Content warning: discussion of depression and mental health
Spoilers for the end game of Needy Streamer Overload and story of Long Live the Queen
What does it take to raise a girl? According to one genre of games dating all the way back to the Famicom Disc-era, it takes day-to-day event scheduling to get all the right stats in all the right places. Aptly named “raising simulators,” this subgenre of simulation games tasks the player with bringing up a pet, a robot, or Ikari Shinji himself, but most focus on raising girls: a princess in Princess Maker, a daughter in Ciel Fledge, and an idol in, well, the iDOLM@STER series.
Two especially prominent raising sims of recent years are Hanako Games’ Long Live The Queen and Xemono’s Needy Streamer Overload. While both games task the player with raising a girl à la the conventions of the genre, they take notably different paths when it comes to constructing their central heroine and her mechanical relationship to the player—thus affecting how the girl we are “raising” experiences agency, personality, and character growth. Long Live The Queen’s insistence on freedom of player expression renders its protagonist Elodie a silhouette of player choices rather than a developed character in her own right, whereas Needy Streamer Overload’s own razor-sharp focus on the struggles of its protagonist Ame ultimately limits Ame’s own opportunity—and even capacity—for positive growth.
In Long Live The Queen (2012, 2022 remaster), the player adopts the role of 14-year-old Elodie and is given 40 weeks to ascend to the throne following the untimely death of Elodie’s mother. Across each of the 40 weeks, the player-as-Elodie can boost Elodie’s stats in various academic and monarchistic disciplines, thereby shaping Elodie into the kind of queen that the player wants her to be.
Xemono’s raising sim Needy Streamer Overload (2022), on the other hand, positions the player as P-chan, producer and partner to a streamer-to-be by the name of Ame. To shape Ame into the successful streamer she aspires to become, the player-as-P-chan must manage Ame’s daily schedule all while keeping her three key stats—Affection, Stress, and Mental Darkness—safely in check.
In Needy Streamer Overload, Ame is predisposed to mental health struggles by design. In her opening monologue, she readily admits “[i] have trouble getting out of bed in the morning! i dont want to go out! i dont want to get a proper job! im scared of other people! [sic]”—but the player sees her struggles play out in real time, too, via the constant fluctuations in her Stress, Affection, and Mental Darkness stats.
As these fluctuations might indicate, Ame’s mental health is not stable. Every activity that the player-as-P-chan picks out for Ame can, and does, affect her mental health in some palpable way. Sending a Tweet, for example, will raise Ame’s stress levels by two percent. Not every activity at the player’s disposal will have a negative effect on Ame’s mental health, but its temperamental nature does mean that every uptick in her wellbeing is almost always followed by a relapse.
As a result, the player-as-P-chan can never do more than exacerbate or palliate her mental health issues. Further, any attempt on the player’s part to push Ame to seek a long-term health care plan will result in a Game Over.
This pushback might make the game seem sadistic, as though it wants the player-as-P-chan to make Ame suffer. But when we take into consideration the game’s secret ending—which reveals that the player character P-chan is (and always has been) a figment of Ame’s imagination—we can start to see why the player is persistently unable to guide Ame toward better health. The player-as-P-chan(-as-Ame) is railroaded into making choices that only Ame would make—therefore the player’s inability to choose better health indicates that Ame denies herself this on principle. Consequently, Ame becomes a mentally ill character that the player can only study, rather than actively guide, shape, or help.
Much as mental illness is coded into Ame’s character from the onset of Needy Streamer Overload, Elodie’s mental health is also in tatters at the beginning of Long Live The Queen. Distraught as she is by the sudden, inexplicable death of her mother, Elodie is initially introduced in a deep depression—the in-game Mood meter explicitly says so.
Elodie, by her design, always begins each playthrough in this “Depressed” state. However, through studying certain disciplines, making particular choices in response to other characters, and participating in weekend activities such as ballroom dancing and playing with toys, the player-as-Elodie has the means and the freedom to neutralize Elodie’s state of depression, if not override it altogether.
Choosing to Attend Service on the weekend of the first week, for example, immediately changes Elodie’s primary Mood from Depressed to Afraid. This can then be changed into Willful, Yielding, Pressured, or other emotional states depending on how the player-as-Elodie decides to respond to story events such as the arrival of the Lumen tutor Selene. If Selene’s tutelage is accepted, Elodie becomes immediately Willful, acting in clear defiance of her father’s warning to stay away from the Lumens. If, on the other hand, the player chooses not to accept Selene, Elodie herself will become more Yielding as a result. Moreover, as her emotional state is constantly subject to the player’s choices, so too is her mental health.
As a result, Elodie’s mental health ends up only being as much of an issue as the player allows it to be—and by extension, Elodie’s in-built characterization is completely inconsequential in the face of player freedom. In this way, Long Live The Queen’s game design allows the player to drown Elodie’s struggles in cold, hard stats.
This prioritization of player input, and the resulting inconsequential state of Elodie’s characterization, is further underlined by Long Live The Queen’s exploration of gender roles. Long Live The Queen, as the critic Emily Short identifies, is a game which passes no moral judgment on choices made by the player-as-Elodie. Yet nor does it pass judgment on the player should they choose not to have Elodie conform to the traditional femininity expected of her as a queen-to-be.
Whether the player-as-Elodie speaks brazenly or cordially—sneaks out of the castle or sits in court—accepts the crown or goes so far against the grain as to ultimately reject it, Long Live The Queen readily accommodates for these player’s choices, rather than punishing (or praising) the player for having made them.
