Game Design

is harry potter’s wizarding world ready for open-world video game hogwarts legacy?

As a long-time Harry Potter fan, I was excited by the announcement of the first open-world video game set in the Harry Potter universe.  When Hogwarts Legacy was announced last week at the PlayStation 5 showcase event (16th September 2020), it was met with mixed reactions: excitement for the long-teased game and unease in the recent controversy surrounding the novels’ author.

I’m not here to talk about the controversy and resulting calls to boycott the game — there’s plenty about that elsewhere online.

Instead, I’m writing this blog post about how I expect the beloved franchise will translate to the open-world video gaming experience.  I want to discuss whether the Wizarding World is big enough for this kind of adventure story,  and whether the game designers will be able to make Hogwarts Legacy as compelling as it can be.

What We Know About the Open-World RPG Hogwarts Legacy So Far

Hogwarts Legacy is an upcoming 2021 open-world action RPG where you attend Hogwarts in the 1800s.  There, you find out you have a special ability to use “Ancient Magic” and need to save the Wizarding World from a terrible threat.  The game promises spell-casting, broom-flying, magical creatures, wand combat, exploration and much more in line with what we expect from the Harry Potter franchise.

The trailer ends with the three word slogan, “Live the Unwritten”, which makes sense.  This is the first Harry Potter game not overlapping a time we have visited the Wizarding World so far.

Past Harry Potter Video Games

Previous Harry Potter video games include the movie tie-ins to the Harry Potter films, as well as a couple of Lego games also linked to the movies.

Since the Portkey Games division of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment was formed in 2017, it has released two mobile games.  The first, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery (2018), is set a few years before Harry arrives at Hogwarts, allowing players to meet older characters who would have been at school like Bill Weasley and Nymphadora Tonks, and the usual gamut of professors like Dumbledore, Hagrid and Snape.

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In 2019, Portkey Games released Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, the AR game from the creators of Pokemon Go that was basically a re-skin with some added storytelling taking place after Harry leaves Hogwarts.  A grown-up Harry, Ron and Hermione now work at the Ministry of Magic, and Hermione in particular gives you missions as you collect items for what is essentially a wizarding sticker book.

I’ve written about the game design shortcomings of Hogwarts Mystery and Wizards Unite before, and I have high hopes for the upcoming RPG.  Hogwarts Legacy will be Portkey Games’ third, and most ambitious, foray into the Wizarding World.  From what we’ve seen so far, it’s likely that the new game will be closest in style to the action-adventure movie tie-ins.

Hogwarts Legacy. Image from: Warner Bros. Games.

The Importance of Story in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Anyone who loves the Harry Potter books is probably a fan of a good story.  So, Hogwarts Legacy is a game that almost certainly needs to have, at its core, a really immersive, engaging story.  The developers have chosen to set it in a never-before visited period of wizarding history, the late 1800s.  This is a smart move because they’ll get to freely invent characters and plot that are not tied to things we already know about the series, but it does come with a price.

In previous games, developers could rely on the fandom wanting to interact with the characters they know.  This is a huge advantage because Harry Potter is very much a character-driven story.  It’s instantly rewarding when we play as or meet our favourite characters, or encounter familiar scenes from Harry’s story.  Without that handicap, the game designers need to write a story that is as compelling without the advantage of the players having an anchor besides the world itself.

That brings me to the question: is the Harry Potter world large enough for an open-world adventure game?

Creating New Video Game Stories Set in Existing Fictional Worlds

For context, here are two games that have built new adventures within existing franchise worlds.

1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003) is a role-playing game set in the Star Wars universe.  Occurring thousands of years before the event of the Star Wars movies, the player is able to play as their own Jedi character.  Though the game has a main storyline, it is affected by the player’s choices to align their character with the Light or Dark side of the Force.  The story and characters, which are original to the game, were widely praised.

2. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014) is an open-world action-adventure game taking place between the events of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in Tolkien’s Middle-earth universe.  Players control a ranger named Talion, who goes through a main story centred around revenge.

Although the game was well-received, it was largely due to its open-world design, combat and especially its signature Nemesis System.  This is an AI-based system for non-player characters, which had all the orcs remembering past grudges and actions based on Talion’s encounters with them in that playthrough.  Unlike Knights of the Old Republic, Shadow of Mordor‘s story was not its strong point.

