If there’s a video game artist out there that gamers are most familiar with these days, it’s probably Tetsuya Nomura. Famous for unceremoniously replacing Yoshitaka Amano as character designer of the Final Fantasy series during Final Fantasy VII, not to mention being the main orchestrator of all things Kingdom Hearts, Tetsuya Nomura’s name definitely dwells in a house of high repute. Although The New Yorker may say that Shigeru Miyamoto is the gaming world’s only auteur– and for good reason– Tetsuya Nomura is another one of those rare game designers whose characters and storylines are almost instantly recognizable, whether it’s the oft-joked-about zippers that seem to crawl on everything the man touches, or the nigh-constant hairstyles that rival anything in Final Fantasy. (This is, of course, taking into consideration that Nomura’s the man who gave a lot of those characters crazy hairstyles.) And so, when The World Ends with You hit Japanese shores on July 26, 2007, all Gamerville took notice.
The colorful cast of The World Ends with You.
Admittedly, since The World Ends with You was a new IP from a rather distinguished company, this probably wasn’t so unheard of. If Nintendo, for instance, came up with a new IP involving little girls who can transform into trains and fire gravy bombs to save the world, I’m sure half of Videogameland would fall on its face trying to see how wonderfully allegorical the game was. (I’d be one of them.) (Obviously, the little girls represent Japan, the trains represent high modernity, and gravy bombs are a helter-skelter parallel to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The saving the world part is just semantics.) But The World Ends with You, unlike many of Square Enix’s games, purported to be more than simply a game. After all, the name itself included “you” in its title– and further implied that “you” are the one who ends the world. And as it turns out, that world, set in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, seems eerily similar to the one we live in. Director Tatsuya Kando sat down with IGN for a postmortem interview a few years back about this very subject:
We looked at the project from many angles, always basing our ideas on the premise of portraying traditional RPG elements in a modern light. That is how we came up with unique systems like equipping badges to activate psychic moves or enabling players to shop for the latest in trendy Shibuya clothing.
In fact, this isn’t so much a new portrayal of or a revisit to the role-playing game genre as it is an actual extension of the world encapsulated in The World Ends with You to the world we actually live in. Like Atlus’ Megami Tensei series, which tends to incorporate real-world metropolises and a fair number of high schoolers in its games (not to mention the Jungian psychology analysis that goes on in there), The World Ends with You refuses to be content with just staying put in Videogameland like a good little video game. What with its playful subversion of gamer archetypes– cleverly, The World Ends with You forces players to focus on trendy clothing lines and hot labels if they want to survive– as well as its somewhat aggravating encouragement of social interaction (certain badges refuse to evolve unless you turn off your DS for a certain amount of time, and others don’t unlock until you meet other people with the game), The World Ends with You is a game that intrudes into your everyday life. (This isn’t even mentioning the whole food concept of the game, where characters need to take a certain amount of hours– real world hours– to digest stuff you feed them.)
Perhaps “intrudes” isn’t the right word, though. Sure, stuff levels up as you stop playing the game, almost Pokéwalker-style, and sure, you’ll be looking at the clock repeatedly as you wonder how long it’s gonna take for that darn burger to digest, but people think about video games other than The World Ends with You all the time. Beat Ocarina of Time, say, and you’ll be talking to your friends all about how awesome such-and-such boss fight was, or how sad you were when such-and-such event happened. But the fact that The World Ends with You purposefully takes place in a world so similar to our own, with all the trappings, just makes it that much more compelling.
One of the major worries I had about The World Ends with You before I played it was how interesting a game set in a real-world locale could possibly be, especially when considering the whole game took place in the same old Shibuya. Waking up day after day in the same place, I felt, definitely could not be conducive to a great game. It’d feel closed-in, almost claustrophobic. But while it’s true that The World Ends with You takes place day after day in the same Shibuya, the sheer amount of things that happen in the city– whether it’s running for your life (same old), a new sale at Lapin Angelique (stellar!), someone throwing down in Tin Pin (radical, dude!), or someone getting killed (happens a lot, it seems)– more than make up for it. These are the things that make the game. They’re akin to the side conversations you might have at a concert, or the cherry on top of your (delicious) vanilla ice cream. And besides, don’t most people wake up in the same place, day after day, night after night? We all learn to deal with it; we know that if we can’t change the rules, we’ll change the way we play the game.
We deal with real life, it turns out, the same way Neku deals with the world that ends with him. With his various companions (just like the ones you have), Neku grapples with some pretty tough issues on an even stricter time schedule. Without spoiling anything, if he doesn’t do such-and-such in however many days, after all, bad things are going to happen. Neku starts off alone, like so many role-playing game characters do, and through too much of the game he seems perfectly happy to be alone, making decisions that he regrets later, but not while he’s making them. He hurts people both intentionally and unintentionally, and often doesn’t care either way. And authority figures? For the first half of the game, Neku is almost pathologically violent towards these guys.
But it’s made very clear through the course of the game that unlike many role-playing game protagonists (and like actual people), Neku’s character does not remain static. It’s again the little things that propel him to new heights, and little thing by little thing, Neku grows up, taking the gamer alongside with him. But that doesn’t mean Neku no longer has to struggle for any sort of redemption or self-discovery; the unorthodox, rather difficult control scheme, what with having to use the touch screen and the buttons simultaneously to control characters on two different screens, is extended physical proof of that. But just as the player grows steadily nimbler, steadily quicker at grappling with the mandated forces that govern Neku’s world, so does Neku. The World Ends with You is a coming-of-age tale for all parties involved.
In the end with you, what The World Ends With You teaches– or professes to teach– isn’t that role-playing games can still be fun in an over-saturated market, or that there are still plenty of new ideas that haven’t even been thought of yet. It’s that the world we live in still holds so much, despite any of our circumstances, despite the unchanging rules that control it. (Another lesson: talk to your friends, because you don’t know when they might fail a mission and fade into the void.) Of course, this isn’t something that people can immediately incorporate into their lives– thankfully, Neku himself doesn’t go through any tediously sudden revelations, either. But the important thing is that he does learn, despite his rather difficult personality, and that’s pretty encouraging to anybody. Play with your world, Tetsuya Nomura seems to say. There’s a reason why the game’s called “It’s a Wonderful World” in Japan.