Honkai Star Rail Went Full Disney — And Then It Got Dark

“Welcome to the land of dreams!”

Written by Rui Zhong
Honkai Star Rail screenshot

“Welcome to the land of dreams!” the nasally-voiced cartoon chirps. With a bright-eyed smile and a pep in his step, he serves as a retro-designed tour guide through a commercial wonderland of fast food, movies, and dreams.

It’s not Disney World, but it is reminiscent of just that. Instead of Mickey Mouse, we have Clockie, a central character in the newest chapters of Hoyoverse’s Honkai Star Rail. Instead of Imagineers and Castmates, you have Dreamweavers in the service of the Family, a conglomeration that oversees the world with a neon-colored Iron Fist. Within Penacony, the game’s latest arc, the resemblance to Disney is there — and very much on purpose. Nicknamed the “Planet of Festivities,” the big city is a dreamscape layered on top of a dreamlike hotel where guests pay to enter pods and visit illusory worlds.

The interstellar, globe-trotting Honkai Star Rail takes players aboard the Astral Express as its tracks run to different worlds inspired by fictional environments and genres in science fiction and fantasy. In the past year, a Slavic Steampunk city, a silkpunk-inspired Chinese starship, and a space station of mysterious curios have been settings for gameplay and stories. At each stop of the train’s journey, players are able to explore tasks and side quests, including livestreamed ghost hunts and lab experiments of chimeras that combine cats and Chinese dim sum.

Recent story chapters see a mysterious entity invite the player-named Trailblazer and their friends aboard the Astral Express to Penacony, and the planet of Celebration itself is as fascinating as any character that players might choose to gamble for using Stellar Jades, the game’s precious commodity. The cultural influences of 20th-century American pop culture build this city from the ground up. Art Deco scenery drips from the environmental art and enemies designs, which range from two-faced retro television sets to gorilla animatronics that shoot vintage soda bottles at hapless adventuring parties. Living billboards, harmless but persistent, follow players from lane to lane.

Adapting American popular culture into video games can be tricky, since it runs the risk of being superficial, inconsistent, or made in poor taste. A Chinese gaming corporation with Shanghai-based leadership likely prefers not to draw unwanted political attention from America. While Honkai Star Rail and other games within the Hoyoverse portfolio have avidly taken real-life inspiration from cultures and locales, Penacony is their first world distinctly influenced by the United States. Specifically, Penacony is an ambitious and direct examination of a currently nonexistent United States — the America of the Jazz Age and 1950’s. Since present-day Hollywood is accused of censoring itself on behalf of China, Hoyoverse may have bet safely in creating a never-ending party blending Walt Disney theme parks with the Roaring Twenties.

Blending Disney World and Las Vegas

In the past year, a Slavic Steampunk city, a silkpunk-inspired Chinese starship, and a space station of mysterious curios have been settings for gameplay and stories.


Disney, in particular, shares several fascinating counterparts with the game. Where Walt Disney reigned over his Magic Kingdom with Mickey, so too does the invisible influence of a mysterious Watchmaker, with Clockie by his side. Disney has its amusement-designing Imagineers, and Penacony the Dreamweavers that knit the Dreamscape into fruition.

Gambling, too, is a central aspect of the city, with gigantic slot machines and a flashy, dice-rolling boss enemy that overwhelms his foes with a flood of poker chips. Possibly as tongue-in-cheek marketing, Hoyoverse projected Clockie’s face onto the Las Vegas Sphere, a real life billboard with extravagant rates of $450,000 per day.

Branding, advertising, and bright lights of this Disney-meets-Vegas world are front and center. However, just as the Art Deco-era had creatives like F. Scott Fitzgerald reveal the hollowness and pain at the center of the dream, Hoyoverse’s writers usher the players toward the steep costs of keeping a dreamy paradise afloat. Talking to the Dreamweaver non-playable characters themselves reveals they are tired and directionless. Their ideas aren’t holding back the threats of monsters and mayhem in the city.

