Old Weird Games: Princess Maker 2

Princess Maker Street DuelLast week at GDC, Leigh Alexander announced the reboot of Offworld, the videogame offshoot of Boing Boing.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of the site’s first articles was on Princess Maker 2, an obscure game most people (including most developers I know) have never heard of.  This hardly surprising, because while the series was quite successful in Japan, only the second game was ever translated into English and the localization project ultimately fell apart before the game was officially released.  Thus, the only thing that remains of the English version of Princess Maker 2 is a leaked version of the mostly completed game.

Princess Maker HouseworkFor most Americans encountering the game for the first time, the experience is likely to be bizarre.  It is set in a fantasy world modeled after a Medieval European city as imagined by Japanese developers for a Japanese audience.  There is a strange collision of cultural tropes and social mores that could be uncomfortable for some players.  The game juxtaposes Catholic nuns with Roman(ish) gods and Slavic house spirits.  While the level of violence in the game is fairly tame compared to North American games (Princess Maker 2 was released the same year as Doom), the fact that the game deals with sexuality at all was rather scandalous for the time.  Coincidentally, had the game actually been released in North America, it would have hit the shelves at roughly the same time that US Senators were calling Night Trap, a game where the sexual content consisted of a girl in a nightgown, “sick” and “disgusting.”

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of the game is the fact that the player is put in the roll of the protagonist’s adoptive father.  You don’t actually play as the princess, but as the titular princess maker.  The player is not invited to identify with the girl on screen as much as think of her as a very complicated Pokémon or virtual pet.  As Kim Nguyen points out, this can get creepy really fast, depending on how you as the player-dad decide to shape your daughter.  By taking away direct player control of the aspiring princess and instead routing that control through an unseen male caretaker, it becomes very difficult to avoid a certain degree of voyeurism and objectification as you silently watch your daughter obediently perform any task you put on her monthly schedule.

While this dominant reading of Princess Maker 2 (if I may put on my Stuart Hall hat for a moment) reflects the patriarchal nature of the relations of production and knowledge frameworks involved in the creation of the game, it is certainly not the only possible reading.  Indeed, as Hall notes, one of the most significant political moments is when these dominant ways of understanding media messages begin to give way to oppositional readings that consciously push back against the dominant-hegemonic understanding.1

Princess Maker GraveyardAlthough my own reading of Princess Maker certainly contrasts with the dominant reading, I hesitate to call it oppositional, at least in the way Hall uses the term.  My counter-reading of the game came not from my critical perspective as an academic, but from my very uncritical perspective as a teenager.  I learned about Princess Maker from a metalhead friend of mine (who also introduced me to games such as Ultima) and was intrigued by the idea of a game that followed a female protagonist who went about doing traditionally feminine things.  Approaching it as I would any Western game, I made two broad assumptions about Princess Maker.  First, I assumed that any game with the word “princess” in the title was created with girls as the intended audience.  Second, I assumed that the character in the middle of the screen that I looked at most of the game was supposed to be my avatar.  While I read the opening narrative about being an injured warrior gifted with a daughter from the heavens, I incorrectly assumed that the father figure was meant as a diegetic way of delivering information or implementing certain game mechanics, much like Deckard Cain in Diablo or the Zerg Overmind in Starcraft (this role is actually performed by Cube, the family butler).  As far as I was concerned, I wasn’t playing as a retired war hero – I was a magical ten year old girl and I was going to grow up to be a princess!

On my first attempt at playing the game (not counting several times I mismanaged my funds and starved to death), I did my best to play the game as I believed it was meant to be played.  I spent a lot of time teaching my daughter (for the sake of consistency, I’ll try to avoid slipping into the first person) art and decorum while giving her lots of free time to keep her stress levels down.  When she turned fourteen, she developed a rivalry with a dancer in town and became determined to beat her at the harvest festival dance competition.  Although my daughter was an amazing artist, she wasn’t particularly good at dancing.  Rather than encouraging her to stick with her art skills, I decided to support her new dancing obsession.  She lost horribly to her rival the first year, so I was determined to help her win before her eighteenth birthday.

Princess Maker SalonFor the next few years, we focused on making her the perfect dancer.  A dancer needed artistic skill, constitution, and charisma.  She stopped working for the mason (which lowered her charisma) and started working at the salon instead.  All our spare cash went to buying her more dance lessons. As her final competition approached, I saved up some money to buy her a nice silk dress instead of the old cotton one she had worn for years.  Unfortunately, the dress didn’t fit.  I put her on a strict diet and just in time for the competition, she was able to finally able to fit into her new dress.  As I recall, she was able to finally beat her rival that year, but didn’t quite manage to take first place in the competition.

After she left the house, she became an assistant dance instructor.  Although she was incredibly skilled at dancing, all the dieting had made her kind of weak and frail, so she was never really able to make it as a professional dancer.  She was disappointed.  I was disappointed.  Even the gods were disappointed.  It sucked.

That was the last time I listened to what the game wanted me to do.

The next time I played, I gave my daughter a healthy, robust diet right from the start.  Although not the most lady-like jobs, she worked on the local farm and as a lumberjack.  Once again, she became rivals with the dancer, but I decided to enter her in the painting contest instead of the dance party.  Although she was initially upset, her disappointment faded when she took first place in the art competition.  I used the prize money to buy her a well-rounded education, while saving a little for us to go on the occasional vacation.  She learned to navigate the intrigue of the royal court and went adventuring beyond the city walls.  The game kept giving me subtle and not-so-subtle hints that my daughter was too chubby, but this time, I ignored them.

