Chungking Espresso

The World in a Bowl of Noodles

Posted in Game Analysis, Papers, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 30, 2009

***SPOILER ALERT: This is an academic paper; we spoil everything, you crybabies.***

The World Ends With You is part of a recently popularized genre of games I’m calling the “mutual reliance game.” These games emphasize group dynamics over the valorization of individual action, and throughout the paper I attempt to draw from a series of theoretical writings that may lay the groundwork for an understanding of the genre and can be used to examine other games that take part in it. Through a tight coupling of narrative, control, and mechanics, TWEWY makes its argument for mutual reliance while distinguishing a community mentality from its negative analogue—totalitarian control.


The World Ends With You is a game about mutual reliance. Its protagonist, Neku, is a misanthropic adolescent who escapes the world around him by constantly wearing headphones. Neku has died, but he doesn’t remember the details of his murder by gunshot until later in the game. In his time among the living, Neku was a denizen of Shibuya—Tokyo’s vibrant center of fashion and youth culture. In TWEWY, a mysterious group of agents known as the Reapers allow the dead to compete in The Reaper’s Game for a second chance at life.

The Reaper’s Game takes place in an alternate realm, spatially coexistent with the land of the living, known as The Underground; the ghostly Players can see the living and read their thoughts, but communication between the quick and the dead can only take place hrough a version of Ouija called “Reaper Creeper.” Players of The Reaper’s Game receive one task a day for a week. In order to survive in the Underground, which is inundated by evil powers called Noise that flock to the negative thoughts of the living like moths to a flame, each Player must quickly find a partner. Any Player who allows his partner to succumb to the attacks of Noise—or fails to complete a daily assignment—faces permanent “erasure” (videogame conventions run deep in the land of the dead). A single Noise manifests simultaneously on two planes of existence, each of which must be defended by one of the two partners. Thus, Players of the Reaper’s Game are required to place a great deal of trust in their partners—a particularly daunting task for a self-absorbed solipsist such as Neku.

TWEWY represents the two combat planes physically by placing each on one of the Nintendo DS’s dual screens. Players control Neku with the stylus, while controlling his current partner with the thumb of their left hand on the D-pad. The partner character will go into “auto-play” mode if the player neglects to press the D-pad; while in auto, the partner will perform attacks less often and thus open itself to additional harm. By maintaining a steady beat, Neku and his partner can pass a light puck granting a damage multiplier back and forth. Neku collects a set of pins that grant him different attacks. The player invokes each pin with a different type of stylus scratch (circles, flicks, presses, and taps) or microphone input (blowing, shouting). Companion characters gain access to new D-pad combos based on the item in their accessory slot. The game features two difficulty sliders (one for Neku’s health and one for Noise strength) of incredibly fine granularity, encouraging each player to find their own “sweet spot” at which the combat’s team-based mechanics begin to shine.

A Genre Defined?
Individual action, once an unquestioned virtue in single-player games, has become slightly less popular over time. This is not to say that games about an individual struggle to succeed have fallen completely out of favor – Far Cry 2 is a recent popular example about one person’s survival in an environment where even one’s friends can quickly become enemies. But recent years have seen a rise in games focusing on group dynamics.

Prince of Persia echoes Braid’s forgiveness mechanism with the character of Elika, who saves the hero every time he makes a false move and is about to die. Left 4 Dead, an online survival horror game, enforces group reliance by making the game virtually unwinnable alone. Beyond Good & Evil effectively fractures the action adventure hero popularized by The Legend of Zelda by making its protagonist, Jade, reliant on one of two partners to solve environmental puzzles and defeat bosses. These games cross genre lines, making them difficult to recognize as representing a cohesive thrust in game design; thus, throughout this paper we will attempt to show how TWEWY helps define the features and concepts behind a new thematic genre I have tentatively named “the mutual reliance game.”

Portable Gaming Devices
But TWEWY is a different sort of game. Relegated to the handheld Nintendo DS, one plays this game alone, while even a single-player console or PC game can be played in the company of friends. A portable gaming device allows one to escape from daily life even when physically immersed in the world outside one’s living room—before there was the iPod, there was the Game Boy. The history of the Game Boy’s development is somewhat occluded for non-Japanese speakers. One can assume that Japanese market data supported the idea that a console playable on long Tokyo train rides would perform well, but The Ultimate History of Video Games contains a quote from Don Thomas of Atari implying that most people thought the device would fail because of its clunkiness and small, black-and-green screen:

Nobody, including me, thought that the Game Boy would take off like it did. Game Boy is the most perfect example in the industry that you can’t be sure about anything. (397)

If any device demands the amount of close hardware inspection provided by Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, it is the original Game Boy. The Nintendo DS is quite a different beast, but the effect of its hardware limitations on artistic choice inform much of how TWEWY works. We will address this in our discussion of the game’s controls. Lost in Blue—a survival simulator about two children who find themselves alone on an island and must cooperate to survive—is another mutual reliance game for the DS, but is not nearly as self-conscious about being a portable game. For our purposes, the most important fact about TWEWY’s relegation to a portable is that it continually asks its players to take off their DS headphones and develop a sensus communis (in the Kantian sense, not the rhetorical or Aristotelian).

