To the Moon proved to be a hit in the independent circuit upon its 2011 release. Using RPG Maker, the creators opted to create an experience devoid of combat. In a sense, Freebird Games followed in the footsteps of the cult classic Yume Nikki in how they did not use the software for its intended purpose, yet created something more memorable than many games that treat combat as their bread and butter. Though critics admitted the gameplay was lacking, they had a lot of praise for both the story and its soundtrack. The theme song, “Everything’s Alright”, was written and composed by one Laura Shigihara.
With a French-American mother and a Japanese father, Ms. Shigihara grew up in both the United States and Japan. She had been classically trained on the piano for eleven years, and taught herself how to play the guitar and drums. In her college years, she was given an old version of Cakewalk. From there, she learned about mixing, arranging, and production through recreating video game soundtracks, eventually leading her to create her own songs. A friend ended up leaking her original material to Japanese record companies. She was offered contracts to become a singer, but she turned them down for personal reasons.
When she returned to the United States, she took a job as a sound director for a company that produced an audio talk show and English learning programs through Apple of Japan. During her tenure there, she cut a studio album and composed her first soundtrack for small game called Wobbly Bobbly. Such was the extent of her excitement that she told them she would work for free. They liked her music so much that she was paid to create music for subsequent projects. From that point onward, her portfolio blossomed, with one of the most notable projects she contributed to being the highly popular 2009 tower defense game, Plants vs. Zombies. Her continued success saw her participate in a compilation album arranged by Silent Hill composer Akira Yamaoka entitled Play for Japan. It was a charity effort in response to the devastating Tōhoku earthquake, which resulted in the deaths of nearly 15,000 people. The album also included contributions from other prolific game composers such as Nobuo Uematsu, Koji Kondo, and Yasunori Mitsuda.
Ms. Shigihara’s submission for the album was a song called “Jump”. She had written the song some years before 2011, but didn’t arrange or produce it until that moment. Writing the song made her think of two things. She thought about the many times in life one must go forward and hope for the best and how everyone has a child inside that just wants to be told everything will be alright. From there, she was struck with inspiration. Ever since she was a little kid, she had always wanted to create a video game. She would design Mega Man levels on paper and write stories for hypothetical RPGs. As she composed “Jump”, she imagined a boy living in the hospital. His mother helped him cope by taking him on a grand adventure right where he was. Ms. Shigihara’s friend, Emmy Toyonaga originally wanted to help her make an animated music video for the song. However, Ms. Shigihara was captivated by her friend’s concept art, saying at that exact moment, “We should turn this into a game!”
Using the same software Freebird Games used to create To the Moon, Ms. Shigihara, along with Ms. Toyonaga and an artist by the name of Matt Holmberg set forth on this new project. The game was named Rakuen after the Japanese word for paradise. Four years in the making, the project saw its completion in January of 2017, seeing its official release in May of that year. The game was met with a reception not dissimilar to that of To the Moon. Critics praised its heartfelt story in particular, believing it to be a step forward for the medium as a whole. In the 2010s in particular, many developers tried to tug at their audience’s heartstrings with their narratives. How did Rakuen fare against these myriad competitors?
Analyzing the Experience
WARNING: Due to the nature of this work, spoilers are unavoidable.
The protagonist of this story is a young boy who is a patient at a hospital. His mother reads to him every day from his favorite storybook. The name of the book is Rakuen. It is the story of a tribal child in a fantasy world called Morizora’s forest. One day, the child wakes up only to find that everyone else in his tribe has vanished. In order for him to escape danger, his tribe sailed away to a paradise isle – “Rakuen”. The boy sets off on a journey to reach the forest’s guardian, Morizora. After a long, perilous journey, he is able to meet him. Morizora grants him his wish, allowing the boy to sail on his magical ship. The child sails away, reuniting with all of his loved ones in the beautiful world of Rakuen.
One morning, the boy is allowed to wander the hospital. It is here that you’re given proper control. Being made in RPG Maker, the overall presentation of Rakuen mirrors that of several classic JRPGs such as Final Fantasy VI. You can move your character in the four cardinal directions. Much like To the Moon before it, Rakuen set itself apart from other RPG Maker projects by having no combat at all. Despite this, there is a fair bit of role playing involved. In fact, the main character of this game is never named, meaning his point of view is shared with your own.
