video games

Hogwarts Legacy Is J.K. Rowling’s Legacy, Summed Up in a Feverishly Awaited Dud of a Game

Photo: Avalanche Software

“Does it get any more cozy than Hogsmeade?” The first time you hear this refrain in Hogwarts Legacy, the new blockbuster open-world video game based on the Harry Potter franchise, you may find yourself agreeing with your character, who has just said it. The higgledy-piggledy Hogsmeade Village is indeed cozy, a market town filled with a plethora of shops to purchase various wizarding wares. Then, as you hear the phrase for the fifth, tenth, and 15th time, you may begin to feel as if the long-in-development video game is trying too hard to convince you of this fact. Its repetition sums up almost the entire emotional register of Hogwarts Legacy — the wish-fulfillment fantasy of inhabiting the Potterverse it seeks to offer and the lack of confidence with which it does so. This is an insecure game, one you can tell is buckling under the weight of everything that accompanies it: the discourse, fan expectations, and J.K. Rowling herself.

When Hogwarts Legacy was announced in September 2020, the reveal trailer seemingly promised everything game-playing Potterphiles had long craved. Showing various witches and wizards engaged in quintessential Wizarding World activities — donning the Sorting Hat, brewing potions, battling fantastical creatures — it appeared Avalanche Software, the studio developing the game, was cooking up an open-world role-playing game to finally scratch the magical-boarding-school itch after years of subpar video games. The trailer spoke of players adding their “own story” to the “hallowed walls” of Hogwarts and “shaping the future” of the Wizarding World. For a generation of readers who had grown up wishing they’d received a Hogwarts acceptance letter, it seemed like the next best thing. Warner Bros., the owners of the Harry Potter IP, clearly wanted this game to appeal to everyone and all play styles, and that very first trailer tried to preemptively address the divided cultural waters that the game would be released into. “Magic,” the trailer said, “binds together our long history.”

Sadly — for a number of reasons — Hogwarts Legacy offers a decidedly middle-of-the-road take on wizarding cosplay. The game lets you create any kind of character you like, including one that is trans-inclusive by virtue of pairing masculine and feminine characteristics. But whatever their identity and however hard you may try to swing their moral compass (through the casting of spells like avada kedavra — the so-called “killing curse”), the story follows the same broad beats over the course of a school year. A goblin named Ranrok is leading a rebellion: You must help quell it, all while making friends and attending class.

The actual gameplay, the parts that come closest to making you feel like you’re an actual Hogwarts student, are mildly successful. There’s an undeniably nostalgic charm to exploring the labyrinthine corridors of Hogwarts. The castle is full of mysteries: hidden doors, disappearing staircases, moving paintings, a string quartet of instruments that play themselves — many elements of visual and audio design coalescing into a genuinely wondrous interactive whole. So too are the surrounding Scottish Highlands, where the bulk of the open-world adventuring happens. They’re stunning to gaze upon, changing color evocatively with each passing season. However, the same can’t be said of its cast of students, teachers, and villains, who are notably flat and two-dimensional in both animation and dialogue. Hogwarts and its hinterland feels like an uncanny valley populated by earnest, plum-voiced poshos. It’s a pretty-looking void, and the real-world circumstances of Harry Potter naturally fill it.

Hogwarts Legacy was always going to be the product of a delicate balancing act, likely distancing itself from Rowling’s harmful transphobic views while staying true to its widely beloved source material (which has itself been accused of classism, racial insensitivity, and antisemitism). An awkwardly worded FAQ on the game’s website speaks to precisely this dynamic. It states that while Rowling was “not involved in the creation of the game,” Avalanche “collaborated closely with her team on all aspects of the game.”

The legacy of Rowling and the wider Harry Potter franchise, their increasingly close proximity to issues of the ostensible culture war, looms over every aspect of the game. True, you can create a trans character, and there is even a trans landlady called Sirona Ryan, proprietress of a pub called the Three Broomsticks. Elsewhere, teachers and students offer a more progressive take on racial diversity than Rowling’s original work (which includes a paper-thin Asian character named Cho Chang) does. Among many others, you will meet Professor Onai and her daughter, Natty, both of whom have recently moved to Hogwarts from Uganda. But their characterization isn’t much deeper than Chang’s. You hear very little about Natty’s original home in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe, or the world’s largest wizarding school, which she attended, Uagadou. And you learn even less about how she’s adjusting to her new life. The result looks modern but feels thin — a weak gruel of identity representation.

