Game Design Journal XXVIII: “Princess” is a Set of Skills

masques

Source: Masques and Murder Homepage

The other day this post by Leigh Alexander at Offworld caught my eye.  It is about a Princess Maker-style game called Masques and Murder (free to play at this link!) in which

Your wealthy father and brother have been killed by distasteful schemers, and now you’re to be married off to one of them. Can you plan your brutal revenge without arousing suspicion—while acting like a perfect courtly lady?

The original Princess Maker is, essentially, a time and statistics management game.  Players were put in charge of raising a young girl, directing  her growth by choosing the traits (and thus, the numerical values) that she should focus on developing.  Kinda like Final Fantasy only instead of determining her hit points and her armor strength, the statistics governed things like Bust Size, Refinement, and Cooking and Cleaning.  Players hoped to successfully manage their daughter into a princess by molding her into a young woman who can win the love of a prince, but they just as easily might raise a “bar wench or a harlot.”  In other words, games like this might as well be called Gender Normativity Simulators.  They are about using knowledge of what kinds of feminine expression that society values to interact with the game system and produce a “winning” (aka socially acceptable or even socially powerful) outcome on the daughter’s behalf.  Of course, the idea that it is the job of the father to determine what kind of person his daughter will be, that she has little agency of her own but is merely an extension of his will, is kind of gross in and of it self, not to mention the fact that it is possible to raise the little princess to fall in love with her father and marry him instead of the prince.

Source: SynthOrange

One possible ending: High Class Harlot

Source: Aemelia Lane

Masques and Murder, on the other hand, is (appropriately enough given its name) more like a Masquerade Simulator.  Masquerade describes the idea that performances of over-the-top glamorous femininity such as those we see in Hollywood movies (think Marilyn Monroe or Audrey Hepburn) represent carefully cultivated personas deployed by women who are using the expectations foisted upon them by patriarchal norms to gain some form of power for themselves. They do so by over-exaggerating their feminine performances so thoroughly that they making it impossible to see it as anything other than artifice, thus creating distance between themselves and the images of femininity.  This space allows individual women to separate themselves from the expectations put upon the idea of “Woman,” and in that space, there is room for her to claim what agency she can.

Marilyn

Source: KPBS

Audrey

Source: BoredBug

Characters like Margaery Tyrell and Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones are great examples of this idea: their access to power is severely limited because they are women, but they find ways to exercise subtle maneuvers of power using the tools that are available to them: their beauty, their charm, the illusion of humility and subservience to men (see, for example, Margaery’s expert ability to stroke Prince Joffrey’s ego and thus protect herself to some degree from his maliciousness), and even their sexuality.

Although, Margaery’s wiles didn’t particularly work on Cersei herself.  You can’t play a player.

Source: Rebloggy

In Masques and Murder, (in which the player has the role of the woman herself, not a creepily controlling father figure) the game system provides the heroine a limited set of tools with which they can pursue their revenge.

The statistics that are used to make a “lady”—your knowledge of verse, theology, music and dance—actually lull your evil suitors into vulnerability to the more lethal trades you study.  During the tutorial, the three distasteful nobles are introduced to you after the fashion of a visual novel, a fun subversion of the “which bachelor do you choose to pursue” trope.

The goal is to manage your statistics such that you can quietly kill off all three evil men and avenge your family. The Renaissance setting, full of classical music and maudlin paintings of skulls and roses—all the art the game samples is genuine period pieces—is a wonderful tonal backdrop for feeling like a creature of grace with steel and fire underneath.

She is constrained by the structures of power that govern the world in which she lives, but she finds ways to work within those structures to pursue her own ends.  That is the masquerade in a nut shell.

A few years back, there was a piece on Jezebel by Emily Armstrong that dealt with similar topics called “Pretty is a Set of Skills.”  An excerpt:

Pretty isn’t about how my face happens to look due to my genetic makeup. Pretty is about what I do with that, about my skills in the makeup department. Finally mastering the art of the false lash, I’ve noticed that the longer the pair I don, the more compliments I garner. “You’re so pretty!” “It’s just these lashes. They’re amazing!” We learn how to apply eyeshadow and mascara. We learn how to use concealer, lotions, foundation. We master the liquid eyeliner cat eye, we pluck or get our brows shaped to both complement our features and appeal to the fashions of the times. We gloss our lips up, and when we feel daring, we paint them red.

Pretty is something learned, not innate, a skill we develop as we move through the world and experience positive and negative feedback about our physical appearance.  It occurs to me that “princess” is also a skill in these games (and others like the excellent Long Live the Queen, a princess simulator in which a newly orphaned princess has to navigate the halls of power and avoid assassination while taking care of her subjects and, perhaps but not inevitably, taking either a male or a female partner).  Walking the tightrope between what is expected and what is necessary for self-actualization is exceptionally difficult within the patriarchy.  Games like Masques and Murder seemingly recognize this and has a game mechanic that reflects it.

All of this got me thinking about the new game idea I described yesterday.  It would be interesting if the female protagonist had several extra statistics that she had to juggle in addition to the traditional ones like Hit Points and Attack and Defense.  These extra statistics would subtly change how NPCs interacted with her.  It would be up to the player to decide whether they wanted to fly under people’s radar entirely, to take advantage of infantilizing attitudes about women to gain a leg up, or spit in the eye of sexism and racism and damn the consequences.  The male hero would, of course, not have to worry about navigating these social mine fields.  Of course, some of this could be accomplished with dialogue choices.  But I like the idea that all of the gendered (and racialized) social skills that she has chosen to cultivate (or not) throughout her life affects how people see her.  And I like the idea of giving the player a chance to recognize this fact and to decide whether or not to manipulate those conditions to their advantage, sacrificing a measure of pride for a smoother passage through an unfair world.

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