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Go Along to Get Along on LLTQ

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If you’ve been reading for a while, you probably know by now that by far my favorite game in the world is the strategic raising sim Long Live the Queen from Hanako Games. This is a fiendishly difficult game which combines a gentle parody of princess tropes, a thoughtful exploration of the skills necessary for leadership, and an unironic enthusiasm for sparkliness. Protagonist Elodie is the recently-orphaned teenage heir to the throne, trying to survive the weeks until her coming of age and coronation.

Keeping Elodie alive until the end of the game is notoriously difficult. She faces so many assassination attempts that at times it seems like everyone is out to get her. Betrayal lurks behind every corner. The game has achievements that are unlocked by discovering all the different (and gruesome) ways in which Elodie can die. This is probably how the game earned the dubious nickname ‘Sansa Stark simulator‘.

On my first playthrough, I made it through 90% of the game before getting my princess blasted to pieces. One of the first things the King-Regent says is that she may not be safe outside the castle, and so I undertook what I thought was a very sensible strategy of avoiding danger (and conflict) whenever possible. It took a number of (unsuccessful) playthroughs before I was willing to start taking a few more chances.

Success in the game is achieved by skills. Learning skills is governed by mood. Moods are determined by plot events. Depressed Elodie does not want to study court manners, afraid Elodie doesn’t do very well with intrigue, and everyone can agree that angry Elodie has no business being around the palace animals. Some skills are more difficult to learn than others, primarily because they’re more strongly affected by moods. This is true of one of my favorite skill-groups, Royal Demeanor, which allows your princess to stare down her adversaries by sheer force of will. Invaluable for a future queen dependent upon the goodwill of the nobility.

The mood governing the skills of royal demeanor is called ‘Yielding‘ (not ‘yielded’ as I’ve seen in some posts, an important distinction). That… doesn’t sound very queenly, does it? On the face of things, at least. Surely a queen can’t just yield in the face of any obstacle. But, well, that’s not really what ‘yielding’ means. It allows you to keep composure in conflict, not rise to the bait when provoked, and generally react with apparent equanimity. Without these skills your princess is prone to react before thinking, causing one character to (rightly) call her ‘violent and impulsive’.

True, there is something very egotistically satisfying about challenging your adversary to a duel to the death. It’s a heroic reaction, the reaction we would generally expect from a protagonist. Certainly from a game protagonist. ‘Fortune favors the bold‘ is a maxim that’s generally profitable in video games. LLTQ is unusual in that it rewards prudence, restraint and discretion.

Well, but the presence that convinces the nobility at the royal ball that you are not a child but a queen, surely that cannot be called yielding? The yielding mood, in addition to regal demeanor, also boosts the study of history and faith skills. Raising these skills not only allows you to pass complicated skill checks and unlock entire story-lines, it also reveals some of the back-story and sheds a lot of light on the nature of magic. Read closely, the flavor text for these lessons (see, for example, Novan History 80, World History 50, Lore 30 and 70) reveals a fraught magical history fueled by pride and recklessness.

What do these three skills have in common? What ties together history and magical lore? What does it mean to be a ruling queen? The lesson texts teach Elodie that she is merely the last in a long unbroken chain of kings and queens, of magic users, and of catastrophically fatal magical mishaps. In history, as in faith, you can choose to see yourself as a small part of something much larger. By this view the queenship and the Lumen magic are seen as an act of custodianship, rather than a source of control.

Play the game long enough in different iterations and with different choices, and you end up discovering several exciting ways in which giving the wrong orders can get your princess killed. Experimenting with the more reckless magical choices shows some of the drastic consequences of the unchecked use of power.

Elodie’s magic tutor, Julianna, is a character who knows her place in the chain of things. Not very glamorous, but it serves her well. Where the King-Regent withholds information because he wants to protect his daughter from the negative consequences of magic, Julianna is more interested in protecting Nova from its Queen. At first pass she’s an irritating killjoy who’s at least as annoying as some of the classic fantasy magical mentors. To convince her to trust your princess, you have to first unlock some of the aforementioned foreboding historical lessons, which might make the pill a little easier to swallow.

In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m a big far of the yielding mood and all the skills it governs. It provides an interesting perspective and an unusual contrast to the more usual sources of heroism in fantasy. And it brings to mind the banner words of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Legacy series: that which yields is not always weak.

I had some things to say regarding the approval of the nobles and why it’s so important to maintain it, but this blog post is already far too long as it is. I think for the moment I’ll leave things at that, and perhaps return to the subject at a later date.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem

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Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem is a combination diplomatic sim/dating sim, where you get to balance ambition and emotion while angling for a good match. As the title implies, you play a princess from one of seven kingdoms. The backstory explains extensively why you, a young woman, are sent alone to negotiate a marriage for yourself as part of an improbably elaborate peace conference/meat market.

I was so excited when I started this game, I could hardly focus on playing. I haven’t even finished the demo and I have so much to say.

First: the game is fiendishly difficult. It has a “story mode” that makes things easier (and less fatal) which I haven’t tried yet. It resembles Long Live the Queen in more than one way, in this case, in the fact that you must resign yourself to failing some things. You cannot master all skills, you cannot befriend or seduce all characters. Some people (in the game) are just smarter than you. One way this shows up very clearly is in the matchmaker scene.

