After digging through older websites for one of my greatest inspirations, Rule of Rose, I realized a major difference between what I’ve been doing and my sources of inspiration (the aforementioned and Pan’s Labyrinth being the two that immediately come to mind).
In those, the fairytale is always told with the audience being one step removed. The audience is aware things aren’t real and that the world is possibly operating based on rules unknown to the characters, rules that the fairytale exists to escape, that the fairytale supersedes.
For example, in Pan’s Labyrinth, though the protagonist believes in the fairytale, we see the real-life, historical elements surrounding it and know that there is a rational explanation for everything. The fairytale doesn’t override reality, it exists on another level above it, as a sort of parallel story.
But in Rule of Rose, the fairytale is the only explanation given while the real-world events somehow seem even more surreal. We see the world through the eyes of the protagonist who is rational and, but is confused and is just as much in the dark as the audience is as to what to believe is really going on in the world. The only clues for which, are vague and mysteriously surreal with bizarre characters and environments that seem impossible and irrational.
In Rule of Rose, the audience is expected to decode both the fairytale and the surreal context it’s being told in, in order to piece together what really happened.
For instance, the protagonist is a much older girl than the others at the orphanage, therefore we can presume that this is a memory she is trying to come to terms with, and from the nightmarish setting and the violent abuse we see, we reckon it must have been a traumatic memory that she’s repressed, which explains why everything is so surreal and mysterious- she doesn’t want to understand it because it would be too painful for her to revisit, so she remembers everything as one would a dream. As one who has dissociated from trauma.
These multiple layers of storytelling help draw the audience in because of the tension created through the irony of knowing there is a darker subtextual story than the one the protagonist realizes, and we know that by the end of the story the protagonist will have to be affected by this difference in worldview somehow, and, most likely, the affect will be that they suffer tragically for not realizing this sooner. But this tragedy is always for the audience to bare, because the protagonists are oblivious- they are living in a fairytale and grasp even tighter to their fantasy at the point where things become clearest.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, the protagonist suffers physically because on the underlying reality, she’s mortally wounded- she dies. And kudos to Guillermo del Toro for maintaining the integrity of the parallel universes, because in the fairytale, it’s a happy ending- she’s been crowned and will live on in royalty forever in happiness. To her, this is the best outcome imaginable.
In Rule of Rose, the entire course of the story the protagonist suffers from various abuses as she struggles to come to terms with a guilt and trauma she’s trying to understand. And in the end the worlds remain fractured. There is catharsis but it remains a tragedy for the audience because of the overriding sense of loss that we feel but, like the protagonist we can’t quite understand. We’re left with clues, “I’ll protect you…forever and ever until I die…” she says, and we know that the main theme of the game is about a love suicide (the song goes “I am a love suicide”- can’t get more blatant than that), as well as the fact that she and the dog vanish into a white light after the main villain shoots himself…
In fact, it’s likely that the villain, Stray-Dog/Gregory and the protagonist, Jennifer, are the same person and the dog, Brown, is a stand-in for his son, Joshua, but that’s just my most recent interpretation.
The point is, the story remains a tragedy, even though the protagonist is blissfully unaware of it.
And that is the only way the story could work– without this meta-contextual level for the audience to appreciate the story, it would be an alienating experience for most audiences with no redeeming value, no lesson learned, because these are not likemost fairytales.
Most fairytales are morality fables. They end with a lesson like“Don’t lie,” or “Be wary of wolves,” etc.
But the fairytales here, the ones that are in multi-contextual stories, operate as an escape mechanism. They are an expression of the protagonist’s point of view, a way of characterization within the mindset of a very unreliable narrator.
An unreliable narrator whose world is better than our own.
And that’s how it works.