I am playing The Royal Trap, which is an otome visual novel from Hanako Games. (That means it’s a piece of illustrated interactive fiction targeted at women.) I’m barely into it and I already love it. I can’t help but compare it to Choice of Romance, from Choice Of Games, because not only are they both interactive fiction of a court-and-intrigue bent, they’re both nominally about romance and they both feature a fantasy world that isn’t quite ours, especially when it comes to gender power structures. Choice of Romance was a decent intrigue-style game (I’ve played parts 1 & 2 of that game) but it didn’t really work as a romance. I’m not far enough into The Royal Trap to draw any conclusions but it’s starting out extremely promisingly.
In Choice Of Romance, the gender structures were designed to be equal and open to whichever gender the player chose. Social-marital dominance was based on birth order and wealth rather than gender, which eventually became a bit weird, especially for a romance. Romance is a genre that relies on a lot of awareness of social gender structures, and ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ in a romance is about more than just the pronouns and equipment. The social structures around gender matter, whether a character goes along with them or rebels against them. Dramatically changing the social structures and still producing something romantic can be done, I’m sure, but I think it requires a deft hand and a lot of subtle worldbuilding.
So far in The Royal Trap, while some of the power structures are shifted (girls inherit land, but become ‘Wisdom’ to their spouse’s ‘King’ and they seem to be required to marry a prince in order to inherit), boys are still ‘the rougher sex’. This helps some in producing the feels essential to a good romance, I will say.
(12 hours later)
Okay, I’ve gotten a Happy Ending for each route. I don’t feel much motivated to go for Bad Endings and Normal Endings when I haven’t already gotten them. But I do feel like I can comment on the visual novel as a whole now.
And it’s great. Each of the routes is about something; each route unlocks a different part of who Madeleine is. Meanwhile, there’s an entire story taking place in the background, and it’s the same basic story but the choices Madeleine / the player makes influence the entire shape of the final story behind the scenes. And it’s a good story, an important story. An easily spoilable story, alas.
The creator recommended playing through the routes in the order: Oscar, Gaston, Nazagi, Callum, and I agree that this approach really, _really_ worked to get the whole story, unfolding layers at a time. And what I think of as the final twist, revealed at the end of the Callum route, becomes both dramatic and uplifting. But if for some reason you only play it once, Oscar’s route is a really thrilling and exciting story while only scratching the surface of the deeper goings-on.
Hanako Games is having a sale until New Years; all games are 50% off. The Royal Trap is easily worth $10. Long Live The Queen, which is a Princess Maker style game without the dungeon crawling that I’ve also played, is definitely worth $5.