Art Deco scenery drips from the environmental art and designs of enemies.


The mascots, too, are used for more than immersive aesthetics. Originally created as the Sweet Dreams Troupe to serve snacks and entertain tourists, the television sets and gorillas became feral as the dreamscape became increasingly unwieldy to maintain under the weight of clashing political ambitions. One lengthy minigame casts the player as a bartender who must listen to the woes of enemies instead of facing them in battle. As the monsters sip cocktails, they share harbored fears of losing control and becoming mindless, impulsive decayed versions of themselves. Once beloved by guests at the theme park, they are now feared and attacked.

The setting itself quickly becomes more hostile than mindlessly hedonistic. Immersive, creative possibilities of the dreamscape have now become something of an opiate to dreamers, possibly playing to the problems of obsession and addiction to hedonism. These malfunctioning mechanisms of manufactured happiness may be allusions to the infamous mistreatment of labor behind Disney’s Magic. From animators employed by Walt Disney himself to present-day organizing theme park workers, the humans behind the magic are straining to make a dream world believable.

American Influence, from Emily Dickinson to James Dean

The television sets and gorillas became feral as the dreamscape became increasingly unwieldy to maintain under the weight of clashing political ambitions.


Just as its design elements draw from 20th-century American theme parks and the decorative arts, the latest arc from Honkai includes a grab-bag of American cultural references. Blending concepts from Christopher Nolan’s Inception, pulp crime novels, and prestigious American literature, the writers presented their own take on the American Dream and its seedier elements. Exploration of sidequests and NPCs on their own journeys reveal biographical journeys of characters parallel to real-life American historical figures.

In a storyline that echoes Oppenheimer, scientist Dr. Chadwick regrets creating a devastating weapon. Hiding away, his body and mind disintegrates into foam in the opulence of Penacony’s dream world. Film star Lesley Dean shares his name and fate with James Dean, having passed too young for his fans’ liking. Unlike the real life star, however, his in-story fans chipped in money to the hotel and recreated the Honkai Star Rail character as a being of memories. He lives on as somewhat of a deepfake, prompting questions of parasocial obsessiveness with celebrity and the ethics of taking a celebrity’s likeness to fulfill personal wishes or desires. As movie stars like Scarlett Johannsson and lawyers accuse AI corporations of taking their voices, it’s hard to disentangle real-life Hollywood from the stories developed for science fiction video games.

Robin, a conflicted playable pop star in the Honkai universe, takes her song titles from Emily Dickinson’s poetry.


The often complicated character writing tucked within Penacony’s theme parks, casinos, and shopping centers ask cutting questions of the 20th-century American landscape that shaped it. The most central of these questions is whether it is best to drown one’s sorrows in deflective consumption and glamor or to confront the world’s difficulties.

Even here, American literature’s influence can be felt. Robin, a conflicted playable pop star in the Honkai universe who navigates these very questions, takes her song titles from Emily Dickinson’s poetry. She arrives at an answer very similar to what Dickinson envisions for her speaker’s songbird: If I can ease one life the Aching, / Or cool one pain, / Or help one fainting robin / Unto his nest again, / I shall not live in vain. Her other song, which plays in a pivotal and philosophical moment in the story’s central conflict, also borrows Dickinson’s words, declaring that Hope is the Thing With Feathers.

By drawing from numerous cultures, literature, and artistic history, the questions of consumption still fall short of not selling the game’s currency. After all, high-spending whales might be footing the bill for Hoyoverse’s ambitious projects inside and outside of Honkai Star Rail. Still, the completely complementary storytelling merits of Penacony can be their own reward. Even Clockie plays a part in how players parse emotional and moral dilemmas in the story, granting it staying power. As the characters see through the main story to its conclusion, Clockie reveals himself not to be selling anything branded at all, but becomes a gift and a friend that anyone can take from the city of dreams.

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