What if Cinderella didn’t marry the Prince?
Let’s get real: what do we know about Charming, anyway? So he’s got a sweet castle and a lot of servants. He promises financial security, sure--in exchange for submitting yourself to a life in which you’re perpetually on display and responsible for thousands of people you’ll never meet.
You know, you don’t have to marry him.
This is the premise of Cinders, a 2012 visual novel by MoaCube that fleshes out the traditional Cinderella narrative with additional love interests, a second fairy godmother, and—most interestingly—the opportunity to reconcile with your “evil” stepmother. When it first came out, I managed to miss it entirely; Pokémon: Nobunaga’s Ambition had conquered my free time. It was sheer luck that I stumbled across it in a recent Steam sale as a recommendation based on my past purchases.
Cinders isn’t afraid to sink its teeth into the drastic ways people may seek to escape abusive situations. On one playthrough, I manipulated my childhood best friend into abandoning his successful general store and eloping with me in the middle of the night. In another, I straight up tried to poison my stepmother. I played off my stepsisters’ insecurities, made ill-considered bargains with eldritch creatures, and seduced the captain of the royal guard while he was mired in a midlife crisis.
Was I justified in doing any of this? Well, that depends on how you interpret my family. Are my stepsisters a pair of petty, backstabbing Mean Girls—or are they just cracking under the pressure of their mother’s expectations? Is my stepmother an extreme pragmatist trying to secure her daughters’ safety by any means necessary, or a sadist who delights in tearing down everyone around her? Am I the put-upon martyr of the standard Cinderella story, or a stubborn child who stubbornly refuses to recognize the socioeconomic realities of her situation?
The beauty of Cinders is that it gives its characters room to be all these things and more. I knew this wouldn’t be a Disney take on the tale from the very first choice presented to me, when Cinders asks herself whether she feels her relationship with her stepfamily can be repaired. Downstairs, the Captain of the Guard is pounding at the front door; we’ve just gotten home from the Prince’s ball. I’m then given the opportunity to lie to Sophia, the younger of my two stepsisters, about whether I planned my appearance at the ball and Captain Perrault’s late-night visit to our home. The game then rewinds a week, allowing me to shape my choices and decide just why the Captain has come knocking.
Even as Cinders criticizes fictional portrayals of passive martyrdom, regretting how late she stayed up reading a book about “some adolescent girl, pretty and numb as a freshly cut flower, show[ing] divine humility and courage while suffering oppression from her abusive family,” the character acknowledges that she might have found some emotional resonance in the story. After all, she could have stopped reading it and gone to bed.
That said, she still gets in a fair few jabs at the Disney version of things.
What made Cinders an exciting story to me were the frequent opportunities to rebel both against my stepfamily, and against the narrative path of Cinderella. I could get up and do my chores, or elect to stay in bed reading. I could argue with my stepmother Carmosa when she ordered me to run errands for her, or perform compliance to her face and then choose to waste time by detouring into the forest or exploring the town.
On my first time through the game, I hewed fairly close to the standard: accept your Fairy godmother’s help, marry Prince Basile (whose name is a nod to Giambattista Basile, the Italian courtier responsible for the oldest recorded version of the Cinderella story). I was a good Queen, well able to provide my husband with the political support he needed to transform the country from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one—but we never grew to love each other.
Well, there was no way I was going to leave it there. There are endings where my relationship with Prince Basile does mature into love, but wedding a man you’ve known for all of half an hour isn’t exactly a recipe for marital bliss. Besides, the game gave me a whole week to fix my life up--surely I could do better than that.
I restarted the game, went to the general store, and started flirting with the weedy redhead behind the counter. Given that he was my childhood friend and I’ve apparently developed something of a Figure, this is not the fairest move to pull—and he calls me on it.
You’d think that being compared to my evil stepmother would give me pause. Friend, it did not. As soon as said stepmother left town on business, I was back in that general store, batting my eyelashes until Tobias took me out to dinner. Then, in a significant step away from Disney, I convinced him to take me back to his place. This patsy was going to be my ticket out of the ancestral home—and in fact, he was the first to bring up a desire to start fresh elsewhere. He sold off the general store, we eloped for a life of adventure, and I never had to see my family again. Everybody wins!
Next on my list of conquests was Perrault, the Captain of the Royal Guard (named for Charles Perrault, who authored a version of the Cinderella story called “Cendrillon”): scruffy, scarred, drinking a little too much, and wearing so many belts that I’m pretty sure he wandered over from a Final Fantasy game. As the game progressed, I learned that Perrault struggles with the fact that the Prince is unlike the previous King; Basile will fight his battles with spies, lies, and money, not with a sword. Hesitant to commit himself to a new role as Spymaster, Perrault questions whether he still has a place in this new political system. He’s having a full midlife crisis.
