Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Perils of Playing it Safe: Studio Ghibli’s Ni no Kuni

Ni no Kuni occupies a strange space in the video game/film continuum. It’s a game which, for all intents and purposes, is a Studio Ghibli film – except that it’s also an RPG. It’s not a game based on a film, because there is no accompanying movie. Nor will there likely be a film based on the game, despite its huge success on the global market. In fact, Studio Ghibli creator and visionary Hayao Miyazaki doesn’t allow video game adaptations of his films after several embarrassing swings at Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind were attempted in the 1980s. So Ni no Kuni is a bit of an anomaly – a straightforward Japanese role playing game with the gorgeous animated art and sweeping soundtrack of a Studio Ghibli film. It’s just too bad that it doesn’t capture the same soul.

Ni no Kuni (translated as “Another World”) is the story of Oliver, a boy from the quiet hamlet of Motorville, whose mother dies of a heart attack. Stricken with grief, he weeps over a favourite doll, and when his tears touch the doll it transforms into a cantankerous little lantern goblin who calls himself Mister Drippy. Drippy tells Oliver that he can save his mother if he travels to Drippy’s native magical realm – the titular “other world” – and learn the skills of a wizard. Then, the game itself rolls out its very standard role-playing fare: as Oliver, you fight monsters, complete quests, earn experience and new abilities, and travel to exotic locales. Most games developed for a Japanese audience are deliberately complex, especially by Western standards, but Kuni sticks to simplicity, which works to its benefit. A fine balance is struck between the satisfying depth of item and ability micromanagement and the plainness of combat and story construction. This isn’t Final Fantasy – you don’t play as the dream of a dead hero’s father’s dream, or whatever. This is a refined experience aimed at young people which can still reward the older player.

Many elements of Ni no Kuni are exquisitely crafted. The music, composed by Miyazaki mainstay Joe Hisaishi and performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic, is sumptuous and grand. I think the visuals outdo almost anything else on the PS3, combining a cel-shaded cartoon look with the silk-smooth animation and stunning colour palette of a true Ghibli work. The user interface, or UI – the way the game gives critical information to the player – is much more simple, forgiving, and intuitive than most Japanese games (and even some Western RPGs, like the Xbox 360 version of the original Mass Effect). It’s not all gold, though: the combat is lackluster, the story is uninspired, and, most damningly, it lacks the true beating heart of a Ghibli masterpiece.

Kuni is less outwardly creative than any Ghibli film; the places you visit follow the same “forest, desert, fire, water, etc” pattern of almost every Zelda game, not to mention countless other games of every stripe. There are none of the verdant fungi forests or mystical bath-houses of Miyazaki’s work, and no real imagination in the construction of Drippy’s world. It’s beautifully rendered, but we’ve seen it all before. Something else I love about Ghibli films, which is woefully under-represented in Kuni, is the weirdness. If Studio Ghibli is to Japanese animation as Disney is to Western animation, then Ghibli has a leg up in terms of artistic risk; “playing it safe” is never part of their methodology. So many Ghibli characters, from Spirited Away’s No Face to the clicking forest sprites of Princess Mononoke to the Ohms of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, are designed in both personality and appearance to be disturbing. They’re alien and strange and at first we recoil, until we learn that there might be more to them than meets the eye (acceptance, whether social or spiritual, being a major Miyazaki theme). Kuni, sadly, plays it safe. There’s nothing here in terms of creature or character design that would frighten a child, and I think that’s too bad – Ghibli films treat their youthful audiences with more respect for their intelligence and bravery.

Kuni has the look of Ghibli, but not the nuance. Ghibli doesn’t have cut and dried, black and white heroes and villains. Nothing is what it appears to be; every character has deeper motives and the ability to change. In Kuni there’s a big “video game baddie” style bad guy, and the heroes are stereotypically heroic. Oliver’s mother does die at the beginning, so you could argue that there’s a similar amount of emotional depth to some Ghiblis, which are films that trade on difficult truths, many we’d rather not face – plus, I can only imagine that the story would probably resonate more with parents and their children than it did with me. Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik of Penny Arcade have indicated that playing Ni no Kuni with their children made for an unforgettably special experience, and I can see why. Perhaps an abiding love for the Studio Ghibli canon just isn’t enough to settle me into Ni no Kuni’s intended demographic.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ni no Kuni, but it was mostly a superficial experience. The meat and potatoes of the game would not have kept me playing for as long as I did – rather, it was the gorgeous presentation that sustained me. It’s disappointing that it wasn’t able to achieve the same subtlety and courage that the Ghibli films are famous for, because if it had combined that razor-sharp artistic vision with its own slick visuals and design, Ni no Kuni would have been brilliant enough to excuse any missteps in execution.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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