Whoops! I made sure to give myself enough time to finish this video by Halloween … but then I neglected to post the announcement here! Happy belated Halloween, everyone.
I really relished the opportunity to talk about Rule of Rose, one of my favorite odd little games that I’ve never written about in any fashion before. Unfortunately copies of the game have become real collector’s items over the years, and it’s sad to praise a piece of media that so few will have access to. But hey, I also write about experimental film, so I know the feeling.
Script below the jump.
Today I’m going to be talking about the 2006 survival horror game Rule of Rose, developed by Punchline as a PlayStation 2 exclusive. Technically, this is the twelfth episode in a long-dormant series I was doing on horror games. If you’ve stumbled onto this video outside of that series, don’t worry—it’s entirely stand-alone. If you’re a subscriber who’s been eagerly awaiting another video on a horror game for the past seventeen months: welcome back! I hope this doesn’t disappoint.
Rule of Rose is among the more obscure horror games I’ve talked about, but it’s actually among my favorite games from the sixth console generation. It was unlike pretty much anything else that was coming out at the time. And even though a lot of time has passed, and a lot of games have come out since, including a truly astounding array of indie games tackling a tremendous number of subjects and widening the emotional palette of the medium considerably, I still have a soft spot for Rule of Rose. I’d probably still put it in my top, say, 100 games, and I feel like I owe it to the world to raise the game’s critical profile in whatever small way I could.
That said, Rule of Rose does have some problems.
Survival horror games have a reputation for janky combat, and sometimes they’ve worn that reputation as a badge of honor: supposedly, combat is scarier when you’re fighting with clumsy controls. But Rule of Rose is just exceptionally bad. Much like in Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill, you have to hold down a dedicated button to enter into an “attack mode,” which reduces your movement. But in all of those games—even going back all the way to the original Alone in the Dark in 1992—you can at the very least pivot in place, to adjust your aim. (In fact, often the pivoting is automatic, as a “lock on” feature.) In Rule of Rose, you can’t pivot. If you hold the attack mode button, you’re locked in to your position for the duration. Meanwhile, enemies move. So if you play this game, be prepared to swing and miss. A lot.
Also, you should resist the urge to button mash. Tapping the “X” button repeatedly launches you into a lengthy combo animation, which can’t be interrupted. It’s a baffling design choice for a game like this, and it leads to infuriating moments where you have to watch your character wind up for a swing you already know she’s going to miss. (“On my way, I’m going to be doing this. If you get hit, it’s your own fault.”) There’s no way to cancel this lengthy animation, that you know is going to leave her vulnerable, so your best option is just not to trigger it. (“Then I’m going to start kicking air like this, and if any part of you should fill that air, it’s your own fault.”) Thankfully, though, the aim of enemies is also pretty terrible. I think they’re operating under the same basic rules you are! So expect to see plenty of stretches where neither you nor your opponent are hitting each other. The whole thing’s a mess, really.
Luckily, aside from a few boss fights and a couple additional mandatory fights clustered late in the game, combat in Rule of Rose is typically avoidable, and actually relatively rare. Rule of Rose is much more of an adventure game, with an emphasis on finding and using key items to unlock the next area and get to the next bit of story.
Unfortunately, Rule of Rose is also a shitty adventure game. You have a dog, Brown, who can track items by scent. This could have worked as a hint system—when you get stuck, you turn to your dog for help. Maybe you have to feed him a dog biscuit or something to do so, making this a limited-used hint system that can’t be abused. Unfortunately, they didn’t do that. In most circumstances, the game doesn’t give you any clues where to go next, aside from Brown. So long stretches of the game consist of finding an item, telling Brown to follow its scent, traversing the level following Brown as he makes a bee line to another item, picking up that item’s scent, and so on and so forth, daisy-chained together as the game holds you by your nose through the entire length of a chapter. (Or, I guess holds you by Brown’s nose.) It’s unimaginative, it’s dull, and it’s completely devoid of any sense of exploration or discovery. And since adventure games live or die on the sense of exploration and discovery they offer, Rule of Rose fails at being an engaging adventure game. It’s such a waste of a striking location, because all you do is follow your dog to the next door.
All of this is kind of strange, right? Based on how I’ve just described it, Rule of Rose sucks at every conceivable level. So why is it still among my favorite games?
