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Everybody wants to be happy, but Harry Potter gets in the way at Hogwarts Legacy

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    a wizard, silhouetted against a wall of flames, battles spiders in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    Rowling’s specter looms above a vapid open world


    Hogwarts Legacy is not so much a video game as it is an attempt to resolve what was a particular writer’s very specific point of view into a “universe” that will please everyone, regardless of whether that ever coheres into something that makes sense.

    Joanne Rowling wrote Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, famously, as a single mother struggling in poverty. It would make her richer than most people in the world. When the series began in my youth, whether I would be into it was not really a question. I was 11, the same age as Harry when he first went to Hogwarts. Of course I read the damn books. We were all reading the damn books.

    Describing my fandom for the series is telling the story of an entire generation. People still casually drop their Hogwarts house in their dating profiles; proper nouns like “Voldemort” have been adopted into our language as shorthand for a tyrant or proto-fascist who comes into power; god knows how many people have Deathly Hallows tattoos. Even after the original book series ended, as Potter has waned in popularity, it remains a cultural touchstone. The post-canon Broadway play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child won six Tony Awards, and the Wizarding World areas at Universal Studios theme parks earned the ire of Disney for beating the company at its own game. Harry Potter is influential enough that NBCUniversal bought the broadcast and streaming rights to the franchise for an estimated quarter of a billion dollars in 2016. Rowling initially sold the film rights for the first four books to Warner Bros. for £1 million ($1.65 million) in 1999.

    A witch stands in front of a door in Hogwarts Legacy in a dimly lit greenhouse Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    Hogwarts Legacy has the fortune, or burden, of being an essential piece of a financial portfolio that is otherwise teetering on the edge of collapse.

    The game comes at a time when Warner Bros.’ attempts to milk this particular franchise have mostly failed. Although the first entry in the Fantastic Beasts series did well commercially and well enough critically, each subsequent film has performed worse. In November 2022, Variety reported that Warner Bros. was not actively developing any Harry Potter or Fantastic Beasts films. Other than Cursed Child, which is currently running in six cities around the world, Hogwarts Legacy is the only new Potter-related content from Warner Bros. since Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore.

    Unlike the Fantastic Beasts films, Hogwarts Legacy does not cross over with any characters from Rowling’s original books. You will not see Dumbledore or Grindelwald; the professors and the students are all new. Still, the game is excruciatingly familiar.

    Hogwarts Legacy is an open-world adventure game from Avalanche Software, a developer known primarily for making the Disney Infinity series and licensed movie tie-ins — the last game it released was Cars 3: Driven to Win in 2017. Development on Hogwarts Legacy began that same year.

    In Hogwarts Legacy, you play as a new student at the famed wizarding school who soon finds themselves embroiled in an ancient conspiracy, and uses their newfound powers to quell a goblin rebellion.

    It’s likely that if you’re reading this, you have already made up your mind about Hogwarts Legacy. Because of Rowling’s persistent transphobic activism, the game has become a central pillar in a culture war to determine transgender people’s right to exist. Like many trans-exclusionary feminists, Rowling positions her viewpoint as one that protects women from predatory men, but it’s a line of thinking that puts her more in league with right-wing agitators than other feminists. Some of the anti-trans activists that Rowling has shown support to online hold other deeply regressive views, like Caroline Farrow, who is also anti-abortion and against gay rights. In fact, while Rowling was trying to fundraise for victims of the war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin cited her as a victim of “cancel culture.”

    a group of inferi, skeletons with glowing eyes, walk to the right of the camera in a dungeon in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    Rowling doesn’t let the contradictions in her viewpoints hold her back. She was outspoken in her criticism of gender recognition laws proposed in Scotland last year, which would have allowed trans people to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis — she went so far as to call Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon a “destroyer of women’s rights.” The bill was later blocked from becoming law by the U.K. government.

    Just this month, in a trailer for a new podcast from the production company of right-wing thinker Bari Weiss, Rowling said, “What has interested me over the last 10 years, and certainly in the last few years — last two, three years — particularly on social media: [People saying,] ‘You’ve ruined your legacy. Oh, you could’ve been beloved forever, but you chose to say this.’ And I think, You could not have misunderstood me more profoundly.”

    What people think of her, and by extension, Harry Potter, is clearly on Rowling’s mind. If it weren’t, she would not need to go out of her way to use her legal team to threaten people who tweet mean things about her, nor would she have written an entire book about people saying mean things online. Despite how conspicuous her absence is from Hogwarts Legacy’s creation — publisher Warner Bros. Games has gone out of its way to say that Rowling wasn’t personally involved, though her production company was — she is felt everywhere.

