Reigns: Her Majesty, the 2016 iPhone Game of the Year, is what happens when you mix a choose-your-own-adventure story and a card game with the accessibility of Tinder’s swipe-left function. With its release soon upon us, we spoke to lead writer Leigh Alexander about feminism and games with women leads.
Before working on Reigns: Her Majesty, you were in games journalism for around 10 years. What drew you to this project?
I was a huge fan of the first game, and when [Reignscreator] Francois AIIiot reached out, the story of a queen was too much to pass up. I specialise in feminist activism and have a lot of opinions on women in technology and women under capitalism.
Reigns is a nonlinear story. How do you wrap your head around that format?
It’s the mysterious art of narrative design! This was my first project of this scale, but I’ve played text adventures my entire life and have a natural inclination for crafting them. Since everything is modular, any series of events could go together but don’t always have to go together. It’s about chaining different cards together so the result feels unexpected. It’s a game design set up to allow for playfulness.
I am not particularly interested in ‘badass’ female characters.
The first game managed to make political commentary while keeping things light. Have you done the same with gender equality in HerMajesty?
Reigns was more of a kingdom- management sim, less about life and relationships. In Her Majesty, you aren’t the ruler of the kingdom; you’re the king’s wife. If we gave the women all the power, it wouldn’t be enough it’s called a kingdom, not a queendom, right? But by shifting to a female lead, we shift the power as well. You don’t have to have a crown on your head to affect things socially and politically and make your mark on the world. I’m not particularly interested in ”badass” female characters, though some of them can be great. I like the complexity of interaction.
Does the sequel take place in a different kingdom and era?
The original Reigns was inspired by the Middle Ages. HerMajesty is more around the era of the French Revolution. It’s inspired by Arthurian legends and historical fiction-magic and evil in the Renaissance, populist uprising, feminist uprising and how magic was a form of resistance for the oppressed. The game is less about ruling the kingdom and more ”What kind of ruler are you?”
Relationships are at the core, but does the game still have the four ”meters” that Reigns is known for: money, military, people and church?
It does, but it’s centred on social interactions and intimacy. Reigns involved a lot of abstract decision- making about the kingdom itself. In Her Majesty, we let the player make choices around who they are as a queen and her relationship with the king. Who does she show favour to? Does she have affairs behind the king’s back? We’re trying to focus on the feeling people get in emotional labour roles. You need to gain favour with key characters but not alienate others in the process.
You’ve been subject to some despicable online harassment. Has that informed this project?
I don’t want people to think this is a game about my personal feminist anger, but it’s impossible for those experiences not to have influenced me. Some elements of the game’s subtext ask, ”Can we create something empowering to women through a technology product?” If we change the protagonists to women, does that affect the cultural problems the tech industry has? I don’t think you can solve social inequality merely by making a women centered videogame.
That’s a mark of any great creator, isn’t it – drawing from your past to enhance you work?
True. I learned the hard way that people don’t respond well to being preached at, so what we wanted to do first was make a fun game. And that couldn’t be done from any other perspective than my own.
Do you find the gaming world telling more diverse, inclusive stories these days?
Diversity matters, but I think sometimes the conversation gets stepped on: ”Oh, we switched these sprites, so we’re getting better.” But as critical as I’ve been, the industry has gotten exponentially more pleasurable, diverse, and creative. The renewed economic stability in the independent game space has helped. When I started writing about games in 2007 or 2008, there was nothing like my favourite games today.
In what ways have independent game developers helped the industry evolve?
You could say the industry is homogenizing, with major franchises all telling similar stories through like designs. But by and large the picture is a lot brighter thanks to the help of indies and smaller development houses. People are challenging themselves, escaping genre conventions and character tropes. The result is new types of artwork, voices, and characters.
You’ve played many different roles in the industry and fought some intense battles. Any advice to aspiring designers and writers?
Remain well rounded. One of the biggest problems in tech and games is the insularity of the cultural references and influences. The things that make you a good creator are found everywhere. People say that game development takes tremendous passion and devotion, and it does. But you have to be well rounded. If we got away from thinking, living and breathing all things videogames, it would make a more interesting industry.
Reigns: Her Majesty hits the App Store on December the 7th. To sharpen your skills in the meantime, try the original, which was our 2016 iPhone Game of the Year.