Well, I love Rule of Rose because of what it brings to the horror genre. Although a handful of horror games grapple with the horrors of human psychology, for the most part the genre is still heavily dependent on monsters. Horror here is reduced the the horror of ripped apart in the jaws of a misshapen abomination, of having one’s body attacked and defiled by some terrible creature. And I won’t deny that that’s scary—but it’s such a small corner of what horror can be, and what it can do.
Rule of Rose is less about monsters than it is about human cruelty, especially the alarmingly undiluted cruelty exhibited by children. Although there are a few side-characters in the game who are men and boys, by and large its cast is dominated by women and girls, and much of it revolves around the specific sorts of cruelties young women can inflict on each other when vying for social status. It’s the only horror game I can name where the ultimate big bad is a clique of mean girls.
Every horrific element in the game stems from the cruelty of children. When the game is violent, it is the violence of pranks. When the game is disgusting, it is a disgust that is employed for the purposes of hazing rituals. Even the jump scares in the game—for instance, the moments when you try to open a door, only to have it abruptly slammed shut in your face—is a manifestation of the cruel games children play.
Another reason I love Rule of Rose is for its score. At times, its themes play out as a lush, Romantic string ensemble. Other times, it borrows from 20th-century modernist piano composition. Whatever its style, it remains remarkable, strikingly different from other games at the time—including other fantastic horror scores, such as Yamaoka Akira’s work on the Silent Hill franchise.
And, finally, I love Rule of Rose because it is thick with unreality. Silent Hill 2 uses the “otherworld” to indicate when James Sutherland is falling deeper into a realm of psychic pain and guilt, with the monstrous manifestations of his conscience becoming more numerous and aggressive. The moments of transition between levels of reality are clearly indicated, and it’s pretty easy to follow the logic of the layers. Rule of Rose is much more slippery. It keeps you guessing longer as to which elements of Jennifer’s plight are more or less real, and it doesn’t wrap things up with a bow nearly as neatly as Silent Hill 2 does in the end.
Let’s get down to peeling Rule of Rose’s story apart. I’m going to cover the events depicted in it in great detail in the rest of the video. Normally, I would offer a spoiler warning here, and I guess you should consider this to be your spoiler warning. But I’m not really sure that the experience of Rule of Rose can be “spoiled” by laying out the game’s plot, per se. Once you get past your frustration with its mechanics (if you ever get past that frustration), the pleasures of Rule of Rose have more to do with mood and atmosphere than story twists and turns. In fact, your experience of playing the game the first time might even be enhanced by some knowledge of the story, since you’ll be less bothered by its relentless opacity, and more free to appreciate its atmosphere.
And anyway, this video is an act of preserving the memory of the game, as much as anything. If you’re sitting at home right now and haven’t previously heard of the game, it’s quite unlikely you’ll ever play it. It was released on the PS2, the team that made it is defunct, and it’s never been re-released on any subsequent platforms. If you have a PS2 lying around, you could get it used, but it’s been out-of-print for awhile so even used copies are pretty expensive … wait, what? Holy SHIT. Yeah, don’t worry about the spoiler warning here. You’re never going to play this game. Unless you torrent a ROM somewhere.
Non-Realities: A Sliding Scale of Tidiness
Layering together alternate realities (or non-realities) is a long-standing technique in fiction, but there are a bunch of different ways to approach it.
Take an example like 1939 film version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy lives in Kansas, and has various relationships with her neighbors. Then, after a tornado hits early on, she spends the majority of the movie in Oz, a Technicolor fantasy realm. At the end, she wakes up, and the movie makes it clear that, not only was the Oz portion a dream, but its characters represented Dorothy’s perceptions of her neighbors. There is one ordinary reality in The Wizard of Oz, one fantastical non-reality, and their relationship to one another is very clearly defined by the time the film wraps up. It’s all very tidy, and there’s little chance that even young children would be confused by the relationship between its elements.
