Children know more than we give them credit for. Much of our culture is built around the assumption that kids are unruly by nature, and need to be molded by rigid hegemonies. Public school curriculums are often built around something called an “indoctrination model”—a regimented, state-sponsored brainwashing plan meant to stave off creative and intellectual divergences.
Pushes from contemporary conservatives to reshape our education system are built on that assumption. Critical race theory, they say, will teach white kids to hate themselves. Learning about sex will make them too curious, too young. But above all, it’s important that children don’t know queerness exists in any capacity. That gay teacher needs to hit the bricks, and those drag queens need to pack up their brunch. And if they fight to stay near kids, well hey—who’s to say that married forty-something with a loving husband isn’t a closet pervert?
But kids will learn, whether or not we teach them. They’re already asking the questions fascists are afraid of.
Punchline’s 2005 horror game, Rule of Rose, mines those very fears for a sticky slice of queer horror. The game follows timid and frail 19-year-old Jennifer, as she traverses a dilapidated and overgrown orphanage. No sooner does she follow an erstwhile boy, however, than Jennifer is knocked unconscious and forced into a makeshift casket. When she awakens on a mostly empty zeppelin (!), the protagonist is forced into servitude by the Red Crayon Aristocrats—a pseudo high society governed entirely by young girls.
It’s tempting to read Rule of Rose as analogous with texts like Lord of the Flies, in how it frequently mines children’s cruelty for horror. But where Flies is obsessed with Calvinist doctrine about man’s inherent wickedness, Tomo Ikeda’s script is built around a delicate and deliberate empathy. Bullies are depicted not as senseless aggressors, but as fragile children clinging onto what little power they have.
Take HBIC Diana—Duchess of the Red Crayon—for instance. The catty teen is responsible for some of the most reprehensible actions in the game, from constant verbal degradation to detached violence towards living creatures. She’s a budding psychopath if there ever was one. Yet an encounter with the orphanage’s headmaster flips the script. The confirmed pedophile corners her, then caresses her body from hip to head. It’s a violating moment. We see her power drain in seconds, and understand that she’s beholden to a higher, more malevolent power—the power of an old, wealthy, white pedophile. Diana immediately lashes out at Jennifer, blinded by her own pain.
Heterosexual and cisnormative doctrines are a threat to Rule of Rose’s sapphic garden. Gender is played with and broken consistently throughout the story. Most of the child characters are openly gay. Cis men tend to be grubby pedos or craven child murderers, with little wiggle room. Patriarchy is a destructive force towards each of the principal players in some way. Identities are abolished, relationships destroyed by men eager to claim young femme flesh as their own. Even in all its cruelty, the world of children is freer and less bound by the cultural norms of the game’s 1930s setting.
Rule of Rose’s central love story is a time-fucked and dreamlike reconstruction of Jennifer’s trauma. As a child, she was the sole survivor of a zeppelin crash. Gregory—a lonely hermit gutted by the loss of his son—takes Jennifer in and raises her as Joshua. Jennifer insists she doesn’t want to be a boy, but her wants fall on deaf and deluded ears. Wendy, a girl at the nearby Rose Garden Orphanage, meets Jennifer on a walk one day, and the pair soon become inseparable. The two girls fall in love, even as Wendy realizes she’s in love with a girl.
This is the birth of the Red Crayon Aristocracy. The two girls create a secret club to be each other’s prince and princess—an excuse to see each other every day. Soon, Wendy springs Jennifer from her house and brings her to live at the orphanage. But jealousy over a new puppy and less time together drives Wendy to gang up on Jennifer. She prompts the other children to bully her, then to kill her puppy—all in hopes of spending more time with her. When all else fails, she disguises herself as a young boy and manipulates Gregory into terrorizing the orphanage.
However, Wendy’s plan backfires. Gregory, too lost in his grief to process reality, attacks the children. Jennifer is spared as each and every other orphan is killed by the frenzied old man. Wendy—her first love, her worst bully—lies dead at her feet.
To put it mildly, this central narrative is… complicated. It grapples with internalized homophobia, gender norms, bullying, and child murder all in one fell, tragic swoop. Rule of Rose is the sort of murky and ugly game that, released today, would likely ignite a hotbed of online discourse over its difficult themes. (See: The Medium.)
