Monday, June 20, 2016

Long Live the Queen - 20/20 hours

I have no good reason for why this game took me two weeks to complete, aside from the fact that I've been dealing with real-life distractions, but, even so, I think I could have finished it faster.  I've been finding any excuse to let my mind wander, even above and beyond the various unexpected chores that come along with moving.

I think the issue might be with Long Live the Queen, specifically. The game is short. It's not something you realize when you're first starting out. Then, all the unexpected deaths seem like they're cutting you off from this deep well of possibility. You die fifteen minutes in and it feels like a failure. You wonder how much more there could be, if only you could survive to see it.

But once you've beaten the game a few times, and unlocked the major critical paths, it becomes clear where the crisis points are. With enough foreknowledge, you can easily dodge all danger and get to the end with nothing but a bit of wounded pride. That's when you discover that the game is really only about 25 minutes long and your first potentially lethal encounter doesn't come until about halfway through.

Which isn't to say that I had Long Live the Queen completely figured out. Even after almost 29 hours, I still only had 27 out of 45 achievements. Towards the end, I was using an online guide to figure out new ways to die. For all that the main story became trivial, there are still quite a few unexplored corners I have yet to see.

And I think that was at the core of my feet-dragging. There was no real mental segregation between the part of my brain that grasped Long Live the Queen as a solved problem and the part that understood there was a lot left to explore. It felt like I had to break something that worked in order to get it to work in a slightly different way, and I've always had a hard time doing that (even in situations where the new way was an unambiguous upgrade).

Finding the alternate endings is not like searching an already completed map for arbitrary collectibles (an activity I've always enjoyed). You don't have the security of a hub area or base to retreat to. Everything in Long Live the Queen is so path-dependent that even save scumming is of limited utility. You always have to start from scratch. And if you mistime a crucial training session, you are punished with seeing the exact same story you sat through a dozen times before.

That said, I'm about a million times happier than I was the last time I finished a visual novel. Granted, that visual novel was Sakura Spirit, but even leaving aside the weakness of the "competition," Long Live the Queen is a fun game with a lot to recommend to it. The juxtaposition of cute, anime-inspired graphics with unrelenting brutality and political cynicism is a charming formula and if you're not a stubborn idiot who insists on playing 20 hours in a row, the time-management, life-sim gameplay is an engaging strategic challenge.

It's also a great technical accomplishment, at least as far as the writing was concerned. The basic spine of the story is always the same, but it takes a lot of repetition to realize this, and even within that repeating framework, there are quite a few branches and side-stories that can give the story a significantly different feel. In fact, as late as my eighteenth hour (so, close to 26 total), I accidentally discovered a subplot that only triggered when you made two particular bad decisions in the early game. Yet for all of its hidden curve-balls, the story always felt very natural, with kind-hearted debutante Elodie and brutal witch-queen Elodie both fitting into the events as if they were the intended main character all along.

So, in the end Long Live the Queen is, for me, in the awkward position of being a game I love and admire, but which I regret trying to play in one big chunk. I feel like if I had spread the same 20 hours out over a dozen 1-2 hour session played over the course of a year, I never would have become quite so jaded about it. I don't know if I'll ever return to this game, but I do know that if I do, I'm not going to try and do everything at once.

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