    And so it’s hard not to consider Rowling herself when playing Hogwarts Legacy. For a very specific group of political bad actors that are determined to make their problems the problems of the entire world, the game itself is more than a game at this point. It is a signal of one’s politics. You’re either with Rowling, or against her.

    a wizard wanders outside of the castle at dusk in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    Disappearing into Hogwarts Castle doesn’t render this ongoing debate invisible. In fact, the world of Hogwarts Legacy — in particular, the game’s conspicuous attempts at diversity — illuminates Rowling’s hatefulness in stark relief. Somehow, Hogwarts as it existed in the 1890s, when the game takes place, is more diverse along every axis than it is in 1995, when the Harry Potter novels begin. When I read the books as a young girl, I longed for more Indian representation than just Parvati and Padma Patil. In Hogwarts Legacy, multiple professors are Indian, as are my classmates. There’s a potion vendor in one of the small hamlets that has the same name as my mother. Rather than providing comfort, it makes me skeptical. While Rowling’s racial representation has never been good, tossing a half-dozen Indians into the Scottish countryside willy-nilly isn’t exactly better. Where did they come from — India, which was still under British rule in the 1800s? And where did they all go by the time Harry got there?

    How Hogwarts Legacy fits into the overall fiction of Harry Potter becomes thornier the more you think about these contradictions. If the witch that I met south of campus is, along with her wife, openly a lesbian, then why didn’t Dumbledore ever come out of the closet? If it’s possible for non-British witches and wizards to teach at Hogwarts, why didn’t they in the ’90s, when Harry was there? Many, many characters remark on how unusual it is that you’re a new student starting as a fifth-year, which is not something that the Potter books ever indicated could happen. But none of the other characters talk about how strange it is that Hogwarts has a transfer student from the Ugandan school Uagadou. In the one book where witches and wizards from other schools showed up, from France and Bulgaria, their presence was treated as a rare oddity.

    It’s clear that Hogwarts Legacy is, in part, an attempt to position Harry Potter as a franchise that does not need direct involvement from Rowling. Like with Star Wars after it became a Disney property, Warner Bros. seems to see a great opportunity here to tell new stories and make boatloads of money doing it. But Rowling’s world-building isn’t strong enough to sustain anything outside of her original vision. A wizarding world without her reveals the awful truth of the Potter franchise: It has always been a house of cards, threatening to collapse if you remove just one pillar.

    A wizard casts a dark spell with a red beam and sparks coming out of his wand in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    What stands out most is how unmagical it feels to play Hogwarts Legacy. The very first spell you use is called a “basic cast,” and aside from allowing for some environmental interaction, it essentially turns your wand into a gun. In fact, most of Hogwarts Legacy feels like a third-person shooter, one in which you barely have to aim. While you can and will learn other spells as you progress through the school year — a few of them are necessary for the main story missions — none of them are all that necessary for combat. You can make it through most of the game by using your basic cast, parrying enemy attacks, and following up with the resulting stun spell.

    Enemy variety is also dire. You will be fighting the same goblins, wizards, and trolls until the very end of the story. Often, the game ups the difficulty by simply piling on more enemies.

    After a certain point, I stopped unlocking new spells unless they were necessary to progress the plot, because the basic ones were more than capable of getting the job done. What’s more, many of the spells are almost identical to one another. Early in the game, you learn the spell Levioso, which levitates objects and people. Later on, you learn Wingardium Leviosa, which also levitates objects, but in a slightly different way. Each one takes up a spell slot, and certain puzzles require you to use both. Why they aren’t just the same spell is beyond me. It’s redundant at best, and tedious at worst.

    The unlocking of spells, on the other hand, is one of the rare areas where playing Hogwarts Legacy feels like attending a magical school. In order to unlock new spells, you have to complete simple assignments given to you by your various teachers. But other than in a few main story missions, you have no obligation to return to class ever again.

    A group of students lounges around a classroom with various tools and teaching materials, and a middle-aged woman as the professor in the center, in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    The illusion of a magical school is never fully complete, and sometimes, the way the game renders Hogwarts takes you out of the fiction entirely because of how incongruous it is with Rowling’s work. Though the game has a day-night cycle, if you’re on school grounds after dark, there’s no Argus Filch to rat you out to your teachers. When you visit Ollivanders, your wand doesn’t really choose you — a cutscene plays, and then you customize your wand. The Sorting Hat only asks you two questions, and if you don’t like the house you’re sorted into, you’re given the option to change it. If you’re still seeking a video game to provide the fantasy of being a Hogwarts student, this one will not fulfill that desire. Even the surrounding castle grounds feel generic and uninspired.

    In playing Hogwarts Legacy, I couldn’t help but think about the games of 2014, particularly Ubisoft’s Far Cry 4, which sets you loose in the fictional country of Kyrat, uncovering bits of the map and clearing outposts and gathering loot. That’s Hogwarts Legacy in a nutshell. You’ll come across poacher camps or outposts of evil goblins, reveal new parts of the map, and loot new hats, robes, or gloves. It plays like an open-world shooter from the 2010s, just with wands and a Wizarding World veneer.

