A discovery and review of the game ‘Ni no Kuni’
by Serwer Kadir
Ni no Kuni is Harry Potter without J.K. Rowling.
I know I wanted to escape this moment. Escape any responsibility I had. I thought about starting a new show or watching some films. I could have started reading that light novel series I got a couple months back. But it all felt disconnected. It did not feel right. I wanted to be somewhere else. I needed to be somewhere else.
Since I could not physically go out, I had to find a way to overcome the depression that hits you in the face day after day. Watching how the government likes to fumble its way through a pandemic and all the other injustices in the world, I needed an out; somewhere faraway where I wasn’t confined.
My brother had just bought the Ni no Kuni games on PS4 and was telling me about its story of a boy who gets thrown into an adventure in a fantasy world. I thought, ‘well, well, well, I may have to check this out.’ Before I realised, it was purchased, it was downloading. I was about to embark on a journey like no other. Would this be an escape? Would I get lost? Or would I drop it immediately? Would this be another Kingdom Hearts?
‘Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’ is the story of Oliver, a denizen of the small town; Motorville. When he and his friend Philip try out their newest motor invention (a sort of rigged up go-kart) by a river, it breaks sending Oliver into the river where he almost drowns only to be saved by his mother Allie. However, she loses consciousness and becomes bedridden, eventually dying from heart problems. While grieving Oliver comes across a doll his mother gave him and begins to cry. His tears cause his doll to come to life revealing itself as a fairy named Drippy, who informs Oliver that he is from another world where a Dark Djinn named Shadar took over. He then teaches Oliver about soulmates between the two worlds, a person that shares a link with someone in Oliver’s world. He says that his mother looks like the great sage, Alicia. Realising that Alicia must have been Allie’s soulmate, Oliver, and Drippy travel to the other world to find Alicia in the hope that it will bring his mother back to his world.
A big part of the game revolves around a locket that Oliver carries where it stores fragments of a heart. Heart pieces are otherwise known as ’emotions’, and if there is a lack of one in a person, they become broken-hearted. In this case, broken-hearted refers to someone who is emotionally stunted in some way, ranging from rudeness to total dejection about their lives. A lot of the quests you do involve you taking a piece of an emotion from a person with an overabundance of it and giving it to someone who is lacking that emotion. Effectively, curing their broken heart which restores balance in the world and quells the evil that has been brought in by Shadar.
This by far was one of the most satisfying mechanics in the game, as I got to reconnect people with the world, and bring joy back into their lives by healing their hearts. In a time where many people are depressed about the state of our world and their lives in it, it made me feel so happy to be able to see a world where its people flourish.
One quest that had an impact on me involved a broken-hearted person struggling to stay awake while working which is risking his job. I had to find the emotion ‘restraint’ to give to him so he can take time to recuperate and not lose his job. This irked me since there are many people who are tired, overworked at multiple jobs to sustain a living not just for themselves but for their family. These are people I know, and these are people that you know. But in our world, we see this pressure when developers go into crunch mode, where the employees are put into overtime to get the game ready for the release date that set by their publisher. They can’t just take time off and with a wave of a wand everything will be fine, yet we are presented with a fantasy world where with a wave a wand fixes our problems. Through Shadar, this other world has a different system in how things work, where it is not the employer putting pressure on its employees, it is the employee putting the pressure on themselves. In the game, it is Shadar controlling this town’s ruler, thus its people become broken-hearted. Who does Shadar represent?
It is hard to think of a system that we know and are in for so long. The game shows how Shadar rules over people and takes their humanity away, yet our world is not as simple as the game where one person is in control. Our world is nuanced.
A counter to this thought is that this is only an expression of the work mentality in Japan where this does happen. They embrace a group mentality and look to their superiors for approval before making important decisions This is known as ‘nenkou-joretsu’ (年功序列) system. A seniority system where hierarchy emphasises social relationships based on everyone’s status in society.
For many years, Japanese companies had a seniority wage and promotion system. Where new employees would be given a standard wage and get pay increases and promotions based on their time of service rather than merit. Therefore, this broken-hearted person is an expression of this system in the other world. This context is vital to understanding these nuanced quests and objectives it asks you to do. We can add to how we understand the world onto the decisions the game makes with its story which is a great aspect to the discourse, but it is important to look at how the developer’s culture is intertwined with the development of a game.
The game has you travel back and forth between Motorville and the other world, and as I was playing, it made me realise what the game was doing to show how different these worlds are. When you are in Motorville, the camera is locked in one position as it follows you around the town. Yet when you are in the other world, the camera is directly behind Oliver where the camera is unlocked, and you can freely look around this magical world and explore the vastness the game presents to you.
The progression of the controls is an expression of Oliver’s and our world being rigid, there is a system to how things work which is imposed on you from the moment you are born; it doesn’t matter which part is good or bad, just that it exists. The recent rigidness are the restrictions that are put in place to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and the limited things you could do in your own home.
I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders while I explored this vast world. I devoured the Wizard Companion (a magic book that Oliver takes on his adventures), reading everything from the nature of the spells, the alchemy for weapons, the creatures that I encountered to the amazing folk tales that unlock as I played the game. It made me feel like I wasn’t in lockdown, that I didn’t have to think about anything stressful. I can get sucked into the gameplay, level up my creatures, find the best equipment for my party, and help a stranger with whatever weird, cool task they want me to do.
I ingested that world. I was Oliver, going on a journey, saving the world. I defeated Shadar and the White Witch. Our party brought peace.
I lived Ni no Kuni.