Watch the Queen Conquer

I remember how desperately I wanted respect as little girl. I was a precocious early reader who adored carrying conversations with adults. I loved playing soccer and kickball, at least partially for the acknowledgment of the other boys in my elementary classes. One of my great childhood frustrations took place at my cousin’s house when a bunch of younger family members would huddle around an SNES playing Street Fighter II Turbo or Mortal Kombat: I would rarely receive a turn with the controller, and with no way to practice and compete outside of these family gatherings, lose terribly and justify to my cousins their resistance to including me. It turns out that a lot of my ideas on how to achieve respect were related to how I performed gender.

As with many children, a large part of my ideas on femininity was informed by my relationship with the Disney princesses. I grew up with the Disney Renaissance, developing my personality starting around the time of The Little Mermaid’s 1989 release. I loved Ariel’s curiosity, Belle’s bookishness, Jasmine’s defiance and tiger-ownership. While I enjoyed watching these girls onscreen, I was lukewarm to their merchandise. Somehow, their faces plastered onto pink and flower-print shirts and lunch boxes reduced them to their fairy tale princess archetypes. I could only think of the happily-ever-afters with their respective princes. As a kid, I didn’t want anyone to think I cared about that type of romance-centric happy ending for myself, or that I subscribed to that brand of femininity, lest it erase all the other facets of me in the same way.

Hanako Games’ Long Live the Queen is a princess story all about facets and demanding respect. You play as Princess Elodie, who must replace her late mother as queen by the end of the year. It’s a princess power fantasy where you learn all about Elodie’s world so that she may navigate politics both at home and abroad and survive attempts on her life. It’s a brutal game, as you learn how to progress by failing and/or dying repeatedly. It’s maddening for perfectionists. The player sends Elodie to various classes every week to learn different skills, and each week has an event that tests her. The event concludes with the individual skill checks scrolling down the screen, and for almost every one of my successes, I would see two or more failings. Hoorah, Elodie has trained enough in archery to hear the arrows whistling towards her window, but she lacks the composure and knowledge of battlefield medicine to pull the arrow out of her leg. Not every week is a death threat, but the game is grueling enough that there’s immense satisfaction for the player upon actually reaching the throne. It’s a game that makes you feel incredibly savvy in surviving and also gives you a multitude of different paths to success. There are so many ways to play your princess, but hey, let’s actually first address the fact that you get to play as the princess.

Everyone who plays games absorbs the knowledge from the Mario franchise that “your princess is in another castle”. Translation: your love interest is a fetch quest and MacGuffin. There are some games not published by Disney itself starring playable princesses: Sierra Interactive’s King’s Quest 4: The Perils of Rosella, Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy 9 and Final Fantasy XII, and most recently, Ubisoft’s Child of Light (a game that also explicitly explores the princess archetype). More often than not, though, players act as a hero who saves a princess than the princess herself. The importance of playing as the princess herself is well-demonstrated in the pitfalls of GAINAX’s Princess Maker series. In interface and play style, it is the direct inspiration for Queen: the player sends their princesses to various classes over a set duration so that they may learn the skills to deal with various events and scenarios within the game. In Queen, the player acts for Princess Elodie, but in the Princess Maker games, the player is an adoptive father, often a war hero, blessed by the gods with the charge of a heavenly pre-teen. Player dad has a relationship with his princess. He can buy her gifts on her birthday to increase her affection. He may scold her if she gets too rebellious. In a creepily Pygmalion manner, player dad can mold the princess into a woman that falls in love with her father. Princess Maker games are still great in how many endings they offer and seeing the outcome of your parenting, though few involve your little girl actually becoming a princess: she can be a warrior, peasant, or one of several other occupations. You get into seedy territory again when it’s revealed that player dad has spent the whole game raising his girl to become a bar wench or harlot. In making the father the avatar, there is a distance placed between the player and the princess that allows for greater objectification of the princess. At least in most of the Disney movies, the dad is an authority figure for the heroine to rebel against and establish her independence, though it’s a shame that she usually escapes her father’s influence only to center her world on a male love interest. There is nothing inherently wrong with seeking and finding romance. It’s just that the prevalence of love stories in Disney gets to a point where a girl’s success seems inextricably linked to a prince. The fathers in Princess Maker and Disney’s princes relate differently to their respective princesses, but their roles in their princesses’ happiness both limit and undermine the image of the princess as a self-reliant heroine.

