Black Closet is a dating sim/resource-juggling sim from Hanako Games (Long Live the Queen, Date/Warp, and numerous others). In it, you are Elsa Jackson, the student council president at St. Claudine’s, an all-female Catholic boarding school. (I hadn’t heard of St. Claudine before this game, but it was satisfying to look her up and discover that the authors seem to have picked her with some intention. Claudine Thevenet was interested in schooling for girls and also founded an institution to support female authors. It seems she was also, less happily, a sufferer of lifelong PTSD after seeing her two brothers executed in front of her.)
Catholic or not, the school still features quite a bit of romance between its students. Your task is to get through the year and graduate – which will require you to investigate and resolve assorted conspiracies, crises, and personal misunderstandings in the student body.
The other members of the student council are therefore both your dating pool (if you choose to date, which is not mandatory) and your tool for solving problems, as you’re assigning girls to intervene where their skills make them most suitable.
This by itself gives the game quite a different flavor from the lonely and ridiculously hard Long Live the Queen. This time, you are not alone. You don’t have to make yourself into a singular repository of all virtues. Not everything falls to you to deal with. Conversely, there are some paths of action that will alienate one or more of your team members so that they are less available (or, worse, leave entirely).
Then, too, Long Live the Queen offered a series of distinct and largely unpredictable points of possible failure (how was I supposed to know that there was going to be a Military History test at this point?? because I was supposed to have played the game ten times before, while taking exacting notes, that’s how.)
Black Closet instead builds core gameplay out of a series of comparatively predictable problems to resolve; on any given day you may be dealing only with one or two of these, or with a nerve-wracking half dozen.
Each of these problem scenarios starts with some number of elements (participating students, locations of interest to the investigation), but they can resolve in different ways: seeing the same intro twice doesn’t guarantee that you know the outcome the second time around. Kaira Villanueva’s review gives a detailed explanation of how this works, if you’re curious and don’t mind some minor tactical spoilers.
It’s still a bit samey and I wouldn’t have minded a few more encounters in the collection, but I say that after playing the game for 30-odd hours. (Hanako has mentioned an intention to add more in the long run.) And if the individual characters in these situations start to blur together and you forget the name of that one girl who was at risk of failing Japanese lessons, nonetheless, the school community as a whole does kind of emerge as a character with its own personality.
There are also one-off encounters driven by the core plot, but you tend to have some weeks to deal with the big and serious challenges after they arise: time to do some training and gather some equipment, if you have to. Time to take multiple shots at a particularly hard test.
To help with all that, you get a view of the school year calendar each week, which reminds you when important events are coming up: a week until midterms, two weeks until the harvest festival, and so on.
There are occasions when you’ll be deluged with more different forms of student misbehavior and general shenanigans than you can really deal with, and then you have to prioritize which cases you want to resolve. That makes you think about the stakes: how much does it matter if the school has an embarrassing failure at a debate meet, if its reputation is otherwise strong? Do I really care about getting to the bottom of every interpersonal tiff, or just the ones that are likely to blow up?
Then there are the tactics you use to resolve a problem. Sometimes the most efficient route through a given scenario is to have your more aggressive team members harass an NPC until they tell you the truth or stop causing trouble. It’s mean, and it doesn’t always work, but often it’s faster than doing the painstaking detective work to find out who is really guilty. Sometimes it’s the only way to get a problem resolved before something worse happens. But the mechanics make you consider all of this social jockeying and these use-of-power questions. Tellingly, perhaps, near the beginning of the game one of your kinder gentler teammates expresses some concern about the assertive tactics of the Council. You have three dialogue choices to use in response, but they’re all more or less kind versions of “too bad, kiddo.”
Black Closet is still by no means easy. The first time I played, I felt very much at sea, and I didn’t win until the fourth time. But of the Hanako work I’ve played, it felt perhaps like the most satisfying blend so far of challenge and diegetic agency.
Really, it’s a standout in that respect in general. There’s way more plot branching than in your average parser game, and way more forward-looking agency and control over moment-to-moment situations than in your average CYOA. Choices you make have short and long-term effects at both the narrative and the mechanical level. If you befriend someone, if you alienate them, if you take an ethical stand and bring down revenge on yourself, those things may continue to affect your experience for the rest of the game.
A couple of things particularly impressed me about Black Closet‘s narrative mechanics.
It succeeds with combinatorial plot work of a kind that often fails. You know the sort of thing: you can romance anyone you like, but then a particular event will choose your current romantic partner and use her in a plot strand. This can go wrong through failed adaptation, if the event was really written with one character in mind and doesn’t fit quite as well with another character. It can also be too obviously a template, if the player sees it multiple times, and thus drive home the interchangeability of all the NPCs. The Fable series was especially egregious about this, in that it let you romance totally character-free NPCs and then expected you to be deeply moved when they were threatened. Nuh-uh. Even with more dedicated characterization, I often feel like this method is too obvious.
