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Great moments in PC gaming: Peeling the layers of Rakuen

(Image credit: Laura Shigihara)

Great moments in PC gaming are bite-sized celebrations of some of our favorite gaming memories.

Rakuen

(Image credit: Laura Shigihara)

Year: 2017
Developer: Laura Shigihara

In Rakuen you're a child who travels to a fantasy world where you help alter egos of people from your real life with their problems. It's kind of like The Wizard of Oz, but part of what makes it different is that the real world you periodically return to is a hospital where you're a long-term patient. You step away from a vivid pastoral fantasy with sheep on floating sky-farms, talking flowers, and cute pointy eared villagers called 'leebles', into an antiseptic fugue of depression and bleakness.

Sometimes you're alone in the hospital, waking up in the middle of the night while footsteps echo down the hall, or sneaking into the empty wing where ticking clocks are the only sound. Other times you're with Mom (Rakuen is the rare game about parenthood that focuses on the mother), or befriending quirky doctors and patients, and things aren't so bad. Rakuen is like an onion—it's got layers.

(Image credit: Laura Shigihara)

There's more than one moment where those layers are revealed, and the one that resonates with you will probably be different than the one that resonated with me. It's a personal game, and the way its two worlds interact is constantly surprising. Neither is quite what it seems. The hospital is sometimes a sepia nightmare, and if you read the right newspaper clippings or look up the drugs characters are prescribed it can seem real dark—even before ghosts called the Envoy start crossing over from the other world. But then there's the mohawked patient who helps decorate the lounge with art, or the girl with the marble collection who turns each one into a planet with its own whimsical inhabitants.

Meanwhile, in the fantasy world accessed by secret doors, things are not always brightness and light. The angry bear has a tragic backstory, the posh truffalos are definitely going to end up pig food, and the flashbacks it lets you access—playable snippets where you relive the memories of other people and even a stray dog—feel like entire lives, balancing happiness and despair. 

Rakuen's sprites and JRPG perspective are button-cute, and its story of staff and patients trying their best in a damaged hospital is an emotional button-pusher. But instead of just playing these two things off against each other, it keeps picking at them, uncovering new layers in both of its settings and all its characters, climaxing in a series of gut-punches as the two worlds twist together in agony and joy.

Rakuen is like an onion in another way—it'll probably make you cry.

Jody is that guy who will try to convince you to play some indie game you've never heard of with a name like Extreme Meatpunks Forever. He is also on a doomed quest to play every Warhammer game.