Long Live the Queen (Hanako Games) is a time-management, stat-training life-sim about rulership, intrigue and teenage angst. Elodie, age 14, is the crown princess of Nova; her mother’s dead, and Elodie is due to ascend the throne on her majority, at 15. Assuming she lives that long.
Elodie is in a strange position: she’s both the head of state and an initially-clueless kid who isn’t always allowed to do whatever she wants. She has forty weeks to educate herself before her coronation – but some matters of state can’t be delayed, and she has to decide them now. You rarely shed the sense that you’re running to keep up.
Each week works in three parts. You choose what to do around the castle over the weekend: this alters your mood (determined by four separate sliders). You pick your classes for the week: these train a wide variety of skills, arranged in complementary groups. Finally, as time progresses you’re given multiple-choice story options – this is where the skills get used, as you either fail, succeed or partially succeed to overcome a hidden threshold.
The mood system makes things a little more complicated than just choosing which stats to train: it sometimes takes a few days to get into the best mood to train a certain skill, and external events change your mood. The mood bonus is big enough that you really need to use it as much as possible, so there’s a regular temptation to diverge from your plans in order to train a stat that has a current bonus.
Princess Maker plus feminism
The most obvious way to categorise Long Live the Queen is as a bishojo (‘cute girl game’, mostly aimed at dudes) life sim: specificially, it’s a close descendant of Princess Maker, a series of games in which the player-character oversees the education of an adoptive daughter. The commonalities are obvious: percentile stats grouped by category, naive girl-child as blank slate whose personality and future you must craft through an education schedule. Right down to the bedroom background!
Princess Maker is a game with some big sexist problems, and Long Live the Queen pretty much goes for them head-on. The player-character is not a creepily vague (but always male) adoptive parent who controls the girl: you play the girl, and she has considerable real power over the world. The kingdom of Nova has a succession system that’s gender-neutral, and a lot of the most influential figures are female. Housework does not feature among your stats. And ‘princess’ is your starting-point, not your goal. Your goal is queen.
But perhaps most importantly, it has a strongly interior perspective: Elodie is very much a viewpoint character. It’s a game that’s about being a teenager – of feeling frustrated, judged, isolated; of the overwhelming pressure of being aware that this is a crucial and fleeting stage of your life, and that you’re doing nothing but screw it up; of asserting yourself just to show that you can, then feeling like a stupid petulant child for doing so. It is not a fantasy about having the power to mould someone else into whatever you want.
(I mean, you’re still playing a big-eyed underage waif who sometimes wears ridiculous outfits that your dad would not approve of; but given the conventions of the medium, it’s pretty amazing.)
Choice of Games plus failure
Like the standard Choice of Games piece, Long Live The Queen offers you a huge pile of stats and encourages you to specialise in some subset of them. The difference is that the typical CoG approach is to almost always to let the player win – they might win differently, but the house style is that any set of strengths can lead to success, as long as you remember to play to those strengths. There should always be enough multiple-choice options that you can succeed at one of them, and recognising which one should be straightforward.
Long Live The Queen isn’t like that. While its structure is not unlike CoG’s house style – a mostly linear plot with lots of optional side-treks – the skill economy is such that most you will fail most challenges. The more important events often offer two or more routes to success – be agile enough to dodge the arrow, or know enough battlefield medicine to survive it – but the thresholds are high enough, and the stats numerous enough, that overcoming a challenge is unlikely unless you’ve targeted it. (Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘succeed at this stat, or at these two stats.’) You need to decide which challenges are worth overcoming.
And the process you go through in picking them is kind of amazing.
Choice of Games‘ message is, more or less, ‘be whoever you want to be: as long as you remember what that is, you’ll do great!’ And that’s the kind of attitude I went with initially: I want to be intriguey and witty and great with a sword! But I also felt that I should be at least a little of an all-rounder – as a leader you don’t need to be an expert at everything, but you should have at least some familiarity with all the things that really matter. That one went out of the window fast: I was running an absolute monarchy, not delegating to a cabinet. I needed to figure out what mattered and specialise in that.
That process required, not just a decision to invest in certain skills, but a conscious decision about which skill groups were going to be dump stats, in a brutal triage process. I found this really uneasy: I’m OK with a political leader not being conversant in musical instruments or animal-handling, sure, but one who decides that history, economics and military strategy deserve not the slightest moment of attention? That’s odd. Alarming, even.
My first focused approach was to try not fucking up – which at the immediate level, mostly meant attending to courtly skills, the Conversation / Royal Demeanour / History stuff that makes you not routinely look like an idiot. And then that got abandoned pretty hard, because frankly it didn’t matter that much if I looked like a prat at the Grand Ball. I could placate the local nobility by making story choices that favoured them, anyway. I shifted my approach to statecraft: Intrigue, Military, Economics.
