Twenty-two years ago Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone came out. I was eleven then. I’m thirty-two now. And boy does saying it out loud date me. But even these many years later, I still have such fond memories of what that movie did for me. So, when I found out PortKey Games were making Hogwarts Legacy: A fully realized 3D world that allowed me to live out my fantasy of being a wizard and attend the famed Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?
I only had one thought. Yes, please.
Sounded like fun. Losing myself again in a world where magic exists, even just for a few moments(or hundreds of hours, who’s to say). And after so much time sunk in, I finally got around to completing the main campaign.
And I have thoughts.
While the game does an amazing job of pulling you inside the world of Harry Potter at the start, it makes you feel like a resident of this hidden, magical realm.
Something felt wrong. And I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
The child in me still reveled in this experience. Yet… the more I played, the more the adult(and writer) in me chaffed.
Not Slytherin. Please, Not Slytherin
I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t wait to not be a Gryffindor. Call me crazy, but Gryffindor always felt too… pure. Always held up on a pedestal. Like the handsome athlete, with a nice car, good grades, and a charming personality. Think Cedric Diggory.
And all that’s good and well. Admirable, even.
But for me, being the hero of the story, yet again… just felt so played out.
I wasn’t Cedric; not twenty-two years ago, not now. I was ready to be someone else. Not the bookish nerd who needed to purchase a sleeve to hide the fact that he was reading about witches and wizards in primary school. Not only from my fellow peers but more importantly, from my parents. A big no-no in my Christian household, that.
But what child doesn’t want to be the hero, I hear you ask? Save the world. Fight off the big evil?
Well, while I wasn’t that hero, I did get to see another young nerd in glasses be just that.
Twenty-two years ago.
Things have changed. I’ve changed. In the two decades of enjoying this franchise, I have arbored another itch I’ve yet to scratch.
Yeah. You know the one.
The unforgivable, emerald-tinted one.
I have always wanted to experience the flip side of that coin. I am almost certainly not alone in wondering what it’s like to be a dark wizard. A Slytherin. To learn more about the other side of Harry Potter. The darker side. To see what would tempt a wizard or witch to madness. To obsession. To power.
Luckily, here was PortKey Games, offering to let me fulfill that fantasy.
No Good Or Evil
There is no good or evil. There is only power, and those too weak to seek it.`– Voldemort
This is a line from the antagonist of the series, Tom Marvolo Riddle. And at the time, I feel I didn’t fully appreciate it as I do now. Especially, in a world like Harry Potter’s, where morality has always been pretty cut and dry. Very black and white.
For an antagonist to say that morality doesn’t exist, only the will of the strong is- granted, pretty textbook villain dialogue, but it’s such good textbook villain dialogue.
Because it’s so uncomfortably close to how the real world works, like it or not. The best indicator of a well-written antagonist is such an unbending will. A refusal to see themselves in the same light as the protagonist- and by extension, the world at large, sees them.
But Harry Potter was a children’s book. Yes, it evolved to be darker and more mature as the kids grew, but it is at its core, a Young Adult (YA) story.
A Case For Ludonarrative Dissonance
In Hogwarts Legacy, the narrative gives you multiple opportunities to choose a darker morality. Be “evil”. But it often feels like my eleven-year-old self wrote all the “evil” path choices. In the course of my play through, my incredibly powerful wizard engaged in such dark and blood-curdling activities as stealing a child’s marbles, extorting fellow students, and the petty theft of objects I was tasked to retrieve. Objects that I could do nothing with, mind you, even should I decide to keep them. Objects ended up sitting in my inventory, doing nothing but collecting dust.
It baffled me that this is what the developers of Hogwarts Legacy thought choosing a darker path meant. Being a nuisance, a petty thief, and a hoarder.
Meanwhile, outside of the halls of Hogwarts, I was murdering dark wizards, goblins, and indigenous wildlife by the truckload.
I will admit that a great deal of Hogwarts Legacy’s narrative problems stem from the way the game tells its story. And I think, partially, because it holds on much too tightly to the Harry Potter IP.
The Handholding Nature of Hogwarts Legacy
These things are the game’s biggest hurdles when it comes to the way it delivers its narrative. The game holds your hand through much of its story beats, treating you like… well, a child. Because you are. As a result, I felt like I was constantly presented with the illusion of choice, but never let loose to fully realize the fantasy.
It’s as if someone gave you a jetpack and told you: you can only fly it in a glass house that overlooks the most gorgeous of scenery. Preposterous. I want to take this bad boy for a spin out there. Not in the little playground you’ve penned me in.
