At PAX East 2023, there was one game I couldn’t walk the show floor without hearing about, and after playing one route of Black Tabby Games’ Slay The Princess, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, either. The demo that other attendees and I played is available on Steam, and it illustrates how effectively the horror visual novel riffs on the seemingly simple idea of committing the kill its title alludes to. It’s haunting, terrifying, and, god, I can’t look away.
The demo begins with a basic premise: there’s a princess locked in a remote cabin, and she’s been sealed away here because she is a threat to the safety of the entire world. That’s all the information I’m given by the narrator, and he tells me just that I have to kill her before she can escape. There are dialogue options to talk to the narrator and interrogate what you’re being asked to do, but even then, I’m never given a straight answer as to why she’s a threat. So I’m immediately skeptical. I want to at least talk to the princess before I go in there with this knife I found on the way down to her prison.
But when I get there, she’s just as condescending and indirect as the narrator. It’s clear to me that neither party is being forthcoming with me, and I’m not going to make any rash decisions based on the little information I’ve been given. So I choose to leave her there as she promises I’m going to suffer her wrath when she gets out. All I had to do was help her and we could be the best of friends, she shrieks at me. Then, she is eventually able to free herself from her shackles and approaches me as a distorted, monstrous version of herself. I’m unable to move. I can’t run to safety or fight back with this knife I hesitated to use before. She kills me, and I realize that I might have made the wrong call.
Then, I wake up in the same scenario as before. I’m standing outside this cabin where a princess, who is apparently a threat to the outside world, is being held against her will, being told I have to kill her. Though when I enter the first floor, it looks a little different, and the narrator can’t perceive all the same things I can this time around. Why can’t he see this mirror that disappears as soon as I try to clean off its dirty, smudged surface? Why do I get the sense that while I have this demonic princess to deal with, I can’t trust the only other person I can talk to here?
I head down to the princess’ cell once more, and it’s completely different. Rather than an ordinary staircase, the boards on which I make my descent are floating in a black void. Where there were once four walls and a princess chained, there are stepping stones hovering over nothingness. But she’s here. She speaks to me in a demonic voice mocking me for bringing the knife again when it didn’t help me last time. The narrator is confused as to what we mean when we both refer to as “last time,” like we’ve been here before. But just like earlier, she appears as a horrifying creature called The Nightmare, and the demo ends as she approaches me one more time.
The wild thing about Slay the Princess is that this experience I described to you isn’t what most see in their first run of the demo. How the princess will appear to you when you make your initial descent will vary based on the dialogue choices and actions you make on the way down. Some will find a more sympathetic young woman who will go to desperate lengths to escape her prison, and others will find different monstrous variations of her, such as a ghoulish nearly skeletal version called The Spectre, or a giant, dominant version called The Tower. While we all find ourselves in this strange time loop being told we have to somehow kill this princess who threatens the rest of the world. Not only does that feel insurmountable, but there are constant hints that we’ve been plucked into a conflict we know remarkably little about by design.
Talking with others about their experience, I’m already compelled by just how differently Slay the Princess can play out, and the idea that this is all, in theory, meant to coalesce into some universal truth about what is happening and why. We all find different variations of the princess in the cabin, but why is the narrator being cagey with all of us? Why can’t he see this mirror that we can see, and why does it disappear? In just two time loops, my mind is racing with questions. I know when the game launches on Steam this fall, I’m going to walk down the stairs and into the princess’ clutches as many times as it takes to find out.