Sony’s most recent PlayStation 5 showcase was filled with reasons to get excited for its upcoming console well into 2021. Alongside new looks at launch games like Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Demon’s Souls, we got an in-depth announcement of Final Fantasy XVI, as well as a brief tease of the next God of War. But one of the most talked about reveals of the show, and certainly the most complicated, was for Hogwarts Legacy, the latest entry into the Wizarding World created by author J.K. Rowling.
The trailer for Hogwarts Legacy confirmed the legitimacy of a series of leaks that began nearly two years ago. Though the leak is mostly blurry off-camera footage, it shares many of the same elements as the recent official trailer, including specific locations, spells, characters, and creatures. The official trailer from Avalanche Software, the studio behind the Disney Infinity series, showed off an open-world action RPG that so many fans of the series have wanted since we first fell in love with Harry Potter decades ago. But with that said, the timing on the announcement could not have been worse, and it personally makes me question my excitement for a project that I should be over the moon about.
Harry Potter games have existed for about as long as the franchise itself but have never quite reached the potential of their source material. One standout includes Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup for the GameCube / PlayStation 2 / Xbox generation, which seems to ride on the coattails of nostalgia as opposed to actually being a great video game. Then there was the pair of quasi-open-world adaptations of The Order of the Phoenix and The Half-Blood Prince films during the Xbox 360 / PlayStation 3 era. While not excellent, they served their purpose well in delivering the best interactive version of Hogwarts available at the time. And at the top of the mountain are the charming pair of LEGO games, which eschew photorealism and deep systems for some genuinely great co-op renditions of the stories.
Over the past decade, WB Games has helped create critically and commercially successful video game franchises set within the world of DC Comics (the Arkham games and the upcoming Gotham Knights and Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League), as well as Middle-earth in Monolith’s Shadow of Mordor and Shadow of War. It looks like Hogwarts Legacy is an attempt to do the same within the Harry Potter world, and its 2021 target date on both console generations seems akin to how Shadow of Mordor launched in 2014 on both generations of consoles at that time — but let’s hope Hogwarts fares better than the PS3 and 360 versions of Shadow of Mordor.
Right from the get-go, Hogwarts Legacy looks like it has everything we’d wanted from a Harry Potter video game. According to a mix of the official synopsis as well as the leaks, the game is set in the late 1800s. You create a character who ends up being a late acceptance to Hogwarts. You arrive at the school as a 5th year student and have control over not only which House you’ll join, but what type of witch or wizard you’ll become, including some form of a good/evil morality scale. And from what we’ve seen in the official trailer, the adventure only takes off from there.
The trailer is filled with scenes set in iconic Hogwarts landmarks, from the Sorting Hat ceremony in the Great Hall, to the animated portraits surveying you curiously as you wander through the library. We see glimpses of experiments with various liquids in the dreary corners of the Potions classroom while a fittingly dour Snape-like professor looks on, as well as listening intently to a Herbology lesson in the bright warmth of the greenhouse. Students gather in the common rooms, lounge in the courtyards, and ready to take flight on their brooms near the Quidditch pitch.
Outside the walls of the school is the Great Lake, Forbidden Forest, and a bustling Hogsmeade. We see characters soaring through the skies on the back of Hippogryphs, high above a thin stretch of coastline adorned with a small cabin, as well as what appears to be a set of ruins. Quick shots of deep caves, tombs, and dungeons filled with trolls, goblins, spiders, dragons, zombie-like Inferi, Dementors, and evil wizards. And of course, there are plenty of shots of fantastic beasts, which you seem to battle before eventually taming. Just the kind of material that Wizarding World fans have wanted to play through for ages.
It seems like choice is at the center of Avalanche’s game. You choose your character, your House, and how your actions will define the world around you. But this focus on choice ends up bleeding outside the world of the game, as a lot of fans are having a hard time choosing whether or not they want to continue supporting projects set in the Wizarding World given J.K. Rowling’s recent statements, actions, and double-downs on sex and gender issues that range from ignorant to flat-out transphobic.
This was recently exacerbated with the reveal that her new book Troubled Blood, written under her pseudonym Robert Galbraith, is a crime novel centered around a cross-dressing serial killer. Rowling’s statements have drawn condemnation from stars of the Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts films, including Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Eddie Redmayne.
And so, we’re forced to once again mentally wrestle with the idea of separating the art from the artist. “The Death of the Author,” a literary theory popularized by Roland Barthes, argues that an author’s biographical facts and beliefs should be removed from literary interpretation. On the flip side, Lindsay Ellis has a fantastic video where she breaks down this idea when it comes to J.K. Rowling, whose relationship with the source material is unshakable and inseparable. Ellis argues that continuing to support the Harry Potter universe in 2020 is tantamount with supporting Rowling’s personal beliefs.
I’m absolutely not here to tell you which way to think, or judge anyone for whether or not they continue to consume Harry Potter-related content. But I just know that, personally, it gives me pause when it comes to how I feel about Hogwarts Legacy. Regardless, I genuinely feel bad for the hundreds of talented folks at Avalanche and WB Games who’ve been working on this for years, because the timing of the reveal has cast dark clouds over all of it.
It seems to me like the team behind Hogwarts Legacy is trying to distance itself from Rowling, without coming forward and outright saying it. Since the reveal, WB Games has stated that “J.K. Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the game.” With this, her name is conspicuously absent from the trailer and the official website, save for the legal jargon at the bottom. And looking back on it, it’s almost darkly comical that the trailer ends with the line, “The choices you make now will define the legacy of Hogwarts.” While that line obviously pertains to the decisions we make in the game, it might as well be an overarching statement on our relationship with this entire franchise going forward.