Why else would the devs tell me I can be a dark witch/wizard and then take away the option at every turn? For a game that fancies itself an “open world, action RPG,” this is a problem.
And it’s a big part of the game’s draw. Don’t take my word for it. It’s so big, in fact, that the devs knew they could charge me an extra 10 bucks for the emerald-tinted, deluxe edition of the game.
For those of us with that unscratched itch. Cheeky as hell, PortKey.
Sadly, after a while, my created witch or wizard just becomes a mouthpiece. And it’s not a terrible thing, in and of itself. But it does drastically undermine this particular narrative draw of the game. It made me feel like, at critical times, I wasn’t really playing my protagonist. My witch/wizard, wasn’t mine at all.
The Elf, The Nab-Sack, And The Loom
A good example of Hogwarts Legacy’s protagonist problem can be found in the rescue beast quest: The Elf, The Nab-Sack, And The Loom. I could tell the developers were pushing me in a very specific direction with this one.
Mmm, odd, I thought to myself. I had the impression they wanted this to be a Role Playing Game.
The game often forced me to take the stance of the writers in this particular quest. With my character often advocating for the beasts or admonishing their poaching.
And I’d sit there, scratching my head, and thinking to myself… Wait, I’m still on my evil play-through, right?
Why is my character saying these things? I didn’t choose for him to say these things. In fact, according to all my previous “evil” choices, he should be saying the opposite of these things.
This was another case of control being wrestled from my character when the game assumed I couldn’t be trusted with the overwhelming burden of choice with such a delicate issue.
Believe it or not, you can make your protagonist… a villain and a human.
Most of the best villains in stories do kill, but almost never indiscriminately. They have reasons. They are violent, but seldom unhinged psychopaths. They are driven. They have purpose. Villains don’t have to dance to the bygone, binary, narrative beats of yesteryear.
Taking notes from Arthur Morgan
Rockstar Games demonstrates this best with the character of Arthur Morgan in Red Dead Redemption 2. And in that game, you can kill indiscriminately. You can be an unhinged psychopath. And yet, no one would ever accuse Arthur Morgan of being a villain. Okay, maybe some people would. But his humanity would never be in question. Is he unhinged, sure. Often misguided? All the time. Blindly loyal to a fault? Absolutely. But a villain? No. He’s just… human. Because it’s always so much more complicated than that.
And I was ready for that. I was ready to see how this new iteration of this world would expand it.
You can make Arthur Morgan choose to do some awful things and make some terrible, terrible choices. But the Rockstar devs are wise enough to never wrestle these choices from you. Rather it gives you a chance to reckon with them. You have to give yourself reasons as to why you chose to be a villain. The game simply puts the gun in your hand.
You pull the trigger.
Hogwarts Legacy’s Power Of Choice
I feel as though two games were made. A Hogwarts game, which I enjoyed tremendously. And a narrative RPG in the Harry Potter world, which I don’t believe stuck the landing.
I fear the developers of this game took the easy way out. It doesn’t diminish that the game is a technical marvel. And I continue to love my time in this world. But narratively speaking, it felt weak.
Going the tried and true route of the “chosen one” meant the developers effectively wrote themselves into a narrative corner that prevented them from telling a compelling story.
Usually, chosen ones tend to be narrative fulcrums, morally infallible, and nigh indestructible. They need a good story arc and/or a proper foil to be interesting. Otherwise, they come across as one note, predictable, and incredibly boring. And Ranrok failed miserably in being that foil; being as one-note and uninteresting as our protagonist. And the main plot failed to deliver. And that’s how this main story campaign felt to me:
One-note and uninteresting.
Safe. If I had to describe this effort. I’d say it felt too safe. No chances were taken with this story, and to me, it felt like a by-the-books, by-the-numbers, YA narrative tale from two decades ago. And I hoped for more. I hoped our favorite childhood stories could learn and grow with us.
I understand now what Tom Riddle meant. There is no good and evil, there is only power.
Power, much like freedom, is a choice. And the ability(or inability) to exert it.
Though Portkey Games claim to give your protagonist both in this game, they end up giving you neither in a sense. I left the main story campaign wishing the writers would have just truly let me loose in Hogwarts, and this world, wand firmly in hand.
And let the magic do the rest.
Hogwarts Legacy is available now on Steam, PS5, and Xbox Series X|S.
- Hogwarts Legacy: The Protagonist Problem - May 25, 2023