A Tale of Tight Coupling
Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw criticizes TWEWY for creating what Clint Hocking calls ludonarrative dissonance:

What I’m saying is I like games where the story and gameplay go hand in hand. In most JRPGs, the story and gameplay are kept either side of a wrought-iron fence made of tigers.

Incidentally this is almost the exact wording of Croshaw’s critique of Braid—leading one to infer that the reviewer aligns with Raph Koster in holding that game mechanics cannot carry semantic freight. If one considers the surface-level act of scribbling on the DS screen with a stylus to be the extent of TWEWY’s mechanics and control, then this is a reasonable conclusion; however, it ignores many of the levels on which this game operates. It might initially strike one that Croshaw is a particularly easy straw man to mount a defense against; however, in the wake of the great ludology/narratology debates a suggestion of ludonarrative dissonance stands as one of the most serious claims one can level against a game. The following will attempt to show that TWEWY in fact manages a tight coupling of mechanics, control, and narrative rarely seen in Japanese roleplaying games.

Losing Control
Lev Manovich explains part of what makes game challenging (and AI seem a lot smarter than it actually is) by positing that, mediated by the controller, our avatars in a game world represent only a fragment of our potency:

In short, computer characters can display intelligence and skills only because the programs put severe limits on our possible interactions with them […] the computers can pretend to be intelligent only by tricking us into using a very small part of who we are when we communicate with them. (33)

Understood in this light, we see that TWEWY forces the player to fracture themselves even more than most games. The game’s AI is fairly innocuous even by hack-and-slash standards, but the sheer number of Noise on each screen—coupled with the difficult controls—makes up for the weakness of each individual unit.

The player can move Neku around his screen in order to avoid danger by dragging the stylus. Because the stylus is the only way Neku can attack, players must choose at any given moment whether to use their pins or evade attacks. Pins periodically run out of energy and must recharge, so there are times when evasion is the player’s primary modus. The character on the top cannot be similarly maneuvered, because the directional pad only controls their attacks. It is hard to protect this character because of the relative uselessness of the left hand; nevertheless, the limited manual control still proves more effective than “auto” mode. These facts all come together to show that TWEWY’s combat system is a process of mutual reliance between a human player severely limited to the actions of his right hand scribbling with the stylus and either a weak AI companion or a significantly smaller portion of their brain enacting simple button presses on the D-pad.

“I exist, me, Hélène; isn’t that enough?”
The Blood of Others, an early novel by Simone de Beauvoir, is a fiction rooted in same ideas as her later philosophical work The Ethics of Ambiguity—namely, the implication (following Husserl) “that all adolescents are Cartesian-like solipsists who imagine themselves to be the only consciousness that exists” (Holveck). The heroine, named Hélène (perhaps after Helen of Troy), is a naïve youth who sees herself as completely free from societal bonds; thus, throughout the beginning of the book she uses other human beings instrumentally to fulfill her desires. Not until Paris is invaded by the Nazis does her sense of communal responsibility for other women begin to develop. The unit operation of joining hands, common in videogames such as Ico and Lost in Blue, is invoked when Hélène claims to know an impoverished stranger in order to get her a ride back into Paris with a group Nazi officers. Significantly, the women also share bread together despite the prospect of starvation.

Neku and his teammate share a common health bar—the blood of others becomes the blood of one’s own. This communal life force links the success or failure of two partners in the Reaper’s Game. Shared health bars are a fairly rare occurrence in games, highlighting the fact that the developers desired to deliver a deliberate message with this choice. Winback 2: Project Poseidon is a shooter in which the player controls two different characters, one after the other, on two different routes through any given level. Critics panned this design decision, perhaps because it had little narrative motivation. Forever Kingdom, a little-known JRPG with strong tones of group reliance, features three characters linked by a shared “Soul Gauge.” In this second case the Gauge has direct bearing on the combat tactics native to the game, as well as having a cause in the narrative (evil wizard, blood curse, etc.) Accordingly, the critical reception of Forever Kingdom game was markedly more positive than in the case of Winback 2.