You bet I took advantage of that. Like Tobias, Perrault was willing to be persuaded to skip town. It is possible, however, to send him into the new royal intelligence bureau—we had a torrid affair behind the Prince’s back in one “fairytale” ending. No regrets!
But as I explored the paths open to me, I came to realize that I wasn’t all that interested in my romantic options. Bland Basile, naive Tobias, even rugged Perrault—desperate as I was to improve my situation, I didn’t believe that they were really the solution. I wanted to mend my relationship with my family.
Yes, that family.
The game doesn’t force you towards forgiveness; as I mentioned earlier, I poisoned my stepmother in more than one playthrough. (What? I wanted to see if I could actually get away with it!) But the option to reconcile is there, and I was increasingly intrigued by it. After all, repeating the game over and over to experiment with its different paths and permutations, I’d wound up spending more time around my sisters than any other characters. I saw the pressure they were under. It didn’t excuse their behavior, but I knew they could be better. And I, too, could be kinder; I had constant opportunities to open up to my sisters, to invite their confidences, to comfort them when they were unhappy. At every turn, the game prompted me to choose whether to reach out or turn away.
I made choices with my potential love interests, of course—choices to listen to them, choices to appeal to them—but my interactions with them were explicitly transactional. I was angling for them to save me from my unhappy home. Comforting my sisters or following my stepmother’s orders didn’t often present an immediate reward. There were moments when my overtures were rejected and met with insults instead of warmth.
From a game design perspective, this is the kind of intermittent reinforcement that keeps people pumping money into gacha pulls and loot boxes: this time for sure! And in the real world, it can often motivate people to stay in toxic relationships and perpetuate the cycle of abuse. But one of the strengths of Cinders is its recognition that Cinders cannot fix her family’s dysfunction singlehandedly. Selfless love will not save the day. Instead, I had to focus on building a mutual respect between damaged people—not only by being kind to my family, but by encouraging them to treat each other more gently as well.
Carmosa, my “evil” stepmother, has not had an easy life. She’s not from a prestigious family herself. She’s the second wife of a now-deceased noble, scrambling to maintain our former standard of living despite our reduced incomes. As far as parents go, she’s awful at it. She only praises us by putting the others down, and justifies her behavior by claiming she’s preparing us for “the real world.” Her two daughters, Gloria and Sophia, are subject to constant verbal abuse. They’re clearly miserable under the weight of their mother’s expectations. At some points I felt lucky to be only a stepchild. I’d only gotten a few years of Carmosa, while they’d had a lifetime. In a departure from other versions of the tale, they don’t get to shirk household duties—they’re peeling potatoes and scrubbing floors with me (though they do it in significantly nicer dresses).
And what’s a fairy tale family without the proverbial godmother? My own deceased mother is a fascinating cipher within the text, but her machinations scored me not one, but TWO godmothers: one fae, one (mostly) mortal. It’s up to me to decide which one is less likely to screw me over.
That’s the thing with magic, after all. When has it ever come without a price? My mother made some sort of bargain with the Fairies to secure their future aid for me, but it’s also implied in some epilogues that they caused her death. (I don’t hold it against them. It’s just what fairies do, really.)
Madame Ghede, the village wise woman and a close friend of my mother, may be better equipped to understand human problems. She appears to have quite a few of her own, given how little the townsfolk trust her. I found her refreshingly pragmatic for a fairy tale character. However, I do have serious misgivings about the fact that the only dark-skinned character in the game is painted up like a Dia de los Muertos sugar skull. Her costume is considerably more revealing than the other townspeople we see in the game, and the interior design of her shop, with its tribal masks, tropical plants, and hanging lanterns, leans heavily on outdated Witch Doctor stereotypes. I’m still not entirely sure which generic European country or era this version of Cinderella takes place in; the setting is a mishmash of architectures, fashion trends, and names, with Madame Ghede’s name being a direct reference to the Haitian loa. While she’s a helpful mentor to Cinders, and the hints about her backstory are interesting, I felt she was ultimately the Token Person of Ambiguous Color. It’s a well established historical fact that there were plenty of nonwhite people living in medieval European countries, so why does Madame Ghede seem to be the only one in town? Rather than looking to Basile and Perrault’s stories for inspiration, MoaCube should have turned to Brandy and Whitney instead.
Although the dialogue can be stilted at times, Cinders presents a compelling examination of the toxic family dynamics inherent in a Cinderella story. The variations on each of the four main endings lend it considerable replay value as well. I’ve logged over twenty hours and still haven’t managed to unlock all available versions. The overall impression Cinders gives is of precise balance. I came away feeling that the writers had made an effort to portray every character with complexity and care—save, perhaps, my love interests. But who cares about those guys, anyway?