I want to talk a little about the matchmaker mechanic, because I think it’s brilliant. After delineating her personal history, her virtues and her weaknesses, your princess is assessed by a professional matchmaker. The game makes several skill and personality checks. No matter what choices you make (…I’m almost certain) the matchmaker will dismiss you as a disaster. This can be a little disheartening, but it serves a valuable function. On the face of it, it sets up the gameplay — where you build up skills, knowledge and connections in an effort of impressing and making a good marriage. More subtly, this scene is here to remind the player that there are no correct choices.

“No correct choices” means that the game, in theory, isn’t meant to have a single, successful path that counts as 100% victory. Success is subjective, to some extent. Death, obviously, is not a desirable outcome, but otherwise you forge your princess’s goals and skills likewise, and it’s up to you, the player, to make them compatible. Once again it resembles LLTQ in that it has a whole set of “princess” type skills and a whole set of “game protagonist” skills. The matchmaker is here to remind you that every choice you make has an upside and a downside.

Are you hoping to fall in love? You are a foolish romantic with your head in the clouds. Are you here to amass power? You have a grasping air about you, dear, and no one likes a cynic. Leadership skills come at the expense of charm and manners. Academic prowess comes at expense of finesse. Everything that makes you desirable to one prospect will also make you repulsive to another. No matter which nation you come from, some of the delegates (and marriage prospects) are your country’s sworn enemies, and these rivalries are based on deep philosophical gulfs.

I… still have so many secrets to unlock. But this game makes me so, so happy. I could (and will!) write a critical post about the weaknesses of the writing and the worldbuilding, and I want to note in advance that the game is unfinished and the temporary UI is simply appalling. Despite its shining potential, the poor choices in layout and fonts may well make the demo unplayable for some players.

The full demo for Seven Kingdoms: The Princess Problem can be downloaded from their official site, here. Read [personal profile] alias_sqbr‘s non-spoilery review (which drew me into the game) here.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Love Is Turning Towards Danger Instead of Away from It — Naomi Novik’s Uprooted

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I actually finished reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik quite a while ago. I’ve spent a lot of time mulling over my review, trying to figure out what I want to say and how to say it.

I can tell you that the reviews I’ve read are all positive, and they’re right. This is a very good book, and well worth reading. It has everything that you could want from a novel in that it’s tightly-plotted, full of compelling characters, and the world-building is both creative and coherent. You’d be surprised how rarely that’s true. Written in first person from the heroine’s perspective, Agnieszka has a strong, clear voice that makes itself known from the very first sentence.

Strangely enough, I didn’t give much thought to the book’s title until I was about a third of the way through it. This was a mistake. The name Uprooted encapsulates the heroine’s journey, the backstory of several characters, the mythical underpinnings of the fictional world… I’ve rarely read a book that has a theme so thoroughly and expertly woven into every aspect of it. It’s that theme that I most want to examine in my review.

This is the story of a peasant girl living in a village on the brink of a vast, menacing, mystical forest. the feudal lord of the valley is a magician whose role it is to keep the wood’s malevolent influence at bay. Agnieszka, naturally, gets caught up in this mission when she discovers after much resistance that she’s a naturally gifted witch. The first portion of the book recounts the struggle between Agnieszka and the Dragon as they both attempt to master her magical education. What I love about it is that it contrasts the Dragon’s academic style of magic, of the sort that I’ve become accustomed to as a reader of modern fantasy, with his student’s more haphazard, intuitive style, more evocative of old fairy tales and folklore.

But the major conflict between them is over the ties that Agnieszka has to her village and her people. The magician lives alone in his magical tower, he’s rude and short-tempered and isolated, partly because of his magic and his preternatural longevity, but mostly by choice. Although the discovery of her magic puts Agnieszka on a similar route, it’s a road she refuses to follow. She passes the inspection by the council of wizards, but she insists on keeping her name, rather than allowing them to give her a magician’s title.

These two conflicts also manage to become interwoven. Like a good fantasy protagonist, Agnieszka insists on doing everything that’s she’s been told is impossible, and succeeds at it. That is at the root (pardon) of every mythical hero, not just the ability but the irresistible pull towards doing the impossible. She saves people who are supposed to be beyond hope, takes on challenges that ought to kill her, and antagonizes figures of power in a repeated — and highly satisfying — way. To become a magician she has to give up her home and her personal ties, so she becomes a hedgewitch instead.

It’s not really a spoiler to say that by the end of the novel, Agnieszka has failed to become an ivory tower magician, living for centuries detached from the people around her, including her own far-removed descendants. What’s more interesting to me is that her powerful capacity for attachment, which is both personal and mystical, is both the engine of the plot’s central conflict, as well as its resolution. Gradually revealing itself behind even the most innocuous choices, that feeling of connectedness and belonging damns many characters to certain death. As a heroine, Agnieszka succeeds where others fail, not in resisting the pull but in choosing to examine it to its core.

Everyone has struggled with a feeling of belonging. I know I have. That’s part of what makes Uprooted so compelling. It doesn’t gloss over the dark undertones of blind loyalty, whether it’s to a person or to a homeland. As a heroine Agniezska loves her home in the valley, or perhaps she is merely so attached to it that she’s become insensible to its faults. For better or worse, the pull of the valley never lets up, and she never struggles against it. It’s toxic or it’s beautiful, but it can’t be resisted.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Welcome to HazelGold.net

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Welcome! I started this blog to serve as a repository for cross-posting my media reviews, as well as for publishing updates regarding my original fiction, and my thoughts about writing in general.