    This dated design ethos extends to the Room of Requirement, the game’s most inexplicable systemic device. It’s where you go to craft potions, grow plants, and upgrade gear — activities that range from trivial (raising a gear item by a point or two) to actively disruptive (you can quickly craft 25 health potions and carry every one of them into combat, making damage a complete non-concern).

    a witch holds her wand, whose tip is glowing purple, at Ollivanders wand shop as an old man looks on in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    The Room of Requirement also plays host to one of the game’s messiest major subplots. Poachers of magical animals inhabit the woods outside of Hogwarts. Deek, the house elf that lives in the Room of Requirement, suggests a way for you to help save the creatures from the poachers: Take the beasts from their natural habitats, bring them back to the Room of Requirement, and care for them until they give you their magical byproducts voluntarily. If you run out of room, you can always sell your excess magical creatures to a shop in Hogsmeade.

    I am not sure how my actions as a player in Hogwarts Legacy make me any different from a poacher, except that I guess I am nice to the animals and the poachers are mean? No effort is made to explain why I shouldn’t just leave the animals alone, in their native environments, where they belong.

    Besides the weirdness around poaching, you’re also up against the evil goblin Ranrok and his wizard ally Rookwood. Ranrok’s motives are pretty clear: After a wizard committed a vicious hate crime against him, he became prejudiced against all wizardkind and is trying to lead a rebellion of goblins to start a war, though the goblins you meet pointedly say that they think Ranrok has gone too far with his methods. Why Rookwood is there, and why Ranrok is cooperating with him despite hating him, is never all that clear.

    By the end of the game, I still had no idea what Rookwood wanted or why he was working with Ranrok, or what he had planned to do with the cache of magical power they were unearthing together. So much of the plot of the various quests of Hogwarts Legacy refuses to cohere. It is exhausting to play as a former fan of Harry Potter, a vacuous representation of the series’ iconography that also disrespects my time and intelligence as a player.

    When I try to understand how Hogwarts Legacy turned out like this, my thoughts return to J.K. Rowling.

    What made the Harry Potter books so successful is the root cause of the game’s inner conflict — it’s pulled between the developers’ urge to build a world for “everyone” and the books’ universe being limited to the “special few.” Harry Potter wasn’t designed to encompass all points of view and experiences, like Hogwarts Legacy is. Here, your protagonist erupts into existence the moment before they head to school for the first time, and their past is never mentioned. Rowling’s vision of Hogwarts, with Harry at its center, is much more specific than that. It was originally devised as a parody of the expensive private schools that rich English families send their children to.

    So of course all the witches and wizards in China, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh go to the same school in Rowling’s universe — she’s approaching the entire world from the perspective of a white, upper-class British woman. When the Potter books were most popular, she would have been part of a specific kind of liberal movement — the New Labour movement — which lasted from the ’90s until the 2010s. In fact, Rowling is close friends with New Labour leader and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and donated £1 million to the Labour Party under his leadership. New Labour was a movement that sought to redefine the party as a more market-focused, “Third Way” centrist party and move away from socialist policy ideals. It was a rousing success for the Labour Party, though it faced some criticism for not delivering on promises about social justice and equality.

    A dragon looms over a wizard in the forest at night in Hogwarts Legacy Image: Avalanche Software/Warner Bros. Games

    New Labour was a facet of neoliberalism; J.K. Rowling is a neoliberal. Her resistance to change, her lack of interest in cultures other than her own, her classism, and her many anti-trans remarks all flow from this same tributary, and her creative output comes from there, too. In order to contort Harry Potter into something like what Hogwarts Legacy tries to be — a playground for everyone — you have to flatten and remove Rowling’s vision.

    Where the game tries to give players anything and everything they want, Rowling’s books wouldn’t have and do not. The books are moralizing and judgmental — the dark magic spells (which the game lets you learn without consequence) are called Unforgivable Curses. Hogwarts Legacy tries to anticipate every type of player, but Rowling didn’t want her world to be for everyone. It leaves the game feeling distinctly un-Potter-like — a generic open-world game from 10 years ago given a coat of paint that looks like Harry Potter if you squint. It’s not just empty in gameplay terms; it’s empty of any kind of meaningful emotional experience, devoid of whatever spark lit up in the hearts of 11-year-olds around the world in 1997.

    If Warner Bros. sees Harry Potter as a potential franchise competitor to Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this game should give the company at least a little pause as it counts its boatloads of money and, presumably, considers greenlighting a sequel. Because after the initial warmth of returning to a memory from childhood wears off, there’s not much for players to sink their teeth into.

    Hogwarts Legacy is a game that relies entirely on your nostalgia to power your enjoyment — it’s a piñata with nothing inside.

    Hogwarts Legacy was released Feb. 10 on PlayStation 5, Windows PC, and Xbox Series X; it is scheduled to launch April 4 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and July 25 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed on PS5. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.


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