Rule of Rose is a Horror Gem That Deserved Better

Once upon a time, there was a horror game about a little girl. It sent its studio to an early grave. When it went too soon to market, they called it hideous. Others called it wicked, and the few who had seen it became fewer and fewer. Those who did called it a monster; and then, no one called it anything at all. What a poor, unlucky little game.

Rule of Rose, released in America in 2006 and quickly forgotten, is a strange artifact of the PS2 era. Jennifer, the protagonist, is a young woman in 1930s England working through the traumatic memories of her childhood at an orphanage. The lens of trauma turns already unpleasant times into monstrous and surreal ones that have less to do with objective reality than with how powerfully they affected Jennifer all those years ago. Popularly compared to Lord of the Flies, since its premise centers around children recreating a brutal hierarchical system in the near-absence of adults, its true interest is more in a James Sunderland-esque journey to uncover its protagonist’s deepest fears.

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“Obscene Cruelty and Brutality”

The game is best known for its dumpster fire of a release: banned in Australia and many parts of Europe, its poor sales in the United States eventually led to it being the rarest PS2 game of all time. Those who did play it lambasted its irritating camera and outright broken combat.

Many an article has retreaded the details of the game’s controversy, mostly centered around a non-indicatively lurid trailer that caused the game to be accused of containing child pornography. This wasn’t true, but the damage was well and truly done before anyone actually laid hands on the thing to prove it. Nowadays, the game is largely trotted out as an oddity of gaming history and loudly eulogized by a few weirdos.

I am one of these weirdos. There is a near-infinite amount of room in my heart for ambitious messes: Dragon Age II is my favorite Bioware game, and I am one of six known fans of Samurai Flamenco. My heart swells for Clock Tower. I voluntarily watched Tusk multiple times. I adore media that brims with talent but went down in flames, that inevitably makes you follow up a list of complaints with “and yet.”

Hampered by an extremely limited production window that rendered its best ideas half-finished and its combat nearly unplayable, there is still a resilient beauty at Rule of Rose’s heart that deserves recognition. If ever a game deserved to be revisited and given new life, it’s this one.

Everlasting True Love, I Am Yours

Jennifer’s antagonists throughout the game are her fellow orphans, who have banded together to form the Red Crayon Aristocrats and create a charter all the children are meant to obey: Diana is the oldest, entering puberty and two-faced in her interactions with the other girls; Meg hides behind her glasses and notebook, planning torments for children who don’t obey the Aristocrats’ rules; Eleanor is an icy onlooker, Amanda is willing to say whatever it takes to make sure she’s no longer the lowest on the ladder; and the mysterious “princess” of the society looms over all of them, represented as a porcelain doll.

Over the course of six or eight hours, the player is guided through a metaphorical landscape about the effects of abuse and how they ripple outward, with each successive chapter peeling back the layers of its undeniably cruel children to reveal their scars: Eleanor’s coldness masks parental abandonment; Meg is in love with Diana, who turns her confession into a backhanded public humiliation; and Diana suffers sexual abuse at the hands of the headmaster.

All of them are playacting at a social order because it gives them something to cling to in the face of their personal traumas, passing the buck of suffering down to the next unfortunate who hasn’t yet bought into the system they’ll be forced into as adults. Perhaps the comparison to Lord of the Flies, a story not so much about the brutality at the heart of all humanity but specifically about countering boys’ adventure stories whitewashing British Imperialism, is an accurate one after all.

At its best, the story’s environmental storytelling is haunting. Much of the game is set on an airship with the layout of the orphanage laid over top. Why an airship? Well, because an airship crash is likely how Jennifer’s parents died. Butterflies, a symbol of change and rebirth, feature prominently in an early mission. And in a scene often cited as the game’s tipping point, when it either thoroughly grips you or never will, there is the Mermaid Princess boss: a crying young woman with bound-together legs and self-harm scars mimicking gills, who can only attack by weeping and vomiting — a boss fight whose conclusion immediately leads into a scene of Diana being berated and gaslit by the headmaster.