Princess Maker Dance PartyWhen her final harvest festival came around, I finally let her compete in the dance competition.  The only dress in the shop that would fit her was the slightly frumpy cotton dress, but she had a stronger constitution than any man in the kingdom (she had, after all, won the combat tournament the year before).  She may not have been the thinnest or the most feminine dancer in the competition, but she blew everyone else away with her technique.  She easily won the competition, more than tripling the score of the nearest competitor.

In the end, she didn’t stick with dance, but became a professional writer instead.  Not only did she have a successful career, she ended up marrying the prince!  Yes, my adventurous, husky, wood-chopping, poet daughter had become a princess.  I certainly don’t think this was exactly how the developers envisioned the game being played.  After all, who creates art assets for half a dozen dresses that no one can fit into?  Still, with the hundreds of different mechanics and statistics that the developers had woven together, this was one of the possibilities that they had enabled.

This is the reason I frequently bring up Princess Maker 2 in game design classes.  Although I run the risk of being that hipster guy who is always talking about unreleased Japanese games that you’ve probably never played, Princess Maker manages to interconnect its mechanics in ways that most games don’t, transcending the common dichotomies between masculine and feminine traits.  The sensitivity you learn working at a hair salon can help you sense magical creatures or hide from undead warriors.  The conversation skills you pick up waiting tables at a bar might help you talk your way out of a dangerous fight, while the physique you build chopping wood can make you a strong, athletic dancer.

Princess Maker GlacierThis overabundance of attributes also allows Princess Maker to subvert a number of problematic tropes that are common in RPGs.  In your standard Dungeons & Dragons inspired RPG, you take control of a heroic warrior who is still considered heroic despite the fact that he spends most of his time roaming the land, killing things and taking their stuff.  While there are often plenty of diegetic reasons to avoid combat, procedurally, murder and theft are unequivocally positive activities.  Princess Maker allows the player to do some adventuring and dungeon crawling, but killing monsters, even evil demons, gives your player sin, one of the most negative attributes you can have.  You can certainly still play your character D&D style, accumulating a small fortune by slaughtering the local fauna, but people will treat you like the bloodthirsty barbarian you are.  Although the sin mechanic is still bit of a heavy-handed way of addressing the problem, it is much less so than enforcing the player’s heroic ethic through the more common Zelda-style unkillable NPCs.  Instead, it makes stealth and diplomacy much more attractive strategies for adventuring and turns violence (of which there is still plenty) into the last resort that we would expect it to be for our heroic protagonist.  It also doesn’t disallow the option of playing as a ruthless bandit who attacks merchants on the road to fund her lavish lifestyle.

I think Princess Maker 2 is can be a valuable game for designers, but I also think it can be a valuable game for girls.  While there are plenty of significant issues with the design of the game, it’s important to remember that media texts like games are not closed ideological systems, but inherently polysemic constructions that reflect the contradictions of their production.2 Videogames, like other media artifacts, are sites of negotiation, interpretation, and resistance, and I think there are a lot of reasons that games like Princess Maker are worth fighting for.

Princess Maker StatsAlong with more well-known games from the 1990s like Doom and Quake, Princess Maker 2 was also a contemporary of Barbie Fashion Designer. The game, which was an unexpected success with young girls, spawned countless other “Pink Games” hoping to cash in on this new and mysterious non-male demographic. While there are certainly good things to be said for creating a game for an underserved and marginalized group, Barbie Fashion Designer was (not surprisingly) very problematic in its depiction of gender norms. Additionally, as Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins point out, it “restricts the potential for appropriative and resistant play, facilitating the creation of ‘miniskirts and wedding dresses’ but not of the work clothes needed to create ‘Barbie Auto Mechanic or Barbie Police Officer.'”3 Although a successful American localization of Princess Maker 2 might have provoked the same kind of moral panic created by Night Trap, Princess Maker succeeds in precisely the way that Barbie Fashion Designer fails.  Although the game defines a certain feminine ideal and reinforces this ideal through points systems and in-game messages, it gives the player a remarkable ability to reinterpret and resist that ideal.  Your daughter could marry the prince, or she could remain single.  She could grow up to be a dancer, the minister of state, a bandit, or a dominatrix.  I doubt that any Barbie game will ever give the player such latitude.

I think Alexander sums it up best in the last line of her article.  “There’s something very special about this genre in general, and how it lies at the intersection of many players’ desire to have control with their desire to give care.”  Princess Maker 2 is a game fraught with contradictions.  It can be both deeply satisfying and deeply unsettling.  I’m excited to look into Long Live the Queen, which follows in the traditions of child-raising sims like Princess Maker, but removes the problematic unseen father figure and lets the player play as the princess herself.  I hope, though, that this won’t be the extent of Princess Maker’s legacy.  With it’s rich system of interconnected mechanics and incorporation, however problematic, of many more feminine themes, Princess Maker is a worthwhile game for any designer to study.

 

References

1. Encoding/Decoding. Stuart Hall.
2. Feminist Media Studies. Liesbet van Zoonen
3. Chess for Girls? Feminism and Computer Games. Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. From Barbie To Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games.

One Response to “Old Weird Games: Princess Maker 2”

  1. […] common in many Star Wars games to the karma mechanic in the Fallout series to the sin mechanic in Princess Maker 2. Having an “ethics mechanic” does not, however, mean that the player will necessarily […]

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