There’s something almost forbidden about the appeal of a cult classic. There are many reasons why a piece of entertainment might reach cult status; many have a diamond in the rough quality that, combined with an inaccessibility and good word of mouth, cultivates an irresistible, almost Pandora’s box like draw, motivating people to seek it out despite, or perhaps because of, its flaws.
In videogames, this holds true for Rule of Rose, a 2006 PlayStation 2 title that still surfaces on “best of horror game” lists across the internet, despite its scarcity. Originally developed by the now-defunct Punchline, it was published by Sony Japan and later distributed by Atlus in other regions, leading to a ban in England due to rumors of the game’s violent and sexual content. This, of course, has produced a sort of Barbara Streisand effect; there’s nothing like a strict taboo to pique curiosity. Combined with the game’s limited release, it’s made Rule of Rose something of a commodity, with used copies still commanding $200 or more on reseller sites (leading me, in pursuit of this article, to ask on social media if there were some sort of games community lending program for Rule of Rose. Which there is—at least three people popped up to offer me their copy).
Curious to see if the game‘s cult status has any merit, I recently decided to play Rule of Rose, under similar conditions as I might have experienced when it was released. I dug up an old 15 inch LCD slim panel TV I bought in 2005 and dragged it and my PlayStation 2 into my bedroom, where I balanced both on my breakfast tray to enjoy while reclining in bed. Emulators of the game do exist, and playthroughs of Rule of Rose are on YouTube, but they betray some of the game’s original visuals and awkward combat, brightening its palette and detaching the fixed camera. With my ancient LCD and tiny PS2, a band of grubby duct tape still clinging to the save card, the conditions were as authentic as you can get more than a decade after the fact.
Playing Rule of Rose, it’s remarkable how much of a testament it is to the post-Silent Hill and Resident Evil era of horror game design. It illustrates how much of a framework was established by the conventions of both series, serving as the foundation of reskinned variations like Rule of Rose. Deadly Premonition, a cult classic contemporary of Rule of Rose, is another example, with all of its equally archaic sensibilities: awkward running animations, abruptly changing perspectives and angles, fixed cameras, grainy visuals, blocky polygons, faded palettes with blurry textures, inconvenient save points, even that white typewriter font with its edges bleeding into the gray-black background. These are the types of games whose antiquity makes them easy to figure out; like an old cartoon, if something stands out, that means it’s going to come into play. Much of Rule of Rose can be progressed by searching every single room and spamming the X button. For all the talk of “pixel hunting” in point and click games, older titles like these, limited as they are, can take on the same qualities.
There are spoilers ahead, by the way. You’ve been warned.
Rule of Rose tells the story of Jennifer, a 19 year old woman who is lured off a bus one day and stumbles upon the Rose Garden Orphanage. There she is kidnapped by a clique of vicious girls who call themselves The Red Crayon Aristocrats Club, and awakens on an airship, with no memory of how she got there. After rescuing her dog Brown (who has a tracking system directly ripped off of Haunting Ground to help her find clues and hints), she begins to make her way through the rooms and subsections of the ship, occasionally battling imps as she collects weapons and power-up items for later boss battles. As the game progresses, she must make offerings to the club and climb the ranks of their class system, enduring fetishistic torture and constant abuse, while dodging a strange man named Gregory, who lurks about the ship and “gives the girls sweets”. Once she finally breaks free and reawakens in the orphanage mansion, her troubling backstory is fully unveiled, revealing the disturbing aftermath of a childhood tragedy.
