Looking through Rule of Rose’s sepia ending tinted glasses
(Spoiler warning. Trigger warning for violence, childhood bullying and implied sexual assault.)
“I am the Bucket Knight, keeper of promises. …Yet, time can be so cruel, for I have aged and cannot remember the past. You know what I refer to and I know that you know. …However, you do not know at the moment, nor can you remember. Let us recall our memories together in order to remember our promise. – The Bucket Knight, Rule of Rose”
Rule of Rose is a story about a little girl who was always left behind. She had a loving family, and when disaster strikes she is taken in by a grieving father who lost his own child. She starts her life anew, escaping with her love, then engages in a year of power-struggle among the other children before having every single person she knew gunned down in front of her. She is abandoned as the sole survivor again. She needs to escape from this loop, and she could only do this by growing up. By growing, up I mean abandoning the falsehood in her head and embracing reality, the sensible place.
Or, Rule of Rose is a story about a little girl who was always left behind. She lost her birth parents to an accident , her own identity to the hand of carer/kidnapper, her adopted identity to her escape, her freedom to her possessive lover, her dog to her friends, before having everyone single person she knew gunned down on front of her and abandoned as the sole survivor again. She needed to escape from this loop, and she could only do this by growing up. By growing up, that means abandoning the reality and embracing the fantasy world, the happy place.
The game starts with the player character Jennifer, despite being 19, being so traumatised that her growth is stunted and she is mentally set to being a pre-teen. She arrives in the now-abandoned orphanage hoping to find the facts to the tragic massacre. She is lost, and she cannot be freed until the truth has been uncovered. And that means she has to relive her year in the orphanage, to re-suffer the unforgiving social minefield that is a pre-teen girl’s self-made gladiator ground.
The unreliable narration is the core of the game. Somewhere between resentment and survivor’s guilt, Jennifer changes her memory again and again throughout the game. And in the end, when the game was about to reward the players with closure of clarity, it left yet another ambiguous trap.
The final boss, Gregory is a disturbed individual, someone so damaged by the death of his son Joshua his mentality takes a spiral fall as the game progresses, going from kidnapping Jennifer and forcing her to take on the identity of Joshua, to believing that he is Joshua’s dog and follows every single command from anyone who resembles Joshua. Wendy, Jennifer’s obsessive friend and lover, did not take Jennifer’s decision to leave then being publicly demoted from the queen-bee position well – by dressing up as Joshua and lead Gregory into committing massacre in the orphanage, an ultimate serial murder-suicide of Wendy via proxy. The final battle occurs when Jennifer finds out that her entire orphanage had been slaughtered and was cornered by Gregory who is ready to take her too.
The bad ending is simple – fight the boss battle, kill the enemy, win. To earn the good ending, Jennifer needs to wait for Gregory’s momentary elapse, when he is on his knees begging toward the sky. She could hand the revolver to him and watch him commit suicide. Gregory the murderer. Gregory the dog. Gregory her kidnapper. Gregory her saviour.
To me the message is hard to see as “forgive and be free”, as the entire game is rooted in learning the craft of being a manipulator. There’s Wendy the puppet master, who got everything she wanted without touching a single weapon. Jennifer, the recipient of Wendy’s possessive obsession and now the legacy, learned the same tricks too. Why pull the trigger if she can get the mentally ill, now deranged person to do it himself? Then she would be blameless, like her sad little mistreated princess alter ego that can do no wrong – she only suffered because others were oh-so-mean and she was oh-so-unlucky.
The most heartbreaking aspect of Jennifer’s unreliable narrations is just how unintentional the half truths are – she is a girl caught in a tangle of never ending social clique cage fight and she could not find her way out. Jennifer the victim. Jennifer the poor little princess. Jennifer the cruelty victim and perpetrator, but she could just pass the “perpetrator” part because in her mind it was not her fault. Never mind that the only stable friendship Jennifer ever maintained in the entire game was with a dog. Through her eyes, Jennifer couldn’t make a friend because the world is a sinister cruel place, yet there are enough hints that her idea of a friendship is one where she took complete authority while the others are obligated to owe her loyalty, which is not all that different from Wendy. Until she is finally released from the child-like state of mind, she is stuck.
The game rewards the players who unlocked the good ending with an extra chapter. It is the January before the game’s events, and for the first time the player gets to take on the form of Jennifer as the 11 year old girl. The entire chapter was set in combat-less orphanage bathed in sepia light, no more monsters, no more imaginary land of terrors. The narrative here is yet again unique to this chapter only – while the time and setting occurred as a prelude to Rule of Rose, the narration is the one of a grown-up Jennifer sounding more self-assured and more confident than ever. As young Jennifer examines her new surroundings, the adult form reminisces about the year in orphanage in a matter-of-fact voice: the joy, the pain and the abrupt end. The child-plays that used to torment her are now seen with sad affection, “it was just silly”, adult Jennifer comments multiple times. It’s nothing.
In my first playthrough I was convinced that the orphanage owner Mr Hoffman was a child molester because of various subtle, circumstantial implications Jennifer saw and heard during the game. My second playthrough convinced me he wasn’t because of Jennifer’s comment in the sepia chapter, “were those scary things that attacked me just figments of my imagination…?”, By the third, I didn’t know anymore because I came to realise that the sepia Jennifer may not be any more reliable than rest of her narratives.
The sepia ending is when Jennifer is finally set free. Free from what though? If this is a game about growing up? What does it mean to be “grown up”? To discard everything the child has been, write off the past sufferings as mere teenage melodrama? It’s practically a rite of twenty-somethinghood to discount the sufferings of your teen years, because it is expected to dismiss what had once mattered so much.
Kudos to the creators of Rule of Rose, then, because they refused to forget what being a pre-teens was like. While society stereotypes the teenage years as the vicious dog eat dog phase, the reality is that the years between 8 to 12 are the trickiest for girls. Somewhere between finding the footings in the ever-changing pecking order, desperately hanging onto the totem hoping that someone’s still below them, while trying to retain the most intense, possessive, exclusive to the point of monogamous friendship that is distinctive to that group. Not to mention, but oh, their tormenters are just so innocent and cute when an adult is present!
But forget that, this is not where the freedom of release sets in. Deny that, and now you are an adult, now you are happy, Jennifer.
We may never find out what the “truth” is, because Jennifer herself may never know. Maybe she’s better off for it, bathed in her world through the sepia lens. The audience will be left without a definitive answer too. The studio has long been dissolved; there won’t be a sequel to pick up where the “true story” ended.
May the little girl finally find her happiness; what that means can take a backseat for now. Leave the wasps nest. Leave it.