In other ways, Hogwarts Legacy appears almost too reverential toward its fictional forebears, serving up eerie virtual echoes of characters that appear in the movies. Instead of Professor Snape, you have the similarly cantankerous Professor Sharp; Sebastian Sallow is the well-intentioned best friend standing in for Ron Weasley. Ron’s ancestor Professor Matilda Weasley, meanwhile, is the stern but maternal replacement for Professor McGonagall. You will also encounter various house elves whose big, forlorn eyes continue to speak to their perpetual enslavement (racial determinism is alive and kicking here as in Rowling’s fiction) as well as the aforementioned goblins whom we’re told should know their place, surfacing potentially antisemitic tropes familiar from the original movies.

What becomes clear after spending over 20 hours with Hogwarts Legacy is that any kind of reckoning with its source material can go only so far when the sole creative intention appears to be satisfying the desires of its aging audience. Perhaps even more than the fantasy of the Wizarding World itself, the game, in attempting to smooth out Rowling’s rough edges, seems to want to provide the fantasy that its magical source material is still capable of offering frictionless escapism, a comfort blanket for the real world rather than something that is part of it.

This, of course, is a fallacy, as the fallout to the game’s release continues to prove. Ever since it was announced in September 2020, three months after Rowling published a 3,669-word blog post on her website explaining, attempting to deny, but ultimately reiterating her anti-trans views, there have been calls from fans and creators to boycott Hogwarts Legacy. When one presumably former fan tweeted Rowling in October 2022 asking her how she slept at night knowing she had lost a huge audience from buying her books, the author responded: “I read my most recent royalty cheques and find the pain goes away pretty quickly.” Such a response only intensified boycott calls which, predictably enough, were followed by a rash of pre-orders meant to spite those boycotting.

Hogwarts Legacy has even caused a mini-crisis in games journalism. Some outlets, such as Canadian publication TheGamer, decided not to cover the game as a gesture of solidarity with trans people and readers who support the boycott. One, the British site Rock Paper Shotgun, opted to publish a series of articles about magic-focused games with a “special emphasis on magic games made by trans developers.” IGN, meanwhile, one of the biggest gaming outlets, drew fierce criticism for its ebullient 9 out of 10 review that failed to include a single mention of Rowling. Instead, the site included a sidebar with the header “Concerning J.K. Rowling,” which laid out its editorial stance of tackling the views of the franchise creator separately to that of the game. “As critics, our job is to answer the question of whether or not we find Hogwarts Legacy to be fun to play,” the editor’s note explained, thereby returning games criticism to the days when titles were discussed solely as consumer products rather than as cultural artifacts.

But as online discourse continued to center on the anti-trans Rowling, a 16-year-old trans girl was murdered in the author’s native U.K. Then, nearly a week later, the New York Times published an opinion piece titled “In Defense of J.K. Rowling,” referencing the uproar over Hogwarts Legacy which the author describes as a “terrible shame.” None of this furor has impacted the game’s commercial performance. According to its chart-topping position across every platform and console for which it has been released, Hogwarts Legacy has ensured that the Wizarding World continues to print money for the already unfathomably rich Rowling.

There is something faintly surreal seeing such an average game generate such intense conversation (although, from a trans perspective, I can understand why). Rowling’s original fiction was never the most original (an argument the great Ursula K. Le Guin made convincingly), but Hogwarts Legacy is derivative in a new way, cribbing not from fantasy classics but mostly forgettable open-world games of the 2010s. It even reflects poorly when considered alongside the dreadful Fantastic Beasts movies. That said, for all their various failures, the Fantastic Beasts films at least have some thematic teeth, considering how magic might be wielded in the era of rising fascism during the 1920s. Hogwarts Legacy has little in this regard, instead relaying a banal story about goblins who should know their place (problematic, too, if you want to get into it), and a limp subplot involving nasty animal poachers.

But then, this is rather the point. Hogwarts Legacy — developed during a time when the Fantastic Beasts franchise has limped on to ever-diminishing critical and commercial returns — doesn’t appear to have been designed to say anything except what will retain fans of the original books and movies. A few new ones may yet be welcomed into the fold, but if the Potterverse is to survive (and there are great arguments why it shouldn’t), it will need to do more than what is happening here: The treacly nostalgia is laid on so thick it’s stupefying.

Hogwarts Legacy Is J.K. Rowling’s Legacy and a Dud of a Game