Reigns is a piece of interactive narrative with a Tinder-style mechanic (swipe left or right to accept the requests of your various friends, advisors, and enemies) and story snippets unlocked by where your stats are so far. At all times you need to keep your stats from reaching maximum or minimum, or your current incarnation will die — so trying to keep your current character going requires sometimes making individual choices that wouldn’t be what you want; and sometimes there’s a narrative-progressing move you could make… but you can’t afford to do it right now without dying in the process. Meanwhile, choices give you a clue what they’re likely to affect, but it’s not complete information — you can sometimes guess wrong about whether an option will raise or lower a particular stat, and thus kill yourself by accident.
The story experience that emerges thus feels a bit capricious but often entertaining. It’s not roleplaying of the kind where you can choose a protagonist personality and pursue it consistently, because consistently heading in any direction will get you killed.
There’s also a long-term way to win, but I never figured it out, in part because I wasn’t enough into the story to keep messing with it.
Reigns: Her Majesty takes that same simple concept, re-centers it on a queen protagonist, and makes it much much funnier.
The storylets this time are written by Leigh Alexander; they’re each only a sentence or two long. But Alexander uses them to such good effect that I laughed out loud five or six times during my first 40 minutes with the story.
Once again, there’s a story arc, and this time I was able to find my way through it, though with a handful of external hints. This time, the puzzles consist of choosing when to use inventory items rather than a simple left-wipe swipe response, or (in one case) figuring out a strategy for moving through a maze. When I got most stuck, it was because I’d seen a hint in an earlier play session but, when I came back, had forgotten what a particular inventory item was for. So arguably that’s somewhat on me.
As the name might imply, this piece is specifically about a woman’s choices. The Queen is more limited in some ways (at least initially) than a king would be, though even at the beginning, she has opportunities for snark and subversion. These options sometimes reflect on historical realities, and sometimes are not-at-all-veiled references to present-day sexism. All the same, there are times when, if you want to survive, you have to pick a choice that is obedient or subservient or secretive. The mechanic requires making pragmatic choices to stay alive, not always being ideologically consistent, and working to find a way out over course of generations, slowly discovering one’s true nature and power.
Feminine power here is doubly-imagined, as participation in an ancient pagan religion with secret and arcane abilities, and as a more modern-day mastery of technology and social media, self-command, and self-knowledge.
Not all the means to power are good. The protagonist can at one point gain a magic mirror, one that offers her encouragement (and stats boosts) but in unhealthy ways, promoting selfishness or putting down other women on the path to power:
…and to me this captured some of the dark accommodations required to claim or hold or justify one’s own form of power within an oppressive system.
Some Steam reviews describe Reigns: Her Majesty as “making fun of feminism,” but I read these elements more as a knowing, familiar recognition of the moves women make when trying to navigate the world we’re in. Some of those moves are futile, some are acts of pain or rage, some are violent and some are self-denying. That doesn’t undermine the project of increasing equality.
You may also be interested in this interview with Leigh.