The Game That Must Not Be Named
My thoughts on Hogwarts Legacy, which I enjoyed because I’m evil
By MARTIN REZNY
Let’s do the self-cancellation part first, and then I’ll circle back to a review. You know, I always hate it when people I care about demand that I do an objectively pointless gesture that they arbitrarily decided is important (like not loving Harry Potter), or I don’t love them. As if doing all the not pointless real acts of caring and helping all the time amounts to nothing.
Of course, everyone is entitled to their feelings, and feelings matter, but then a) what about my arbitrary feelings (of loving Harry Potter), and b) there are real things that matter more than feelings, once one outgrows a teenage mentality. Like actually achieving results in the real world.
For example, it is an understandable feeling to be more upset with your allies than with your enemies for not supporting your symbolic boycott while proclaiming they still want to support you in everyday life, through donations, or in elections. It’s just not a very wise or productive feeling.
This may feel harsh, or cynical, or mean, but it isn’t. It’s what a caring friend, or an ally, should say to help a person or community who’s throwing a self-destructive, self-righteous temper tantrum. Appeals to emotion and emotional extortion aren’t a healthy attitude or good politics.
People who want to be on your side, however imperfectly, shouldn’t be antagonized, particularly if you feel you need allies in large numbers to ensure your safety from your actual enemies. It may look like a simple gesture to not play a game, but it’s still a big ask if it’s a wrong ask.
What I feel is that the goal of this boycott is to defeat J. K. Rowling, to make her upset, because she makes you upset, so you decided to harass people in order to prevent you being harassed. As Iron Man would put it, not a great plan. Even if I’m wrong, this feeling being possible is a problem.
Realistically, Rowling is already plenty rich, famous, and influential, that’s not going to change based on the sales of the game. People who agree or disagree with her will continue to do so regardless of what the sales of the game are. The most that can be achieved is making her feel worse.
That’s not a worthy goal, that’s petty, and a misguided strategy. If you want to defeat Rowling reasonably, on a serious intellectual, philosophical, or political level, then as a debater, what I would suggest is to use her work against her, instead of deciding it must be bad also (which is not an easy argument to make successfully, or without sounding incredibly petty).
In my (very straightforward) reading of the overall message of the Potter series, Rowling has basically turned into Dolores Umbridge. Rowling now is a Harry Potter villain. The books argue constantly against bigotry, discrimination, or just basic lack of empathy and human decency.
If you want to neutralize what Rowling tweets while maximizing the number of people siding with you, then the most effective way to do it would be to use what’s good about the thing she created that people love. If you pit all the good wizards and witches against her, then selling more books or film or game rights would mean she’s losing the debate more.
The question is, what do you want? Feeling morally superior, or winning hearts and minds? Objectively, rationally, you should want to win, but it’s genuinely up to you if you prefer righteous martyrdom instead. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be upset, trans people have no shortage of good reasons for that. But it’s better if the fight you pick isn’t a hill to die on.
In case it’s not clear, this isn’t an attempt at virtue signaling or an apology.
I support equal rights for trans people, because it’s right, not because I need anyone to praise or legitimize or like me, and I’ll show that support in ways that I believe matter. I also sincerely believe this boycott thing is dumb and I reject the whole framing of the situation as either a reasonable way to help the trans cause or some kind of objective test of moral purity.
Following this declaration, I welcome any criticism or debate, if you feel that proving me wrong or changing my mind is important. I welcome accusations and harassment less so, but if it makes you feel better, be my guest. I promise I’m not going to get offended by people being people, although being mean to others isn’t exactly a sign of superior morality.
Harry Potter and the Wizard Game
So, what’s the game like? In a word, it’s good. The more I play it, the more I doubt the objectivity of anyone who claims otherwise. It’s not perfect, but it’s a similar kind of not perfect as Skyrim. There are so many things you can do in it that are fun that something like performance issues or not too deep storytelling can’t do enough damage to the overall experience.
Of course, the quality of the game is entirely irrelevant in relation to the whole moral debate. Which means that insisting that a good game that many people enjoy is bad (clearly because the creator of the universe the game is set in is your political enemy) only further weakens your case.
If you’re not a Potter fan and you find all the wizarding stuff silly, then I imagine the game isn’t going to win you over, but that wouldn’t make it a bad game, just not a game for you. As a Potter fan from back in the day, I feel very strongly that the game is exactly what Potter fans want.
I have played at least three of the old Harry Potter games, and Hogwarts Legacy is so much better than those on every level that it would be pointless to try to compare them. Even the facts that you’re not playing as Harry Potter and that the story is new are somehow to the game’s benefit.
