Narrative Space Ends With You
Maps are spatial depictions of data. Video games, insofar as they create space, similarly depict data spatially. Henry Jenkins, writing about what he calls “narrative architecture,” attempts to present an alternative to the procedural and narrativist extremes of video game theory. Narratologists (he cites Janet Murray as a prime mover here) fail to realize that video games do not have to tell stories, and if they do it is not likely that they will tell them in the same way that a book or movie does. Ludologists (like Jesper Juul) fail to understand that the intentions of an author do not necessarily limit the narrative explorations and interpretations of the reader (or player, or user). Despite the mis-steps of these two schools of thought, it seems clear from a comprehensive history of play that it requires, creates, and expands space. Jenkins addresses the concerns of both warring schools of video game theory through his discussion of Kristen Thompson’s (my film studies grandmother, as it were) derivation of “embedded narratives” in film. The idea here is that a work such as a film or a video game is a body of information through which a viewer/player moves while attempting to make sense of it by forming and testing hypotheses. One salient comparison Jenkins makes from literature is the fact that “spatial stories” such as War & Peace and The Lord of the Rings have more in common with video games than with most other written work because of their shared emphases on environmental descriptions and open, unfolding space.
This post argues that The World Ends With You, both as a game and as an interactive map, constructs space based around the ideas of trendiness and flux. Why do I say that TWEWY can be alternatively read as an interactive map? First let me explain how the game’s narrative and mechanics work. Our protagonist here is a selfish, insular boy named Neku. Neku has died, and he has to play a game called The Reaper’s Game in order to earn a second chance at life. This fact is of course revealed not in a straightforward manner, but through a plot construction based on flashbacks and revelations of withheld information that construct feelings of intrigue, suspicion, and wonder. The Reaper’s Game takes place in an spiritual version of Tokyo’s Shibuya district called “the UG.” The ghostly players of this game can see the living inhabitants of Shibuya, and they can read their thoughts as well. TWEWY tackles the baffling problem of depicting the capricious nature of “trends” in Shibuya.
To the uninitiated, Shibuya is the epicenter for all of the bizarre fashion that one sees coming out of Japan (google Yamambas, Fruits, or Gothic Lolitas). What do dead people playing a game where they essentially struggle to survive against demonic forces called “Noise” for the duration of a week have to do with fashion trends? Well, in TWEWY the clothes your avatars wear and the “pins” they use to summon forth magical powers are “branded.” As you enter into battles against Noise wearing clothes and using pins of a given brand, that brand will gain points on a popularity chart for the area you are currently battling in. So trends in the living Shibuya are set and manipulated by an invisible contest between the dead! The game manipulates player expectations by showing the world of the living and that of the dead simultaneously on the same plane, because sometimes certain events or NPCs seem to exist both among the living and the dead – playing on the idea of multi-dimensional beings sharing the same spaces as mere mortals such as us.
Usually games are criticized for relying on “backtracking” as a means for moving through the game space. In this game, backtracking is essential in every conceivable way. The entire game takes place inside this one little section of Tokyo. You do unlock small amounts of new territory as you progress through the game, but you never leave the district itself. When you bring up the pause/inventory management menu, the top screen on the DS fills with a map of all of Shibuya. A tiny icon of Neku’s head shows you the section of Shibuya that you’re currently in. To the left of the map is a ranking board of the trends in the area. Wearing popular brands grant the player bonuses, while the least popular brands will hurt the player in some way
Celia Pearce writes about the idea of narrative environments in relation to theme parks and video games (with an emphasis on MMORPGs). According to her account, the early conceptions of Disneyland were not of hybrid media synergy; rather, Disney’s idea was to recreate for Southern California a folk American history that had been completely buried by movie studios and luxurious villas. This is what Henry Jenkins would call an “evocative space.” Narrative spaces within games foster agency, while multiplayer games also engender identity and community. For anyone living outside Japan (and probably the same is true for its inhabitants), Shibuya certainly strikes one as carnivalesque to the extreme. From the garish clothes, to the street games and shows, to the towering shopping and technology centers, Shibuya maps closest to the goals of Disney’s Epcot Center – that is to say, it constructs an environment that predicts our hyper-consumption capitalist future. Working completely against the notion of community, anyone entering Shibuya must struggle to create an identity for themselves against waves of pettiness and flamboyance. These are the forces that TWEWY‘s player and protagonist must battle against.
Ludica’s “A Game of One’s Own” explains that the idea of personal or feminine space are important when constructing narratives that will appeal or cater to women. They contrast their feminized spatial ideals of enchanted, secret, or domestic spaces with the “contested” and “dangerous” spaces of male play. I actually wrote about the importance of feminine space in an unpublished essay on women in the films of Wong Kar Wai.. In Chungking Express, the female protagonist Faye uses the song “California Dreaming” to demarcate her (aural) space from the world of men around her. Breaking into her desired mate’s apartment, she plays this song on his stereo and goes about changing everything to her taste (much like Amelie‘s scene of revenge on the cruel shopkeeper). This basically turns the stereotypical domestic role (or fantasy) of women and posits it as something active or potent. Women in this film are in a constant state of flux, while men are continually associated with stagnation. In order to become happy and “get the girl,” male protagonists must learn how to embrace change.
The dual notions of feminized space and the masculine struggle to accept flux intertwine in TWEWY. The game’s Shibuya certainly maps to the notion of a male “contested space,” with the gameplay’s emphasis falling on the contest against Noise and Reaper foes. I struggle with the idea of labeling the strong element of shopping and character customization as “feminine,” but it certainly provides a relaxing alternative to the constant stylus-whipping and frustration of battle; furthermore, I think that female players generally enjoy the act of clothing their avatars (I posit this because I’ve seen multiple non-gamer females become instant addicts when presented with the character outfitting in a game like Oblivion). The game also includes a mechanic wherein shopkeepers reward loyalty from frequent shoppers by revealing secrets about each outfit and allowing access to newer and better clothes. This reflects a real-world mode of capitalist exchange wherein women tend to develop personal relationships with proprietors while men treat them as a means to an end. The personal strife that the game’s secondary protagonist, Shiki, feels about her self-imposed loss of identity and her search to reclaim it will also resonate with female players.
Neku, the game’s protagonist, begins the game at a distinct disadvantage because of his inability to embrace change and open himself up to others. Because of the nature of the Reaper’s game, Neku must rely closely on a rotating cast of strangers who serve as his partners in the contest. TWEWY‘s game space is fractured in an interesting way, reinforcing the humbling effect of complete reliance on others. On the bottom screen the player controls Neku with the stylus, while on the top screen Neku’s partner battles in an alternate plane of the same location and battle – controlled with the four-direction control pad. This splits the players attention in an interesting way, destroying the typical concentrated, unified viewpoint that players usually take have on a game. Sometimes the action of the game becomes so hectic that one must just let the partner on the top of the screen go into AI autopilot, a particularly frightening form of trust for gamers used to faulty NPC intelligence. So The World Ends With You teaches masculinized, “competitive” or “violent,” players to learn a new way of playing (adapting to flux) while reiterating this point through the narrative space of the game that teaches Neku how to be less self-serving and isolationist.