Hakuōki and emotion in video games

Partway through my first playthrough of Hakuōki, I thought how strange it was, to be playing the character who doesn’t go out and fight, who is helpless in many situations. I thought, in a typical game, you’d be playing as one of the shinsengumi, and it could be a typical RPG …

And then I remembered my history, and remembered that it couldn’t be at all. Because there’s no victory at the end. You couldn’t frame the story in terms of action and have it conclude satisfyingly as a game.

It can only conclude satisfyingly on the personal level.

And I thought also, how there are certain emotions that games evoke better than any other medium. Betrayal, for instance. If a book makes me feel betrayed, it is at the author for some failing of theirs – I do not feel betrayed by the characters themselves. Not the way I felt betrayed when I discovered Chizuru’s father – ‘my’ father – didn’t care for my happiness, only saw me in terms of my ability to procreate. Or the way I felt betrayed playing Magical Diary, when I found out Damien had been lying to me the whole time.

And along with betrayal, there is frustration and hopelessness.

Chizuru is not able to contribute to the shinsengumi as a warrior. The tasks she comes up with for herself are rather less grand – serving the tea, doing the mending.

‘You don’t need to do that,’ she’s told, ‘the servants can do that.’

It’s frustrating. ‘Here’s what I can contribute.’ ‘No, no, your contributions aren’t necessary.’ You’re too valued to do that; not seen clearly enough to be given anything of use to do.

Chizuru’s father says, all you have to offer is your womb. Sannan says, all you have to offer is your blood. It’s a romance, so in the end, what you have to give is love – something you can choose.

Hakuōki is about finding a satisfying life when the roles open to you as a woman are very limited. The heroes’ journeys reflect this too – they must find a satisfying life when the role they currently fill is disappearing.

I think I found Hakuōki more satisfying as an exploration of the limitations of gender roles than I did Analogue, which is far more explicitly about gender roles. Because in Analogue, you play an observer; it is a game, but it is an epistolary game, and you are discovering the story as you read and are told about it, rather than living it. You are not Hyun-Ae, having things done to you, having to live with the expectations put on you. And so I never empathised when Hyan-Ae the way I did with Chizuru, because I never was Hyun-Ae.

Of course, when you think of the feelings a game can invoke, betrayal, frustration and hopelessness aren’t seen as desirable ones. But they can be very effective in a narrative game, and I’d like to play more games that take advantage of them.

(Why, yes, I did read too much shoujo manga growing up and I do enjoy stories that make me feel awful, why do you ask?)

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