Warning: Mild Spoilers
Ni No Kuni 2: The Revenant Kingdom was an anticipated sequel to the hit PS3 JRPG, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. I will leave it to others to discuss NNK2’s merits and shortcomings as a game or sequel and instead focus on an element of the game that I did not expect. I did expect a light-hearted JRPG story with some heartfelt, if thin and archetypal characters, but I didn’t expect the game to tackle social issues as diverse as racism and the surveillance state. Yes, you read that right. The game where you play a plucky, if slightly megalomaniacal, catboy prince (the shared name is a coincidence, I swear) is also a game that explores a version of the surveillance state. And much more.
In the game, players guide King Evan and his friends through the four biggest “kingdoms” (really city-states) in their world. Each one suffers from a deep social divide that must be healed before they can sign a “Declaration of Interdependence” and stand together as a unified global anti-war alliance. Though tinged with the originating Japanese perspective of the game, these episodes cut across lines and ideas that should be familiar to most players, especially in North America.
For simplicity, let’s explore these in sections that reflect the structure and sequence of the game’s storyline:
Goldpaw and the Rigged Economy
Goldpaw is the city of the dogfolk and the first location King Evan visits to try and realize his vision of a utopian world. In Goldpaw, power is in the hands of priests who exploit the people through a religious observance of random chance. It’s a city of gamblers and debtors, caught in an intricately rigged system. Here, gambling is a clever reflection of the idea that getting rich has as much to do with luck as any other factor.
Goldpaw’s divide is in haves and have-nots, a division that can only be healed when the dogfolk with power, led by Master Pugnacious, stop cheating. This is a criticism of the cheating that goes on within our own corpocratic, capitalist economy. Fair rules and fairer observance of them are presented as a saving grace for a society fixated on wealth and chance.
Hydropolis and the Tyranny of Concern
Hydropolis is the second location and features a plot that borders on the nonsensical. However, the themes are fully intact and strikingly clear. A disaster threatened to destroy the city, forcing Queen Nerae to lock it in a static field that protects it but also doesn’t allow time to pass or things to change. In order to ensure the citizens (a mix of humans and merfolk) don’t break the spell by having kids or changing things, Hydropolis is transformed into an authoritarian surveillance state that literally has a giant eye watching over everything.
The time travel stuff is a red herring many reviews complain about while missing the real meat. Many countries around the world have routine, intrusive surveillance and violations of privacy that are performed in the name of protecting people from threats (the drone surveillance and CCTV cameras in the United Kingdom are good examples). Queen Nerae has good intentions that lead her and her people down a slippery slope to stagnant hegemony. Fixing this can only happen if the powerful let go of their need to keep things the same, which means Hydropolis is in the throes of a recognizable battle over change, one that every culture faces. The resolution of this storyline is a little fuzzy in the details, but it’s the theme of accepting the risk of destruction through embracing change that matters.
Broadleaf and the Technology Obsession
The third kingdom is really a giant corporation housed in a mechanical tree. Broadleaf focuses on the tech sector, particularly Silicon Valley, and its many cultural quirks as well as its out-sized impact on our world. Interestingly, its citizens are all human. In Broadleaf, everyone is obsessed with the business of innovation and use the vernacular of techno-corporate culture. It’s a city where these things are pursued for their own sakes, leaving aside an understanding that systems, especially technology, should serve people and not the other way around. The costs are stark and familiar: pollution, social isolation (they even have social media), and overconsumption.
Broadleaf’s corporate state and its problems are conceptually familiar from cyberpunk and other science fiction. The key realization is that there’s a human reason to innovate, grow economically, and create efficient systems. That human reason is to fulfill needs, whether they are physical or emotional so that the technology serves the human. Zip, president of Broadleaf, has to remember that he started inventing and refining technology to help people before his city can be saved and join the alliance.
Ding Dong Dell and Racial Tension
The last kingdom Evan visits is his own home, which has a deep history of racial tensions that strongly reflect those of our world, but especially in countries with a history of colonialism and persecution along racial lines. For a long time, the mousekin of Ding Dong Dell have been the second-class citizens with the grimalkin (cat people) ruling. Though King Leonhard, Evan’s father, believed in reconciliation, his own chief mousekin counselor, Mausinger, stages a coup to put the mice on top.
At first, it seems like the mice are bad guys and the game encourages that reading for most of its running time. It's only after teaching the player to look at the situations Evan encounters as more complex than they seem that we revisit Ding Dong Dell for a reckoning. Instead of simply defeating Mausinger and “setting it right”, Evan’s reckoning is with the troubled history of his homeland and his people. Putting things right through a process of reconciliation means listening to the “opposition” and reconstructing society to be equitable for everyone while also forgiving the wrongdoing of the past.
I could go on and in more depth about these topics and the way NNK2 explores them, as there is a depth to the game beyond its cartoony visuals and pun-happy naming conventions. I hope this has at least convinced you that the game has more on its mind than it may at first appear to. Whatever your opinion of the game as a whole, I put to you this closing thought: if games are to be considered art, it is worth considering their artistic merits on their own terms.