Elodie herself remains just as indifferent to player choices as do the mechanics of her game. Should the player choose to have Elodie conform to the feminine gender norms of Elodie’s time, so does Elodie conform. Should the player choose not to have Elodie conform, Elodie, accordingly, does not. Unlike in Needy Streamer Overload—where Ame will sometimes rebel against choices made for her by the player-as-P-chan—Elodie constantly complies to the player’s choices.
However, this apparent compliance on Elodie’s part is at total odds with the fundamental tenets of her characterization, which we learn through kinetic scenes of action and dialogue. In these scenes—which the player can only watch, rather than influence—Elodie displays a stubborn and outspoken personality. She barks orders at her guards and talks back to her father. That these traits recur in Elodie’s pre-scripted characterization suggests that she is not naturally an easygoing individual, but one of a stronger will.
Grant the player nearly total freedom over Elodie’s characterization in non-kinetic scenes, however, and Elodie’s characterization immediately becomes subject to the player’s whims. Thus, while Elodie may initially seem to have a flexible attitude in regard to gender roles, ironically this attitude is forced upon her by the player via the game design, even as it contradicts her innate self-assuredness and individualism.
Ame from Needy Streamer Overload, meanwhile, appears to conform to stereotypical gender expression in response to choices made by the player-as-P-chan. We see this in the way each player choice is framed: the option to play a video-game is represented by a specifically pink controller, while the option to Go Out is symbolized by a hot pink map marker. It is as if “girliness” is a prerequisite for everything Ame does. This stereotypically “girly” tint is additionally complemented by the similarly pink interface of Ame’s computer setup and bedroom decor. Conversely, however, it is an aesthetic that does not complement Ame herself, but instead exists in stark contrast to her.
Whenever Ame isn’t donning the candy-colored wig and sparkly makeup of her KAngel persona, she chooses to wear gender-neutral colors such as black and crimson, visibly eschewing makeup all the while. When she shares a photo of her KAngel persona in traditionally feminine cosplay, she posts a photo of herself in (masculine) Piccolo cosplay to her private, non-KAngel account.
While at first it might seem that the player is forcing this girly aesthetic on to Ame, since the player is in-fact Ame herself, perhaps she believes this is all necessary to achieving success in her streaming career. Whatever Ame’s motive, her staunch dedication to the aesthetic is ultimately a self-imposed shackle, subjecting her to stereotypical gender expression, while limiting her freedom to express herself. The player-as-P-chan only serves to reinforce this limit.
Although Ame may ultimately be the one in control of P-chan, the very fact that she conceives of P-chan at all—and locks herself into a relationship with them—indicates Ame’s need for codependency even as she is fundamentally independent. In Needy Streamer, Ame maintains an ongoing relationship with P-chan; however, as several routes and endings will attest, their relationship is one that Ame can break off at any time.
This seems to put Ame in total control of her sexuality, however every single instance of Ame breaking up with P-chan ends in a Bad Ending or a Game Over, as if to suggest that Ame’s happiness and fulfillment in life are entirely dependent on P-chan, no matter how fictive P-chan might be. Ame never sees an independent route in appealing or positive terms, no matter how gently the player-as-P-chan attempts to guide her toward one.
Encouraging Ame to reach out to others via the in-game dating app Dinder can result in a Game Over. Keeping Ame’s Affection safely in check can also result in a Game Over. As a character study, Needy Streamer Overload broadcasts Ame’s fear of independence from several angles. However, this focus on character study—coupled with the game’s reduction of player influence—ends up not only isolating Ame, but trapping her within the confines of her own character flaws. Her potential for personal growth is thereby inhibited.
Comparatively, Long Live The Queen offers Elodie a variety of romantic options, yet it does so at the cost of her own agency separate from the player. As with her self-presentation and emotional wellbeing, Elodie’s sexuality is constantly subject to choices made by the player.
The player chooses Elodie’s dancing partner at the Grand Ball. The player decides whether Elodie pursues a heterosexual relationship, a same-sex relationship, or none at all. Elodie herself expresses little to no romantic interest in others prior to the player’s involvement otherwise.
The relationships that Elodie does end up in as a result of the player’s involvement ultimately skew more perfunctory than romantic, as though there is little to no romantic feeling on Elodie’s part. Accept Talarist’s proposal on Elodie’s behalf, and she will neither express love or fondness for him, but rather use him as needed in times of warfare and strife.
The same is true of Elodie’s other marriage candidates. That Elodie herself expresses little interest in romance prior to the player’s involvement underlines the connection between her and the player: that she is a vessel for player choices—and, by extension, the player—before she is a character with her own inclinations and desires.
With its insistence on freedom of player expression, Long Live The Queen guillotines Elodie’s own agency and characterization, leaving her dependent on player choices rather than in a position to make these choices herself. Nor is the opposite approach an improvement, as Needy Streamer Overload demonstrates. By prioritizing character study over player involvement, Needy Streamer Overload renders its protagonist Ame so independent from external forces as to be trapped within the limits of her own innate flaws.
Although both Needy Streamer Overload and Long Live The Queen mechanically function as raising simulators do, their narrowed scopes hinder rather than promote the actual act of “raising” that is so conceptually crucial to the genre itself. When we analyze both games in counterpoint to one another, it becomes clear that what both lack is balance when it comes to constructing the agency of their characters. What does it take to raise a girl? Perhaps it takes guidance and independence in equal parts, a healthy balance between two so that she is neither trapped within herself nor stripped of her sense of self.