Don’t Check Your Bags [Ni No Kuni]

February 7th, 2013 by | Tags: , ,

Studio Ghibli and Level-5’s Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a type of game I don’t play very often: a family-oriented big budget title. It’s heartwarming and kind, to the point where even its violence is positioned as being a temporary evil that will lead directly to greater good. I had one thought just after the game really got going that forever shifted the experience for me: what if this isn’t real, and it’s just Oliver’s way of coping with the death of his mother?

It sounds stupid and cynical, doesn’t it? We have a habit of attempting to ruin or taint everything that reminds us of our own lost innocence, and you can definitely look at that thought as being part of that trend. At the same time, it’s a hard idea to let go of, particularly when you start to consider a few things in the game itself with less of a blindly trusting eye.

The death of Allie, Oliver’s mother, is what really gets the game started, with her revival being the end point of Oliver’s quest. To bring her back, Oliver is going to go up against Shadar, the Dark Djinn, with the help of Drippy, his fairy friend.

Drippy enters the narrative just after the death of Allie. Drippy was a doll that Allie gave to Oliver, and represents Allie’s love for her son. As Oliver cries while holding his doll, his tears fall onto the doll, causing it to come to life. Upon waking up, Drippy explains that he is not just from another world, but was locked away by an evil entity who may hold Allie’s life in his hands.

Drippy spins a tale full of wonder, but the heart of it is one idea: Oliver can get his mother back. Oliver accepts Drippy’s reality because he’s guaranteed the power to change things if he goes along with Drippy. He can return to point when he was happy. On the one hand, this is a standard hero’s journey. On the other, it’s incredibly convenient, isn’t it?

The cracks in Drippy’s narrative become even more obvious when you consider his behavior. He’s hiding things from Oliver. Oliver knows that he’s meant to save this world from the Dark Djinn, but Drippy spends more time reiterating how capable he is than actually giving him advice. Drippy emphasizes Oliver’s potential, not his reality, whenever they meet another character.

Drippy downplays the danger, and that makes me wonder if I can trust him. His explanations of how this new world works don’t quite make sense. He shows Oliver how to transfer emotions from one person to another, but that process somehow leaves the giver feeling even more of the emotion they gave away. Later, he assures Oliver that they aren’t really killing the creatures they fight. They simply go somewhere else after being chastised and will soon return as loving creatures. Where do they go after you hit them with fireballs and swords? Um. Somewhere?

The biggest warning sign, the moment that gave me pause more than any other moment, came when Oliver returned to the real world for the first time. At this point in the game, he’s fully accepted his quest and acquired clothes that fit the magical realm. We’d laugh at him if we saw Oliver in real life, with his cape, Little Lord Fauntleroy getup, and ridiculous boots. In the game, from what I saw, everyone simply takes it in stride. It barely rates a mention, and that bothered me.

The townspeople care about Oliver and how he’s coping, but they rarely remark on his clothes and avoid speaking to him at length about his mother. I got the feeling that they don’t know how to take the situation or Oliver himself. A child loses his mother and walks into your store wearing a ridiculous outfit. How do you react to that? Apparently the answer is “you ignore it and pretend like everything is mostly okay.”

The idea that Oliver is out of his depth with his grief a dark twist born from a dark thought, but the more of Ni No Kuni I play, the more the puzzle pieces seem to fit together. If I took Ni No Kuni entirely on its own terms as a lovable game about loving and being loved, I would probably lose interest pretty quickly. But my own baggage, my interests and tastes, gives me a greater — or probably just “different” — appreciation of the story.

I feel like what you bring to a work of art is about as important as the art itself. No work of art is a monologue. It’s a conversation between you and the creator of the work. You are a large part of the reason why a fantastic work of art clicks with you so hard and why some other fantastic work of art falls flat. Sometimes your mind is perfectly shaped to take a certain story. Sometimes it isn’t. In the case of Ni No Kuni, my own baggage and interests changed the game for me.

Instead of bailing out of the game early on with a “Good, but not for me,” I’m playing a lot of Ni No Kuni in an attempt to prove this thought wrong. I don’t want Oliver to have to face up to his own impotence and grief. I don’t want his mother to be dead. I don’t want Drippy to be a guide with dark intentions. I want Oliver to win.

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8 comments to “Don’t Check Your Bags [Ni No Kuni]”

  1. I rather like this reading of the game. It strikes me as being rather similar to how some have read My Neighbor Totoro, that the girls are more or less inventing everything that happens to cope with the fact that their mother is severely ill. Might this bee a theme of Ghibli works?

  2. This reading fits in pretty well with some of the lower-key Ghibli stuff… The Secret World of Arrietty is pretty severely melancholic and preoccupied with m

  3. ortality and age and all that mono no aware stuff. And yeah, Totoro (and, to a lesser extent, even Panda Go Panda) can definitely be read as a child’s elaborate coping mechanism to a grave family situation… kinda thrilled to see “the Ghibli video game” going after that instead of, like, flying fortresses from Laputa…

  4. I’ve only played the demo of Ni no Kuni, so while your read seems very plausible, I can’t say if I’d get the same feeling from the game. I will say that if I saw a child running around in a costume, I’d probably just assume they were playing pretend. I know I spent plenty of time running around with a cape on when I was young, but I’m from the suburbs and could play in my yard. Again, I haven’t played the full game. Do you feel like his adventuring outfit is very obviously something he couldn’t have dug out of a chest in the attic?

  5. I recall reading about how My Neighbor Totoro drew from a period of Miyazaki’s childhood when his mother was ill and hospitalized. Beyond that, I don’t really read much into the darker possibilities or interpretations of his (and a lot of Studio Ghibli’s) work because there’s enough depressing and pessimistic stuff out there already, you know?

    Somewhat related: did you play The Unfinished Swan? Loss and escapism are pretty significant elements there as well. It’s definitely worth playing.

  6. @Gaijin D: Yeah, the outfit is very much a… like if Bilbo Baggins had a costume, this would be the human version of that costume. It’s very Puss’n’Boots.

    @Jog: I love how smoothly you made that transition between hitting submit by mistake and the end of your comment. I still need to see Arrietty, come to think of it.

    @Greg: I haven’t played Unfinished Swan! I think I downloaded the demo. I should definitely get back to it (and Papa & Yo) asap.

  7. This write-up makes it sound remarkably like Mother 3.

    [spoiler]Just without the surviving brother turned into a machine, but still.[/spoilers]

  8. I haven’t played the game, but I like your analysis. I’m sure the creators had that in mind as a possible interpretation, even if there is a happy ending. Trying to bring back the dead rarely goes well, though (FMA comes to mind first), so we’ll see…