Like many Japanese horror games, Rule of Rose undermines itself with too much plot. The game presents itself as a straightforward story about a schoolgirl clique, but in the latter half, careens straight into the absurd. In a series of increasingly bizarre reveals, we learn that Jennifer hasn’t actually been kidnapped and taken to an airship—she’s asleep and in a dream about her childhood memories of the orphanage. Following the death of her parents in an airship crash, she was kidnapped by Gregory, a local child serial murderer who is grieving the death of a child, Joshua (either his son or one of his victims). Forcing Jennifer to wear Joshua’s clothes, Gregory locks her in Joshua’s old room, where she’s made to take his place. One day, Wendy wanders over from the nearby orphanage and, exchanging letters through a slit in the window, forms a friendship with Jennifer, eventually helping her escape. Jennifer becomes a ward of the orphanage and the two remain very close, forming what appears to be a romantic relationship. Later, Jennifer befriends Brown, her golden retriever, which sends Wendy into a jealous rage, prompting her to exact revenge by turning the other children against her. Wendy also dons the clothes and identity of Joshua, manipulating and training Gregory into the role of “Stray Dog,” a fictional creature that she made up to scare the other girls into submission. At the game’s finale, Wendy brings Stray Dog back to the orphanage to show the other children, and he murders them all except for Jennifer. Depending on which ending you choose, Jennifer can then either kill him, or let him kill himself, leading to a flashback sequence that shows her as a child, caring for Brown as a puppy. Chaining him to a post with a nearby effigy to keep him company (the game’s explanation for its mop bucket savepoints), the game ends as she pledges her everlasting love and slips away, leaving him to hide in the safety of the shed.
This summary gives the game some semblance of structure, but it’s the most coherent explanation you’ll get, to the extent that it almost gives Rule of Rose too much credit. Without examining every supplementary note and diary entry, the game’s escalating series of “And THEN!!” plot twists make it almost impossible to figure out what’s really going on. The true tipping point into absurdity starts right around the time the game reveals Jennifer was made to live as Joshua, and descends into straight up madness by the time Wendy, dressed as Joshua, reveals she’s been leash training an adult man. The sight of Gregory, on all fours in his underwear, tearing about the room like a clumsy dog as you flail at his hulking shoulders, is among the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen in a videogame that wasn’t deliberately played for laughs.
While there are a lot of conventions in Rule of Rose that were later lost to the growing player demand for immersion, the character designs are emblematic of the era. Most of the NPCs encountered in the game harbor a detachment and aloofness that (while no doubt the result of the technology’s limitations) seem to aid the surreal environment of the airship. Jennifer bears all the hallmarks of an archetypal horror heroine: fragile and porcelain, unable to jog a few paces without stopping to clutch her heart. Despite being an adult, she is helpless in the face of the other girls’ taunts and hazing. Amanda, the fattest child of the orphans, reveals a deep contempt with which she was designed, embodying several stereotypes at once; she is hobbled, clumsy, vicious, simpering, submissive, clingy and delusional, with a sinister rasp and a groveling sneer. In one level, they don’t even try to hide their disgust; her boss form is represented by a pig.
The other “princesses” are never very well fleshed out, but their cruelty (both towards animals and each other) is meant to speak for itself. It is said that Sony passed on localizing the game specifically because of the game’s sexualization of minors, which was probably a smart move on their part; while the development studio contended that the sexual content comprised a small portion (and the back and forth over the game’s release in Europe contains strong denials of any sadomasochistic content), it’s hard not to tally up the many minor images and sense a disturbing pattern. The game seems to wander the line between shock value and subconscious self-insert many times. Take for example an abusive romance between two of the girls, the manipulative Diana and the pensive, upright Meg. In a montage leading up to the game’s menu screen, there’s a scene of Diana and Meg, where the latter can be seen on her knees in a bathroom stall, door slightly ajar as the dog Brown looks on. In a blatantly metaphoric gesture, she pricks her finger on a rose as Diana, knees apart, looks on with a seductive smirk. An image of her sucking on a finger, which shows up later in the sequence, suggests what happens next.
With Diana, one of the older girls, the writers seem to be making a comment on how children respond to sexual trauma; it is hinted that she may be a victim of the orphanage’s doctor, and in an early scene, also replayed in the opening sequence, she is seen in the meeting hall of The Aristocrats Club, curtsying to Jennifer and raising her skirt suggestively high, exposing what may be bandages from self harm. While it is true that some children who have been sexually assaulted respond with hypersexual behavior, there are times in Rule of Rose that this imagery is used in a way that seems to have been for the benefit of voyeurism rather than character building. Given the possibility that Diana is a child molestation victim, that depiction would leave more of an exploitative than explanatory impact.
