The premise of Slay the Princess is immediately intriguing. You’re a hero seeking a captive princess, but as the title suggests, you’re told you must kill her, not rescue her, or else she’ll end the world. She seems like a normal young woman—are you being deceived into committing a cruel murder, or is she truly a monster in disguise?
In fact, if that summary has you interested, I recommend just jumping into the game knowing no more than that—it’s a wild ride if you play it completely unspoiled, and trust me that it really is as cool and interesting as it sounds. But if you need a bit more convincing, let me talk to you, with some light spoilers, about what makes the game really special.
The thing about horror is it’s a lot easier to come up with a really intriguing premise than it is to follow through on it in a satisfying way. Often this isn’t even a measure of the quality of the execution—it’s more about the fact that possibilities are more exciting than certainties.
If I tell you that there’s an old house on the hill and no one who enters it ever comes out, that gets your mind spinning—immediately you conjure a whole range of spooky possibilities, and the not knowing is exciting. The moment I reveal to you that it’s because a werewolf lives there, I’m collapsing all of those possibilities down to one, and even in the best horror there’s something deflating about that.
What’s so fascinating about Slay the Princess is that it doesn’t collapse the possibilities—it keeps them all spinning at once. There isn’t just one answer to the question “what is the princess?”. Instead, the princess is shaped by your choices within the game’s visual novel framework.
One of the first such choices you’re presented with is, do you take a knife down with you to your first meeting with the princess? If you do, it indicates you see the princess as a potential threat—and sure enough, she seems to be one, adopting a taunting tone and answering your questions with sinister, cryptic deflections. If you don’t, you’re open to the idea that she’s a harmless innocent—and indeed that’s what she then appears to be. From either beginning, your interaction can play out in a dozen different ways—though usually, one way or another, with a violent end.
After your first meeting with her, the game loops—you’re back to the start, being told to go and slay the princess. But the scenario has changed. The princess’ prison looks different, and you soon discover so does she. However your first scene with her went, whatever assumptions you brought to the game, the whole story twists around that. If you were timid and afraid of the princess, she becomes nightmarish, a creature that plays with your fear. If you treated her as a powerful adversary and tried to fight her head-on, she becomes an imposing, demonic brute. If you rescued her without question, she becomes an idealised damsel in distress, unnervingly committed to your hero fantasy.
The game can loop once more after that, changing her and her surroundings ever further to conform to your version of the story. And then you’re back to the start of it all, the princess once again a blank slate ready to become whatever horror you conjure up.
All of it’s wrapped in a larger mystery, slowly picked apart as you progress through successive loops, that does eventually have its own answers for what’s going on. But before it gets to that point, the game luxuriates in getting to have its cake and eat it too.
What is the princess? You get to discover the dozens of possible answers to that question, each of them its own quick and satisfying horror story. Instead of resolving the mystery and wiping away the intrigue, each of them only extends it further. It’s a wonderfully interesting structure for an interactive story—but it’s also just a great excuse to play with loads of different monsters and creepy scenarios within one cohesive tapestry.
If you’re convinced, don’t fear that I’ve spoiled it for you—there are still lots of surprises to find in Slay the Princess, and so many permutations I haven’t delved into here. It’s not a perfect horror game—the voice acting lacks some of the gravitas and menace it needs for a story like this, and the looping structure can make unpicking the wider narrative feel slow going. But that core structure is so compelling and fun, and such a good excuse for the game to throw in every wild, creative, and scary idea it can into a vibrant web of nastiness. Give it a try for yourself, and make some monsters of your own.