When you speak to characters, you can discuss a number of topics with them utilizing a dialogue tree. It is through these conversations that you’re introduced to the other patients. Among them is Gemma, a woman in a coma whose lover, Winston, visits her every day. In the same room is an ill girl named Sue, who has a sizable collection of marbles. The room next to the one shared by Gemma and Sue is occupied by Kisaburo, an older man who is frequently caught vandalizing the hospital, insisting that there’s something he must do before it’s too late. Finally, the room opposite Kisaburo’s is where another elderly man named Tony resides. He is extremely grouchy, threatening the boy when he attempts to examine his music box while demanding him and anybody else to bring him coffee.
Inventory management is typical of a contemporary adventure game. Important items are placed in the boy’s inventory upon finding them. Most items are used automatically in the appropriate situation. For example, if the boy is facing a door with the means to unlock it, you need only press the action key. Certain items must be selected from the inventory screen to properly use, however. Despite not being afforded an opportunity to fight monsters, it is possible to collect money, though you obviously won’t be using it to purchase potions or antidotes. Indeed, demonstrating the mundanity of the game’s setting, you use the first small amount of money you can collect to obtain a candy bar from a vending machine to give to a hospital worker who wants a break.
Shortly after gaining control of the boy, disaster strikes when he is unable to find his treasured storybook. This leads him to explore the hospital’s storage rooms. This gives you an idea of what to expect when it comes to puzzles in this game. You will have to pay attention to the environment and how it changes in response to your actions. Sheets of paper will give you hints on how to open the doors leading deeper into the hospital. In one room, he happens upon a strange man named Uma. He quickly admits to having taken the boy’s book, and apologizes for it, allowing him to have it back.
When his mother visits him in the hospital to read to him, she tells him that Rakuen is no ordinary book. It had been passed down from generation to generation, and it has the ability to take its owner on an adventure. Many years ago, she and her own mother had used it for that exact purpose. The boy asks his mother if they can travel to the world described in the book. She agrees, and it is here that the book’s true power manifests. In certain rooms of the hospital, a magical door will appear, allowing the boy and his mother to travel to another universe.
They find themselves in the middle of a village in which they are greeted by small creatures known as Leebles. After speaking with them, they learn that the forest’s guardian, Morizora is on the other side of a cavern.
The cavern can be construed as the game’s sole dungeon, and I have to give Ms. Shigihara and her team credit for its design. They found a way to make the dungeon intricate and involving without relying on combat as a fallback. Indeed, with the overall presentation, I was reminded of the advanced puzzles featured in Lufia II as I played through this portion. Better yet, the cavern not only serves its purpose in gameplay, it also introduces you to the various colorful inhabitants of this fantasy world. In doing so, it’s upgraded from being a mere video game level to a thriving environment that tells a story of its own.
Upon reaching the other side, the boy and his mother learn that Morizora is currently in a deep slumber. The only thing that can wake him up is the “Mori no Kokoro” – or the Heart of the Forest. It is a song made up of five different parts. Given that the guardian’s aides tell the boy and his mother to help those close to them, it’s clear they are referring to the hospital patients. It’s made all the more obvious when they name examples such as “A man whose connection with his wife has been severed” and “A woman who prepares to lose that which is the most dear to her”. It is here that the game can be said to begin in earnest.
Progressing further into the game, you’ll soon learn that all of the hospital patients have counterparts in this fantasy realm. As it would turn out, the individual songs that make up the “Mori no Kokoro”, are known by Gemma, Tony, Kisaburo, and Sue. Unfortunately, both Tony and Kisaburo have long since forgotten the important songs while Gemma and Sue are in no condition to sing. Therefore, in order to learn these melodies, the boy and his mother must delve into the subconscious. When they meet their fantasy-world counterparts, a door will materialize, allowing them to experience their memories firsthand.
This is where things get interesting. Gemma is the first person whose memories you explore. The journey is interlaced with sequences that take place in the fantasy world and ones in which the boy is made to explore a hellish, distorted hospital. What I like about how this backstory is presented is that you’re only shown the tragic events as they happened in the fantasy world. It’s up to your imagination to speculate on how they occurred in the real world. The two miniature narratives are seamlessly woven into each other; the fantastical depiction is good at giving you all of the important details while the dark realm allows you to fill any remaining gaps.
