understand the satisfaction inherent in a sudden release of frustration. But to call the game “easy” (rather than accessible, or inviting) is to place it on a value scale where the frustration-release cycle is an ideal, and Debut fails to achieve it. There’s an unspoken expectation that games exist to be beaten, to relinquish their rewards in response to your relentless, focused exertion. Princess Debut, it seems, doesn’t put up enough of a fight.
But what if a game about pretty boys and prettier dresses had design goals other than making the player feel like a conqueror? What if those goals were equally valid? What if “good” and “Dark Souls” were not synonymous? Whoops, that would mean actually valuing the feminine!
And yes, I’m calling it feminine, not receptive, relational, or some other code word. Obviously the gender binary is bullshit and everyone is a shifting coalescence of anima and animus. I know the shit women get for engaging with masculine-coded genres like shooters and real-time strategy games, and I don’t want to contribute to that. I won’t assert that all women will love it or that all men will hate it, but the femmier folks I know think Princess Debut is cool, and the more masculine ones just don’t dig it. They get bored — as bored as I got with Elite Beat Agents.
There are plenty of Girl Games. They are usually Boy Games with a can of pink paint dumped on them: games with unidirectional definitions of success that deliberately induce stress about the insertion of the protagonist’s will onto a situation, but with a pony. Often, games like this will feature the paint job and a reduction in the degree of difficulty, under the not-quite-there assumption that women simply want less challenge, rather than having different priorities altogether. Though, to be honest, most women I know experience more than enough frustration and disappointment in their lives.
Princess Debut got the paint job — but it’s pink on the inside, too. I wonder how a royal dancing and romancing sim would be received if it were released today, to a more diverse gaming press. It might get lost in the current wave of visual novels available in English. I’d probably respond to it differently now, in a time when I can play dating sims without torrenting Japanese ISOs and downloading fan translation patches from IRC. But I like to think, with more voices to speak about it, praise it, and respond critically to it, Princess Debut might have had the chance to at least become a cult classic. I guess there’s still time — Harvest Moon wasn’t a big success at first, either.