It is brutal and grimy but surprisingly restrained, twisting a knife into your gut without leering. The descent of Jennifer’s “father” Gregory (or rather, her kidnapper and an implied serial killer) into alcoholism and monstrosity lingers around his house like ghosts, painted with a light brush. It never outright states that she is a stand-in for his dead son, or that she is a prisoner — instead the player finds a preserved child’s bedroom, and then another locked bedroom in the cellar, along with letters to another little girl, planting the pieces of a conclusion in a way unique to video games. When Gregory eventually makes victims of Jennifer’s friends, it’s depicted as empty sets of clothes lain neatly on the orphanage lawn — a far more haunting image than the simple shock value of children’s corpses.

It handles an incredibly dark story without feeling gratuitous. And while the Gregory subplot is home to some of the story’s most ridiculous moments — salvaged somewhat by the underlying narrative logic that these are Jennifer’s memories, exaggerated by childhood trauma — they’re also some of the most compelling. The concept of a kidnapper and a young boy was central to Punchline’s original vetoed pitch for a horror game, and it’s one of the areas of the narrative where you can tell they’re giving it their all.

Today is the Day of Your Funeral

That said, it can’t be denied that Rule of Rose is a mess. Its literally broken combat is well-documented, with enemies sometimes scoring a hit even if you’re standing behind them and a foot away; the emptiness of the large map and the fetch quests that make up a large chunk of the gameplay are papered over by irritating ankle-biting mobs that can quickly stunlock you into an early grave; and of course, there are the earmarks of seemingly rushed development.

The wonderful site Rule of Rose Decrypted began mining the game about two years ago, in the process uncovering a wealth of unused assets, discarded event flags and boss models, and an underground maze the player never visits. In interviews Shuji Ishikawa claimed to be “80% satisfied” with the game, but the fact that scenario writer Yoshino Kimura claims he was “kicked out of the company for ‘grownup’ reasons” while working on the game suggests a tenuous atmosphere. You don’t just axe your head writer partway through the project and proceed swimmingly.

More damning is the fact that the game might have started development as late as 2005, given that Punchline was asked to make a horror game following the success of a Resident Evil. Context clues would imply that to be the wildly successful Resident Evil 4, which came out on January 11th, 2005 (which makes a roundabout sort of sense, as 2005’s Haunting Ground was allegedly based on a discarded draft of RE4 and Rule of Rose’s developers were apparently asked more than once whether they’d lifted that game’s “girl and dog” horror formula).

Rule of Rose was released in Japan on January 19th, 2006. If my timeline is correct, that’s barely a year from development to production to release. Punchline was a studio of only twenty-five developers and had only one previous game under their belt. Comparatively, Anthem’s final nine months of active production had the full support of an enormous studio with multiple critical darlings behind them, and it still came out full of bugs and to the tune of poor reviews. It is a miracle that Rule of Rose exists at all. No, more than that. It is a miracle that Rule of Rose is the tarnished but enduring little treasure that it is.

Red Crayon Revision

And again, it is tarnished — not just mechanically, but narratively too. The writing has a seething hatred for self-loathing Amanda, who commits the obscene crime of being fat. And the production team’s commentary on its young queer characters — including protagonist Jennifer — smacks of condescension and an assumption that young girls can only playact romance with each other because they don’t know what it means. ATLUS’ commentary on it wasn’t great either, brushing off the game’s queer protagonist as at best a marketing gimmick and at worst a tiresome distraction.

In Rule of Rose’s least effective moments there’s a sense of looking at the cast under a microscope — as if they aren’t human beings but some other species called “little girls,” forgoing the empathy that the story so desperately requires. Every time I revisit the game I find myself yearning for what the premise could’ve looked like in the hands of Yun Kouga (Loveless, Akuma no Riddle) or Mari Okada (Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine), artists whose sometimes hit-or-miss bodies of work nonetheless include powerful depictions of abuse survivors — in Okada’s case coming from her own experience as a survivor. It might also have benefited from being one of those much-derided “walking simulators,” encouraging the player to soak up the atmosphere without the other clearly shoehorned mechanics.

But even if its plot is piecemeal and could’ve used another year of development time, even if it desperately needed women or queer voices to give its narrative a stronger sense of grounding, even if attempting to play rather than watches it ends in broken controllers and tears, it’s stuck with me more profoundly than any horror game not named Silent Hill 2. Rule of Rose is irrevocably broken, but it’s beautiful and heartfelt and in a class of its own to this very day. It deserved so much better than it got.

And they all lived happily ever after.