We can position The Wizard of Oz all the way on one end of this “tidiness” scale. Some of the best examples for the “untidy” end of the scale can be found in mid-twentieth century modernist narrative. Around this time, authors were experimenting with novels that obscured what little plot they had in layers of dense psychic interiority (Robbe-Gillet’s Jealousy, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake). In European art cinema, we got things like Last Year at Marienbad, in which a man and a woman endlessly argue over the truth of each other’s memories. Not only does the film not pick a side, but it slathers everything in additional levels of unreality, to the point where it becomes impossible to tell if what we’re watching is the present, or if it’s the contested memory. It’s even unreliable at even the most basic visual level, such as in this shot where the trees cast shadows but the people don’t—a clear indication that there’s trickery happening at the most basic levels of narration. Meanwhile, in American avant-garde cinema, Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon recursively nests dreams within dreams, multiplying instances of its dreamer protagonist. On top of that, the fantastic imagery that’s present from the very beginning of the film all the way to its ending suggests that, unlike in Wizard of Oz, not a single thing we see in the film takes place in a base “awake” reality. It’s dreams all the way down. These sorts of things stand as archetypal example of untidy layering of realities.
Right in the middle of the scale, we could place something like David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. Upon first viewing, it’s easy to assume that, like Last Year at Marienbad, Mulholland Dr revels in incoherence, mixing reality and nightmare indiscernibly, without any guiding logic. But once you do some mental work re-ordering the film, it snaps into place with a surprising neatness, to the point where it actually resembles The Wizard of Oz. Its tidiness is just very well disguised.
Like Mulholland Dr., I would place Rule of Rose somewhere near the middle of this scale. But I waver on where it is exactly in the scale. It’s more opaque than it appears at first glance, and even after several playthroughs there are still some prominent aspects of its fabula that elude me.
Rule of Rose starts with our protagonist, Jennifer, who seems to be in maybe her late teens, asleep on a bus. Yes, she’s asleep already when we first see her—the biggest single indication that much of the story that follows will adhere to a dream logic.
The bus is deserted, except for a young boy, who calls out to Jennifer by name, despite her not seeming to know who he is. The boy hands her a handwritten story, “The Little Princess,” and asks her to read it to him. But then he dashes off the bus at the next stop, leaving her holding the handmade book. She runs after him, trying to return it to him, only to be left behind, in the dark, at this mysterious stop, which doesn’t seem to be hers. Stranded under the streetlamp, she leafs through the storybook, which tells of a girl who was orphaned, and subsequently lost her friend, the Princess of the Red Rose.
Now’s a good time to talk about narrators in the game. Each of the game’s chapters has a frame story: a morbid and cruel tale, crudely illustrated by a child’s hand. Outside of these, the game features other forms explicit—even over-the-top—narration. This includes onscreen text that refers to Jennifer as an “unlucky girl” and calls her tale “mysterious, unthinkable, [and] filthy.” It also includes a voice-over narrator, who makes cameos on the soundtrack every now and then, most notably to mock us during game over screens, where he announces that, after Jennifer’s untimely demise, “everyone lived happily ever after.” You might think that such explicit narration would make the game’s story clearer, but it doesn’t. The narrative as delivered is self-evidently allegorical, and the competing narrators end up working at cross-purposes, multiplying the layers of commentary and getting us farther from the game’s base “reality.” Eventually this will play into the game’s themes of competing emotional narratives in the face of perceived abandonment, but for the majority of the run time it mostly makes the game more opaque.
Once you take control of Jennifer, there’s nothing to do beyond explore the driveway leading away from this isolated bus stop. Following the sound of a dog’s whining leads to a groundskeeping shack, which is empty except for an abandoned dog collar and a handmade “boarding pass.” Further up the driveway is a large mansion, the grounds of which are stalked by creepy children, wearing paper-bag masks and violently beating something in a burlap bag.
Once Jennifer gains entrance to the building, the children disappear, but are obviously still around, locking her in the building and playing tricks on her. Some environmental storytelling establishes the mansion’s status as an orphanage, and hints at some of the elaborate superstitions that ground the children’s behaviors and pranks. Eventually, the boy shows up again. Following him will lead Jennifer up to the orphanage’s attic, in a scene which establishes the social power of the “Red Crayon Aristocrat Club.” The boy announces a funeral for Jennifer’s “dear friend,” at which point following the sound of a dog’s bark will lead us out into the orphanage’s courtyard. Jennifer digs up a crude coffin with a burlap sack in it, and the children show up again to humiliate and haze her, tossing her into the open coffin and carrying it away. When Jennifer awakens, she’s no longer in a coffin—instead, she’s restrained in a closet, in what is eventually revealed to be a giant luxury blimp.
