"Princess" is a weird, fraught word in popular culture now. It's become emblematic to many of the pretty-fication of girlhood, the Consumer Marketing Demographic of "girl." In video games, "the princess" is often barely a person, just the sigil you earn at the end of the level.
It doesn't have to be that way, though. At online micro-zine ZEAL, Kim Nguyen writes about her experiences with two cult-favorite princess games, Princess Maker 2 and Long Live the Queen. Her exploration of the player's agency in each, held against her own memories of being a big Disney princess fan as a kid, makes for interesting criticism to read.
1993's still well-loved Princess Maker 2 is a game where a faery gifts you with a starchild to raise. Through a little bit of time and task management and a little bit of dungeon-crawling, you determine the social status she attains and whom she marries. It's an incredibly engaging and rewarding experience.
Except like many of the items of poorly-translated software floating around the internet in the '90s and '00s, it was also deeply weird: You can raise your daughter to be several varieties of sex worker or courtesan, a laundry worker, a widow, a minstrel, a warrior or nearly any number of things, with the reward at the end a flirtatious portrait and a brief blurb on her life. Attaining actual princess-hood, through marriage to a prince, is a punishingly rare outcome.
You can also raise your adopted princess to marry her father. Couple that with the widespread popularity of unofficial "UnDress" patches and breast manipulation stats and you have a princess-raising simulation where players could, if they worked at it, have complete statistical control over a nine-year old blinking innocently, nude, at the parent who was planning to marry them. Of course, you could also make her a vinyl queen beloved to the War God and call her "Lizzie Shinkicker," as someone did here.
Nguyen's piece also celebrates the much more-recent (2012) princess-raising game, Long Live The Queen, for the ways it creates the emergent storytelling and interesting decisions of the "training/raising" genre, but while keeping the character of Elodie at the center of the narrative. She points out that in Long Live The Queen players can enjoy many elements of Elodie's traditional princess-hood — pink, ribbons, dress-up, courtly balls — while keeping the dignity of her royal trajectory intact.
I loved Long Live the Queen (check it out on Steam if you like), the way it subverts the very idea that you can be prepared for everything, that you can know what's coming and what you'll need.
There's something very special about this genre in general, and how it lies at the intersection of many players' desire to have control with their desire to give care.