When narrative designer and writer (and former Gamasutra editor) Leigh Alexander set out to write Reigns: Her Majesty, she wasn't interested in exploring the traditional power fantasies that came with switching the protagonist from a king to a queen.
Speaking at the Game Developers Conference this morning Alexander laid out the foundations of Reigns narrative design, breaking down the differences between how the king and queen were characterized.
"When you don’t have access to conventional power, you have to make more complicated maneuvers."
Alexander presented Cersei Lannister as an example of a queen who was hated by her citizens, violent, and craved power.
But in the end, Cersei's ambitions as a ruler clashed with how society treated women, and she would always be seen as the king's wife.
That's what Alexander wanted to hone in on. She wanted the Reigns queen to have the same choices for the player as the Reigns king without celebrating traditional roles of power.
"I didn't want to make statements on power. I wanted to honestly explore a lot of these questions of my own privilege, while being a woman who also wants change."
Shifting the focus power just a little bit created a different kind of conflict. "You're the queen, but just like Cersei, you're just the king's wife," she noted.
This shift in power enabled Alexander to write the narrative beats she wanted to write.
Making a game that focused on miserable things happening to the queen did not interest Alexander.
Instead, Alexander focused on agency in situations traditionally marginalized people experience. "We have a system that can have you overwhelmed by choices, and that inspired me to make a game about the hardships of being a woman," Alexander explained. "I've come to strongly believe that reproducing an oppressive system is not a constructive way to approach our work."
Alexander was aware of the expectations around the game, particularly about notions that the game should try it's best to be feminist.
Her hope was that the social challenges the queen encountered would create a broader dialogue instead. "I was more interested in how folks like ourselves worked within the system."
The desire to subvert power dynamics wasn't the only thing that affected Alexander's narrative decisions. The tools Reigns: Her Majesty was built with shaped the game's flow: the script was written entirely in Google Sheets and mapped out how probability and card statistics impacted the narrative feel as well. "It's like knitting in a spreadsheet."
In the end, there is no "right" way to be the queen. "A good queen tries to please her people, but people pleasing can lead to consequences. I think that's an intentional because of how we balanced it."