This is a very classic “down the rabbit hole” opening. Jennifer is pulled from a space of complete normalcy (the bus), passively lead somewhere mysterious and threatening (the orphanage), before being abducted into a setting that seems to be completely fantastical (a luxury airship populated almost entirely by orphans). It’s not as clean as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, though, because in place of that story’s neat division between reality and dream, everything that’s depicted in Rule of Rose is a mix of memory and a kind of allegorical, heightened version of that memory.
This logic extends so far that there’s a spatial porousness to the various locations in Rule of Rose. In one of my favorite cutscenes of the game, we start out inside the airship, and then in a continuous tracking shot where the virtual camera is placed inside a birdcage, we very clearly move from the airship into the orphanage, in a single uninterrupted take. These aren’t two distinct settings: it’s a both/and logic, where places in one stand in for places in the other, depending on how psychologically heightened a given moment is. It’s not just the orphanage and airship that bleed into each other, either—the airship also becomes other landscapes. At one point, the aristocrat’s club throne room becomes a darkened forest. At another, the top of the blimp is revealed to be covered in grass: a foggy field dotted with craggy trees. The word “dreamlike” gets thrown around a lot in criticism, and I’m going to throw it around a lot in this video … wait, actually, no I’m not. Let’s come up with some synonyms, that’s just bad writing. Anyway, repetition or no, few games deserve the descriptor as much as this. The fact that several locations in the game are both one place and another, simultaneously, so well captures that logic of dreams where someone’s both your uncle, and your cousin, and a snake.
But enough about my uncle-snake: let’s move on to this game’s cast of characters. There are three adults on the airship: Hoffman, the strict teacher, Martha, the queen of cleaning, and a mysterious and rarely-seen man in a brown coat. This man is is never identified by name while on the airship, but later portions of the game reveal his name to be Gregory Wilson.
The majority of the blimp’s residents are children, who, given the relative dearth of adult authority figures, have created their own social caste system, the aforementioned “Red Crayon Aristocrat Club.” The Aristocrat Club is based around a tithe system: members must pay a specified tribute each month to its high-ranking members. Among these high-ranking members are Diana, the Strong-Willed Princess (who has the alternate title of Duchess), Eleanor, the Princess as Cold as Ice (also referred to as Countess), and Meg, the Wise-Looking Princess (also referred to as Baroness). Even in the children’s titles, identity is multiplied, and unstable.
Amanda, the Small-Hearted Princess, is its lowest-ranking member of the club prior to the arrival of Jennifer. Amanda is especially antagonistic to Jennifer, because the higher-ranked members have pitted them against one another in their hazing rituals.
There are other children on the airship who aren’t explicitly identified as members of the Aristocrat Club. The three boys—Xavier, the Gluttonous Prince, Thomas, the Mischievous Prince, and Nicholas, the Sloppy Prince—seem to have little interest in fulfilling the club’s tithe requests.
There are some other girls on the ship, as well, who don’t have set ranks within the Club: Susan, the Impetuous Princess, Olivia, the Tearful Princess, and Clara, the Frightened Princess. Based on what we see, the girls, at least, still have to pay tithes to the club. Olivia is distressed over the demanded gifts several times int he game, hence her nickname the Tearful Princess: we see her crying about the butterfly gift request, and again about the mermaid gift request. We also see Susan griping about having to retrieve Sir Peter the rabbit, and then again searching for the bird tribute. Even though they aren’t ranked members of the club, the other girls still shun Jennifer, treating her as an untouchable outcast.
There is one sign on the airship that identifies two additional figures, supposedly at the very top of the Aristocrat Club’s social pyramid: the Red Rose Princess and the Bear Prince. These figures aren’t identified by name. Every now and then Jennifer will encounter the boy who confronted her on the bus. He never interacts with the other children, but he addresses Jennifer directly when they’re alone, challenging her and claiming responsibility for her being kidnapped and brought here. He’s one obvious candidate for the Bear Prince. This leaves the Red Rose Princess. Is that figurehead position filled by the doll that is sometimes seen holding a ceremonial seat at the Aristocrat Club meetings? It’s possible, but we’ll see …
Each chapter in in the game is organized around a different month. The Red Crayon Aristocrats demand a new tithe each month, so the chapters typically correspond with Jennifer’s search a specific item to offer as tribute. Each chapter also arrives with its own hand-drawn picturebook story, which adds another layer of commentary or allegorical gloss onto the events we play through.
