Greetings, old-school gamers, and welcome to Retro Rundown! Every other Friday, I pick a classic video game from my collection – I’m defining “classic” as “PS2 era and earlier” at this point (I know, it makes me feel old too) – and give it the Big Brother treatment, exploring the game’s history, themes, and legacy. I’ll even throw in a few personal memories with the game along the way, and see if I can touch on the shared experiences that make so many of us remember it fondly.
I firmly believe that the uniquely interactive nature of video games, at its absolute best, enables more powerful storytelling than any other form of consumable entertainment. The ability to directly control a character’s actions removes the degree of separation that necessarily exists between any other work of fiction and its consumer. Unfortunately, a variety of factors, mostly involving the medium’s relative youth, have prevented all but the most dedicated content producers of really capitalizing on that potential. And for whatever reason, a disproportionate number of these noble souls – the ones who don’t make RPGs – wind up developing games that are broadly categorized as “psychological horror”; presumably it has something to do with the memorable experience of having your heart shaken (astutely named as such by Silent Hill 2‘s team). One such game is today’s subject: Rule of Rose.
In the final year of my first go at college (*cough*), G4TV – a cable channel devoted to video gaming culture – was in its prime. I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse of Rule of Rose‘s cutscenes (straight out of Japan) on one of their compilation shows, and what I saw was a twisted take on a dark and Gothic world that drew me in right away. The visuals of these scenes reminded me of my favorite horror titles from the previous few years, and the string-heavy, melancholic-yet-intense music that played over the montage made it that much more powerful. I made a mental note that if I ever had the chance, I needed to play this game. Months later, I spotted the drab, unassuming box art at my local Meijer, and I gladly paid $30 to make it mine.
Rule of Rose was developed by a small, now-defunct studio called Punchline (their only other game was the similarly under-the-radar and quirky Chulip) and released in Japan in early 2006. Sony commissioned the company for a horror game, so they took the opportunity to do something unique and ambitious, focusing on the senseless cruelty that children are capable of. Sony, apparently looking for something a little more tame and straightforward (perhaps involving zombies), balked at the truly horrific product that director Shuji Ishikawa had delivered and chose not to pick it up for a U.S. release, for fear of tainting their corporate image. (There’s a terrific interview with Ishikawa and his Sony handler from the time available here.) Thankfully, perennial niche gaming heroes Atlus stepped in and bought the rights to bring this title to the States.
The game is set in 1930s England, in a time of unrest between the first and second World Wars. The player controls Jennifer, a soft-spoken, “unlucky” 19 year-old woman who has somehow become trapped in a remote orphanage, which is sometimes an airship (yes, it’s a weird game). There, she’s treated like one of the preteens and has little capital with either the few adults around or the girls who really run the place. Said girls – stereotypes painted in broad strokes – have fashioned themselves the “Red Crayon Aristocrats” and make Jennifer (and the others similarly low on their totem pole) perform distasteful tasks each month under penalty of death or humiliation. To make matters worse, deformed “imps” (and occasional boss monsters) attempt to kill her throughout the game, even though nobody else seems to see them. Then there’s the mysterious and possibly unhinged farmer next door; the girls spread rumors about him and name him “Stray Dog”, using him as a cautionary tale to keep their subjects in line.
Jennifer has one true ally in this awful situation: Early in the game, she rescues a dog named Brown, a Labrador retriever who helps her sniff out items and solve puzzles, as well as protecting her from the imps. He’s a welcome comfort in what is otherwise an extremely bleak setting, and the player quickly develops a strong bond with him as his relationship with Jennifer becomes the beating heart of the game, similar to what Capcom did with Hewie in Haunting Ground (another psychological horror title) and what Sony is still trying to replicate in The Last Guardian.
The visuals and music of the game are unique and outstanding, as you can tell by the fact that I was hooked from a few minutes of cutscene footage. There’s a jarring placement of kiddie aesthetics in the chapter introductions and the menus that seems out of place with the frantic violin-plucking our ears experience – composer Yutaka Minobe went above and beyond in delivering a scary sounding game, at the very least. The animations are in turns claustrophobic or grotesque, sometimes both. Every piece of the game was designed to mess with the player’s comfort zone, and it does its job well in that regard.
Upon its release, I remember Rule of Rose being touted among some reviewers as “survival horror for girls”, which I suppose meant simply that it was about girls, and that it had an emotional core – personally, I found it to be a creepy experience that few games have matched. So with a story and atmosphere that’s as great as just about anything else that’s been done, why was this game a hidden gem? A big part of the answer is in the “game” part. This is one of the worst titles I own from a “mechanics enjoyability” standpoint. Combat is utterly broken (and some of it is unavoidable), and the inventory and item systems are poorly handled. Even though there are a few post-game unlockables, it’s basically a punishment to go back and play it beyond what you need in order to experience its story. Apparently this is at least partially because the 25-person team ran out of time and money, so I won’t defend any of it as a stylistic choice (a la “well, Jennifer _shouldn’t_ be a good fighter!”). Suffice to say that they had a vision in mind and they got what was important across, but their game ultimately suffered for their neglect of the rest and many would-be fans just find it unplayable, even with the prospect of the next deeply affecting scene around the corner.
And yet, it goes back to what I said about the interactivity of the medium. Rule of Rose would not have worked to the same degree as a book or a movie, because the player needed to spend those agonizing hours with Jennifer and Brown in order to feel the impact of the game’s climax.
In the end, though, Sony may have had the right of it; Punchline had some ideas about child psychology and (implied) sexuality that created quite a stir when the game hit Europe in particular. Even though the moral watchdogs went overboard with their outrage, they weren’t entirely off-base here; the game earns every bit of its “M” rating, featuring child murder, pedophilia (or close to it), and prepubescent lesbian relationships. …And now that combination of words has put me on a federal watchlist. (Hi, Feds!) However, perverts out there will be disappointed (hi, Pervs!); all these things are heavily alluded to but never explicitly shown, as is the case with much of the plot.
Ultimately, Rule of Rose had three strikes against it: The poorly reviewed gameplay, the controversial themes, and the late-cycle release (by 2006, the PS2’s heyday had come and gone). It wasn’t on shelves for long, and once it started to gain notoriety for its incredibly powerful subject matter, bolstered by more popular horror titles, it became an extremely sought-after collectible – the rarest on the console, in fact. As of this writing, a complete copy of the game will cost you well over $200 – and no, mine isn’t for sale! There’s little hope of a virtual re-release, either; I imagine this is one that Sony is more comfortable leaving behind them. If this write-up has piqued your interest and you’re not hopeful about your chances of obtaining the game, this detailed plot summary is a great read.
Contradictory though it may seem, Rule of Rose is not a smutty game, but rather a game with very mature themes viewed through an innocent lens. The storybook motif framing the chapters of the game further juxtaposes youthful innocence with horrific happenings. By the end, it’s revealed that most of the plot took place in Jennifer’s childhood and she’s merely remembering it as the grown-up we see, a traumatic twist on your typical adult nostalgia. Anyone who was bullied as a kid – and that’s a large segment of the gaming population, I think – knows all too well how terrible children can be to one another, how innocence and cruelty can sometimes go hand-in-hand. The exploration of that concept is the main source of horror here, and that’s what makes the game worth talking about. Or, like a lost friend from childhood, worth remembering.
That’s it for this issue of Retro Rundown! If you enjoyed it, please check out additional offerings from yours truly. If you have a strong opinion about other games I should revisit in this series, hit up the Dashing Nerds on Twitter or Facebook, or leave a comment below!