This is not a review of the newest game that everyone is talking about right now. I have not played the game, and have only seen a little bit of it. Today, I want to talk about literary/film theory, online discourse, social responsibility in consumerism, and why in the future, you all have my permission to separate me from my work.
Again, this is not a review of the game. At this time, if you are looking for a favorable review of the game, or one that tears it down and gives it the lowest score, all you have to do is look around. A couple of days ago, Steam was 10 out of 10, Wired was 0 out of 10, and other game reviews were somewhere in between. Without playing the game, I could probably write a review right now and it doesn’t matter what I write because it would align with someone else’s take.
How did we get here? What is so polarizing about this game in particular?
It really comes down to these two seemingly contradictory truths: 1. The Harry Potter stories left an indelible mark on the world, inspiring kids (and others) to read again and 2. The author of the Harry Potter series has some truly vile world views and is kind of an asshole sometimes.
I have seen people argue against both of those truths, and I have seen people state either truth with greater embellishment. Perhaps you think I’m overstating the value of the Harry Potter franchise? Perhaps you think I’m being too harsh or too light on J.K. Rowling with how I just described her? Opinions abound, while I’m doing my best to state facts.
For the record, I have a somewhat low opinion of J.K. Rowling. I support trans lives. Trans rights are human rights. J.K. Rowling has spent an incredible amount of money on charity, which is laudable, but she seems completely blind to the damage she’s doing with her very public and influential transphobic views.
That brings us back to the Harry Potter world and what it brings to our world.
Literary and film theory is about looking at a piece through different lenses and interpreting through those specific lens. For example, you can analyze film and literature for the subtext, and what the piece says about gender roles, specifically with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. That’s queer theory. Or, you could examine the piece in how women are presented, and how much agency female characters are given in a piece of work. That is feminist theory. It’s where the term “male gaze” originated.
There are lots of different types of film theory and literary theory. Some are more controversial than others, like auteur theory. They all have value, as they give us different ways to examine a piece of fiction and really get into what it means.
Here’s the thing about all of this: if you can build an argument based on the contents of the art, then any theory you apply is valid. If you want to say The Matrix is about the problems of rampant capitalism, where the corporate machines themselves begin to run our lives, relegating us to just numbers to be churned and consumed, that’s valid if it is supported by evidence from the film. If you want to say The Matrix is about gender identity, where who we truly are may not be what the world around us sees, and the righteous path is to shed our dead names and embrace who we really are, that is also valid.
Just because a criticism is supported by evidence in the film does not mean it is the only interpretation. Also, just because a criticism is valid, that does not mean that criticism has to affect you in any way. Many things can be true at the same time. Other people can find different truths within a piece of art, and that’s one of the things that makes art so magical.
Finally, and this is especially true with regards to Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling, the author does not get to dictate which criticisms are true or not true. The reader’s or the viewer’s experience is what it is, regardless of the author’s intentions. When we read a story, we are active participants, bringing with us all of our own experience and perspective, and what we see in our mind and feel in our heart is valid, too. That’s reader response theory, baby.
That was a long way to go to say that all criticisms of a piece of fiction are valid, when the evidence is drawn from the art itself.
How does this apply to the most recent Harry Potter game that has the internet abuzz?
I think that if you want to boycott the game because you think buying it supports a transphobic author, that’s your prerogative. I don’t know how much money she’s going to get from this game. I know she gets money from other sources, which people are conveniently forgetting to boycott. I know she is one of the most philanthropic people alive today, giving so much money to charity that she stopped being a billionaire. When it comes to her transphobic views, she’s absolutely a villain, but it’s always more complicated than that.
I have seen criticisms about the game with regards to having only 2 endings, and how none of your choices matter because the last choice you make determines which ending you get. When I heard that, I immediately thought about the original Knights of the Old Republic, which was exactly the same way. But do you know what? Knights of the Old Republic was extremely fun, and the experience of playing it was greater than the experience of finishing it.
A lot of the criticisms I see levied against the game are through a single lens, much like literary and film theory. I actually think that’s kind of neat.
I’m probably not going to play the game, myself. But I can understand people wanting to, because the magical world of Harry Potter has always been a fun place to visit, and it ensorcelled the world for a reason. I do not begrudge anyone wanting to play it and feel like they’re transported to that world.
It would be a dream come true to create a story world so vibrant and alive that it inspires others to make games and artwork inspired by that art. I would love to leave that kind of mark on the world.
So, to that end, let it be known that should I successfully capture the heart and imagination of the world, you have my permission to think of that work without thinking of me. If it turns out I have some problematic view, please disregard me in the pursuit of enjoyment of my stories and art. If the entire world turns vegan and discovers that I ate meat, please know that I support your veganism and I do not wish my enjoyment of tasty burgers to impair your enjoyment of The Repossessed Ghost, Spin City, Synthetic Dreams, or any of my other stories.