I’ve often said that my favourite video games are the ones that help me cultivate a deeper understanding of the human condition. I don’t necessarily pick up any game with the aim of bettering myself or anything so pretentious; it’s simply a welcome consequence of having such a voracious appetite for storytelling. I find deep pleasure in that moment of asynchronous connection— when a spark of humanity shines through and becomes a compass that I can use to navigate my own turbulent waters. Rakuen, the first game by composer-turned-developer Laura Shigihara, is precisely the sort of experience that generates these rare moments of wondrous epiphany.
A cursory glance might lead one to mistake Rakuen as RPG Maker riffraff. This could not be further from the truth. While it was developed using the ageing engine, Rakuen is a rare example of a game that transcends its limitations to become something more than the sum of its parts. It is the story of an ailing Boy—so named, and never given a more specific identifier—indefinitely confined to a hospital. Together with his doting Mom, he discovers a door to a parallel world inhabited by talking animals who resemble his fellow patients. Kind and affable, the Boy eagerly sets to unravelling their respective stories, helping each person find closure while moving closer to his own truth in the process.
In terms of gameplay, Rakuen keeps things light. There is no combat. The Boy and his Mom bounce from the hospital to the other world, and from past to present, by solving the puzzles posed by each world’s inhabitants. These range from simple “go find me an apple”-type errands to logic problems that require a bit more finesse, though none are so insurmountable as to interrupt the story’s flow. There is an adorable side quest that allows the boy to decorate the hospital lounge with objects and pets he finds throughout his adventure, but otherwise, Rakuen is a linear affair.
Rakuen presents itself as a colourful, child-friendly sort of game, and while it is doubtlessly so on the surface, its themes are decidedly heavy. Giving away too much in a review would spoil the experience, of course, but it strikes a delicate balance between silly and serious, joyful and melancholy. Each patient’s tale is exceptionally well-plotted, small enough in scope to be digestible while contributing to the overarching narrative. One vignette depicts a woman coming to terms with her husband’s dementia; another draws upon the real-life tensions between Japan and Korea (the latter slyly rendered as “Kanko,” a play on the Japanese word for Korea, 韓国) that drive a wedge between two star-crossed lovers. These characters radiate a beautiful energy despite their generally tragic circumstances, and their stories carry an authenticity that is rarely realized in this medium.
Befitting Laura Shigihara’s background as a composer, the music in Rakuen is integral to the narrative, and the game is better for it. The vaguely Celtic, Yasunori Mitsuda-esque village theme “Welcome to the Forest” is a real earworm, and a smattering of plaintive piano melodies punctuate all the right moments. The real stars of the soundtrack, however, are Shigihara’s vocal pieces. Her voice is delicate, her lyrics heartfelt, posing sombre queries with every verse. “If we jump into the water,” she asks, “Would we swim, or would we drown?” My answer is uncertain, like ripples on the surface. The screen fades to black and I’m still thinking.
That’s not to say that every moment of Rakuen is agony; far from it. Moments of levity are plentiful, thanks to bizarre and memorable characters like a D&D-playing onion and a dandy flower with a fondness for powdered wigs. The Mom, in all her warmth and silliness, stands out as not only one of Rakuen‘s best characters, but as one of the best video game moms ever (Step aside, Miranda from Grandia III.).
Rakuen is ultimately an optimistic story, but it is also deeply human, and that duality is what makes it so unforgettable.