Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! purports to be a lot of things–a board game, a role-playing game, a morality play. More than any of those things, though, it stands out as one of those rare works that doesn’t just defy such classifications; it redefines them. It’s influences are numerous and easy to spot, yet it never plays like any other game, or unfolds like any other story. It’s a portrait of a bygone era, a celebration of female power, and a condemnation of the societal forces that try to cork that power. Oh, and it’s really, really good.
At its heart, DHSGIT is a Scoob n’ the Gang coming of age story along the lines of Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the beginning of the game, the player selects a primary avatar, or “queen”, from a list of available characters, and is plopped down in 1920’s-era Brighton High School to build up her “gang” of henchwomen. The school seems dysfunctional enough, but Brighton’s problems run much deeper, and extend much farther, than the girls (or the player) could possibly expect. As the girls leave the schoolyard, mysteries of malfunctioning bleachers give way to malfunctioning police forces, marriages, and social mores. It’s a dark and sordid tale, for sure, (one online retailer even refused to carry it due to its content) but the game’s winning sense of humor cuts through all the black. Like all the best comedies, DHSGIT frees author and audience to stare down some seriously ugly demons, and laugh.
Nearly all of the story is unveiled through a handful of simple games, each representing its own social action: taunting (insult swordfighting), fibbing (liar’s poker), exposing (mad-libs), and gambits (glorified rock-paper-scissors). For each game, there is a corresponding “talent”, or stat, that makes winning the game easier. Each girl has all four talents, and can improve her talents through winning games. Player skill matters too, though–the games aren’t always hard, but they’re easy to lose, even with high talent levels. If the player wins, s/he is treated with a bit of dialogue that moves the story forward. The engaging, but not-too-difficult nature of the gameplay, along with the instant gratification of plot advancement, make DHSGIT easy to get into and hard to get away from, for serious and casual gamers alike.
And here’s where DHSGIT really scores: it’s a game that I could actually conceive of women playing. Unless you count games about raising poodles (or, Jesus, babies) that target preteen girls, the number of video games that target women in the slightest is so close to zero that counting isn’t really worth it. A recent survey showed that women like playing hypersexualized female characters in games more than men do, but none of the games that boast such heroines–Tomb Raider, Velvet Assassin, the upcoming Bayonetta–are made for women. They’re slick, action-packed, and belabored by 67-button control schemes; and their male gazes make Hitchcock look positively feminist. (Tangentially, what do all you feminist film critics out there think of this?) DHSGIT looks across this gaming landscape, at the countless developers proving time and time again that no, they do not know anything whatsoever about women, and says “NAY! Games should be for everyone!” Here’s hoping a few more developers (and players) catch on, one of these days.