There was one game at PAX East 2023 that I couldn’t walk onto the show floor without hearing about, and after playing a route from Black Tabby Games’ Slay The Princess, I couldn’t stop thinking about it either . The demo that other contestants and I played is available on Steam and shows how effectively the horror visual novel reflects the seemingly simple idea of committing the murder the title alludes to. It’s haunting, terrifying and, god, I can’t look away.
The demo starts with a basic premise: there is a princess who is locked in a remote cottage and she was locked here because she poses a threat to the security of the whole world. That’s all the information the narrator gave me and he’s just telling me that I have to kill her before she can escape. There are dialogue options to talk to the narrator and question what you are asked to do, but even then I never get a clear answer as to why she is a threat. I’m immediately skeptical. I want to at least talk to the princess before I go in there with that knife I found on the way to her prison.
But when I get there, she’s just as condescending and indirect as the narrator. I realize that neither party is ready with me, and I will not make any hasty decisions based on the little information I have received. So I decide to leave her there since she promises that I will suffer her wrath when she comes out. All I had to do was help her and we could be best friends, she shrieks at me. Then she can finally free herself from her bonds and comes towards me as a distorted, monstrous version of herself. I can not move. I can’t get to safety or fight back with this knife that I’ve been reluctant to use before. She kills me and I realize that maybe I did something wrong.
Then I wake up in the same scenario as before. I stand before this cabin where a princess who appears to be a threat to the outside world is being held against her will and I am being told to kill her. However, when I go to the first floor, it looks a little different and the narrator can’t perceive the same things that I can perceive this time. Why can’t he see that mirror that disappears as soon as I try to clean its dirty, smeared surface? Why do I feel like I have to deal with this demonic princess but can’t trust the only other person I can talk to here?
I go down to the princess’ cell again and it’s completely different. Instead of an ordinary staircase, the planks I descend float in a black void. Where once there were four walls and a chained princess, stepping stones soar above nothingness. But she is here. She speaks to me in a demonic voice, taunting me for bringing the knife back even though it didn’t help me last time. The narrator is confused as to what we mean when we both refer to “last time” as if we had been here before. But just like before, she appears as a terrifying creature called The Nightmare, and the demo ends as she approaches me once more.
Kill the Princess Pendant
The wild thing about Slay the Princess is that this experience I’ve described to you isn’t what most see in their first run of the demo. How the princess appears on your first descent depends on the dialogue choices and actions you make on the way down. Some will find a more likeable young woman struggling desperately to escape her prison, and others will find various monstrous variations of her, like a creepy, almost skeletal version called The Specter, or a giant, dominant version called The Tower. As we all find ourselves stuck in this strange time warp, we are told that somehow we must kill this princess who is threatening the rest of the world. Not only does this feel insurmountable, but there is constant evidence that we have been drawn into a conflict of which we know remarkably little about.
By talking to others about their experiences, I’m already convinced of how differently Slay the Princess can play, and the idea that this is all theoretically meant to coalesce into one universal truth about what’s happening and why. We all find different variations of the princess in the cabin, but why is the narrator holding back with all of us? Why can’t he see this mirror that we can see and why is it disappearing? In just two time loops, my mind races with questions. I know when the game launches on Steam this fall I’ll be going down the stairs and into the clutches of the princess to find out as many times as I need to.