Written by: Leaf Spiritweaver
Images by: James Schwarz
In 1997, a then-unknown author opened the door to a world of unexpected magic. This world floated in obscure parallel to our own, and it was as mysterious, fantastic, and deceptively mundane as its creator. Without warning, J. K. Rowling unleashed her vision upon the literary world, and, in virtually no time, everyone had heard of The Boy Who Lived.
It was not merely recognition that surrounded the tale of Harry Potter; it was also the vibrant and mysterious power the books held over every community they reached. Whether he was loved or despised, the unassuming ten-year-old boy with the telltale scar resonated on some personal level with virtually everyone.
But it wasn’t just Harry. Every aspect of Rowling’s world stirred a flurry of emotion that rivaled the frothiest witch’s cauldron. From snacks to clothing, the world could not get enough of Harry and his friends. It was as though millions of people had suddenly developed an insatiable hunger for wonder – a hunger that life in the world of wizards might quell. Finally, this fall, that hunger will be fully sated in Second Life.
Hogwarts: Your Story is opening, and for the first time ever, Harry is old news. Before anyone starts working their Avada Kedavra mojo on me, let me explain. This time, the story is about you.
Set around the same time as the series prologue, the game is designed to allow players to experience Hogwarts for themselves. While the setting is canonical (Dumbledore and Voldemort are dead, for example), the stories themselves are something entirely new. There is no Harry or Hermione to be found. Nobody will be fighting over who gets to be which Weasley. Unlike the litany of console-based games that have traditionally allowed abridged re-hashings of the series or dim narrative attempts at living in Potter’s shadow, the creators have dedicated themselves to bringing each and every student the opportunity for their own highly-individualized quest – from scratch. Each player is free to be a hero or villain of their own choosing. Whether they are destined to be a champion of righteousness or a fiend who makes Tom Riddle seem like a model boy scout, the journey is theirs to tailor to their whims.
This does not mean that legends are born easily. On the contrary, much like in the books, Your Story’s magic is a fickle and unpredictable mistress. Ironclad dedication (as well as innate talent) is required to master its forces. Your Story’s creative team has embodied this in a brilliant spell book system. Instead of following the tradition of simple experience points or skill effects that are policed by a combat system, student acquisitions are role-played for content. For instance, rather than purchasing a spell with a handful of stat boosts, students must attend a class in which the spell is taught. Further, they must role-play the process of learning and mastering the effect. Finally, after all requirements are met, the spell may appear on the player’s character log.
This system is sure to cut down on meta gaming. No longer will story-focused players be mowed down by combat veterans with carefully adjusted skill trees. Most importantly, there is at last a reason for those strange and terrible powers. You can be sure that unforgivable curses will make much more of an impression when players know that the classmate using it must have been secretly lurking about unsavory sources. Suddenly, the appearance of certain spells or items becomes very reflective of the player who procured them.
Moreover, the team has faithfully captured the way Rowling’s magics shape the world. Potions class, for example, is just as dank and sinister in Your Story as it was under Snape’s tutelage. Charms class, in counterpoint, has a strange and whimsical feel. Even History of Magic makes an appearance in the form of a stuffy-feeling classroom festooned in eccentric portraits. Magic is alive in Your Story. It shapes every experience by its interaction or absence – exactly as it does in Rowling’s stories.
It is this life and vitality that make even the castle itself a joy to witness. There are, after all, few things as lifeless and cold as rough stone. Yet, the Hogwarts in Your Story manages to be both menacing and inviting. Every sunbathed tendril of ivy or light-strewn hallway feels like a part of some glorious whole. Despite the mystery, despite the danger, the build makes it very possible to think of Hogwarts as a home – a task that not even the original texts always conveyed properly. Several times during our tour, it struck me that part of the love that characters from the original tales exhibited for their school was rooted in that same sense of familial belonging. It is very likely that players will experience this same emotion – that maybe Hogwarts belongs to them as surely as they belong to Hogwarts.
In reality, there is nearly too much to say about the project. It could be argued that, on some basic level, every fan of Rowling’s books yearns for the chance to explore a magical forest, to be empowered by primal forces, and to shape the world by alternately harnessing dark forces or standing steadfastly against them. The creators of Hogwarts: Your Story understand this urge. They have truly crafted the perfect fan experience. There is virtually no limit to the adventure in store for players. By crafting the entirety of Rowling’s world into a non-crippling system, in turn set in an evocative representation of the series, they have empowered players to come by fame and triumph honestly.
This is precisely what makes the project elegant. The ultimate goal of the true role player is to generate a well-crafted story. Within the world of Harry Potter, these tales are intricate, expertly paced, infinitely detailed, and unflinchingly dedicated to logical (if often unexpected) conclusions. Hogwarts: Your Story does each of these things nearly effortlessly. Through this vehicle, a thousand new stories will be born.
One of them will be mine.