I’m not going to delve into each of these chapters in the same detail I looked at the game’s prologue in. They do get rather repetitive. With the help of Brown’s trusty nose, Jennifer always finds the requested gift to leave as an offering to the club. But her successes don’t really matter, since these gifts requests are really just an excuse to psychological torture Jennifer, and pit her against Amanda.
Jennifer and Amanda aren’t the only victims here, either—the members of the club’s refined class are cruel to each other, as well. In “The Goat Sisters,” Meg writes a note to Diana, admitting that she’s infatuated with her. The feeling is unrequited. When Diana finds and reads the note, she’s disgusted, and tricks Meg into thinking she lost it. Diana tasks Jennifer with giving the note back to Meg, in order to maximize Meg’s embarrassment over her crush being revealed. Jennifer’s just a pawn in this chapter—the real cruelty is toward Meg.
This pattern is replicated in two other chapters: in “The Bird of Happiness,” Meg and Diana conspire to blame Jennifer for the death of Eleanor’s pet bird, and in “Mermaid Princess” Eleanor and Meg get Diana in trouble for killing Mr. Hoffman’s fish. Meanwhile, by the chapter “Rag Princess Sews,” set in October 1930, Amanda’s obsessive hatred of Jennifer has metastasized past the point of needing a tribute competition to be spurned on.
The game’s chapters don’t all arrive in chronological order—in fact there’s a clump of chapters near thee middle of the game where the order can be chosen by the player, Mega Man style, complicating things further. And even once you’ve seen everything, parsing the timeline of events is not simply a matter of re-arranging the chapters by the dates given at their beginning. The events portrayed on the airship aren’t just fantastical: they also have a dreamlike inconsistency to them, refusing standard causality. Certain events don’t have the permanent consequences you think they might at first glance.
For instance, in May 1930, Hoffman, the strict teacher shows up in a blood-smeared room as an evil, rope-bound version of himself, who must be fought as a boss in order for Jennifer to claim Sir Peter the rabbit. After Jennifer beats him to a bloody pulp, he collapses, and his body is dragged away by broom-wielding imps. And yet he appears again and is clearly fine in a chapter that takes place in August 1930. He’s not even antagonistic toward Jennifer in this chapter—he’s just mad at Diana for the fish incident.
The fate of Martha, the queen of cleaning isn’t as blatantly self-contradictory, but it still is ambiguous. We also see her being dragged away by the cleaning imps, in April 1930. And she sure looks dead once they’re done with her. We don’t clearly see her alive in any of the later chapters, but we do find a woman in the July 1930 chapter who looks like she could be her, bound in rope and burlap but still alive and twitching.
Clara, the Frightened Princess appears very infrequently. In the Mermaid Princess chapter, it appears to be her that transforms into the puking mermaid who Jennifer then has to fight as a boss. We never do see Clara again after August 1930—but she doesn’t die at the end of the boss fight. She turns into a doll, in another irreconcilable, hallucinatory turn of events.
Clearly, we’re not supposed to take these events literally—just like we’re not supposed to believe that there are literally fish skeletons swimming around in the air on the blimp. But these incidents also aren’t just pure, ungrounded fantasy: the moment where the smooth tracking shot follows our movement through this space as it transforms from the airship back into the orphanage clues us into the fact that these fantasies should be understood as psychological reactions to real-life traumas.
The clues to what these traumas might be are mostly found in those chapters not set on the airship. Along with the game’s opening, there’s “The Gingerbread House,” “The Funeral,” “Stray Dog and the Lying Princess,” and the Epilogue. These chapters show the game’s characters in a more grounded, easier-to-believe setting, but they do more than that. By reading logs and journal entries in these chapters, and then connecting their dates and described events to the other chapters, you can begin to piece together a less fantastical variation on the events depicted on the airship.