From probing these memories, the boy and his mother learn that the Leeble counterparts of Gemma and Winston hail from two different tribes: the Illbo and the Kanko. It’s revealed that there is a lot of tension between two tribes. Winston’s parents in particular are quick to remind him what the Illbo have done to their tribe in the past. It was in their attempts to elope that Gemma suffered an accident which left her in a coma. This parable is meant to reflect the real-life tensions between Japan and Korea and the adversity interracial couples face. Illbo and Kanko are derived from the Korean word for Japan and the Japanese word for Korea respectively. The symbolism is made even more obvious in the real world wherein Gemma and Winston are of those exact nationalities. In 2017, not many games could claim to have touched upon this subject, and I give Ms. Shigihara a lot of credit for this effort. She made the metaphor obvious enough for those who could read between the lines, yet she didn’t diminish Gemma and Winston and actual characters.
Where this sequence truly shines lies in the subtle details. The fantasy world is shown to be much more flawed than one would assume upon first visiting it. Though one could get the impression the Leeble would be the stereotypical perfect non-human species that were all the rage in the 2010s, it turns out they can’t claim to be better or worse in the end. It lends a gritty flavor to the otherwise colorful world. Meanwhile, the distorted hospital manages to exude an oppressive atmosphere that puts many contemporary horror titles to shame. The hospital is populated with creatures known as the envoy. They are shadowy creatures said to appear and thrive off of negative feelings. Despite randomly appearing and disappearing in response to the boy’s actions, they only send him back to an earlier spot if he touches them. From here, one could get the impression that there is no real danger present. However, you’ll soon reach an area in which the boy has to quickly swim through a water-filled underground passage. The timer that accompanies this portion is an oxygen meter, and in case you thought the game was bluffing, you will be jettisoned back to the title screen if it runs out.
I could tell as I was playing this game that Ms. Shigihara wanted to treat her audience to an experience like none other. Not only was this made apparent when she conceived the scenario involving Gemma and Winston, but also in the concept behind the two main characters. The boy is the protagonist in a role-playing game, but being an ordinary child, he cannot fight. It’s not as though he becomes a warrior in the fantasy realm either; his brand of heroism emerges when he helps people out rather than by vanquishing a powerful demon.
Meanwhile, his mother is a character who defies typical storytelling trends. It’s extraordinarily rare for a parent in fiction to be presented as an actual character. It’s common for them to be unceremoniously killed off for the sake of allowing the protagonist to grow from the experience. When a narrative chooses not to do this, a parent tends not to have a higher role than simply being “the parent”. In the odd case that a writer depicts parents as actual people, nine times out of ten, you can expect it to be a rather cynical deconstruction of the typical role they play. In these scenarios, the goal is to show that parents aren’t infallible.
What I like about how Rakuen handles the mother’s characterization is that it doesn’t really meld with any of these conventional approaches. The mother is not killed off early for the sake of cheap drama. She’s also never shown to be anything other than a good parent, regularly visiting her sick child at the hospital. In fact, once she joins the boy on his journey, you have him speak with her, which allows you to learn more about her character in addition to receiving advice on what to do next. She does have an arc to her that becomes more apparent in the final phases of the game, showing she too has her insecurities. In other words, not only does she survive the game, but this story is as much hers as it is her son’s.
Of the numerous good things I could say about its writing, I think the greatest strength of Rakuen lies in how unafraid it is to touch upon heavy subjects. The backstory of Gemma and Winston is merely the tip of the iceberg. After giving Tony some coffee, the boy and his mother are allowed to take the music box. They intend to have a Leeble blacksmith fix it, but they run into a problem when Tony’s fantasy realm counterpart has forgotten the song.
This subplot is then explored from the perspective of his daughter, Christina. Tony’s fantasy realm counterpart is a bear, and it’s through this section we learn he had another child named Benny, whom Christina cared for very much. The boy and his mother are made to explore a distorted version of a house Tony and his family once owned. The eventual reveal is once again expertly foreshadowed.
In the house, the boy finds scattered journal entries that suggest Christina’s grades have been slipping and she was seeing a psychiatrist. One touch I particularly liked was that after navigating a hallway multiple times, words are scrawled on the wall one by one, forming the sentence “Benny was here”. It’s effective because the player is likely to expect the envoy to appear at any moment, yet their absence makes things even more unsettling. In the fantasy realm, Benny is shown to have carelessly fallen to his death from a bridge on Christina’s watch. From that day onward, Tony refused to speak with Christina, though he keeps her music box with him.
