Not quite your average princess
Throughout a show like PAX East 2023, you’ll usually hear some variation of the “seen anything good” small-talk around the show floor. It’s a casual fallback, and sometimes you hear about something you’ve missed. Yet there was one phrase, around one game, that really dominated this year: “Have you seen Slay the Princess yet?”
I went into the show already familiar with Black Tabby Games’ unique adventure game, as its trailer caught my eye a while back and its demo impressed in a recent Steam Next Fest. The premise is simple: you’re on a path, to a cabin in the woods, and inside there’s a princess. The Narrator, guiding your way, asserts that you must slay the princess. If you don’t, the world will come to an end.
What starts as an intriguing premise becomes a delicate dance of posturing and reasoning. Who is trustworthy, and who is truly dangerous? Though the Narrator may not be the most conscionable person, the princess is no damsel in distress either.
Making a Princess
For PAX East 2023, Black Tabby Games prepared a new demo, promising new lines, scenes, and four new “Princesses” to discover. If you’re intrigued at all by this premise, I highly suggest you take a break, go play the Steam demo, and come back. It’s worth the surprise. But taking some time to talk with Tony Howard-Arias and Abby Howard, the duo behind Black Tabby, I was curious to see both how Slay the Princess has evolved, and how it began.
“So it was kind of a mechanical thing, actually, because we wanted to see if we could do a game that had much more limited assets than our other game, Scarlet Hollow, which is super labor intensive,” Abby said. “So this was a very minimal project.”
Scarlet Hollow, Black Tabby’s other title, is an episodic and long-in-development horror narrative. As the pair point out, it’s been in development for a while, and still has more to go. With Slay the Princess, the duo has found a project that’s narrower in focus and a little less intensive, while giving them a way to fund their work without worrying about outside support. The result is, as they describe it, something a bit like The Stanley Parable with an Eldritch spin.
If you’ve played the demo, or you’re cheating a bit and reading on despite me telling you to play the demo first, you have a rough understanding of Slay the Princess‘ structure. Chapter 1 thrusts you into the driver’s seat, contending with the Voice of the Hero and The Narrator, and soon the Princess; each choice you make can create branching paths until it comes to a head. Then, Chapter 2 starts. The Narrator is unaware of this loop, you’re accompanied by a new Voice in your head, and the Princess is different.
The Princess you get is based on your actions in Chapter 1, which became a talking point amongst people who demoed Slay the Princess. “Which Princess did you get” was a fun little way of seeing how these paths branched out, and started to give me an appreciation for all the ways in which Black Tabby Games accounts for the player’s choices. The demo has 11 different endings, but each feels informed by little tidbits.
“Very choice-driven,” Abby said. “Like, that’s what we really love to do with our games, is make it so your choices actually do really matter.”
A path all your own
Bringing the knife down, as Tony explains, might put your relationship with the Princess on edge. Whether you kill her, or she kills you, could shift things. Heck, maybe you don’t even go to the cabin.
At first, the team started with a list of princesses and the kinds of relationships they wanted to explore. But as writing continued, the pair started to add more, adapting to address how players approached the story.
“Like the first demo, I think there were six forms in total,” Tony said. “And one of the changes we made for this one is there were a few where it’s like, a given Princess had too many ways to get to that form, where it didn’t really feel like it represented the players.”
Little nuances, like taking the knife but still freeing the Princess, felt tonally different; so Black Tabby has continued to adjust, finding new angles on the evolving relationship between the player and the Princess. My personal favorite, The Tower, is jokingly referred to as an Old Testament, biblically accurate angel-style Princess. It’s terrifying.
Gathering a crowd
The most interesting twist about seeing Slay the Princess at PAX East 2023 was the venue itself. When I first demoed Slay the Princess, it was in the solace of my own home. But in Boston, Black Tabby had a spot on the corner of the PAX Rising showcase, right next to a large through-lane of foot traffic. While one station was set up on a laptop with headphones, the other had a large screen, and the audio (including the phenomenal voice acting from Nichole Goodnight and Jonathan Sims) boomed out over a speaker.
Black Tabby noticed this too. Tony said that they had data of which Princesses players ran into the most from the first demo, and here on the show floor, they had seen a much different skew when players ventured with an audience. From my perspective, it was fascinating to watch people stop and watch others play. Passers-by would be drawn into the unfolding drama, as the player tried to argue for the Princess’ freedom, or attempted to end the threat themselves.
“We wanted it to be a complicated situation, where you had to like, really think about it to make your own choices,” Abby said.
With demo #2, Black Tabby Games is actually hoping for a launch window soon. Optimistically, Slay the Princess could hit sometime around early-to-mid fall, making the development cycle much faster compared to Scarlet Hollow. While it still features a hand-drawn style, the specific look of Slay the Princess makes it faster to turn around. Plus, it has the added benefit of being a pretty eye-catching aesthetic.
Already, Slay the Princess feels like it’s building up a groundswell for Black Tabby Games. The team says that they’ve actually seen a noticeable uptick in Scarlet Hollow sales after the Princess demo. And it’s for good reason, as Slay the Princess feels like it was the unlikely showstopper at PAX East 2023. It’s thought-provoking, unnerving, clever, and a narrative adventure well-worth watching as it nears a launch.
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