Game Review: Hogwarts Legacy as an Exemplar of Immersive Fantasy

Mayank Kejriwal
USC Information Sciences Institute
Marina del Rey, California, USA
kejriwal@isi.edu

Abstract

Among the most successful series in fantasy literature  the Harry Potter books have been followed by similarly successful movies, merchandise, and theme park attractions.

Despite massive advances in game design, graphical computing, and video game console technology, a video game that takes the player inside Rowling’s Wizarding World with all its detail has thus far been lacking, despite some noteworthy attempts. Portkey Games’ Hogwarts Legacyfulfills a need for immersion that is ubiquitous among Potter fans. At the same time, the game provides entertainment value to ardent role-playing video game fans through its emphasis on high-fidelity graphics and seemingly massive open-world action. It also represents a nostalgic revival of Harry Potter in our current decade. In this brief review of the game, I argue that Hogwarts Legacy makes a valuable aesthetic contribution through its detailed and immersive approach to worldbuilding. Despite the notable absence of the original Harry Potter protagonists (Harry, Ron, and Hermione) in the books, the game has been generally well-received by video game critics, many video gamers, and many Harry Potter fans alike, and boasts a robust community since its release in early 2023. On the one hand, the game’s commercial success demonstrates that an appetite for the Wizarding World continues to exist, even without the original protagonists. On the other hand, the game has also polarized many critics and longstanding Harry Potter fans and has been tainted by J.K. Rowling’s opposition to trans rights, with calls for boycotts of the game.

Keywords: Harry Potter, immersion, game aesthetics, nostalgia, worldbuilding, fan community

Over a decade has passed since the last of the seven Harry Potter books (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) was published (2007), and the movie Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was released (2011). Harry Potterfans are nostalgic about familiar, yet original, content from the world that they have grown up loving. The three recent Fantastic Beasts      movies have steadily declined in box office performance (hence, there is doubt that Rowling’s vision of a five-movie series will ever be realized). While a reason for this decline in performance may be the controversial positions that Rowling has taken by opposing trans rights, film critics have also argued that the movies are “just not good,” with each successive movie in the spinoff franchise serving as a reminder of “how unnecessary and inferior” it is (Lemire, Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore).  Instead of sitting through these movies, fans now have the option to return to Hogwarts through the immersive medium of first-person role playing video games (RPGs). Portkey Games’ Hogwarts Legacy, first released in February 2023, manifests the continuing nostalgic appetite for Harry Potter. For example, at the time of writing, a new TV series remake of Harry Potter is also rumored to be in early stages of production (Tapp, ‘Harry Potter’ TV Series On Max: Everything We Know About The Cast, Release Date, What J.K. Rowling Says & More).

Fan reactions to Hogwarts Legacy have been enthusiastic, and this is a rare instance when critical reviewers,  Harry Potter fans, and video gamers somewhat generally agree on the merit of the game.  Millennials, well into their thirties now, were among the earliest fan audiences of Harry Potter (Hobbs, Harry Potter and the Myth of the Millennials: Identity, Reception, and Politics); many millennial teenagers and pre-teenagers grew up avidly consuming the stories, which included pulling all-nighters to finish large tomes in the series (such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) within a day of release.  Because of significant improvements in graphics technology and a precedence of highly detailed open world games, like The Elder Scrolls: Blades and Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, serious gamers today hold new releases to high standards.  Does the evidence suggests that Hogwarts Legacy has delivered? On the one hand, organizations like Imagine Games Network (IGN) and PC Gamer have rated the game highly  (9/10 and 83% approval rating, respectively), but it is unclear whether their critics have rated these games with a sufficient awareness of Rowling’s anti-trans views, and the many fans of Harry Potter who have called for boycotts of the game (Martens, Amid calls for a boycott, ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ controversy questions what it means to be a ‘Harry Potter’ fan).

