Monday, 24 March 2014

Ni no kuni

My son’s ongoing project to categorize the entirety of existence into top ten lists show no signs of slowing down. Variations, such as “Who is strongest, Superman or Galactus?” are really only masking this deeper agenda. It turns out they are exactly the same strength: 50 (at least according to Top Trumps). This is a deeply unsatisfactory answer to this seven-year-old.

Thankfully the answer to the question, “What is the best videogame ever?” is completely unambiguous, at least to him. “Ni no kuni.” There is no need for a lengthy debate on the subject. “I love Ni No Kuni,” he says with a sigh.

At this point I can allow myself a moment of fatherly pride, like the time in the games shop when he recognized the Ghostbusters theme, and shouted across the aisle in a very excited voice, generating some serious respect from the staff, who, with greying heavy metal t-shirts observed: “Eee, it warms the cockles of your heart to see a kid know the Ghostbusters theme.”

Why is Ni No Kuni number one? It transported us to another world (which is what Ni No Kuni means, of course, and why it is the title of this blog). It was an adventure that we went on together. We played every day for about an hour, after I got home from work and before he went to bed, and we spent a good 70+ hours completing it. My son did the exploring and then handed the pad over in a panic for the combat. It is not an easy game, being at heart an old-school unapologetic JRPG, but he was still able to follow the drama of the unfolding battles, and we could discuss tactics at length.

It was fascinating to see some of those old design tropes work their magic, to see him jumping up and down with excitement on levelling up a character, or obsessively collecting the rare creatures of the Ni No Kuni universe, and pouring over the creatures compendium, a catalogue of the world’s beautifully designed creatures that can be captured and trained, Pokemon style.

Above all the game is generous. You get to meet dragons and fight them, which is pretty cool, but then the game exceeds all expectations and wipes away decades of learned cynicism from invisible walls, and the necessary but disappointing limits of game worlds. You then get to fly the dragon. And then the whole landscape of Ni No Kuni opens up beneath you, that landscape that took hours to traverse, full of random encounters, is now spread out before you and you can go anywhere. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed wonderment this moment elicited - worth the price of admission alone. We stayed up way past his bedtime that night.

There are moments so surreal that they can only have come from a Japanese RPG, or maybe an episode of Adventure Time, like when you have to travel into guts of the giant mother of all the fairies, and clean out her insides from the giant octopus sea creatures that have infested her and made her rather poorly. Of course, the inside of the Fairy Godmother looks like a nursery. When you defeat the boss you have to make your escape out her giant bum hole. This is comedy gold to small children.

The generosity of the devs shines through almost every aspect of the game: they want the player to experience everything it has to offer, everything that they have lovingly crafted, they don’t want my son to miss anything. The worst thing about Ni No Kuni is that it had to end, and it left a huge Ni No Kuni shaped hole in our lives, which we have yet to fill.

The story also rises above the usual pompous cliches of video games. Telling the story of Oliver, a young boy who loses his mother, and is left an orphan, and then travels to a magical parallel world, in the company of Drippy, a soft toy made by his mother that comes alive and inexplicably speaks with a heavy Welsh accent - with fantastic voice acting and translation by the way. It may all be a figment of Oliver’s imagination, an escape from his grief, and the game never offers any easy answers, and in the end it doesn’t seem to matter.
The Studio Ghibli animated cutscenes are wonderful and if your eyes don’t fill with exaggerated anime tears during the opening scenes, as Oliver grieves over the loss of his mother, then you have a stone for a heart. This is deep stuff for video games,where death is a constant, a minor inconvenience, but loss is rare. Oliver’s pain is universal, because we are all left orphans eventually. The realization that one day your parents are going to die is scarier to a kid than any monsters the devs might have conjured up. This is the hook that pulls you through the game, you really want to help Oliver, but the game refuses to hand out neat Hollywood endings, and we learn that in the end, death is final. The idea that kids don’t understand the full weight of mortality is a myth. It’s said we are the only animal that knows it is going to die - this is the apple from the tree of knowledge, the price we pay for mega brains. We found our son crying inexplicably on the stairs one morning when he was six. We coaxed the reason out of him: “I’m scared to die, I don’t want to not be alive,” he sobbed. I’m not sure if this was the exact moment it had dawned on him. There’s nothing you can do to make that better. We gave him hugs. And some chocolate. After a while he calmed down but you could still see the cold fear in his eyes. He had been evicted from the Garden.

Ni No Kuni’s message of helping people and living a good life, is the only thing that makes it bearable. Oh, and chocolate.

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