When I downloaded a game called “Her Majesty’s Spiffing: The Empire Staggers Back,” the last thing that I expected was to find myself embroiled in an internal conflict regarding the nature of game design. Said conflict arises from the contrast between the game’s incredibly sharp, charming, frequently hysterical writing and its stale, slow, often obtuse gameplay. This is then exacerbated by the fact that Her Majesty’s Spiffing wears its flaws on its sleeve and often makes jokes out of them. All of this begs the question: should a game that makes its failings into a feature be absolved of them?
Just to give you an idea of the kind of story/world that we’re working with here, I’ll describe the opening of the game. The Queen, furious over Brexit, storms into parliament and reclaims control for herself, assuming that they must be incompetent to allow such a thing to have happened. Her first act as a monarch is to launch Big Ben into space and imperialize the universe.
We then meet our hero, Frank Lee English (hah!), a portly and incompetent astronaut, and possibly the most British man alive. He and partner Aled Jones have been tasked to find and colonize a new planet, but naturally, issues arise and problems must be solved. Unfortunately, the onset of the problems within the story also heralds the onset of the problems with the game itself.
If you’ve played a classic adventure game before, you pretty much know what to expect here. You’ll spend virtually all of your time navigating the interior of your spaceship collecting seemingly random objects that you can examine, combine with other objects, or use to solve whatever obstacle you are currently attempting to overcome.
In theory, this formula works and has for a great many years. The real problem here is that the solutions to the puzzles rarely feel intuitive, and I usually just resorted to trying to combine everything or using all of my items regardless of whether they should logically be able to accomplish the task for which I was trying to employ them. This could simply be the result of the attempt to apply logical puzzle solving mechanics to a world of Monty Pythonesque humor, or I could just be really stupid. At this point, I’m unwilling to discount either possibility.
Additionally, Her Majesty’s Spiffing is really, really short. I finished it in around three hours, although I suspect that a more competent player would have little difficulty completing the game in two or fewer. Given that this is a game developed by only a few people and the price tag is $9.99, the length is excusable, but it feels as if there is a whole load of untapped potential in the characters and the zany world that was shortchanged by the minuscule runtime. Pairing all of this with irritatingly slow movement speed and an infuriating amount of backtracking, the actual act of playing Her Majesty’s Spiffing is far less enjoyable than it ought to have been.
This is all especially disappointing considering how outstanding all of the writing and voice performances are. Frank Lee English (hah!) has hysterical dialogue for every item and character, and there is even an admirable lack of repetition when examining the same object multiple times. There is a French astronaut who finishes an entire bottle of wine without removing his helmet and has a wailing ape sidekick named Pierre Mayhew. Aboard the ship, there is a radio wave oven (it’s like a microwave, but it also has a radio so you can listen to cricket) and a machine that exists solely to make tea. It’s silly, fun, and consistently witty. It’s also bursting at the seams with Brexit jokes.
Most notably, the characters commonly make references to the fetch-questy nature of all of the puzzles, the unnecessarily complicated process of solving even the most simple problems, and even the fact that you’ll probably just end up trying to combine everything until something works. This is endlessly charming and delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
It also leads me back to the conflict that has come to define Her Majesty’s Spiffing in my mind. Just about everything in the game that isn’t the actual game is outstanding, and yet I was relieved to be finished even after only three hours. I was sad to see the end of the characters and the goofy world but delighted to be done trying to figure out in what universe the logical solution to a puzzle would be to attach a wedge of cheese to a frog, but only after the cheese had been shot by an angry Frenchman.
So does the game’s open and self-deprecating approach to its flaws make them okay? Ultimately, I don’t think so, but it does improve what would otherwise have been a pretty bland experience, writing aside. It feels like an attempt to mask over a weakness with a different strength, but that doesn’t mean that the weakness disappears. The jokes at the expense of the formula could still have been included if the moment to moment experience had been improved.
Regardless, though, I want this game to succeed. It’s hard not to root for the small developer that created it, and I would love to see what they could come up with given more time and a more substantial budget. If nothing else, it’s refreshing to play a game that feels as if it were made by real people, and they were having loads of fun during the process. If you’ve got ten spare dollars and two hours, there are far worse ways to spend both. Also, Frank Lee English (hah!).