So for instance, in August 1930 on the airship, Clara is depicted as transforming into a mermaid. But a journal entry left by Mr. Hoffman reveals that what really happened in that month is that she turned 16, and so could legally leave the orphanage, but instead opted to stay on as an employee. Mr. Hoffman has a beloved fish, and Clara turning into a fish-human hybrid literalizes her status as a “teacher’s pet.” (It would be unbearably heady-handed if it was spelled out to us in that way, but it retains a certain subtleness since players have to work all of this out themselves.)
Likewise, it seems safe to assume that Jennifer didn’t actually fight bipedal goats wielding giant scissors in “The Goat Sisters,” but the Epilogue confirms the basic details of Meg’s note and her unrequited crush.
And the imps that serve as the typical enemy in most of the game’s combat are contextualized here, as well: they were a story the children invented, creatures that come and get you if you don’t clean up after yourself.
But that’s not to say that these chapters set in the orphanage aren’t themselves weird, or that we should accept the events depicted in them uncritically. They present crucial pieces to the game’s overall puzzle, but they don’t iron out all ambiguities.
In addition to the usual cast of characters, these chapters heavily feature a girl named Wendy. Wendy actually does show up on the airship, briefly, in the chapter “Rag Princess Sews,” where she bears the moniker “the Lonely Princess.” But her true importance to the overall story is only revealed in the chapters not set on the airship. And her arc is both so strange and so artfully obscure that it casts even these chapters in a dreamlike haze, disrupting any clean dichotomy in which they are an unvarnished “reality” set next to the “fantasy” of the airship sections.
I’m going to walk us through the story of Jennifer’s friendship with Wendy now, as I’ve pieced it together.
The Story of Jennifer and Wendy
In June of 1929, Jennifer was on an airship with her parents that went down, killing them. This can be gleaned from two documents in the non-airship portions of the game: a newspaper article about the disappearance of the airship, and a hand-drawn map of the UK that causes Jennifer to think about the accident and how it made her life “become a tale of misfortune.” Jennifer mentions never wanting to “play airship” with the other children, and the fact that this was a popular form of make-believe among them explains why such large portions of the game take place on a fantastical airship.
After the accident, Jennifer is saved, somehow, by Gregory Wilson, who subsequently keeps her in his house, insists on calling her “Joshua,” and expects her to wear boys’ clothing. His motivation for doing this is never made explicit. Police records accessible in the epilogue indicate he had a son. Perhaps we’re supposed to imagine that he lost his son, possibly even in the same accident, and is now psychologically damaged and attempting to replace his son. This is never stated outright, though, so his motivations are largely left to our imagination.
Between the time of her abduction and her eventual escape from Wilson, Jennifer corresponds with Wendy, a girl from the orphanage. The two form a close bond. Wendy gives Jennifer her broach, in exchange for a teddy bear Jennifer swiped from Wilson’s house. Wendy names the teddy bear “Joshua.” (Again: multiplication, this time with one name circulating between different people and things.) Wendy and Jennifer make a pact, promising each other “everlasting true love.”
By January of 1930, Jennifer has escaped from Wilson with the help of Wendy, and she now resides at the orphanage. And, by the way, she’s much younger than her main character model appears. The majority of the game gives us the spectacle of a young woman in her late teens being bullied by a bunch of 12-year-olds, which is a great visual image. Another reason I love this game. More horror games about children bullying adults, please! But we’re not supposed to take this literally. This is the age Jennifer is when she’s recollecting these events, memories fragmented through the kaleidoscope of childhood myths. She was actually the same age as the other kids in 1930, and occasionally during both pre-rendered cutscenes and in-engine gameplay her character model will change to reflect this.
Throughout 1930, Jennifer navigates the hazing rituals of the Aristocrats Club. Wendy is actually the head of this club. As I mentioned before, the two highest rankings in the club are the Red Rose Princess and the Bear Prince. Sometimes Wendy acts as the Red Rose Princess, and when she does the bear Joshua stands in as the Bear Prince. But other times she adopts the persona of Joshua, wearing the outfit prepared by Gregory Wilson, and in those cases a doll stands in for the Red Rose Princess.