Even if we move beyond this specific controversy, other powerful critiques of the game also exist. A review in Wired, for instance, makes a compelling case that the game’s “real-world harms are impossible to ignore” and points out some of the  “anti-Semitic tropes” within it (Grey, Review: There is No Magic in Hogwarts Legacy). Such critiques beg the larger question of whether organizations like IGN and PC Gamer are holistic enough in their reviews and are taking broader contexts of video game releases into account when reviewing.

Among audiences, the game seems to have proved popular, with Forbes reporting that it had sold over 22 million units as of January 2024 (Kain, ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ Sold 22 Million Copies Despite Boycott Controversy). While the commercial success of an immersive game can (hypothetically) be attributed to such elements as its visual design and aesthetics, Hogwarts Legacy has been especially popular among (but has also polarized) Harry Potter fans , more so arguably than earlier Harry Potter video game releases. An extensive body of fanfiction specific to the game has already been published on the Web within six months of the game’s release (see, for example, the Hogwarts Legacy FanFiction Archive). What accounts for this engagement? While nostalgia plays a role, I argue that Hogwarts Legacyfulfills a latent need for immersion in Harry Potter fans that had not been fulfilled through existing media.  In his essay on Tolkien’s under-appreciated influence on computer games, Makai (Makai, “Faërian Cyberdrama: When Fantasy Becomes Virtual Reality” 35) quotes Barton in his allusion to immersion empowering “fans to go beyond reading and actually enter worlds of fantasy to play a role in their own adventures” (Barton, Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers 19).

Fans’ appreciation of immersion and ambient exploration in Hogwarts Legacy is manifested in the collection of several YouTube videos that do nothing more than have the character ‘walk’ around Hogwarts domains such as the Slytherin common room or the Hogwarts greenhouses. Some of these videos are several hours long, and have no real ‘action’ or plot reveals in them, yet have garnered thousands of views in a matter of only weeks of being publicly posted (SideQuest Gamer, Hogwarts Legacy – Relaxing walk around Hogwarts from Slytherin Common Room). However, while the attention to aesthetics is impeccable, a fuller discussion of the game cannot ignore the socio-political landscape in which the plot and characters of the game are embedded (at times, subliminally). To briefly cite just one problematic motif, in Rowling’s original vision of Harry Potter, the killing curse was designated as one of three “unforgivable” curses; yet, in Hogwarts Legacy, killing goblins is necessary for progressing through the game.  While deliberate killing is common in some of the more violent RPGs (Albom, “The Killing Roll: The Prevalence of Violence in Dungeons & Dragons” 8), its flippant inclusion in Hogwarts Legacy represents a point of departure from the moral vision of the original books.       

Aesthetically, through its detailed approach to worldbuilding, Hogwarts Legacy has allowed its fans to appreciate the world that Rowling constructed, independent of the main and supporting characters in the books and movies. Harry, Ron, and Hermione don’t play foundational roles–or even exist yet–in this game, and plot elements in the game are only loosely connected to the driving elements in the books. In fact, the game is set in the late 1800s. Yet, Harry Potter fans are still able to connect to the game. A review published by NPR calls it a  “dream come true for Potter fans,” while still acknowledging the calls for boycotting the game over J. K. Rowling’s opposition of trans rights (Vincent, ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ Review: A treat for Potter fans shaded by Rowling controversy).