Here’s why it worked for me this time. First, Black Closet always gives different characters their own custom dialogue, so seeing a different NPC in the same plot situation becomes enlightening rather than repetitious: the characters emerge more strongly because of how they confront their situations.
Second, some of the juxtaposed events have a different meaning and narrative heft depending on how they happen. My enemies taking vengeance on the shy, doubtful lieutenant I’ve only just managed to kiss had a different feel than the same vengeance would have had if applied to a spunkier, more assertive lover. This gets back to some of my core theories about procedural generation: if you’re procedurally juxtaposing symbols for effect, it helps if those symbols are rich enough to pick up new meanings in combination. (See the Venom section in Annals of the Parrigues, and maybe its explanatory blog post first, if you want more extensive discussion on that particular topic.) In any case, in Black Closet, the characters are distinct enough, and the relationships you have with them different enough, that they change the meaning of the events in which they’re included.
Then, too, the game leverages the player’s cooperation. Cunning mechanics in the first third of the game mean that if you’re playing efficiently, the person you’re initially most at odds with will become one of your best dating prospects as well as your right-hand woman. This isn’t mandatory, but the easiest strategy for the player does involve playing it that way.
Here’s how that works, in general terms – you can skip this paragraph if you’d rather not be spoiled even to this light mechanical extent:
(BEGINNING OF MILD GAMEPLAY SPOILERS.) You’re told at the outset that there’s a traitor in your cabinet, but if you figure out who that person is and spend time with them to establish their loyalty, they will confess their treachery and then can stay as part of your team, rather than being kicked out. And having a council of five girls is much, much better than a council of four. But at that point, you’ll find yourself with a council where a significant amount of loyalty is concentrated in your erstwhile enemy, and the more loyalty a character has, the more you can use them before they need a cool-down. So at that point, it only makes good mechanical sense to concentrate training and skill points in that character as well. (END OF MILD GAMEPLAY SPOILERS.)
Sam Ashwell has written about the possible cynical message in this – that the gameplay tilts your character towards romancing people as a way of keeping your most dangerous opponents in line, and that that hints at a ruthlessness in the protagonist. For me it worked differently. I felt that the character of Elsa doesn’t know, and doesn’t have any real reason to suppose, that her romantic choice is going to make her life easier. At most, she may be inclined to keep enemies close. So I felt that any cynical manipulation here is in the lap of the player, not of the character. Instead, it seemed that the game design was shepherding me towards an interesting, partly oppositional romance.
It helps that the characters are drawn very distinctly from the outset, and that they continue to deepen as you get to know them better. And they know each other, and have opinions about one another. If you spend a lot of time with Thaïs or Vonne, for instance, you’ll see some sides of Althea that aren’t revealed by romancing Althea herself. And the game quietly acknowledges some issues around classism, and queerness, and the extraordinary pressure put on young people when we tell them that they have one opportunity to make their way in life.
If I have one slight complaint, I suppose, it’s the way that religion is handled. The school has a chapel. Assorted events take place there. Sometimes, you need to guard the chapel against vandalism. Religious occasions, especially around Christmas and Ash Wednesday, make important appearances on the calendar of the school year. So the setting is quasi-religious, but the characters never (that I saw, anyway) show any sign of being so: none of the students and none of the teachers. The problems do not include any points of spirituality.
From a gameplay perspective, that’s fine: this would be a very, very different game in feel and in its philosophical implications if you could pray your way out of your problems or even if you had a spiritual-advisor character worth speaking of. But purely analyzed as a bit of storytelling, it felt strange to me that this purportedly religious institution reflected so little of a church upbringing in the way that the characters think or speak to one another. Even if they are themselves rather secular-minded. I found myself contrasting the surreal, parodic, but definitely spiritually conscious portrayal of a religious summer camp attended by queer teens in We Know the Devil. But there is so much else to like about this game that I hesitant to make a big deal of this particular point.
So in summary, Black Closet is a funny, charming, massively Bechdel-passing game whose main verbs are social actions. It models friendship, community, and romance, with characters who reveal more depth the longer you spend with them. It honors and ramifies your choices, and it provides both small-scale and large-scale interesting decisions throughout. Learning the system enough to play well does take some time, but not as much as in Long Live the Queen.
(Disclosure: I received free access to this game for assessment purposes. I played to four endings, three of which involved my ignominious failure. But I succeeded on the Althea romance path in the end.)