However, it’s also indicated that Wendy was sick for a substantial portion time in 1930. So it’s unclear how much direct will she’s exerting over the club while Jennifer is being hazed. It’s possible that the cruelty of the club toward Jennifer is a direct extension of Wendy’s intentions. But it’s also possible that, by this point, much of the club’s malevolent will is powered by the self-sustaining cruelty of Diana, Eleanor, and Meg, drunk on their power in Wendy’s absence.
What Wendy definitely is doing during this time is spreading rumors about Gregory Wilson. He takes on a boogeyman role among the orphans, who refer to him as “Stray Dog,” and claim (not without merit) that he steals children away.
Speaking of stray dogs, Jennifer’s world brightens a lot in July 1930 when she finds a puppy, who she names Brown. Unfortunately, this sets off a jealous spiral in Wendy, who has an obsessive personality, and sees Brown as a threat to her bond of everlasting love with Jennifer.
In November 1930, things come to a head. Mr. Hoffman, the orphanage’s headmaster, departs abruptly, and leaves the orphanage under the control of the ill-equipped teenager Clara. Sensing an opportunity in the resulting power vacuum, Wendy retaliates against Jennifer by killing Brown.
After this shocking incident, the aristocrat club expels Wendy and warms to Jennifer, accepting her not only as a member, but as their leader. But Wendy has found a new way to control Gregory Wilson. By dressing up in the boy’s outfit and fully stepping into the role of “Joshua,” she gains complete psychological control over Wilson, training him like her own dog, to rival Brown.
Wendy unleashes Wilson on the orphanage in December 1930. What, exactly, she uses Wilson to do is left opaque. We hear the screams of the other orphans, and in the final boss fight against Stray Dog their empty clothes are littering the field. But this boss fight is just as hallucinatory as all the other boss fights in the game. Brown even helps out during it, despite the fact that, by this point in the timeline, he’s supposed to be dead.
Even if we discount the events of the boss fight itself as decidedly unreal, there are other oblique references in the game to something decidedly bad happening. If you read Martha’s letter written to the police in the epilogue, Jennifer forebodingly comments on how tragic it was that things “turned out the way they did.” But the full extent of the tragedy is left up to our imaginations. Did Wilson kill all of the children? He is likened at various points to the witch in Hansel and Gretel: the chapter where Jennifer is trapped in his house is titled “The Gingerbread House,” and Wilson himself recites a nursery rhyme that likens children to peas, that Stray Dog makes “pea soup” out of. But this is just one of many stories in the game: the children also tell stories about the cleaning imps, but we’re not supposed to understand the imps as being literally real, I don’t think. Whether or not the enormity of the crimes Wilson ultimately commits match the children’s terrifying stories about Stray Dog is left to players to discern.
This is just one strand of a large mass of ambiguity strewn throughout even the most “real” layer of the game. It’s not just Wilson’s crimes that are unclear. We’re shown almost none of the events I just described directly, so there’s plenty of room for competing interpretations. The death of Brown is allegorized in several contradictory ways across the length of the game—the scene at the game’s opening, with the coffin and the burlap sack, a scene where Wendy pets Brown and Jennifer finds a coffin in that same yard, a picture book about a friend being buried alive, the climax of “The Funeral” chapter, which intercuts Brown’s real body being strung up by imps with images of a dismembered toy dog and a bloody burlap sack, and then the game’s ending, which posits a “happier” outcome in which Jennifer abandons Brown as a puppy and thus never incurs Wendy’s wrath. Which of these is the closest to what actually happened? Why does Jennifer say she didn’t try to save him? Did she fail to dig him up after he was buried alive? Was he even buried alive, or was he killed some other way?
Rule of Rose isn’t interested in giving us clear answers to these questions. Even getting cloudy answers is hard enough, considering how large a portion of the game’s running time is a complete fantasy about a teenaged Jennifer wandering a giant airship with Brown, being tormented by Wendy-as-Joshua. And—to be clearer in my own critical take than the game is in its storytelling—I think this is a good thing.
In the past 12, 13 years, we’ve seen an enormous leap in the ambitions of video game storytelling. And actually it hasn’t been just one leap—it’s been more of a two-pronged leap. One prong has been an explosion in game budgets to keep up with new technology, with facial animation capture giving us new ways to integrate actors’ performances into games, greatly advancing the presentation options for voice-acted, character-driven games. The other prong has been indie games, where abstract graphical styles and text-heavy storytelling means that small creators can tell the stories they want to, on a small budget, with limited interference.
