The video game is not always considered the ideal platform to tell a story that tackles concepts like the nature of a good life or why bad things happen to good people. To some, the only games that have successfully done so in the past few years have relied on realistic visuals and excellent voice acting. Despite that precedent, game director Laura Shigihara’s “Rakuen” uses nothing more than simple text boxes, 16-bit graphics and a gorgeous soundtrack. It’s an unequivocally charming game that provides wonderful insight into how one enjoys a life that is be tragically cruel and unfair.
You play as a boy whose name is never mentioned. Suffering from an unspecified illness, the boy is confined to a hospital and spends his time by exploring the facility and speaking to other patients. Early in the game, the boy, who is always accompanied by his mother, gains the ability to see and open magical doors. The doors appear in various parts of the hospital and take him to Morizora’s Forest, a magical land described in a fairy tale called “Rakuen.” The forest acts as a parallel world to the hospital, in which one’s actions in one world affect the other world, with the odd creatures that inhabit the forest acting as analogs to the people in the hospital.
The goal is to discover the six songs integral to the lives of the hospital patients and use them to wake up the Guardian of the Forest, Morizora, who can grant you a wish.
Through that journey, the game proposes its central idea: through helping others and valuing the bonds that you form, you can remain fulfilled even when life is cruel and unforgiving.
One of the reasons for the game’s irresistible appeal is its how well-written it is. Through the simple medium of text, players feel a genuine connection to each of the characters. The game subtly explores heavy topics, from the death of a parent to the erosion of a loved one’s cognitive abilities. At no point does it feel like the cute graphics of the game undermine the gravity of such topics; you will cry at the more emotional scenes in the game’s eight-hour run time.
Arguably the best example of the game’s encouragement of exploration is the marble quest, in which you try to find Sue’s lost marbles. Each time you return a marble, Sue describes the little worlds that she believes exists inside each of the marbles, from a world where everyone drinks tea upside down to a land of dancing snowmen with fires that cannot melt them. There are no skill upgrades from the marble quest; the fruit of your actions is simply getting to delve deeper into the rich world. This is a testament to the game’s incredible writing.
That charm extends beyond this one quest. The forest is zany and magical, with odd characters like Jacky, a blacksmith leeble — a small cat-like inhabitant of the forest — and Lil Budz, the rebellious son of a posh aristocrat who wants to be a musician (as his name suggests, he is literally a plant bud). The wacky characters themselves are the incentive to explore as much as you can, since you have no idea what or who you will find.
The colorful forest contrasts with the monochrome hospital, a metaphor for how one can find fundamental goodness — akin to the dreaminess of Morizora’s Forest — even in the most depressing times.
Having worked on the soundtracks of “Minecraft” and “Plants vs. Zombies,” Shigihara’s musical skill is apparent in the music of “Rakuen.” Vocals take center stage as a prominent musical force in the game, a trend unheard of in mainstream titles as anything other than an atmospheric soundtrack can distract from the gameplay. As you listen to each of the six songs you collect throughout the game, you’ll notice the importance of this decision. Each song is intricately tied to the personalities of each hospital patient, such as a father’s lullaby to a child with lyrics about brushing teeth and going to bed early. The lyrics act as additional means of character development, augmenting the game’s already-touching moments.
Outside of the plot-centric songs, the background scores are wonderful parallels to the atmosphere. The hospital’s music starts off slow and simple, then quickly transitions into a complex, layered string piece that is indicative of the rich stories and personalities of the patients. The music of each setting amplifies the emotional power of each scene tenfold.
“Rakuen” tackles the injustices of life and the benefit of doing good things in genuine ways.. The game never underestimates the looming presence of death that follows around each patient but also shows that even those who are stricken with melancholy can change and make amends. The bonds you form are the most valuable things to a person, and this game poignantly makes the player understand this. As the player drinks tea at the lavish parties in Morizora’s Forest and traverses the vivid memories of misery and merriness of other patients, the message of the game becomes clear.
If you’ve lived a life with strong connections to the people around you, then you can breath your last breaths with no regrets.