Part of what might make the Wizarding World so appealing to us is that, far from being perfect, it holds a mirror to the inequities and racism in our own society.       Lawler, for example, discusses the “epistemic”advantages of fiction and fantasy in understanding and interpreting present-day challenges (Lawler, “Certain Assistances: The Utilities of Speculative Fiction in Shaping the Future”). Sangster emphasizes the importance of worldbuilding or “fashioning worlds” in his recent book on fantasy (Sangster, An Introduction to Fantasy 5.307). He writes that such worlds can be “expansive or specific, cruel or kind, subject of scrupulous logics or built from wild improvisations. ” Worldbuilding in fantasy and science fiction empowers both creators and consumers, and especially young audiences, to effectively critique the practices and aesthetics of the cultural and political landscape of the world, be it actual or hypothetical. For example, Sangster writes that fantastic worlds “reflect consensuses and diversities” in our actual world, but also that they can serve as “experimental spaces within which divergent alternatives” are enacted (Sangster, An Introduction to Fantasy 5.308).  In fantasy literary criticism, worlds provide a distinct ambient signature for the author (i.e., writers like Rowling, Lovecraft, Tolkien, and Lewis), who bring their worlds to life through a distinctive ambience or “immersive fantasy” as termed by Mendelsohn (Mendlesohn, Rhetorics of Fantasy 2.59). RPGs may be especially well-suited to representing such worlds in visual media; Albom, in reviewing literature at the intersection of RPGs and immersion theory, writes that the “RPG medium facilitates immersion” (Albom, “The Killing Roll: The Prevalence of Violence in Dungeons & Dragons” 7).

Unfortunately, a cursory review of literary criticism on Harry Potter suggests that Rowling’s construction of the Wizarding World and its immersive potential has not been as fully appreciated or appraised compared to either her characters or the social and psychological context in which these books are set [e.g., in surveying the chapters in a representative work on Harry Potter literary criticism (Heilman, Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter), only two of eighteen chapters comment on the Wizarding World itself as a subject of critical study].  The movies were superlative for their time but lacked the capacity of an immersive experience. It was difficult for some viewers to placethemselves in that world, despite the high-fidelity, high-budget sets that Warner Brothers invested in.  The Wizarding World at      Universal Studios better serves the purpose of immersion as it offers a hands-on real world experience but in the end, only captures a small fraction of the world that Rowling left to the imagination through her books.

By giving us agency in the world, and often allowing us to navigate the ‘open’ environments in such worlds at our own pace, open-world RPGs such as Hogwarts Legacy allow us to be more fully immersed in other world. Part of its effect can be attributed to the lengthier exposure than that afforded by a two, or even three, hour movie. This may be why, in the case of the broader Harry Potter universe, the books seemed to have had a more immersive quality than the movies, even though most chapters were character-driven. Little details and nuggets in the books granted free reign to our imagination to construct this grand wizarding universe in all its glory, and have now been able to be aesthetically materialized through the design process in Hogwarts Legacy.

A positive legacy of Hogwarts Legacy may be its success in creating a sense of imaginative fulfillment through painstaking, detail-oriented design. While not the first or only RPG to do so, it is arguably the first video game in the Harry Potter universe that succeeds by immersing the player (including the Harry Potter fan) into the world that theirimagination , not just Rowling’s, had sought to create when they first read the books. I submit that the main reason for this special type of “agency” is the nature of the open-world RPG itself. Roine uses an influential RPG (BioWare’s Mass Effect Trilogy) as an example to argue that such games allow the player (“user”) to engage “actively” with the story (described as a “democratic art form”) as opposed to “passively” receiving it (Roine, “How You Emerge from This Game Is Up to You: Agency, Positioning, and Narrativity in The Mass Effect Trilogy” 67). I personally believe that Hogwarts Legacy will stand in time as a game that was able to capture and engage broad audiences with relatively less emphasis on gratuitous elements like sex, or even misogyny      that has been rightfully criticized in some other influential RPGs. There is certainly much to be lauded in the immersive aesthetics of the game, in contrast with the actual plot and goal-directed actions, which implicate a degree of killing (and even bloodlust) that is incongruent with the ethical construct of the universe in which the original books are set.