I think it’s kind of genius, actually, and shows the viability of the franchise going forward. In short, this game proves that every Potterhead wants to be a wizard, not Harry Potter specifically. They want to live their own story in the wizarding world, not the story of the books. This seems obvious now.
I’ve heard something like this discussed recently among movie reviewers in relation to the cancellation of further Fantastic Beasts movies. That whole concept doesn’t actually make a lot of sense if you think about it — the wizarding fantasy of the fans never was about being an adult beastmaster.
Creating a new story with new students at Hogwarts is the most logical next step in expanding the wizarding world, and should have happened way earlier, at least as a series of movies or a TV show. Doing that in the immersive game format is a guaranteed slam dunk, even if the game was much worse than it is, because in a wizard game, you can be the wizard.
There’s more that can be done with this concept to further enhance the experience, however. For example, the personal choices of the player could have a more significant impact on the story. There could be a system of ethical alignment with people responding to the player using dark magic. Also, the setting could be changed, as there are a number of other schools of magic elsewhere in the world that were previously established.
But these are not really problems invalidating this game, it’s just future potential for improvement and expansion. It’s also possible that one could tell compelling stories of adult wizards outside of the school scenario, but it does make sense to first make a game like this with students at Hogwarts.
The Story of More Gobbledegook
As for the story that we got, there are basically two opinions on the internet. It’s either fine, or anti-Semitic. You see, the main bad guy is a goblin, and goblins in this universe are bankers with long pointy noses, ergo it must be propaganda against Jews. I guess by the same logic, the existence of the Ferengi makes Star Trek extremely anti-Semitic.
Where to start with this one… Let’s go step by step. The genre is fantasy. Fantasy has been using the trope of races since The Lord of the Rings. If you want, you can choose to see the genre as racist. Are the fantasy authors being intentionally racist? Clearly no. Certainly not in any way like the Nazis were. Tolkien specifically wrote an open letter dissing anti-Semites.
In my opinion, Rowling just wasn’t being particularly original or philosophical here. The setting and history of the wizarding world are Britain au magical. This is why there are wizards historically oppressing other races. As Rowling, for all her flaws, is liberal, she portrays such oppression as bad. Goblins as a whole aren’t wrong or the bad guys.
Hogwarts Legacy takes place in late 1800s, so historically speaking, doing a Goblin revolt makes thematic sense if you think about it as a thinly veiled critique of the racism of the time. The main storyline admittedly could have used better writing in this regard, but the basic message here isn’t against goblins. It’s against oppressing them, but also against violence.
Super minor spoilers follow, I guess. The bad goblin is in an alliance with a bad wizard, while the hero represents the non-racist wizards in an alliance with non-violent goblins. There’s also a subplot about (and strongly against) house-elves being mistreated. Politically, if you hate escapism with a passion, you can read it as an argument for peaceful reformism. In reality, it’s probably not a political argument at all, just some basic morals for kids.
Look, if you are a Jewish person and you simply hate the resemblance between Harry Potter goblins and some of the imagery and symbolism of old-school anti-Semitic propaganda, I’m not trying to invalidate your feelings. However, my expert opinion (of a person who literally studied propaganda at a university) is that this game isn’t anti-Semitic propaganda.
Propaganda isn’t about what images you use, it’s about what beliefs and actions you’re trying to instill and motivate. As I already mentioned, the Ferengi in Star Trek are the exact same kind of greedy goblins, only with big ears instead of noses. They’re portrayed as much more greedy than Harry Potter goblins, and they’re still not anti-Semitic propaganda.
The reason why Nazis portrayed the Jewish people or black people as animalistic or monster-like was to literally dehumanize them. To that end, they used existing animals and monsters with negative character connotations. Goblins weren’t invented as a Jewish caricature. Greedy grotesque beings like goblins, dwarves, or leprechauns come from folklore.
Fantasy, as the successor genre to fairy tales, therefore has every right to use any trope from ancient folklore, as long as it isn’t doing so to dehumanize a real group of people. To be clear, using animals or monsters to create caricatures of character flaws is still okay and not propaganda, that’s what fables are. Propaganda needs to be targeted and call to action.
Even if all goblins were evil in the story, as they are in Tolkien’s work, that still isn’t targeting the Jewish people or arguing to attack them. That would just mean that goblins represent evil and all evil people, in a broad, sweeping way that’s intentionally left vague. In Rowling’s work, goblins represent greed and all greedy people, much like the Ferengi do.
