Ni no Kuni – On “Americanness” and JRPGs

Ni no Kuni Motorville

Two things happened this past weekend. The first was that I finally got around to buying a PlayStation 4, and the second is that a sequel to the 2011 PlayStation 3 game Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was announced.

I preordered a collector’s edition of the North American release of Wrath of the White Witch back in 2012, and it’s been sitting unopened in its box in my closet like a post-postcapitalistic objet d’art.

Ni no Kuni was the final PS3 game I own but hadn’t played, and I’d put it off for so long because I haven’t had a lot of room in my heart for JRPGs since I finished Final Fantasy XIII. I felt like I couldn’t justify setting up the PS4 unless I gave it a shot, however, so yesterday evening I took it out of its (pristine and gorgeous) box and booted it up.

The game took ten minutes to initialize, and after playing it for thirty minutes I still didn’t get a chance to fight a single battle. In fact, I never even made it past the prologue.

If I’m being honest with myself, I think what turned me against the game was the Ghibli portrayal of “Motorville” (which I think is supposed to be in Michigan, although there are a few hints that it could be elsewhere in the Midwest or the South). There was something a bit too unironically wholesome and… aggressively racially homogeneous?

Motorville was like something out of The Twilight Zone, and the uncanniness of the atmosphere was exacerbated by the fact that I knew that wasn’t what they were going for. I never thought, as an American, that I would feel sullied by the gaze of a different culture on my own, but… yeah.

Also, I have seen Pet Sematary, and I know exactly where that story is going. Oliver, I promise that you don’t want to bring your mother back from the dead, just trust me.

My impatience with the story and setting aside, I was annoyed that the game didn’t give me anything to do for the first half hour, not allowing me to fight or explore or even open the menu to save my progress. I understand that the game becomes more interactive after Oliver leaves Motorville to set out on his fantasy adventure, but that sort of front-end slogging isn’t very promising as foreshadowing for mid-game slogging.

I finally started reading Jane McGonigal’s Reality Is Broken, and it’s been resonating with my recent reevaluation of what I want from video games. At the beginning of the book, McGonigal examines the psychological and emotional experience of playing games, saying stuff like…

From zero to peak experience in thirty seconds flat – no wonder games caught on. Never before in human history could this kind of optimal, emotional activation be accessed so cheaply, so reliably, so quickly. (40)

…and…

It’s no exaggeration to say that for many gamers, it probably felt like they had been waiting their whole lives for something like this: a seemingly free and endless supply of invigorating activity and every reason in the world to feel optimistic about their own abilities. (41)

Neither of these statements applies to my first experience with Ni no Kuni, which was ten minutes of set-up and thirty minutes of enforced hand-holding.

I used to love JRPGs, but as I play these types of games as an adult I’ve gradually ceased to experience the sort of positive feelings McGonigal describes in the above passages. I love novels, and I love Studio Ghibli movies, but if I wanted to read a novel or watch a Studio Ghibli movie I wouldn’t have paid $120 for a game.

I know that I should have given Ni no Kuni at least another half hour to get itself off the ground, but my PlayStation 4 was so new and fresh and shiny, and I could not help myself. After the thirty-minute timer I set went off, I jumped up from the couch, turned off the PlayStation 3, and started getting really excited about finally being able to play Transistor.

( Header image from The First Hour )