Ni no Kuni and the Art of Growing Up

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I have been playing a lot of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch recently. There are plenty of articles floating around talking about the beautifully rendered world, elegant adherence to classic Japanese-style role-playing genre and frustrating tedium that is often in attendance. All of these I would agree with, so instead I want to focus on something else.

Ni no Kuni’s complexity—once fully understood—is considerable. But complexity is layered, as it is in most games, so that a player arrives at full comprehension through slow revelation. It’s a lot like growing up. Sometimes the narrative even follows that same truism. In the initial stages your path is coddled, awash in safety bumpers and no-no signs: consider the utter embarrassment of losing a game’s first battle! But in time those securities fall away as you are given more power and responsibility.

A natural contrast to Ni no Kuni’s learning environment is the “do what you will” attitude of Bethesda’s games in which a player endures a short boot-camp experience and then is thrust into world, wide-eyed and ignorant. It’s an exciting feeling, though saving often is encouraged. In a Bethesda game there is no babying: a cave might be hiding a creature far beyond your ability to handle, but there is no warning sign. You are already grown up, or perhaps growing up is the trial-and-error period after you begin the game until whenever you feel confident walking outside without looking over your shoulder. It undergirds the games with a pervasive uncertainty and risk.

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It takes a long time to reach that same sensation in Ni no Kuni. And it’s very apparent when it does occur: as with many similar games, Ni no Kuni eventually grants you a flying dragon to take all over the map.  Your first car! Or your first bicycle in Pokemon. Flung into the broad world, you’ve been taught all, the game says. Now it’s time for you to learn on your own. This moment was carefully chosen: Ni no Kuni’s slow revelation of possibilities works to continuously delight the player with an ever-expanding list of promises. If revealed poorly, these mechanisms trigger anxiety. But revealed over time, those options—alchemy and its ingredients, errands and hunts, familiar evolution and treats, hidden treasures and map secrets—develop into a rich mixture of possibilities that do not feel immediately pressing.

Whatever the game, when this moment—a certain wakefulness to the game’s full freedom— occurs it gives two sensations: first is that this is the height of a game’s promise. It is the moment that the entire game has been building toward. I say that because now everything the game offers is largely seen. Yes, there remains much on the horizon, but the game has decided that you’re smart enough to do what you want and that you could actually—if you really wanted—go anywhere you please.

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The other sensation is that of a structure collapsing, where walls built around the player to provide a careful path forward now cease to exist. Those were the same walls designed to alleviate beginner anxieties. Now that the walls are down, there are sudden pressures and questions that players must answer themselves: am I appropriately leveled to face this next boss? Where should I go next? Will my next choice close off other opportunities? Similar questions could be asked in real life.

As in life, eventually you grow up. You are now expected to independently search for better items and— in the case of Ni no Kuni—your starting pets may not be up to snuff. Losing becomes a possibility and now the burden is on you, not the game. You are taking the reins: it is a unique sensation that occurs when granted complete freedom while also aware that by the same measure you’ve lost the protection that guided you to that moment.