Both these games were highly successful, winning several Game of the Year awards apiece, notably both winning the Game Developers Choice title when they were released.  But they were successful for different reasons.  Knights of the Old Republic had narrative depth, while Shadow of Mordor had combat complexity.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic screenshot.  Image from: BioWare via Steam.

What Knights of the Old Republic and Shadow of Mordor have in common is that they were built within well-established worlds.

These fictional worlds have been developed over many years and across multiple media.

1. Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic

The Star Wars universe has been built far beyond the films through television shows from the 1980s to the Disney+ success The Mandalorian, with multiple series currently in the works.  Not to mention the Star Wars comics that started in 1977, the same year the first Star Wars movie was released.

This means that multiple writers have contributed to various aspects of the world, making it larger and giving it more depth.  These spinoffs gave supporting characters their own stories, created new characters, and brought the audience to new places.

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By the time Knights of the Old Republic came around in 2003, there would have been writers out there familiar with writing for the Star Wars universe who were brought on to work on the video game.  Additionally, Star Wars fans would have had experience navigating a multi-threaded franchise rather than just the initial films.

2. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

Stories of Middle-earth have existed even longer than Star Wars, with The Hobbit being published in 1937 followed by the immensely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy in the 1950s.  Tolkien is well-known for his depth of world-building, developing his “legendarium” as far back as 1914 through poems, paintings, stories, and history that don’t even make it into his novels.

Despite this, Middle-earth has largely been a single author’s property, with new media typically revolving around the events and characters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  Writers of Shadow of Mordor, then, would have struggled a bit more to come up with something that made sense in this world, resulting in the lacklustre story.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor screenshot. Image from: Monolith Productions via Steam.

What Does That Mean for New Stories in the Harry Potter Universe?

We’ve got a world that is developed by a single author, with basically no side stories like Star Wars has in the comics.  Although it’s been more than twenty years since the first Harry Potter novel was published, we’re going purely off of stories from the Harry Potter books and the Fantastic Beasts film series, which have a lot of overlap.  There’s just not much there.

To debut a story within an open-world video game like Hogwarts Legacy is difficult because the main character is an audience insert.  We already know we’re returning to Hogwarts, so I’m expecting much of the familiar.  Same ghosts, same long tables, same Potions classes, same Sorting ceremony.  Maybe even a young Albus Dumbledore as a student, if the developers can’t resist that temptation.

But then, what?  Most of the places we’ve experienced in the Wizarding World so far have been in context of Harry’s story, and if you count them up, there aren’t that many.  The Burrow wouldn’t make sense without the Weasleys, nor would Privet Drive without the Dursleys.  Can you imagine Hogwarts grounds without Hagrid’s Hut, or the Whomping Willow?  These are the things that fans would want to experience first-hand, because these are the only familiar things we have.

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There’s a shortcut here where the designers can put in characters that are ancestors of existing characters, that somehow look a lot like them and share many of the same personality traits.  But that kind of storytelling doesn’t do much more than fan service.  Then you’ve got the Time Turner solution of having some scenes in the future with our favourite trio, but that gets messy, as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child showed us.  Either way, it feels like it’s been done before.

Hogwarts Legacy website FAQ.

Video Games Rely on More than Good Storytelling

If story doesn’t work out, the game will have to rely on other things, like Shadow of Mordor does with combat and the Nemesis System.  Hogwarts Legacy will need to have outstanding puzzle-solving, or exciting Quidditch matches, or really cool spell-casting.  The problem is that we’ve never really seen any of those done really well before in a Harry Potter game.  And it may be strange if the best parts of a Harry Potter game are not the main story.

In light of the recent controversies, Warner Bros. has been quick to speak out about how JK Rowling is not directly involved in the creation of the video game.  But this means that the game designers are taking a scary step, without a guide, into a world that has not been explored by a wealth of other creators through spinoffs, comics or television shows.  Is there enough depth, and is a video game the right medium in which to start exploring that depth without first testing the waters?

JK Rowling is a fantastic world-builder, no doubt about that.  But her stories have been character-centric, which means that fans long to fight Dementors with Harry, or study Potions with Snape.  It will be exciting to see Hogwarts develop under a different group of storytellers, in a different medium, while trying to give fans the feeling of fantasy that they loved from the books.  I’m looking forward to seeing if, and how, Hogwarts Legacy captures that magic.