This pattern is reinforced with the character of Clara in the chapter Mermaid Princess, where both the gameplay and unused audio files suggest that she is self mutilating after suffering sexual and mental abuse as Dr. Hoffman’s assistant at the orphanage. Some materials even imply the doctor may have left the orphanage because of his inability to suppress his behavior and, combined with other details (including his boss battle attack, which (content warning) seems to mimic sexual assault), we are left to question exactly how many of the girls may have been his victims. It’s an ugly little guessing game.
Breaking down what part of the sexual imagery is used to illustrate something about its characters versus that which seems to be for the benefit of the designers or the audience could be an entire article in and of itself. In one of the earliest levels, Jennifer wakes up tied to a pole and the player must strain to get out of the ropes, a mechanism to which they obviously devoted resources yet seems unnecessary to the story. The aforementioned opening sequence also seems more like a montage of fetish images than an actual story summary; in a few short minutes it manages to cover bondage, foot torture, and even a hint of watersports. And the part where Jennifer is made to dress like a boy and held captive by a serial killer is suspicious enough on its own, but when combined with the final reveal that Wendy has been crossdressing as Joshua to deceive and leash train Gregory into a weapon, it becomes very hard to give the writers the benefit of the doubt. While the developers, in interviews and other materials, claim the sexual content reflects on the “innocence” of childhood and how certain amorous affectations have less of a sinister context among kids, the sexuality of Rule of Rose is either ambiguous, as in the case of Jennifer and Wendy, or cruel and deceptive, as with Meg and Diana. There’s nothing innocent about it.
Beyond the thematic issues, the rest of the writing suffers as well, perhaps due to lack of a thoughtful conception process. In interviews about Rule of Rose, its creators seem oddly uncommitted to their own game—when asked why they pursued the themes of Rule of Rose, the best they seem to come up with is, “we wanted to do something different”. This would explain why the game seems to hold a surface fascination with the behavior of its young female cast but doesn’t seem to understand them. It chases a Lord of the Flies-like atmosphere of unsupervised chaos, but without being informed by experience with real children.
In trying too hard to be surreal and disturbing, the plot becomes obtuse, and the objectives arbitrary and thin. There are many moments where key narrative details, like Jennifer’s relationship with her dog Brown or the mystery behind the identity of the Prince and Princess of The Aristocrat Club, carry far less weight than they should have. Even the fairytale elements, with their charming filigree placards assigning character names like The Poor Girl and The Cold Hearted Princess, seem insincere, almost hokey. The storybook premise that attempts to thematically tie the game together is too labored and lacks the eloquence and prose it needs to sell it. And all of this is deeply exacerbated by the writers’ clumsy attempts at using shock value as a narrative shortcut. The game lacks the weight of an author’s conviction, and it’s a shame.
Rule of Rose does almost nothing right. The score (a somber, dreamy arrangement of violins and piano) is lovely, but the time period and setting it accompanies go sorely underused and underexplored. Its cover and UI, which no doubt contributed to the game’s long term appeal, are attractive but show an artistic promise that the game never fully lives up to. Many supporting thematic elements fall flat due to the lack of polish, and the combat (which reportedly was not completed due to budget issues) makes it all but unplayable. And while my Google autoprompt suggests that some folks are still hoping for a PlayStation 4 re-release, I wouldn’t count on it. The studio that made it is long gone, and Sony, due to the game’s content, didn’t want to dirty their hands with its release outside of Japan. It would need substantial updates to its navigation and map system and a complete overhaul of its combat, not to mention improved savepoint frequency and updated AI to fix the pathing errors with Jennifer’s dog. It wouldn’t be worth the effort.
Whether or not Rule of Rose lives up to its cult status will depend on how much you’re willing to put up with. Had I spent a couple hundred bucks on the game, I’m not sure I would have been satisfied with the purchase. At the very least, it’s a case study in lost potential and the divide between expectations and reality, and how those expectations are shaped by hype. Games criticism was much different when the game was released back in 2006, and assessing the difference between my personal experience with Rule of Rose versus the second hand, word of mouth one I’d had for years has been illuminating. As my friend (and Paste contributor) Brock Wilbur put it: “Rule of Rose Tinted Glasses: not every old game needs to be played.”
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.