A good horror experience will ask the important questions: what is the nature of evil? Is death ever truly final? What kind of hospital needs a zodiac sign puzzle-operated door? Amongst the various preoccupations of the horror genre is a longstanding fasination with children. Children are scary precisely because we expect purity and innocence from them, and yet they exhibit many of our worst traits unfiltered (cruelty, jealousy, narcisscism, idleness, fickleness…). I didn’t know I had been waiting for a game that explored the psychological dimensions of young girls’ friendships… until I played Rule of Rose.
Rule of Rose takes place in England in the 1930s. In the Rose Orphanage, the children have set up a club called the ‘Red Crayon Aristocrats’. Your goal through the game is to ingratiate yourself with the group by participating in a series of highly symbolic (and often gruesome) acts. There is no plot, strictly speaking. Instead, the adult protagonist wanders through episodes of her childhood featuring vindictive little girls, imperious boys and adults that, um, lack boundaries to say the least. As you progress the question of your involvement and complicity in a series of extremely violent and strange happenings comes under increasing scrutiny. Are you a victim? Are you a perpetrator? Or is the truth somewhere between the two…?
If the world of Bully (or Canis Canem Edit as it was called here in the UK) is all about the not-so-wholesome mischief a schoolboy can get himself into, Rule of Rose is about the claustrophobia and intimacy of friendships between girls. The majority of the horror is located in the everyday interactions of girls, and those everyday interactions involve bullying, backbiting and tormenting our protagonist, Jennifer. In fact, the developers researched the game by observing how schoolgirls actually interacted with each other. The research paid off, as Rule of Rose’s girls are realistically tyrannical, fickle and devious in their desire to destroy one another. It is all very well pitched and true to life, despite the bloody embellishments.
For instance, in one scene, you overhear two girls in a bathroom stall talking about how they don’t want to be friends with a certain someone. Now, you strongly suspect that someone is Jennifer – but you don’t know for sure. Not knowing is the worse part. In this way, the game is deeply psychological. It does a great job of putting you in the shoes of a traumatised woman remembering her past. By the end of the game you really do start feeling unlucky and pitiable.
How does the game do this? Well, it is highly suggestive and allusory. It strongly reminds me of pieces of literature and film (Pan’s Labyrinth, Jane Eyre and Lord of the Flies being some), and the use of symbolism and fairytales is the best part of the game. The game is loosely organised into chapters that have designated handmade “story books”, each one eerily foreshadowing what will come next. I also like the use of animals (rabbits, dogs, birds, fish, insects). Your only friend and companion is a stray dog called Brown who helps you find key items and sweets. And then there are some bizarre and gruesome ways that the animals are treated that adds to the creepy fairytale-like atmosphere.
There are also strong sexual undercurrents; the game wasn’t published in the UK because of the media overreaction. But this isn’t justifed, in my opinion. True, the children’s sadistic games have a slight sexual dimension, and the adults sometimes act inappropriately. But this is very much suggestive rather than overt. Also, it is through the perspective of a young girl and her perception is quite obviously unreliable.
Nowadays Rule of Rose is a rare game that is highly sought after, and it has a small cult following. And I can see why: the atmosphere is great throughout. But the game’s allusory nature is as much a strength as it is a weakness. It is not the game I wanted it to be. It’s not the terrifying exploration of female disempowerment offered by the Project Zero (aka Fatal Frame) series, nor is it the consummate, finely tuned horror experience found in the Silent Hill series. It’s quaint and charming – think English boarding school gone very wrong – but the result is more creepy than it is scary. The plot is disjointed and confusing, and the abstraction does not lead to a satisfying conclusion. The combat is notable as some of the worst I’ve ever experienced in a game. To sum up, Rule of Rose is a unique experience, albeit one I’d only recommend for diehard horror buffs or fans of quirky storytelling.