I just finished going through a brilliant game by Choice of Games called Affairs of the Court (which includes Choice of Romance and its sequel Choice of Intrigue (if you choose to unlock it)). I have to say, that was enlightening. Yes, enlightening–on several levels.
First off, I never pictured having such a character reside in my head as resides now. Her name is Isabel (unoriginal, as my brain was completely dead when I started the game) and she is the favourite of the King. She never set out to be the King’s mistress, but there you have it.
The game begins with saving your brother–Isabel’s, her gender and name becomes. And from there we meet our hero. Hero she is because she rushes into a burning barn to save him. We learn that she is nearly impoverished, but she has an aristocratic name. The typical rich uncle pays her way into Court–but only for one season. She has one set of four months in order to catch her future and save her family from utter destitute ruin. But surprisingly–I did not set out to have such a strong-willed character–she is good at reading people and at using what she sees. She has gorged herself on books of history, law, politics, and conversation. She, frankly, sucks at doing magic. She wants most dearly to have an adventure, but even more she wants to be good for something. She wants to do, accomplish something. I did not know how much that would drive her.
So enter suiter #1. He’s young, amateur, very much in love with her–but incompetent. He starts a political faction, begs her help in it. She agrees to become involved in politics–but soon sees he’s not thinking deep enough, complex enough to handle the situation deftly.
Suiter #2. Ugly, awkward, filthy rich, a prosperous businessman with a fine eye for deals and good taste. Isabel’s aunt will not stop pushing for this match. Isabel decides to leave both prospects open.
She loves neither, but she gives them both a good solid effort–for the sake of love (#1), for the sake of her family (#2).
Then enter the King. Oh, he complicates everything. He has a Queen Consort, of course. His heir, a princess, has the wrong type of magic to legally inherit the throne without a consort. He has an illegitimate son with the right kind of magic, but didn’t I mention he was an illegitimate son? Oh, yes. You see where his interests in Isabel lie. Illegitimacy.
So when I first played the story through, Isabel regarded the King and said to herself, “Quite frankly, no.” (But she handled his advances with much more tact than such a bold statement.) In the mean time, war was brewing with the kingdom to the South–
and here, here is where Isabel found her love. She assessed the political situation both internally and externally, and then when all the other politicians were speechifying and pontificating at the King, she maneuvered the social arena, massaged opinions, manipulated thought and speech and insight with a political adroitness that would leave Milady De Winter in shame. All without drawing attention to herself. Such subtle arts. She was entranced by sheer Possibility.
So, singlehandedly, she averted war.
But unlike Mulan, when she arrived home with her virtue intact and her heroine’s cheeks flushed with pride, she found her parents had arranged a marriage to an old, toothless man who could barely save their family’s financial situation–but better than she could do. She’d been too subtle, too un-catchable for her own good.
She was so much in shock that she made me redo it and back up a few paces to the King’s final attempts at trying to win her over. Together we stared at the choices, then–she made her decision. She told me, “I know I will not find love or fidelity here. I have the wrong kind of magic to ever produce a child who might even possibly inherit the throne–and he already has one illegitimate “potential” heir. I have nothing to offer him besides whatever strikes his fancy in me now. But I can do what I do best, and I can save this kingdom again.”
And so in the sequel–that’s just what she sets down to do. She becomes involved in his political decisions. She has already won the admiration and respect of his Royal Advisor but she wins him over again. She bears the King a son–it’s no surprise the baby won’t inherit, so his daughter the princess’ bitter words do not sting as they might. She thinks her uncle’s attempts to get her to do away with the Queen and place herself on the throne are ridiculous. She already has all the political power she needs–right there inside her own person. All she ever needed was to stay at Court to influence matters and for her family to be given money enough to be saved and get off her back. And yes, the King proves her suspicions right when he finally finds another younger and prettier girl to dally with for a time. (After five years, she was beginning to wonder if he was going to be “faithful” after all!)
But then war threatens again from without and her political enemies threaten to divide the kingdom from within beneath her and suddenly she sees exactly how to tie all the strings together.
So she does. Again. She saves them all again. And she has never felt so alive.
…This character. I have never had a character quite shape herself directly for politics before (rather than see but skirt around them). It gives me a whole new insight into the powerful women who dallied with Kings. They must have known fidelity was not in the bargain. They must have seen the hopelessness of their social or family situation elsewhere. But blessed–or cursed?–with the talents to manipulate and change and channel and shape people and politics so deftly…what if they saw a hole and filled it? What if they decided to shape the world rather than be tossed about the one way left open to them?
We had been hoping for an outcome where she goes home without finding love but her parents decide to let her inherit and handle the family money and she uses her cleverness in business or some other way to save them. But then–that ignores the fact that her parents are living so ingrained into her society’s way of thinking that they’ve sold her off to the first bidder that could get her failure off their hands.
…But this game! I am amazed at how neatly it shows the many levels of politics–the stakes and ramifications of each level.
1. Uppermost there is the international level–politics between countries.
2. Then internal politics, between families and generational-clans fighting for prominence and power.
3. Then family politics, aunt’s opinions vs. uncle’s vs. parents. There’s money at stake and the future of yourself, younger siblings, “retired” parents etc. to worry about.
4. And lastly, personal stakes and ramifications. Moral decisions, how to be true to yourself, your needs and wishes and wants. (Surprisingly, though she couldn’t find love, she found a place where she was valued)
Every decision the game asks you to make has consequences for multiple levels of politics at the same time. No one decision affects just you. And when I say it’s done “neatly”, it’s like a microcosm of How Intrigue Plots are Done Right. I was really needing a good solid example, something where the stakes, considerations, ramifications were all neatly stitched in a visible pattern. Most excellent.
It’s not a book–so if you buy the game, just remember, if it’s a little bare-bones, it IS a game. And another sequel will be forthcoming, this time with socio-economic consequences and class politics thrown in.
((Sidenote Rant: The upsetting part about The Three Musketeers + steampunk reboot is that Milady De Winter uses a freaking sword. The point of making Isabel suck at doing magic was, in the vein of the original Milady, that a true manipulatrice does not need weapons to get her way nor shape politics beneath her thumb. Weapons, magic, everything more than a gift for seeing people and speaking the right words in the right manner becomes de trop. ))
((Second sidenote rant: This is why I hate watching the news. The media doesn’t know all the political pieces. So what they show is just half of the puzzle, and so really, there’s nothing you can do except become involved and sleuth out the rest of the pieces down at the gritty, person-to-person level in D.C. and across the globe or complain about The State of Things.))
((Post-post-post scriptum: If this post seems odd to you in any way, I finished it at 3:30 AM after attempting to get to sleep for 6 hours because I was dead tired 6 hours ago. :P ))