Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Warning: February and March 2020 chapters of Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery are discussed ahead.

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Entertainment rarely punches you in the gut harder than when your favorite character dies on your favorite show. For years, they join us on the couch for an hour a week, or spend the weekend in bed with us as we binge an entire season, and then they’re gone. These shows become a part of our lives, but our access to that world is usually limited to the constraints of episode length and frequency. It’s only when we sit back down to tune in again that we may get a painful reminder of our loss.

That’s not the case with mobile gaming, where the world travels with you, and is always available to explore. You can spend years with a character, watching them mature and impact your avatar’s life, only to suddenly lose them. That’s exactly what happened to Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery players earlier this year when their main character’s best friend, Rowan, sacrificed themselves to save another. Most avid players had spent two years with this character as part of their daily lives: Rowan went to work with them, vacationed with them, celebrated birthdays and holidays with them. But now Rowan is gone. There’s no respawning or second chance. And after the shock wears off, there is only the grief.

When Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery launched in late April 2018, it was a fairly simple role-playing game. Players created an avatar and controlled their main character (or MC) as they entered their first year at Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry. The story of the game takes place eight years before Harry Potter begins his first year at the school, so the MC will just miss walking the halls with the game’s namesake. But Hogwarts Mystery is full of familiar faces, as the MC is in the same year as Ron Weasley’s older brother Charlie and future auror Tonks, and is guided through their adventures by Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall, and Snape. But before the MC even gets on the Hogwarts Express and meets all these officially licensed Harry Potter characters, they are befriended by Rowan, the kind and academic son or daughter of tree farmers. (Hogwarts Mystery is refreshingly progressive when it comes to same-sex romances later in the game, but Rowan’s gender identity always matches the MC’s gender identity.) The MC and Rowan form a quick and close bond, and Rowan is among the first to help the MC look for clues to solve the mysterious disappearance of the MC’s older brother, Jacob. Similar to Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, Rowan is always there with a well-researched fact or conveniently pertinent book in hand as the MC discovers secret vaults around the school and sets out to break curses afflicting the students.

This all may sound thrilling, but in reality, Hogwarts Mystery is essentially a tapper game: Players wait—or pay real money (the game is free to play, after all)—for their energy reserves to build up and then progress through the story by using that energy to complete classes or tasks, simply tapping certain parts of the screen. Initially, the mystery of Jacob’s disappearance was interesting, but gameplay was fairly mindless—a calming, rote-yet-addictive hobby. But as the MC grew up, so did the gaming experience. Skill-based challenges were soon introduced, and more recently Quidditch side quests of increasing difficulty were added. Timed events led many players to set alarms, stepping out of classes and meetings or waking up in the middle of the night to complete tasks to win helpful prizes and unlock experiences like the MC’s first date, animagus transformation, or trip to the Weasley home. And Rowan was there with the MC through all of this, almost two years of real life, and more than six years at Hogwarts. They bonded over sandwiches in the Great Hall, games of Gobstones in the courtyard, and butterbeer at the Three Broomsticks. (All acts that increased their “friendship level,” unlocking rewards.) But in late February, a new chapter of the game was released, and suddenly Rowan was dead.

Rowan had fallen a bit into the background as the MC’s curse-breaking adventures progressed in recent months, a move that seemed organic to the game but in retrospect may have been planned to make Rowan’s death all the more shocking. In Year 6, Chapter 18, the MC and their friends Ben and Merula head out to the Forbidden Forest, where they are first attacked by Dementors and then by a former professor involved in Jacob’s disappearance. Ben tries to protect the group, but when the professor casts the Killing Curse, Rowan comes out from behind the nearby bushes and takes the hit instead. Rowan hadn’t chosen their books over their best friend; they’d been looking out all along. The sudden death of the MC’s first friend had a profound effect on the online Hogwarts Mystery community. Players began sharing fan art, and mourned the loss of a fictional character who’d been a part of their lives.

Two months later, Rowan’s death still weighs heavy on the hearts of avid players—but not because of over sentimentality. Jam City and Portkey Games did not let life go on as usual at Hogwarts. In the immediate aftermath of Rowan’s death, Dumbledore gathers the students for a memorial, where some students weep, and others bottle up their emotions.

Illustration for article titled How a iHarry Potter /imobile game teaches us to cope with death
Screenshot: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

Then there was a bit of a lull in new chapters being released, giving players a chance to process the incident. But as the game continues, grief remains a major factor in the storytelling. The MC throws themselves into organizing a secret student organization to honor Rowan and avenge their death. Some characters join the movement tearfully, while others welcome an outlet to release their rage. The professors organize school activities to distract the students from their grief, only to reveal their own emotional turmoil over the situation. And this isn’t just a passive experience for the player. Multiple times over the past few weeks, the MC’s friends and professors have asked the MC to verbalize how they are processing Rowan’s death. At first, the options to respond range from platitudes like “Yes, I’m managing” to “I have good and bad days.”

Illustration for article titled How a iHarry Potter /imobile game teaches us to cope with death
Screenshot: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

But in Year 6, Chapter 20, the MC is called to Dumbledore’s office. The headmaster doesn’t want to talk about the secret organization, which he is likely playing dumb about. He wants to talk about Rowan.

Illustration for article titled How a iHarry Potter /imobile game teaches us to cope with death
Screenshot: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery

It’s a moment that, in another game, may have come across saccharine or preachy. But after years spent in the world of Hogwarts Mystery, the scene is earned. Just as in the novels that inspired the game, death provides an opportunity for the entertainment to go beyond being a fun distraction you enjoy while waiting for your friend to show up to dinner. It’s an opportunity to really examine how we deal with death. As a society, we’re taught to smile and move the conversation along when someone asks how we’re doing. Dumbledore doesn’t want that. He wants to talk it out. “Pushing yourself to move on too soon can be just as harmful as not moving on at all. That is why I encourage you to focus on grieving,” he says, becoming the MC’s (and our) therapist. “I encourage you to take time to embrace and accept your feelings. It will not make you miss [Rowan] less. You will likely always feel [their] absence. But it will help you ease some of the hurt.”

And really, that’s what entertainment is at its best: A way to pass the time and, when necessary, ease some of the hurt.

A.V. Club Editor in Chief...but really just a She-Ra, Schitt’s Creek, Grey’s Anatomy, Survivor, Big Brother, Top Chef, The Good Place superfan.

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