In fact, this symbolic logic is why goblins weren’t the only creature used to slander the Jewish people. The Nazis and other racist groups before them didn’t just want to paint the Jews as greedy. To show them as generally evil, they were often depicted as devils or gargoyles. Does that mean that every story with devils or gargoyles in it is anti-Semitic? No, it doesn’t. It just means that racists tend to have limited intelligence and imagination.
In truth, the main story of Hogwarts Legacy is nothing groundbreaking, it isn’t hateful propaganda. It’s actually not worth writing about. Much like in Skyrim, the main storyline isn’t the main focus of the game. It only needed to be average and relatively inoffensive, and that it is. Interestingly, there are some rather well-written sidequests involving other students.
Given the fundamentally exploratory and experince-oriented nature of the gameplay, botching these sidequest storylines would have been a much bigger problem. You don’t have to care about the enemies, if you can care about your friends. Arguably, the Hogwarts student experience doesn’t need a big bad of epic proportions, or any combat whatsoever.
Playing the game, I eventually got sort of bored with dispatching groups of poachers or goblins or spiders or what have you and while going through the repetitive main storyline trials. Everything else in the game was much more interesting and fun. Don’t get me wrong, the combat system is downright inspired, but the learning of it is where the fun is.
For that reason, it’s also a good thing that the teacher characters are quite charming. The only NPCs that are skippably boring are the vendors or most random citizens out there in the world outside of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade. There’s also one clearly transgender NPC, the innkeeper.
Objectively speaking, this character is one of the better written and acted, more interesting characters in the game. Which makes it a pity that the trans community apparently decided that it must be only a stupid token trans character to appease them and are having absolutely none of it.
Sadly, this whole meta discussion, if you can call it that, breakes the immersion for me somewhat every time they appear in the game, thus rendering this actually quite decent bit of representation in popular media less enjoyable and effective. Once again, embracing the wizarding world when it argues against its creator would be a more effective strategy.
But like I already said, if you’re able to somehow ignore all the political nonsense around the game and its story, the writing is fine. In the context of other open-world RPGs that I have played, I’d say it’s better than in Skyrim, but not as good as in Horizon Zero Dawn. Although I suspect story isn’t the primary reason why so many people seem to be enjoying the game.
The Most Magical World of Them All
While I understand that someone may see the game as mediocre (at worst) if they focus on the story, I don’t think it is objectively anything less than very good in terms of how it handles its open world elements. As someone who’s still playing Skyrim, I’m a big fan of open worlds in fantasy games, but that’s also why I know how hard it is to get the open world just right.
The world must not be mostly empty; most of the stuff you find while exploring the world must be interesting; different places need to have unique character to them so that nothing feels like more of the same; the level design must be intuitive enough so that one can eventually stop needing to use the map or quest markers to get around; and finally, the inhabitants’ actions, events, and encounters must not be repetitive.
I’m not sure what dark magic the developers used here, but this might be my favorite game open world yet on all of these counts. Skyrim at this stage is a deeper game with a deeper world, so it may still be more replayable, but for a basic version of the game, Hogwarts Legacy is incredibly fun to explore. There’s also something about how the progression through the game is tied to the highly non-linear exploration that works really well.
Put simply, your character levels up through exploration as well as quests, many of which are centered around learning and not combat. This genuinely made me feel like a student first and hero second, to a point where I wouldn’t even need to do the hero stuff. Somehow, exploration is enough of an experience on its own here, especially for Potterheads.
With that said, the combat is also one of the stronger aspects of the game. To put it in context, there’s a decent variety of spells and combos here in comparison to something like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, while spellcasting mechanics are much more dynamic and exciting than in Skyrim. Spells are on cooldowns, so it’s a bit like tactical turned-based combat happening in real time, only you need to master the rhythm.
Compared to my previous favorite magical system, the pausable de facto turn-based spellcasting in the Dragon Age series, I think this is better in that it’s still relatively complex and tactical, but manageable in real time. I guess what I’m looking forward to now is a new Skyrim with a Fallen Order melee fighting, Horizon Zero Dawn archery, and Hogwarts Legacy magic.
As for things that are unique to the Wizarding World, I’m a bit shocked just how much they crammed in. Basically, apart from Quidditch, you can do everything. You get to sneak all around the place discovering secrets; you can customize the Room of Requirement as your base; you can grow magical plants, breed fantastic beasts, and brew potions; and, most amazingly of all, you can use broom flight as a method of fast travel.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that flying on a broom is the best method of getting around a map that I have ever seen in any game I played, bar none. It’s not just about flying, either. In this game, you can fly around on some fantastic beasts as well, which is cool, but there’s something about the way you can maneuver and accelerate on a broom that’s, well, magical.