The father-daughter relationships in Princess Maker games can be gross, but again, the range of endings expanding the princess definition made them worthwhile for me. You can still customize your Princess Elodie in Queen, but the end results are harder to reduce to an occupation or western fantasy archetype. On one hand, the endgame is always coronation day. You can lose, resulting in death or forfeiting your throne to a rival kingdom, but you’re always shooting for queen. Though the goal seems relatively focused compared to Princess Maker, your ending is wonderfully faceted in how wildly it can vary based on your choices for Elodie throughout the game. At the end of each playthrough, the game opens the achievements section, pages of endings and story threads for the player to uncover. It shows off the richness of the writing and offers the player suggestions of different ways to play. She can overcome obstacles both magical and political, learn the secret of her mother’s demise, or uncover family secrets outside of her own. I am still trying to figure out how to fund the kingdom’s first hospital. It’s awesome how much the goals focus on how the player learns about Elodie’s world and how to wield her power. There are still plenty of opportunities for finding love, as she may also end up alone or with a number of different partners both male and female, but they comprise only a minor fraction of the possible endings. I enjoy dating sims, but it still feels refreshing to have a princess story that makes romance feel optional. Disney has been making princess movies since 1937 with Snow White, and it took them 75 years and some help from Pixar to introduce Brave’s Merida, the first princeless princess in 2012. When I saw Mulan in theaters back in 1998, it was amazing to me when the film’s emotional peak wasn’t a kiss, but thousands of Mulan’s countrymen bowing to a teenage girl in thanks for her heroism.

Mulan garners the respect of her people, but must temporarily relinquish her femininity to do so. Merida was designed to have an athletic femininity that would deliberately subvert Disney’s previous representations of girls. To swing more butch in character designs is an understandable and trending progression in diversifying the princess image, but there’s something delightful in how Queen doubles-down on old-school princess iconography while empowering its female lead. The game is soft femme all the way, full of ribbon details in the interface, lavender-tinted ballrooms, and beautiful boys. Elodie herself is unapologetically pink and pig-tailed. She and the rest of the game’s aesthetic are a hybrid of the Japanese magical girl genre adn the early Disney princess movies set in magical 18th century Europe. Elodie can, in fact, become an actual magical girl, complete with flashing light silhouette transformation sequence and a toggleable costume. My personal style has moved away from the cargo pants and ever-present baseball caps of high school, but even then, Queen’s look is pretty far from mine. I’m in love with the art direction nonetheless, as it contributes to a different kind of power fantasy, one where a young girl with a hyperfeminine aesthetic is trusted to lead a kingdom. Elodie can change into a tea dress, cute tennis shorts, a spymaster’s catsuit, and no one questions her authority. At the end of the day, she is still the boss and calling the shots.

Starting with The Little Mermaid, Disney’s heroines are dreaming outsiders dismissed by their peers and elders. They rebel and have their adventures outside the laws and/or expectations of their respective worlds, because no one takes them seriously up until they’ve incidentally saved the world while finding true love. This isn’t the case in Queen. At the beginning of the game, Elodie is an depressed, afraid and overwhelmed. She knows very little about ruling a kingdom, but a couple months into the game, she’s called upon to mediate the outcome of a military conflict between her kingdom and a neighboring country. The other members at court immediately entrust her with responsibility, and the game similarly assumes that the player can handle the nuance of its scenarios early on in the game. It’s an amazing amount of respect, a feeling that every little princess should be able to know in more of their legends.