video games

Hogwarts Legacy Can’t Escape J.K. Rowling

Photo: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

Avalanche Software, the studio behind the hotly anticipated Hogwarts Legacy video game, is mired in a damage-control cycle that seems to never end. This has become routine for every company bankrolling J.K. Rowling’s ever-expanding Harry Potter universe; no matter how much money there is to be made, or whatever portfolio prestige that comes from contributing to one of the most popular franchises in entertainment history, Rowling’s transphobia hangs over every project. It can never be completely divested, and the studio is learning that Potter fans are increasingly unwilling to sweep it under the rug.

In the months since Hogwarts Legacy’s announcement last fall, Avalanche, and its publisher, Warner Bros. Interactive, have attempted to find a middle ground between affirming Rowling’s influence and quietly repudiating her prejudices. Sometimes they’ve ignored the blowback outright, and other times they’ve offered overtures to fans who are, understandably, disgusted by the sharp, discriminatory rhetoric of their former favorite author. Most recently, a report leaked out of Avalanche this week proclaiming that Hogwarts Legacy will include a trans-friendly character-creation tool when the game launches in 2022. There will be no binding gender or body-type choices; witches can be assigned masculine voices, wizards feminine voices, and so on.

It’s the latest palliative effort to distract potential customers from a reality that isn’t changing anytime soon; J.K. Rowling retains total creative authority over the Harry Potter brand. Any company that aligns with her is also aligning with her worldview, tacitly or not. That paradox will persist through Legacy’s launch date and beyond, and thus far, Avalanche and Warner Bros. haven’t been able to square the circle.

Hogwarts Legacy is a big deal. Harry Potter has long been one of the sleeping giants of the gaming industry, especially considering how the franchise’s potential was consistently diminished by its previous license holders. In the mid-2000s, as the Harry Potter films were cleaning up at the box office, fans received several cheap, hastily assembled Xbox and Playstation tie-ins that were notoriously lifeless, buggy, and seemed specifically designed to fool clueless grandmas in the Best Buy checkout aisle. (The most recent release, 2011’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, has a 44 percent average review score on Metacritic.) Hogwarts Legacy, on the other hand, comes from a genuine pedigree. Avalanche designed the well-regarded Disney Infinity series throughout the 2010s, and Warner Bros. has brokered an enviable catalogue as a video-game publisher, with Mortal Kombat and Batman Arkham Asylum on its résumé. Fans rejoiced, here was a Harry Potter game that actually aspired to be good! Hogwarts Legacy aims to tell an original story set in Europe’s premiere wizarding school in the late 19th century. In last year’s reveal trailer, we watch as a player brews up frothy, neon-hued potions, explores the cobblestone streets of Hogsmeade, and flies a pegasus over a craggy cliffside. All of this would’ve been downright liberating for long-suffering Harry Potter gamers, if not for all the other baggage.

That trailer hit the internet on September 16, 2020, three months after J.K. Rowling posted a letter to her website where she doubled down on her TERF-y views. That is brutal timing, and the backlash came fast and furious. Harry Potter fans, many of whom had already vowed to boycott any new or existing material from the universe, added Legacy to that protest. Others hemmed and hawed over a very familiar debate — the ability to separate art from its artist. If you wish to be charitable, it can be argued that neither Warner Bros. nor Avalanche asked for this controversy when they first broke ground on the venture. Game development on this scale can take years, and Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier reported that Hogwarts Legacy was in the works for quite some time before Rowling made her first openly anti-trans comments in late 2019. (Alleged footage of the game leaked online in 2018, and was quickly removed after a Warner Bros. copyright claim.)

Naturally, Warner Bros. tried to subdue the fan rancor as soon as Hogwarts Legacy made its debut. An FAQ was published to the game’s website shortly after the official unveiling. In it, there is a response for the question, “What is J.K. Rowling’s involvement with the game?” It reads: “J.K. Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game, however, her extraordinary body of writing is the foundation of all projects in the Wizarding World. This is not a new story from J.K. Rowling.” (Left unsaid is the fact that the author still benefits financially from anything that bears the Potter name.)

The syntax in that FAQ is strange — simultaneously an endorsement and disavowal of Rowling’s creative oeuvre, emblematic of the dual realities that Hogwarts Legacy wishes it existed in.

That’s the rub here. No matter how much distance Avalanche and Warner Bros. try to put between themselves and the Rowling name, the gravitational force of the Harry Potter IP has forced them to toe the line. This was evidenced by a Warner Bros. company Q&A session that leaked out in October last year. In it, WB president David Haddad responded to understandable employee concerns about their newfound proximity to Rowling’s retrograde ideas by stating, “She’s entitled to express her opinions on social media. I may not agree with her, and I might not agree with her on a range of topics, but I can agree that she has the right to hold her opinions.” When you get an answer like that, it becomes pretty clear how little the boardroom is willing to concede.

Throughout this ordeal, it was easy to find sympathy for some of the nameless developers hard at work on Hogwarts Legacy. Many of them likely come from their own disadvantaged backgrounds, and watched a dream assignment morph into an exhausting albatross all thanks to one woman’s reckless bigotry. In a piece for Polygon, Stacey Henley notes that this sensitivity has been cited by consumers who want to justify purchasing Hogwarts Legacy when it comes out — to “support the developers” rather than to support J.K. Rowling. (Henley correctly asserts that this reasoning is a fundamental misunderstanding of a boycott’s function.) But that sympathy took a beating on February 21, when news broke that Troy Leavitt, lead designer on Hogwarts Legacy, previously piloted a reactionary, Gamergate-adjacent YouTube channel that seemed right in line with Rowling’s newfound political posture.

Scroll through the channel’s catalogue, and you’ll see that Leavitt has uploaded videos with titles like “The Injustice of Social Justice” and “In Praise of Cultural Appropriation,” which rage against the tyranny of progressives who wish to highlight the gaming industry’s diversity shortcomings. (There is literally a video called “It’s Okay to Be a Gamer.”) More suspiciously, a 2018 video resurfaced wherein Leavitt mentions that he disclosed the existence of his YouTube channel to Warner Bros. during his hiring process. Apparently, none of that mattered to the company.

“It didn’t appear to be an issue for them,” he said. “Not that they endorse anything that I’ve said, of course, but at least they seem more concerned with making good games than with pushing some kind of a social-justice agenda, so there is hope.”

Only a week after that debacle did we learn about Hogwarts Legacy’s trans-inclusive character creator. You aren’t alone if that report rings a little hollow. Try as they might, Avalanche and Warner Bros. are bound by a fundamental truth: Nobody can condemn J.K. Rowling for her ethical failures while simultaneously publishing one of her properties. Instead, these two companies will keep taking one step forward, and two steps back. They can offer some consolation, they can smooth out some of the rough edges, but they can never solve the problem. In fact, they can’t even admit that a problem exists.

To be clear, Avalanche and Warner Bros. are far from the only ones staring down that barrel. Right now, HBO is rumored to be circling a Harry Potter TV show. If that ever gets off the ground, expect the same round of grousing and half-measures — all cynically muted by the prerogatives of commerce.

It’s ironic that all of this upheaval is centered on a game called Hogwarts Legacy, at a time when the legacy of Harry Potter seems to shift with every passing day. Avalanche and Warner Bros. set out to make a video game filled with the ensorcelling high jinks of its source material. Instead, they’re producing a strained, controversy-dogged test-case in what it means to be part of the Harry Potter brand in 2021. It might still sell a lot of copies, but at what cost?

Hogwarts Legacy Can’t Escape J.K. Rowling