Much like exploration on its own is enough of a game in this game, I would actually settle just for a broom flight simulator. I don’t even need quidditch, which will undoubtedly come in a future DLC. Just freely flying on a broom over the countryside is amazing to me. The fact that the countryside includes the Hogwarts castle is a major plus, but also unnecessary.
I’m serious about this. I have never enjoyed riding around on a horse in any game where that’s possible, and the last time teleportation in a game was even slightly interesting was in Morrowind, where you had to set up your own waypoint. Morrowind also uniquely had levitation, which was cool, but as it turns out, it needed to allow for a faster movement, on a broom.
I mean, am I missing something? Is this free fast flying around common in games now, only in all of those I haven’t played? It is so good that it might damage my ability to enjoy getting around a map in any future game that doesn’t have a similar feature. I’m a bit puzzled that nobody is commenting on this, of the relatively few people who dared to review the game so far.
The Final Verdict (of Guilty)
Overall, this game is so enjoyable (for its target audience) that I’m really saddened by the whole political circus around it. It might just be the least objectively reviewed game in recent memory. I generally try to support games that I think more games in the future should try to emulate. Only in this case, one apparently can’t do that without getting political.
I haven’t bought this game to support Rowling, I bought it because it’s a good game. I also haven’t bought a computer with a lithium-ion battery in it because I support child slavery, or several Blizzard or Ubisoft games because I support sexism. I may even have some books by Orson Scott Card in my library, but not because I support homophobia. I’m not happy about just how much stuff in this world is controlled by or benefits bad people.
As someone who has university education in political philosophy, I’m very aware of all of the things that are wrong in the world and how I’m inextricably connected with them. As it was argued in The Good Place show, if it’s about the total sum of negative points from indirect wrongs, then we’re all truly going to the bad place. I can’t not participate in the world, I can’t have any good thing without also causing some wrong.
What I can do is pick my battles, to focus my energy on fights that I believe I can win. I can make a substantial difference in the lives of people I know personally, so I try to be a good influence there. I can try to come up with solutions to problems, I can help people learn and understand things, I can create art for people to enjoy, and I can argue against bad people. I can also donate money to causes and vote, but there my influence is much weaker.
As an aspiring writer and game developer, I have particular reasons to not avoid good stories and games, so that I can learn to improve my craft, through which I may end up doing something politically valuable in the future, but even so, I’m really not trying to justify myself. Following The Good Place model, I aim to do net-good in the world. I’m under no illusion that I am or can be a morally perfect being. I don’t demand such of others.
I also sincerely don’t think that anyone who demands moral purity of others is doing a good thing, or being a good person. I’m not exactly a Christian, but one of the more charming qualities of that Jesus fellow was the forgiveness part, about not judging others and not throwing stones. Say what you want, harassing random people online is a pretty shit thing to do.
I don’t care what your politics are, if you want to make the world a better place, a more moral, ethical, or safe place, then you should be against harassment in general. Which is why I tend to see anyone using such tactics as a disingenuous bad actor, and not care about what they have to say about my moral character, or anything in particular, really.
If you’re a trans person who’s genuinely disappointed with the level of support this game has gotten and the possible ramifications it might have, and you’re not on a deplatforming crusade because of it, then fair enough. I personally don’t think the sales of the game will be of any real consequence in the grand scheme of things, but I may be wrong and you may be right.
If you’re disappointed in me, specifically, then I’m sorry to hear that, but in the do-unto-others sense, I personally wouldn’t require anyone else to not play a game to further my cause, and I’m still going to keep voting and both privately and publicly speaking against all forms of discrimination and authoritarianism. Feel free to suggest which actions (of greater consequence) I should take in support of your cause, and I’ll consider them.
Just don’t ask me specifically to cast Avada Kedavra on Harry Potter, as I do believe the books are a net-good in the world, Rowling’s heel turn notwithstanding. My position on that is exactly what Daniel Radcliffe, the Potter himself, said when he was addressing Rowling’s tweets:
If these books taught you that love is the strongest force in the universe, capable of overcoming anything; if they taught you that strength is found in diversity, and that dogmatic ideas of pureness lead to the oppression of vulnerable groups; if you believe that a particular character is trans, nonbinary, or gender fluid, or that they are gay or bisexual; if you found anything in these stories that resonated with you and helped you at any time in your life — then that is between you and the book that you read, and it is sacred.