Nevertheless, it is also undeniable that the game’s own legacy will be adversely affected by the controversies continuing to surround J.K. Rowling. Millennial readers, who originally read the books as pre-adults, may now find the experience jarring precisely because of these controversies. Additionally, Hogwarts Legacy will likely also be remembered as a game that polarized its fanbase and that, like the Grindelwald movies, may inadvertently serve to dilute the nostalgic brand of the original Harry Potter books and movies due to the storyline simply not being that interesting, if not needlessly bloody. From a media and cultural studies perspective, studying these different interleaved effects of Hogwarts Legacy offers a valuable lesson in critiquing the game based on a holistic set of complex factors, including from the perspective of immersion theory, its fidelity (or lack thereof) to the aesthetics and ethics of the original Wizarding World, and the broader socio-political context in which it was developed and promoted.

References

Albom, Sarah. “The Killing Roll: The Prevalence of Violence in Dungeons & Dragons. ” International Journal of Role-Playing 11 (2021): 6-24.

Barton, Matt. Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers. CRC Press, 2013.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Directed by David Yates, Performances by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint. Warner Bros., 2011.

Grey, J. Review: There is No Magic in Hogwarts Legacy. Wired, Feb. 2023, https://www.wired.com/review/hogwarts-legacy-review/. Accessed 3 February, 2024.

Heilman, Elizabeth E., ed. Critical Perspectives on Harry Potter. Routledge, 2008.

Hobbs, P. Harry Potter and the Myth of the Millennials: Identity, Reception, and Politics. Lexington Books, 2022.

Hogwarts Legacy FanFiction Archive. https://www.fanfiction.net/game/Hogwarts-Legacy. Accessed 22 October, 2023.

Kain, E. ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ Sold 22 Million Copies Despite Boycott Controversy. Forbes, Jan. 2024, https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2024/01/08/hogwarts-legacy-sold-22-million-copies-despite-boycott-controversy/?sh=4e8dcebe358f. Accessed 3 February, 2024.

Lawler, D.L. “Certain Assistances: The Utilities of Speculative Fiction in Shaping the Future.” Mosaic, 13(3), 1980, p. 1-21.

Lemire, C. Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. RogerEbert.com, Apr. 2022, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/fantastic-beasts-the-secrets-of-dumbledore-2022. Accessed 1 February, 2024.

Makai, Péter Kristóf. “Faërian Cyberdrama: When Fantasy becomes Virtual Reality.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 7, 2010, p. 35-53. Project MUSEhttps://doi.org/10.1353/tks.0.0065.

Martens, T. Amid calls for a boycott, ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ controversy questions what it means to be a ‘Harry Potter’ fan.Los Angeles Times, Feb. 2023, https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-02-17/hogwarts-legacy-boycott-controversy. Accessed 3 February, 2024.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Wesleyan University Press, 2014.

Most Anticipated Game. https://thegameawards.com/nominees/most-anticipated-game-presented-by-prime. Accessed 17 October, 2023.

Roine, Hanna-Riikka. “How You Emerge from This Game Is Up to You: Agency, Positioning, and Narrativity in The Mass Effect Trilogy. ” Narrative Theory, Literature, and New Media: Narrative Minds and Virtual Worlds (2015): 67-86.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Scholastic, 2007.

Sangster, Matthew. An Introduction to Fantasy. Cambridge University Press, 2023.

SideQuest Gamer. Hogwarts Legacy – Relaxing walk around Hogwarts from Slytherin Common Room. YouTube, Oct. 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tk3ObmS39J8. Accessed 17 October, 2023.

Tapp, T. ‘Harry Potter’ TV Series On Max: Everything We Know About The Cast, Release Date, What J.K. Rowling Says & More. Deadline, Sep. 2023, https://deadline.com/2023/09/harry-potter-tv-series-max-release-date-cast-1235323284/. Accessed 17 October, 2023.

Vincent, B. ‘Hogwarts Legacy’ Review: A treat for Potter fans shaded by Rowling controversy. NPR, Feb. 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/02/10/1155909231/review-hogwarts-legacy-is-open-world-magic-but-cant-escape-rowling-controversy. Accessed 1 February, 2024.

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