This post contains spoilers. You have been warned.
Twice in the last two years, my family has lost people close to us. Death and the pain of death affect everyone, yet often games do not interact with the numbingly painful grief death leaves in its wake. Laura Shigihara’s Rakuen explores a young boy and his mother’s loss of loved ones and demonstrates how story and imagination help them grieve those deaths. Rakuen invites the player to journey with these characters as they help others in their quest to accept their loss. Rakuen embraces the pain and tragedy of death, demonstrating that the loss of loved ones is not the end of our story.
On the one hand, Rakuen tells the story of a young boy fighting to understand his own impending death. Boy’s fear early on becomes amplified by the loss of of his storybook. Only when Mom and he find it and then live out the story for themselves can Boy find the peace he needs to move on to Rakuen. For Boy, his father’s death teaches him the harsh reality that everyone dies as the cancer from which he is suffering threatens to end his own life. In the characters’ flashback sequences, Boy worries about his life, and Mom reassures him that the medicine will help. When the medicine doesn’t work, Mom helps Boy on his quest to understand loss and grief. He spends most of the adventure no longer concerned with his own well-being but with the well-being of the other patients.
As he learns to accept his fate, Boy is able to work diligently alongside Mom to help the others find peace. As Boy’s life nears its end, Mom’s reassures him she will be by his side. She tells him that he can close his eyes and sleep even when the darkness seems too strong, freeing him to sail away to paradise. When he boards the ship to Rakuen, he is joined by his father and patients who passed away during the game. Boy’s adventures finding Rakuen allow him space to grieve his own tragedy, allowing him to find peace.
On the other hand, Rakuen tells the story of a mother who loses her husband and then helps her son find peace. This was the most powerful part of Rakuen: the mother overcomes her grief at the loss of her husband out of love for her son so that he will not be alone in his final moments. It’s not apparent whether Boy’s adventures in Morizora’s Forest are real or the imaginings of a sick child, yet Mom’s journey with Boy through the story shows her understanding that her son needs this adventure.
Mom’s constant kindness and compassion challenge players to consider how to love and serve those who suffer. Mom literally spends the majority of the adventure walking behind Boy. Rather than placing her grief and loss center stage, she sets herself aside for the sake of her son, giving him hints along the way during his adventures. In the postgame scenes she returns to care for her other child: the two release paper boats in memory of their lost family members.
Thus, in the guise of a retro-style adventure game, Rakuen demonstrates the selflessness of two people as they work through their own grief and loss. More clearly than any game I’ve played, Rakuen demonstrates how story and imagination can help people navigate terrible grief and loss. Boy’s belief in the story about Rakuen and his ability to see the world of Morizora’s Forest provide the backdrop for his own peace. Mom’s facilitation of his adventure provides her with a way to accept her own losses. The game’s beauty resides in showing us how the characters find hope by accepting each other’s pain, a pain each of us will experience in our life.