To speak of Rule of Rose in the gaming community almost always sees the word ‘controversy’ belched up alongside it. The psychological horror title has turned 15, and to this day, it’s still deeply scarred by its infamy.
Developer Punchline had wanted to create a survival horror game quite distinct from the two heavyweights of the day, Silent Hill and Resident Evil, and this led to it exploring something that ultimately ended up with its descent into infamy.
The story centers on Jennifer, a 19-year-old with a deeply traumatic past. In 1930’s England she finds herself on a dilapidated airship, and at the mercy of a group of sadistic young girls who call themselves the Red Crayon Aristocrats. Forced to find offerings for them every month, Jennifer and her canine companion, Brown, struggle to survive the cruel regime of the young girls as she discovers more about her own tragic past.
Things take an even more sinister turn as Jennifer ends up being chosen as the next offering, and the secrets of the Red Crayon Aristocrats are unearthed. Unsurprisingly, there’s no Hollywood ending here. It’s a psychologically punishing tale of trauma, abuse, and lack of consequence, rather than something merely cooked up for sheer shock value.
The game’s depiction of a group of children without guilt or sin is troubling in itself. Throwing in the idea of just how terrifying that would be if they held power over adults was, and still is, a bold choice for a horror game. Even if the critical reception wasn’t especially warm towards Rule of Rose at the time, it did get numerous plaudits for daring to tackle such sensitive subject matters.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing quite as predictable as sections of the media, ignorant of a medium’s progress, latching onto something, misunderstanding it, and stirring up a controversy that isn’t really there.
The story caused concern at Sony, who had asked for the PlayStation 2-bound title to be toned down, which Punchline refused. The game was mentioned in an article about morality and violence in video games, and through British press, that information eventually got spun into Rule of Rose supposedly featuring children being buried alive, involved in sadomasochism, and rape. It would, of course, be completely understandable to question such content, but the truth was, the game featured no such content, and had already passed certification before the moral outrage began.
That didn’t stop a media bandwagon from calling for the game’s removal, and for tighter ratings systems for video games in general. Unsurprisingly, the calls for banning the game almost exclusively came from people who had never so much as looked into it themselves, let alone picked up a controller to play it. The wave of bad publicity had overruled reason and truth because, not for the first time, a lack of understanding caused needless controversy.
As a result, Rule of Rose was prevented from selling in certain European countries, despite the ban being built on nothing more than lies. Thus, Rule of Rose’s cursed legend grew as a video game nasty instead of the flawed, but insightful, psychological horror it was.
Pearl-clutching politicians and hand-wringing news media arguably put Rule of Rose on a pedestal far higher than it would ever have got if it was just another horror game, and for all its cult value, it wasn’t the best game in the world; but it certainly deserved better than being a scapegoat. It tackled certain aspects of morality with fair success considering many games today still struggle with presenting complex morality. It was also a refreshing change of pace from what else was on offer at the time, and the soundtrack is highly under-appreciated for its role in conveying the game’s uncomfortable menace. It’s an unpolished gem with something different to say.
Like some of the horror comics and films that caused largely unreasonable outrage in years gone by, Rule of Rose isn’t an irredeemable nasty piece of work, nor is it necessarily a classic of the genre. But it is important for more than just its controversies.