Considering both of these developments, Rule of Rose is an especially odd relic. It was a mid-budgeted console title, developed by a Japanese team with a couple dozen employees—the sort of thing that just really doesn’t exist anymore. The team had the budget to put together some fairly impressive pre-rendered cutscenes—especially the game’s opening movie—and to professionally record a wonderful score. But outside of the cutscenes, voice acting is severely limited, and Punchline’s resources for in-engine character animations were obviously constrained. Jennifer doesn’t do very much in the game: she follows Brown, she swings some weapons, she looks miserable and scared. And the other characters don’t do very much, either—at least not when they’re rendered in-engine. When you factor in hardware constraints and budget constraints alongside the industry expectation that all games should be rendered in 3D, the PS2 era was perhaps the nadir of a team this size actually being able to bring a story to life on the screen.
And so Punchline just sort of opted not to tell theirs story in a straightforward audiovisual way. They rely on cutscenes and score to establish mood and tone, and then they rely on text logs to relay the events that actually happen in the story. Virtually all of the in-engine gameplay is just an additional layer of allegorical gloss, there to give us something to do as we digest the other bits. It’s an example of economy-through-obscurity.
This was a dangerous choice, because honestly videogames don’t have a great track record when it comes this sort of storytelling obscurity. Journals and letters are an overused tool in video game storytelling in the best of times, and it’s especially annoying when developers hide major plot points away in missable notes, as if that automatically makes their story richer or deeper, more open to interpretation. Obscurity in videogame storytelling can also arise through inept translations, or slavish dedication to over-elaborate lore that leaves even the game’s characters confused as to what’s going on. It’s rare to find ambiguous or obscure elements in videogame stories that very clearly crafted, result of developer intention, rather than just arising from mistakes or ineptness. And even here, you see a lot of sophomoric attempts to create mindfuck moments for no particularly compelling reason.
Rule of Rose not only deliberately embraces ambiguity as an aesthetic choice, it also does so in a way that is thematically coherent. This is what living with traumatic memories is like: you repeat them. Sometimes it’s the same, other times your brain changes details about them, obscures your memories, turns them into fantastical dreams. Jennifer probably wishes that their had been a scenario in which she could have saved Brown, so her mind cooked one up. But then she still has to deal with his loss, which means she must not have really tried to save him. In this way, a fantasy created to escape loss becomes distorted by guilt. The thematic integration of theme and form here is something that would be completely unremarkable in a novel or a movie, and it’s also something that the indie scene and interactive fiction have given us plenty of good examples of, but for a console game from a major publisher released in 2006, it felt pretty revelatory.
And it’s not just Jennifer’s trauma alone that’s being allegorized in the game’s fractured layers of fantasy. The ultimate conflict in the game can be traced to the pact Jennifer makes with Wendy in the Rose Garden, promising everlasting true love. From Wendy’s perspective, Jennifer adopting Brown as her new “best friend” broke this pact, because Wendy has abandonment issues. I mean, she’s an orphan, like all of the game’s characters. And then Mr. Hoffman abandoned the orphanage, on top of everything else. The prominent gaps and conflicting presentations of events within the game complements the fact that Wendy and Jennifer had conflicting emotional interpretations of events. It’s not just Jennifer who’s multiplying the versions of reality in this game: we’re also seeing the clash between two irreconcilable emotional worldviews. Jennifer isn’t even allowed to be the hero in her own story; the game’s narrator portrays her as the villain. All of these conflicting, untidy layers of presentation thematically match the characters’ conflict and motivations.
It’s really impressive, how it all comes together as an experience. And unfortunately it’s wedded to some of the worst gameplay I have ever experienced. Other games have come out since Rule of Rose that have done this sort of thing better, because they weren’t wedded to very specific expectations of what a horror game on the PS2 should look and play like, expectations that they weren’t prepared to match. But even as I leave Rule of Rose behind, there’s plenty about its mood and tone that sticks with me, that resonates despite the game’s flaws. And I wanted to just leave a little record of that to the world. Thanks for watching.