RWP 2024 Final Paper — Slay the Author (If You Don’t, It Will Be The End of the Game): Interpretation as Truth in Slay the Princess (Jasmine Steele)

[This article contains illustrated gore, body horror, and plot spoilers for Slay the Princess.]

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

Slay the Princess opens with these words, spoken by an unseen Narrator to you, an unseen and unnamed protagonist. You, having played Portal and The Stanley Parable, ask yourself an immediate question: is that true? The first part certainly seems to be— you are, in fact, on a path in the woods. But the rest makes some heavy claims. Slaying a princess is a pretty big ethical decision, isn’t it? You wouldn’t want to do something as a grave as that under false pretenses, so is this the objective sort of narrator who simply states the facts of the situation for your benefit, or the fallible sort you’re supposed to rebel against? What type of game are you playing here?

In Slay the Princess, that’s not such an easy question to answer— but it knows you want to ask it, and ask it you can. When you question His premise, the Narrator replies:

The Narrator: Don’t linger on the specifics. You have a job to do here. Just get in there and do what needs to be done. We’re all counting on you.

> (Explore) Do you have any evidence to back this up?

The Narrator: Look, you’re already on the path that leads to the cabin. Why would you be here if it weren’t to complete a very important task? You’ve made it this far, you might as well reach the end of your journey.

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

Already, we see a theme that will recur throughout the game: the bounds of the magic circle made explicit. The premise, the Narrator insists, is what it is; it doesn’t need to be proven, and it doesn’t need a reason to be so. Do you question why eights are wild in Crazy Eights, or ask for proof that a bishop on a chessboard can only move diagonally? A princess in a basement can end the world because this is a world in which a princess in a basement can end the world. Besides, He says, “you’ve made it this far,” and who are you to say that isn’t true— you, the player, who’s just entered this narrative in medias res and hasn’t seen any of what came before? Maybe this is the natural culmination of your journey. For now, at least, no other truth exists but His word.

So you continue down the path in the woods, and at the end of that path is a cabin; you enter, take the pristine blade from the table, and descend the stairs, and just as He said, in the basement of that cabin is a princess.

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

And you are here to slay her, or at least you could be— it’s really up to you. That leaves only one piece of the Narrator’s premise to prove: if you don’t, will it be the end of the world? You’re not entirely sure how to verify this claim, so you do the only thing you can do and ask the Princess what she’d do if she were freed from the cabin. She considers her words carefully before saying:

The Princess: At the end of the day, whatever the two of us have going on down here is about trust. Whoever sent you to ‘slay’ me claimed I was a threat to the world, but they didn’t tell you why. That doesn’t sound right to me, and I don’t think it sounds right to you, either. Otherwise we’d be killing each other instead of talking. So I could tell you … any number of ‘good’ things that I’m sure you think you want to hear… but you don’t really know me, do you? What can my word possibly be worth in a situation like this?

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

And, well… she has a point. Even if she gave you an answer, it would be her word against the Narrator’s. So how can you determine which to trust?

There’s one simple way, of course— this is a game, after all. You can just test His theory and restart if things go awry.

So you slay the princess. It’s easy. You drive the knife through her heart and she falls, just like that; you look at her corpse and the Voice of the Hero in your head briefly wonders if it could really be that simple, but you don’t let doubt get the better of you. It was that simple, and you succeeded. You ascend the stairs to receive your reward.

The Narrator: You open the cabin door, ready to return to a world saved from certain doom.

The Narrator: Only, a world saved from certain doom isn’t what you find. Instead, what you find is nothing at all. Where a lush forest stood mere minutes ago, the only thing in front of you now is the vast emptiness of some place far away.

The Narrator: Everyone is fine, it’s just that you and the cabin are now far away from them. Don’t worry. You’ll be safe here. This is good. Everyone is happy. You’ll be happy.

The Narrator: This is what’s best for everyone. Trust me.

The Narrator: Time passes. You can’t be sure if it’s days, or months, or years or even decades. It’s all a wonderful, boring blur. You’ve never been happier.

The Narrator: Eventually, you pass into a blissful state of pure existence. Though words like ‘eventually’ and ‘pass’ ceased to have any meaning to you long before that shift. You simply exist. Happy. Forever.

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

And the credits roll.

So the Narrator was right all along, right? The world is now saved, and you’re happy forever.

But that… isn’t satisfying. It isn’t meant to be, clearly, by the tongue-in-cheek ending card the game tosses up if you really do fulfill your destiny to the letter. Based on all available information, you made the right choice; you played by His rules, everything He said came true, and you won the game. But there has to be more to it than that… right?

In a way, Slay the Princess is a game built from the ground up not to be played right and won but to be played wrong and explored. Its setup could not be simpler: there is you, there is the Narrator, and there is the Princess. There’s a path in the woods and a cabin. There’s a world out there to save, the Narrator claims, but it’s far away from here and you will never see it— for you, there’s nothing else, nobody else besides the voices in your head. The fundamental question of its gameplay is equally simple: under those circumstances, what would you do? What questions would you ask? What answers would you accept, and what would you do with them? Vitally, the game refuses ever to provide enough information for a “right answer” to emerge. When pressed for explanation, the Narrator always resists:

The Narrator: The more I say, the more your mind will swim into dangerous waters. Even saying that is too much.

The Narrator: Your success hinges on you having imperfect information. For the sake of the entire world, you need to accept that.

Chapter II: The Prisoner

In a sense, He’s speaking from His own perspective as the party that wishes you to slay the princess; any additional information beyond that initial premise is only a distraction. In another, though, He’s speaking from the perspective of the game itself— the moment it establishes enough truth about its premise for a clear right answer to exist is the moment your choices cease to reflect anything meaningful about you, about your priorities and biases. If the author had a reason for any of this in mind when they wrote it, that reason is irrelevant to you— what it means to you is the only thing that will ever matter.

