Finally a game that proves that the real monsters are children
I don't know if this is unusual because I don't usually discuss 'emotions' with other 'humans', but I usually play psychological horror games to feel sad rather than scared. Video games lost their ability to scare me a while ago, but I downright bawled at the end of Yomawari: Midnight Shadows. Many games in this genre seem to be very adept at deconstructing the human condition and then making you cringe.
It's to the point where I seek them out whenever I feel sad and feel like pushing myself into awkward places. One place I didn't expect to find a good spade stick was in Rule of Rose. This is partly because I knew absolutely nothing about it, other than the fact that it was criticized. The only reason I went to the extreme effort of looking for it was that it was made by Punchline, who previously made my beloved Chulip, and I feel like I owe them a kidney for bringing it into my life.
I really have to say that this article is going to get alarmingly close to spoiler territory. I'll be careful so you still have things to discover, but Rule of Rose is the kind of game that doesn't play its hand until the very end and I'm going to show you some of its cards. A lot is clarified in the epilogue, while the narrative itself is presented in a cryptic manner that is not easy to understand. So if you want to travel the surreal world of Rule of Rose completely naked, now is your chance to strip down and ditch the article.
I mean, listen to this: You play as Jennifer, described in the text as “The Unlucky Girl.” You get off the bus on the wrong side of town and end up in an orphanage. Before you can even spot yourself, you are captured by children and taken aboard an airship. Or something. It's not entirely clear, because you're in a box. One-time orphanage; the next airship.
You find yourself at the mercy of the aristocrats of Red Crayon, a group of bratty children who demand various offers throughout the game, ranging from a cute butterfly to a mermaid. Failure to deliver these results leads to various humiliations, such as getting a rat rubbed on your face. The thing is, Jennifer isn't your typical heroic protagonist. Stuck in his body, you'll spend most of your time being tormented, beaten, and not really fighting back. Enjoy.
Rule of Rose is, thematically, about torment, intimidation and cruelty. Many of the things you fight seem to be nothing more than obscure manifestations of Jennifer's memories. On the surface, you seem like a stranger to this sadistic society of children. But the further it goes, the more apparent it becomes that Jennifer was once a part of it, and she's largely reliving the pain of being at his mercy. It's as if his mind has cleared all that trauma and now it's time to explore it again.
Indeed, the story told appears to be a horrible flashback to PTSD. Jennifer's life was traumatic in her youth, and bits of that are starting to seep through all the surreal horror. When it finally breaks out and comes to a head, it's not about defeating a monster, it's about finding a bittersweet peace with what happened. It's almost like she's putting all the pieces together that she's too young to understand and accept.
The horror here is human. People can be driven to cruelty, even – or perhaps especially – the irrational monsters we know as children. We constantly navigate the horrors of alienation, grief, and social pressures, and it can lead us to do horrible things to avoid that pain. At the end of the game, the antagonist's motivations are understood, even if they are not necessarily justified. Likewise, Jennifer's pain is clear and her fears are relatable. All this in the service of a desperate atmosphere. It's worse than being alone; he is lost in a storm of heartlessness.
Unfortunately, not everything is so skillfully executed in Rule of Rose. The combat is going to be a sticking point for most people, and for good reason: it's unforgivably excruciating. Silent Hill is criticized for its shaky fight, but it doesn't even compare to Rule of Rose. Jennifer approaches the fight like she's trying not to wake her grandmother, and hit detection is as unreliable as a myopic tennis umpire. Bosses can hit you when they're not facing you, and it's all too easy to get swarmed by the little brats clogging the hallways.
The environments are also quite repetitive, and the load times when you go through a door are just a tad too long, so everything feels like you're wading through molasses. You get a pet dog who is a good boy and also helps you achieve the next goal if you smell the right item to him. I don't know if it's an incredibly unique mechanism or someone's attempt to fix its horribly ill-conceived design. Still, it helps you avoid endless backtracking, so I guess we should be grateful?
One place you may have heard of Rule of Rose before is in the media. There was a kind of scare around its portrayal of minors, with accusations ranging from underage eroticism to sadomasochism. Obviously, this was an attempt to score political points because, while the game covers many uncomfortable topics, including hints of sexual abuse, it is far from actionable. These elements mostly exist in subtext and only serve as backstory for a few characters.
Like Chulip, Rule of Rose had a major impact on me, but that doesn't mean it's going to hit you the same. For much of its execution, it's a surreal, inscrutable experience laden with jank. If you don't have the patience to peel back the layers of a nail, then…wait, stop, that's a horrible mental picture. I am not finishing this sentence.
What I mean is that Rule of Rose is an emotionally tormenting experience, both in terms of reading it and performing it. I can't say how scary it can be because of my aforementioned virtual fearlessness, but I can definitely say it's an unsettling, uncomfortable, and moving experience. I may not have cried at the end like I did with Yomawari: Midnight Shadows, but it now rents space in the darkest corners of my mind. The coins I hide when the business is over.
Rule of Rose has yet to see a re-release, and a physical copy of the game will set you back a minute. Onion Games is currently investigating the possibility of porting it to current systems. I hope they get there because I think it's a game worth another look. For now, I'm just going to sit here and listen to the amazing soundtrack while its themes further cloud my imagination.