Hogwarts Legacy - The Game That (Almost) Fixed the Potterverse


Hogwarts Legacy - The Game That (Almost) Fixed the Potterverse

It has been over a year since the release of Hogwarts Legacy. If players were to reflect strictly on the game’s financial success, it surpassed everyone’s expectations. In fact, it was the #1 best-selling video game of 2023 in a year that had arguably some of the best titles of the decade, and received rave reviews for its addition to the Harry Potter World, or the “Potterverse” as many call it.

However, it was not without public controversy. Even before its release in February of 2023, many people began boycotting it for its connection to the author of the original series, J.K. Rowling, after she received backlash to certain tweets and public statements that were perceived as anti-trans. While the narrative around Rowling herself is a very important conversation about inclusivity, representation, and the nuances of separating the art from the artist, I don’t want to dive into that here. I want to look at the game for what it is. Believe it or not, as imaginative as Rowling’s world is, it has enough major worldbuilding problems to untangle that bringing the author’s own personal views into the mix can overshadow criticism and praise of the game itself, as well as important conversations about the Potterverse that continue on in the game. 

One example that reviews rarely talk about is how the game itself is actually extraordinarily diverse, both in terms of gender, sexuality, race, and culture. For example, during character creation, the player does not choose a gender or sex, but merely picks a body type, a preset voice, and whether they want to be considered a witch or a wizard. There is also a major, plot-important trans character and too many openly gay and lesbian characters to count, as opposed to the original series of books in which Rowling retconned the singular gay character into the books through statements she made after their publication.

Regarding race, as opposed to the books, which had one heavily stereotyped Chinese student named "Cho Chang" and an African wizard whose last name has the word "shackle" in it, the world of Hogwarts Legacy is refreshingly full of different voices from different cultures, especially those of African descent, which is extremely progressive for a game which takes place in 19th century Scotland. If Rowling is someone who needs a lesson in diversity, I think she would have been very unhappy with this game.

However, lost in the shuffle of these important societal conversations surrounding the author, there are other major issues with the Potterverse and how Hogwarts Legacy builds on them that have gotten very little press. These are not new issues, and while I found the game to be very enjoyable on a strictly mechanical level, the issues I have are with the underlying worldbuilding.

For context, I was not allowed to read Harry Potter as a child for religious reasons, so when I began to dive into the books in my adulthood, I enjoyed them immensely but I was also astonished at some of the glaring issues that the world presented that went entirely unexamined or were completely endorsed by society.

As an adult with children, I was appalled at how often the students were presented with life-or-death situations, sometimes on a near-daily basis. The students in the game carry on this tradition, raising carnivorous plants completely unattended, fighting trolls and dark wizards daily without staff intervention, and flying on broomsticks with absolutely no safeguards. They are also taught extremely dangerous spells and potion-making recipes with no supervision except in class.

I found myself feeling much the same way playing the game as I did when I watched the Harry Potter movies as an adult: I would never send my child to Hogwarts if they were magical, even if I were paid to do so. It is a dangerous place even without the presence of dark wizards and trolls, and it is impossible for me to suspend disbelief enough to buy into the hospital wing being as empty as it is in the game (it’s a ghost town). 

For how fun the game was and seeing as it is fantasy, this was an issue I could overlook. 

However, the books also presented two tropes that many took issue with: Goblins as Jewish stereotypes and House Elves as “happy slaves.” One of these was addressed, the other was endorsed.

Thankfully, the game brings some nuance to the trope of the villainous, grumpy banker goblin and we see a significant amount of variance in the Goblin community. They are autonomous creatures, some good, some bad, some friendly, some not. Granted, the villainous plot does center around goblins, but there are spoiler-heavy reasons why this is not all that it seems.

However, the House Elf issue is one that completely broke immersion for me. It was a problematic and pervasive issue in the books and it is still very much present in the game, to the point of being narratively unavoidable. Early on in your adventure, you meet a house elf named Deek. Deek (who is never referred to as he or she but merely as an object with a name) is subservient to Madam Weasley (the deputy headmistress of the school) and eventually to the player as well. Deek is, for all intents and purposes, a slave, although the word is never used. Deek does not see this as bad, Deek only differentiates between good and bad masters, and it's heavily implied that the prior master made Deek do things that weren’t appropriate to describe in-game. Yet, these specific actions were presented as the problem, not the servitude itself. Deek talks multiple times about how lucky Deek is to have been “assigned” to Hogwarts.

As in the original books, this cultural norm is not examined whatsoever under any critical lens, which for a game that has brought some much-needed diversity to the Potterverse seems like a massive blind spot. Deek features prominently in the story, the tutorials, and in helping you outfit your “Room of Requirement”, so it is completely impossible to avoid availing yourself of Deek’s services if you want to progress the story past even the first quarter of the game.

We also find out through a quest midway through the game that one of Deek’s House Elf friends is subject to a cruel master who put him in a hole to punish him. How does Deek ask that the player help? Not by freeing him, but by cleaning the spiders out of the hole his master put him in, so it is at least more bearable. The slavery is not the issue, but the treatment of the masters, which plays into the trope of the “Good Master.”

Here is my issue with this. Exploring slavery through gameplay is not bad. I think it can even be a helpful way to learn empathy and history. However, to do this it needs to be presented for the evil it is. If it goes entirely unexamined or if it is presented as something that the slave does not find objectionable, this plays all to cleanly into the “happy slave” or “Uncle Tom” trope. This made me extremely uncomfortable, as Deek is a fixture of the game and, as of the current version of the game, Deek cannot be freed, nor does Deek seem to want to be freed, a convenient, inherent racial attitude which walks in the footsteps of the original books.

I think much has been said regarding the bigger picture issues of art and artists, but regardless of one’s opinion on those issues, the game itself fumbles under the weight of some pretty major in-universe issues separate and apart from the author. It was certainly an enjoyable game which was mechanically fun, narratively interesting, and visually powerful. Riding on a broom with the air blowing past you while the view expands below you is very relaxing and beautifully rendered. However, the core issues with the Potterverse which the game fails to examine critically made it extremely difficult to immerse myself in.

Playing as an inexperienced kid made the constant danger feel entirely unrealistic, and the player’s unavoidable and uncritical reliance on the happy subservience of the House Elves made the game feel very uncomfortable. In many ways, Hogwarts Legacy did continue the legacy of the Potterverse. Beautiful countryside, fun spells, and an engaging story. However, in all of its noble attempts to diversify the world that J.K Rowling created—to correct her legacy, so to speak—the most pervasive negative legacy of the books, specifically using the enslavement of House Elves to drive the plot, was left entirely unchanged. 

By: @Steve_TheCleric

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