The later scenarios are no less impactful. As a possible consequence to overworking himself, Kisaburo is currently suffering from what is implied to be a form of dementia. It’s bad enough that he doesn’t recognize his own children have grown up, and despite the boy’s efforts to help him, he ends up dying from this disorder. Sue is later revealed to be terminally ill, which is punctuated when she gives the boy her marble collection as her last will. The ultimate reveal is that the game is heavily implied to be taking place in the wake of the Fukushima disaster brought about by the Tōhoku earthquake in 2011. The protagonist’s father and his fellow workers completed a shutdown, but they lost their lives in the process. The boy himself has cancer, and despite his mother’s insistence to the contrary, he isn’t getting better.
I can imagine some people are wondering why I gave elaborate descriptions of the first two scenarios only to rush the remaining three. This is because I felt it was the best way of demonstrating the game’s biggest weakness. As interesting as these story beats are, the narrative truncates around the halfway point. The greatest appeal about the first two scenarios is that the fantasy realm and the real world sections complemented each other perfectly. Meanwhile, every scenario starting with Kisaburo’s is presented almost exclusively in the real world, which makes them less memorable.
This radical shift also results in puzzles gradually disappearing from the proceedings. In the first half, you had to explore the hellish landscapes carefully in order to progress through both the subject’s memories and the environment itself. In the second half, a vast majority of the scenarios involve you interacting with the one person or object necessary to advance the plot. The story is still good, but it’s easy to get the sense that it relies less on the player as time goes on. Considering the medium’s defining trait, this would be a fatal weakness under most circumstances.
I also have to say that some of the developments are decidedly predictable. At the beginning of the game, the boy is visited by another boy named Yami. He claims to have snuck out of his room out of boredom when the hospital’s attendants weren’t looking. Though there’s nothing particularly untoward about him at first, his unusual character model along with only ever interacting with the boy make it easy to guess that he’s not a real person. The game does have something of a red herring in that the room across from the boy’s is locked and doesn’t have a name on it. It could lead some into believing that’s where Yami is staying, but when you enter it from the fantasy realm late in the game, it turns out to be empty.
Yami is actually a representation of the boy’s sadness, anger, and resentment due to his condition and the death of his father. The actual moment when the mother hugs this manifestation is powerful, but considering that “yami” is the Japanese word for “darkness”, the symbolism in this particular instance is a little too on-the-nose. It’s a shame considering how much the narrative excelled whenever took a more nuanced, subtle approach. That the boy has cancer is an admittedly unsurprising twist as well. One cannot see any hair poking out from under the paper hat he wears and a cursory internet search to look up the medication he is being prescribed could potentially reveal his condition before you’ve even left the first room in the game.
Fortunately, none of this detracts from the powerful ending. With the guardian awakened, he grants the boy a wish. Having accepted his fate, the boy wishes to sail to Rakuen. Much like how the boy in the story wanted to reunite with his tribespeople, the boy desires to reunite with the departed souls he became close to over the course of the game. Promising to be brave for each other, the boy leaves his mother behind, ready to depart to the afterlife.
An interesting interpretation I’ve heard is that the events of the game didn’t really happen, and what you witnessed was just a story the mother is telling her dying child. It would explain a few things such as the general lack of a reaction the boy has to learning of the hospital patients’ fantasy realm counterparts, but at the end of the day, I don’t think it really matters. The story was real to him, and who is to say that his journey didn’t influence the other patients for the better? In any case, I commend this game for sticking the landing despite making a few missteps along the way.
Drawing a Conclusion
Whenever I discuss the classic 1992 game Dragon Quest V, it’s typically in the context of how well it has held up as an emotionally-driven experience. It had a certain something that many later artists aiming for something similar such as Shigesato Itoi with Mother 3 did not possess. Indeed, game developers in the 2010s had a particularly difficult time depicting serious themes without coming across as desperate to prove the skeptics who didn’t take the medium seriously wrong. After completing Rakuen and letting the experience settle in my mind for some time, I know what that important aspect is: restraint. Ms. Shigihara succeeds where many of artists going for something similar failed because she touches upon these themes in a straightforward manner without feeling the need to dwell on them any longer than necessary. Her characters go through hell, yet she knows when enough is enough and gives them a break after all is said and done. This quality makes for a story far more mature than one that piles on the angst in the name of creating true art.
Rakuen is the kind of standard more artists should strive for, being a passion project in the purest sense of the term. The amount of effort that went into the game can be felt every single minute you’re experiencing it. Though many independent games have great music, Ms. Shigihara and her team went the extra mile, composing several original songs complete with excellent vocals. Rakuen was made by someone who had a lot of faith in her audience to try something that goes beyond what a game typically constitutes, and such an ethos should be rewarded.
Final Score: 7/10