That went better, but it wasn’t enough. And creeping in underneath was a new principle, one that became dominant: don’t fucking die. Abandon any ideal vision of who you’re going to be, of how you’re going to rule: just focus on the shit that keeps you alive. There will be specific threats. Train the skills you need to survive those.
The first time I actually won, I didn’t realise until I had almost finished that I had completely neglected the entire Intellectual bracket. No history, no intrigue, no economics or medicine or strategy. Over in the social bracket, no art. Just raw power and a lot of charm. I’d only been able to keep the throne by being precisely the kind of person who should never have it.
Varicella plus stats
Varicella features a struggle for power in a pseudo-medieval palace, a struggle so tangled and vicious that it is basically guaranteed to kill you the first dozen times you play. You’re on a timer; a specific sequence of events plays out in every game, and you have to carefully manage a sequence of actions in order to win. And a big way you’ll learn is by getting killed, over and over again.
Thus also Queen. (Georgina Bensley was active in the IF community c.2000-2003; Varicella is a 1999 release, so it isn’t much of a stretch to suspect some influence here.) Queen has a lot more optional branching than Varicella, and each individual challenge is a good deal more straightforward, but there’s very much the same feeling about how you approach winning the game.
Varicella‘s worldview is much darker: it’s a world where the strong necessarily abuse the weak, where desire for power and moral depravity are so strongly linked as to be near-identical, where thrones are always Babylon. While far less fluffy than the pink hair and sparkly hearts would suggest, Queen is less all-consumingly dark. In part it’s because it’s less contrasty: there are people with influence and power who are not entirely malicious and who may help you, though their interests may not always align with yours. That said, the game gets pretty strongly at the lonely, separate status of rulership (and player-characters), a loneliness that rests particularly heavily on a fourteen-year-old girl. The game briefly offers Elodie a friend before snatching her away; you’re conscious of everyone around you needing something out of you. (Of the four mood sliders, one has two poles: Lonely and Pressured, which feels just right for a teenager’s social feelings.)
Another major difference: replayability. To win Varicella is to understand everything – or close to it. You can finish Queen and still not really know what the hell was going on with a lot of stuff.
Part of this is because its worldbuilding is a lot less tightly controlled: there’s a sprawl of characters to keep track of, many of whom you actually encounter either briefly or only by reputation. (Elodie’s day-to-day life is fairly isolated. There are romance options, apparently, but apart from fairly distant political marriages, they’re evidently buried rather deep.) This is pretty good when the idea is to show you as a clueless kid overwhelmed by the demands put on her, but for me it didn’t ever develop into a more firm grasp, even when Elodie clearly knew what was going on. I think that at least part of this has to do with my own levels of attention and retention: a lot of the intrigue and history knowledge just didn’t grab me very much, and that might have something to do with how Nova feels a lot like a Generic Anime Fantasy Kingdom.
OK, it’s not wholly generic. But you have the sense of a world built up in too much of a ponderous post-Tolkien manner: too much Jaggedy Mountains and Wiggly River, not enough cool memorable detail. And a lot of the information it delivers comes in the form of little snippets which, because you learn them through classes, are generally out-of-context information you can’t use until much later – and some don’t ever seem to become relevant. Sometimes that information gets repeated (through skill-checks) when it does become relevant, but it’s still tricky. I felt as though I needed to be taking notes in order to keep track of the worldbuilding. That’s a bad sign. Good worldbuilding, of worlds that get retained, involves not just the design of the world but the delivery of it.
Another thing: Varicella’s replay works because it’s irregular: while play rotates largely around manipulating other people, it doesn’t do so in any mechanically consistent way, which forces closer attention. You can skip over lots of text, but if you do anything new then you’ll know about it and be paying attention. That’s not true of Queen: when you’re in hurried-replay mode, you can quite easily miss new snippets of information, at least in the training-menu.
In common with visual novels, Queen seems designed for exhaustive play: there’s a lot of optional content that’s quite hard to ferret out, and an in-game checklist of deaths, endings and achievements that I haven’t come close to completing. The difficulty level is balanced just about right, I think, for winning to feel like an accomplishment, but rather too high for optional-content-hunting to feel like fun.
Too, I think that partial successes were underused; I’m prejudiced here because I play a lot of RPGs where the partial successes are the most narratively interesting results. ‘Succeed, but at a cost or complication’ is, I suppose, a hard principle to render mechanically; but man, it’s tantalising.
Anyhow. If you like life sims, or optimisation-type puzzles, or games about being an angsty teenager, or feminist sf/f, you should play this.