When it comes to all the possible ways that people can express themselves creatively, and hope to succeed to a degree to be able to commercially benefit from that creativity, games probably aren't really on the easy side of the spectrum – atleast not unless you've got friends with deep pockets or are willing to keep the project quite small and do all the work yourself. When it comes to mainstream games the creative pool is especially restricted.
Unlike a book say where you may only need one writer, or a film where you may just need a camera and a few actors (which could be expensive, but not as expensive) games often require a lot more people, working a lot more intensely on a project for a prolonged period of time. As such you don't tend to get as many 'artistic' or visionary games – where you mostly just have one person's ideas or very niche themes explored, like you do with film or books.
Somebody could sit here and pen a story about a protagonist whose whole experience in the story world is centred around Nietzschean philosophy or the tenets of some obscure religion and potentially could sell it to all 12 people who'd actually be interested in reading it, and there might even be a market for it as a film, but it's unlikely a game would ever get made about the same sort of thing, principally because of the relative cost and the perceived market. Games with those sorts of unusual themes just don't tend to get made.
That's why Rule of Rose is so fucking weird.
Like, really, really weird.
And not in a sort of LSD (the game, but ok, maybe also the drug) way, but more in the sense that somebody sat down and decided to make a really interesting game involving a lot of uncomfortable themes that don't often get explored in any medium (let alone games). It makes sense as a sort of interesting exploration of those uncomfortable themes (which really, is what horror does best) but as a commercial product I'm surprised anybody in a suit actually sat down and ok'd the game's development.
Typically we expect it more from films or books but here you're actually playing it. In the last few years a number of small indie titles have started to explore all sorts of themes through the medium of games, with varying degrees of success, but it's interesting all the same that a game like Rule of Rose (that was released on the PS2) could get away with trying to do something so unusual.
I'm rambling a bit though, and perhaps getting ahead of myself. I should explain a bit about Rule of Rose.
Rule of Rose is a PS2 Survival Horror game. Principally set in 1930's England and about a teenage girl (she looks to be around 16/17) called Jennifer who ends up at an orphanage and is thrust into this very abusive, tight-knit social circle when she meets the children who call the orphanage home and has to do various tasks to gain their respect.
The 'story' such as it is, is a little vague at times to put it lightly. Though obviously there is a story which eventually pulls all the different events of the game together, the story isn't forced in your face and a lot of what you learn is more inferred than explicitly explained – which when it comes to a lot of the themes that seemed to be explored in the game make it an especially uncomfortable experience at times. For me the real substance of the game is the themes it explores though – typically when it comes to Survival Horror games people most associate the monsters of a game with the game, think of Silent Hill and everybody thinks of Pyramid Head, think of Resident Evil and everybody thinks of zombies, but in reality it's often the themes and issues that a Survival Horror game explores that have the most lasting impact on us.
Though the game centres around an orphanage - i.e. a place full of children that you might expect to be bright and lively, the atmosphere is so unpleasant, the children so unlikeable, and everything about the game so perfectly geared towards creating that oppressive atmosphere, that you can't help but feel a sense of tension building as you play and the story develops. It struck me quite early on that the game made me feel that same sense of oppressive caution that 'Lord of the Flies' has – there's this sense that on the outside the principal cast are adorable young children but underneath that though is something a lot darker and more dangerous, something that only comes out once the adults are out of sight. They almost become feral.
Indeed much of the game is characterised by Jennifer basically being bullied and pushed around by these young girls as they try to force her to do things for them, with little gain for Jennifer. Yet even though the scope of the game is so parochial, and basically centred around the mind of this one girl, it works as Survival Horror predominantly because as you play you get this unsettling, oppressive sense of atmosphere that drives the horror.
It's hard to explain why it works exactly, as obviously described like that it does sound horrible, but there's no glorification of any of it - the bullying is ugly, the children you meet are hideous creatures (though they look like beautiful little children) and even the few adults you meet are unpleasant people. What the game does though is build this up as part of the ugly world Jennifer finds herself in, a world that feels much the same to her as the zombie-infested world of Resident Evil does to Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield, oppressive, stifling and potentially very dangerous.
Everything about the game is geared towards giving you this oppressive sense of 'aloneness', that's common in really good Survival Horror games: the sort of chilling violin music, the impish enemies who are never really explained properly – and could possibly be a figment of Jennifer's imagination, the picture book stories that bookend the different segments of the game, and the thoroughly unpleasant and often treacherous way the children treat Jennifer.
Perhaps individually the elements may not amount to much but as a whole the game offers an incredibly interesting experience, atleast storywise. Arguably the game is bogged down by some crappy aspects though.
Pacing being one, it is a pretty slow game. You do actually complete different segments pretty quickly and pretty easily but there's not a whole lot of fanfare between sections so if you're not interested in the story (or even if you're just confused) it can seem a little underwhelming. That said I'd like to think the slow-pace is intentional – as the story and themes the game tries to explore are more akin to an old ghost story than something you might see in an action movie. Hence the slow pace.
Another thing that doesn't help the game very much is the combat.
The combat is very clunky, it's also often very hit and miss aswell – your best bet is to run away from most fights if you can. If you don't then it's more than likely that you will end up throwing the controller at the wall at some point, as you'll often find either enemies seem to be able to reach quite a bit further than it appears they can given their on-screen reach or that even though it looks like you should have hit the enemy your weapon went straight through them with no effect.
From what I can tell it's mostly that you catch them in certain parts of an animation cycle (like if they're getting up or swinging their weapon) and for some reason that stops the hit being recognised; so it's not like it's unpredictable, but all the same it is very annoying and makes the combat feel very loose at times.
Without it sounding too laughable a thing to say about a game though Rule of Rose is arguably not something you play for its solid or enjoyable combat mechanics – indeed like most Survival Horror games, what the game does so well is more the atmosphere, the story, the tension it creates as you play. This is a weird game, a very, very weird game, that explores some really interesting (but unpleasant) issues around the way children are treated, treat each other and how generally shitty and unpleasant people and life can be.
Rule of Rose is one of those games that will appeal to people interested in story, in exploring issues and the darker side of human nature but it won't win any awards for its combat or explosion quota.