This makes it all the more surprising, then, that Rule of Rose was heavily consulted on by actual children.
“We actually gathered a bunch of kids and watched them, and recorded their voices,” said director Shuji Ishikawa in 2006. “For the game’s textures and models, we took pictures of them. We also had them write down, or draw things that made them happy, or made them scared.”
Further, the game’s overt, stated sapphism is a direct consequence of working with those kids.
“When girls play with each other in this way it may be considered somewhat erotic,” said Ishikawa when asked about the game’s queer themes. “But with kids, I…really don’t think they’d see it that way. It’s more genuine, not lustful. It may appear so because these are things kids actually do, but we don’t want to see.”
This is true. When my best friend in Milam Circle and I fooled around in his mom’s closet, we weren’t trying to get our rocks off. We were both six, curious about each other’s bodies and desiring some kind of closer physical touch. At that point, we hadn’t been taught to hate that touch yet. Touch was just… touch. If it was the touch of someone we trusted, then it was good.
Until we teach them otherwise, children experience a unique freedom that’s over before it can be fully appreciated. Rule of Rose speaks to that natural lack of inhibitions without eroticizing it like, say, The Blue Lagoon or Valerie and Her Week of Wonders. Innocence is yearned for throughout, but never made deliberately erotic for adult consumption. Instead, it invites adults into the world of children, in hopes that they may be able to embrace their own freedom.
It’s a radical approach to depicting childhood sexuality, flying in the face of straight men’s Woody Allen fantasies. Sexual agency is something owned by children, only to be shared with other children—a private garden under moonlight.
Perhaps this challenge of social norms is at the root of moral outrage that hounded the game prior to release. Early on, Italian tabloids perpetuated rumors that the game was a work of pedophilia, and explicitly encouraged the player to murder children. (It’s not, and it doesn’t.) UK gossip rags, in turn, ran with the story and whipped up a frenzy around the release.
Franco Frattini—then-European justice minister and an outspoken religious zealot—responded in kind. He went on a moral crusade against the title, and spoke at great length on “children buried alive underground” and “in-game sadomasochism” in actual government sessions. This dissuaded 505’s planned Australian and New Zealand releases, before they canceled the United Kingdom run outright.
Sony—likely scared of conservative backlash in the hyperfascist mid aughts—ditched their own plans for a first-party US release. Instead, release duties fell to the then-niche Atlus USA. This stymied the initial print run, and according to VGChartz, the game’s global sales were estimated to fall between 10,000 and 20,000 units. By the time the game did make it to the US, it was released one week before the PlayStation 3, which buried it under the illustrious ranks of Genji and Gundam: Crossfire. It’s hard to picture Sony funneling this much money into a first-party project, then dooming it to obscurity this hard in 2023.
Today, Rule of Rose enjoys a cult success on places like Tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and Pinterest. Teens of the 2010s grew up with YouTube playthroughs and streams, and have cultivated a small but fiercely loyal following. Young queer kids latched onto the title, finding themselves in these weird, scary, very gay girls. Just like I did in 2006, watching and rewatching all the footage on Cinematech, stumbling through a playthrough because I was 12 and very dumb. Without this game, without those girls, I would have felt so much more alone in my experiences. Alone in the messy, complicated thoughts I was already having about my gender.
Fascists don’t get to have the last word on art. Children are smarter than they give us credit for. The more they don’t want us to see something, the harder we’ll try. And when it resonates with us—when that “bad art” changes our life trajectories—we will only grow to resent the system that suppressed it harder. We’ll fight harder for the queer teachers and the drag queen brunches. We will plunge your expensive zeppelins into the ground, steal your children, and give them the happy childhoods you denied us.
Because we learned, whether you wanted us to or not. We’re already building the world you’re afraid of.
Madeline Blondeau is a Georgia-born, PNW-based editor, writer and podcaster. Her words can be found on Anime Feminist, Anime News Network, Screen Queens, and Lost In Cult. She’s also the creator of Cinema Cauldron—a long-form audio essay series on film. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @VHSVVitch.