The Best Horror Game of 2023 Is a Visual Novel About a Totally Normal Princess
She doesn’t look dangerous.
It’s a tale as old as time: a princess is locked away from the world and a brave hero is sent to slay her. Wait, that can’t be right. Are you sure that’s what you’re here to do?
Black Tabby Games’ Slay the Princess flips the damsel in distress narrative on its head from the very start, then spends the rest of its roughly four-hour runtime subverting its own subversion in increasingly elaborate ways.
Slay the Princess is a difficult game to talk about. It’s all but guaranteed to whip its fans into a frenzy proselytizing for it, but the very qualities that make it so special are best discovered by experiencing them firsthand.
Here’s what I can say. Slay the Princess is a horror visual novel. It puts the player in the role of a nameless person who wakes up in a forest where the game’s narrator tells them they’re here to slay the princess in a nearby cabin. You can do what he says or push back, with questions about why this particular princess is in need of slaying and why you’re the person for the job. You can even say screw it and immediately walk away from the whole charade. No matter what choice you make, you’ll soon meet your demise either way.
When you do, you wake up back in the forest, and the whole thing starts again. But this time, there’s another voice in your head, determined by your actions last time. It may be cowardly if you didn’t have the nerve to do the job or paranoid if the princess got the better of you. The princess will have changed, too, remembering what you did the first time you met. Only the narrator doesn’t seem to notice that anything strange is going on.
Slay the Princess spirals out from there, repeating this pattern with new twists each time. Things get really juicy when the metanarrative on top of these events starts to show itself, but throughout it all, the bizarre relationship between the player, the narrator, and the princess drives everything. Defy the narrator too much and he’ll get sullen or actively use his descriptive powers against you. Time and time again, the princess will present a new side of herself, and it’s up to you to decide whether to trust her or do your job and slay her.
All this repetition does have a point. When you start Slay the Princess, a note on the screen tells you, “This is a love story.” And despite its often horrific, gory trappings, it is. Kind of. I think. At least, it’s a game about a relationship and how two people forced into a desperate situation can learn to see all sides of each other and grow together because of it.
While it’s difficult to talk about Slay the Princess’ mind-bending story without giving too much away, its other virtues are safer to discuss. Above all else, visual novels need good writing and art to really succeed, and Slay the Princess excels at both. There’s a powerful voice running under all of its writing, whether it’s the narrator chiding you for refusing to follow his orders or the high-minded philosophizing that seeps in toward the end of the game.
Slay the Princess’ art may look relatively simple in screenshots, but in motion, it’s breathtaking. Made up of pencil sketches, its backgrounds and characters have a constant writhing animation to them, as if they’re being drawn and redrawn with each passing second. As your perspective on the world shifts, the art takes on a very different tone as well. When the game shows more of its horror roots, the visuals grow more disturbing with heavy doses of body horror. Other times, the art takes on the style of fairy tale illustrations or children’s drawings, all emphasizing different aspects of its ever-shifting story.
The voice acting in Slay the Princess is similarly incredible. Nichole Goodnight and Jonathan Sims play the princess and the narrator, respectively. While they’re the only two voices you’ll hear, each shifts along with the story, giving remarkably different performances for various iterations of the princess and the voices in your head.
As a self-described scaredy cat, I avoid horror at all costs, with notable exceptions for games like the 2022 masterpiece Signalis. But despite knowing it would ruin my sleep that night, I couldn’t stop playing Slay the Princess once I picked it up. What started as an interesting experiment in player choice quickly revealed itself as something much more thought-provoking and surprisingly sweet. Sure, the princess may claw you to pieces a few times along the way, but that’s a small price to pay for romance.