The gameplay loop is built, entirely, to facilitate this meaning-making process. In Chapter I of each loop, you’re given that same introduction. You may proceed to the cabin, or not; take the knife, or not; speak to the Princess, or not; slay her, or not. You may act with confidence, second-guess your choices, or waffle until your hand is forced— bring the knife and then drop it, or forgo the knife and then return for it. No matter what you do, if you don’t do exactly as the Narrator says, it will always end the same for you:

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

But then Chapter II begins and you’re alive again, and something in the world has changed. As it turns out, every choice you made before was the right one! If, in the previous world, you forwent the knife and rushed in to save who was clearly an unjustly imprisoned damsel, you’ll find that sweet, delicate Damsel awaiting you in a tall castle tower (exactly where a damsel ought to be) as the Voice of the Smitten in your head speaks aloud that desire to love and protect that you, the player, surely held in your heart last time around. All along, she only ever wanted to be with you and make you happy, just as you want for her!

Chapter II: The Damsel

But if you took the knife to slay your enemy without hesitation, antagonized her, and discovered her to be your equal in combat, you’ll instead find the Adversary awaiting you in a stone dungeon, clawed and muscled and wanting nothing more than to fight you once more, your personal rivalry far more important than any destroying-the-world nonsense. The Voice of the Stubborn eggs you on, eager to finish what you started with your fated enemy and gloriously worthy opponent.

Chapter II: The Adversary

For every type of player that could answer the game’s questions — the Skeptic, the Opportunist, the Contrarian, the Cheated, the Paranoid, the Hunted, the Broken, the Cold — there is another princess to suit their vision. See that vision to completion — save the Damsel, fight the Adversary, and so on — and you’ll be pulled into the void along with your newly-minted Princess, the vessel of her body assimilated into the Shifting Mound that only wants to know herself through you. Complicate that vision, and you’ll die again, reborn into the world of a Princess warped by shattered expectations. The two of you will be pulled into the void that way, adding a vessel of roiling, contradictory emotion to the Mound. (Or, play your cards right — or wrong, depending on how you look at it — and you may even get a fourth chapter and a fourth Princess driven to even further extremes than the last.)

You may ask the Mound what sorts of vessels she would like, but she has no opinion on the matter. She wants only what you see fit to bring her, and will come to understand the both of you through those choices.

Chapter III: The Drowned Grey

In this way, if the Narrator embodies the rules of the game, the Mound embodies the game’s meaning— something built from player choices and reflective of their spirit. Just as a game knows nothing of you when you begin anew, but you know the game and yourself from every time you’ve played before, so does each world’s Narrator not know you when you arrive, but you know Him, and the Mound knows every version of you that came before and the Princess each one created. In the end, the Narrator vanishes, but the Mound you built remains.

Of course, branching narratives as a medium for player self-expression are the bread-and-butter of visual novels, but Slay the Princess commits one step further to this exultation of player interpretation above all else by bending not only the game’s outcome but the very bounds of its magic circle to your will. Everything you believe about the Princess, the world, and its rules — regardless of what the Narrator says — is true. Consider what happens when you choose to slay the princess without hesitation. The Narrator says:

The Narrator: Even as she lays there dying, she entirely believes herself to be alive and well. But it’s over, isn’t it? She stopped breathing moments ago, that arrogant look still plastered on her face.

But the Voice of the Hero wonders:

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

If you choose “Of course it is. She’s dead,” the Narrator simply says:

The Narrator: Yes, exactly. It’s over.

And your mission is complete. But choose “I’m not sure. I feel like she has to have some kind of trick up her sleeve,” and the following happens:

The Narrator: It’s over. You could check her sleeves if you want, but I can assure you that there’s nothing hidden up there.

Voice of the Hero: We should make sure. What’s the harm in checking for a pulse?

The Narrator: I really don’t think you should do that.

Voice of the Hero: And why shouldn’t we? Is there something you’re not telling us?

The Narrator: I’ve told you everything that’s happened with complete accuracy. The Princess is dead. Your blade pierced her heart, there’s no coming back from that.

> [[Check for a pulse.]]

Voice of the Hero: Wait…what was that?

The Narrator: You know what that was. That was a sound of a heartbeat. Followed by another. And another.

Chapter I: The Hero and the Princess

The Narrator isn’t lying when He says she isn’t breathing— if you choose to believe Him, it’s true. But if you believe it can’t possibly be that easy, then it isn’t. In Slay the Princess, there is no ground truth beyond what the player chooses to believe.

Interestingly, though, this priorization of player interpretation is not the same as wish fulfillment. In other words, the Princess becomes not what you want, but what you expect. Consider that a player who checks for a pulse is likely someone who wants to play things safe, to be safe— they want to be successful, to slay the Princess and do it right, but expect that she may just be more resilient and dangerous than she lets on. And so the player who wants safety but suspects danger creates the Razor, a horrible, sadistic Princess who claims she’d never hurt you, of course she wouldn’t, but has blades hidden beneath her skin and moves faster than you can run.

Chapter II: The Razor

In this way, Save the Princess sets itself apart from other visual novels in that it neither rewards the player for right choices nor punishes them for wrong ones, but still neither does it grant their desires indiscriminately. It simply reflects their nature back at them and becomes the game they expect they see. There’s only one “good end — at least only one officially labelled as such — but “official” means little when you, by design, are the final arbiter of meaning in this world. The official premise of Slay the Princess may be true if you let it be true, but it’s brief and it’s boring and it reveals nothing of your soul, so you may as well make your own meaning, because the author was always intended to die.

Chapter IV: Mutually Assured Destruction

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