“Oh, Look, It’s a Strong Female Protagonist.” – a Look at Queen at Arms

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Queen at Arms, a strategy and romance visual novel, first became known to me under the working title ‘The Silent Princess’. Thankfully this title was dropped pretty quickly since, despite being accurate in the literal sense, it gives an entirely false impression of the game’s content. The protagonist of QAA is variously characterized as shy or reserved, and the player receives a close view of his anxieties and insecurities via his inner monologue. Ditching the awkward moniker lets his characterization stand on its own merits and lets the player engage with Marcus on their own terms — without subjecting both to the implicit judgment of what strong heroines are supposed to be.

The plot of QAA is basic fantasy fare. A good king and queen are assassinated and usurped by a brutal pretender. A loyal knight takes in their only child, a baby girl, and raises her anonymously under the identity of his own dead infant son, Marcus. Years later Marcus attempts to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps, still oblivious to his royal heritage. Circumstances conspire to put him in the path of the pretender king, and place him in a position to either affirm or deny his male identity.

Marcus worries a lot about what he’s supposed to be. On more familiar terms, we learn that many of the supporting characters grapple with similar concerns. Hardly surprising given this theme seems nearly universal in nature. He nurses a secret, mutual inferiority complex with his older foster-brother, Nicholas, as they both labor under the shadow of their late father’s military reputation. He struggles to embody ideals of masculinity he learned from his environment and stays silent, in part, because of how feminine his voice sounds to his ears.

The central struggle, of course, is the one on which the whole plot of the game is predicated. Like most fantasy readers (I imagine) I’ve seen more crossdressing teenage girl heroines than I care to recount. By now the trope seems impossibly stale and unsatisfying. Again, the heroine rejects the burden of “weak” and “soft” femininity and seeks to emulate male role models. Again, she struggles to bind her breasts and hide her short stature (writers! there actually are tall women in the world, I promise). Typically whatever subversion of gender or sexuality norms is implicit in the scenario is obliterated when the narrative buries its heroine under a thick, treacly layer of compulsory heterosexuality. Haha! Nothing gay here, I promise!

I’m not going to say that QAA is the perfect antidote to this, or that it can fill the conspicuous lack of growing up with all those other ones. I’m also not ready to slap it with a grandiose label like ‘interrogating masculinity’, although heaven knows that masculinity needs some interrogation, especially in fantasy. I can tell you, however, that my first run through the game culminated in a romance where the love interest had no qualms about using Marcus’s birth name (Callista) as well as his chosen male pronouns. “Do they know you’re not a woman?” It’s rather refreshing to see such a seemingly-complicated identity just accepted as a matter of course.

I don’t know if I feel comfortable praising QAA for its depiction of gender issues. Its first and main advantage is that the character in question is the protagonist. The player is able to empathize with them from a position of exposure, to read and experience their inner narration, their authentic self. Then there is also the matter of being able to choose, and especially valuable is the fact that the choice isn’t presented in a clear-cut, obviously labeled dialogue option. Rather, it’s woven into the narrative. The game also spends some time on the intersection of gender identity and sexuality. Although the conversations surrounding this could be made more explicit and detailed, something about their implicitness rings true. It feels more like a love story between people questioning their gender or their sexuality, and less like a pamphlet for high-schoolers in disguise.

As well, I would need to experience all the different romance paths and their variations on this conversation before I felt comfortable drawing a bottom line. I played the game once through and was delighted by it. My second playthrough stalled near the end and I don’t know when or whether I will pick it up again. Frankly, the game is very playable and entertaining, but just not varied enough or beautiful enough to keep me amused through a third and fourth run.

The quality of the dialogue is a little inconsistent, and there are some eyebrow-raising writing choices. As a player with virtually no experience with strategy games, I found the gameplay responsive to common sense and satisfyingly challenging. The occasional timed decision added tension without becoming nerve-wracking. The visual novel convention of sprinkling the dialogue with voiced catchphrases is… well, I assume I’ll get used to it, but it rather caught me by surprise. There’s enough variation in the supporting cast to appeal to most players, and the game features six possible romances, four male and two female.

Ultimately I would say QAA is a compelling game, although not an excellent one. What recommends it is that it tries to bring something new to the table, and in the experience it can offer to the player. Despite multiple romance paths, achievements and hidden secrets to discover, it has limited replayability value. Recommended with reservations.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

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