Despite this distinction, some conventional reviews of TWEWY cite the health bar as one of the major contributors to the game’s high difficulty curve. But is a shared health bar so different from what we see in other mutual reliance games? In Lost in Blue, keeping fed is a communal process between Keith’s hunting and scavenging and Skye’s fire-tending and cooking. In Beyond Good & Evil, one of the commands available to the player is to transfer health-restoring items between Jade and her current companion. Admittedly it is a bit too easy to acquire health items in BG&E, a situation that Left 4 Dead turns on its head: players are only given between 4-6 health packs per level, which means that one often has to make the decision whether to heal a teammate or save a pack for oneself in anticipation of future danger. Shared health—and the accompanying need to care for one’s teammates to preserve that health—can thus be seen as common unit operations across the mutual reliance genre.

Dark tourism
“Dark tourism” is a relatively established brand of adjectival tourism focusing on visiting sites associated with death. TWEWY is an exploration of the spatial life of the dead that exist in the Underground of Shibuya. This is an important component of the game for our discussion, because the temporary life of a tourist is one of almost complete reliance—explaining why Ptolomea, the second-innermost zone of Dante’s 9th circle of the Inferno, is reserved for those sinners who betray their guests. Navigating a foreign city is a simultaneously exciting, exhausting, and anxious experience.

Players of TWEWY are visitors to Shibuya, significantly reliant on a map that occupies the top screen of the DS when viewing the menu. The map is divided into different areas, each of which has a different popularity chart for the game’s many consumer brands. Payers must pay attention to these charts, because wearing either the most and least popular brands will grant Neku’s team bonuses and negative effects, respectively. Because the game returns so often to the same locations, every mission features a different blocking off of the city based on invisible walls that either remain static or can be destroyed by fulfilling certain tasks. The map thus often becomes the only way to get from one point of interest to another, weaving one’s way between the shifting blockades.

The fracturing of the city space echoes the mental synecdoche and asyndeton described by Michel de Certeau as intrinsic to pedestrian life (Certeau 101). When walking through a city, one primarily remembers landmarks that draw attention to themselves or hold some significance for the walker; thus, these individual locations become representative of a larger area—synecdoche, poetically speaking. In between these key locations, walkers mentally ignore scenery and thus manifest the second poetic tool of asyndeton. The sites that TWEWY centers around are often emblematic of Shibuya as a youth culture center, but some of the back alleys in which major plot points occur do not necessarily strike one as well-traveled. Thus, even citizens of Tokyo will find the Underground of Shibuya somewhat disorienting, because TWEWY’s particular spatial synecdoche and asyndeton adhere to an idealized, rather than an actual, walker of Shibuya’s streets.

Some Distinctions
Individuality is not an unalloyed evil in the eyes of TWEWY’s designers. Much care, primarily through the game’s narrative but also in a few key mechanics, goes into establishing a difference between mutual reliance and a complete forfeiture of the self. An important part of the definition of a genre is to explicitly understand what does not constitute membership. The following discussions of shopping, trends, and rhythm attempt to lay the groundwork for these distinctions.

A Consumerist Game?
Shopkeeps, perennially some the least developed characters in Japanese roleplaying games, become a vital component of TWEWY’s argument against solipsism. Just as in the real world, one develops relationships with shopkeepers in TWEWY by becoming regular customers. Doing so unlocks new, more powerful pins and clothing for the player to purchase. This is the source of many mainstream critiques of the game as overly consumerist: in the game, one is literally only truly alive while inside a store—the ghostly players of the Reaper’s Game become corporeal when they step past a sigil marking the entrance to every store. This is, of course, simply a way to justify the idea of direct communication between the living and the dead, but its implications should not be completely overlooked.

Certainly the game’s reliance on buying clothing and flair to augment the abilities of Neku and his teammates is disconcerting, but the nowhere does it explicitly claim that the clothes one wears are a source of individuality. Rather, the relationship Neku develops with various shopkeepers echoes the thoroughly modern nostalgic desire for locality and community that Pierre Mayol unearths in his exploration of Madame Marguerite’s notebook:

I have known some very crude shops, display windows of dubious taste, but the shopkeepers knew their customers, there was an exchange of politeness and kindness […] The shopkeepers are unfortunately no longer authentic Croix-Roussians. They have constructed more modern shops, but they have not acquired the native mentality. There are no more friendly conversations, no one knows anyone anymore… (126)

Wistful remembrances of times past are not unique to the great Continental thinkers and poets—Hayao Miyazaki has built his entire animation career upon the Japanese public’s desire for a return to a simpler, more natural way of life (Napier 181) in the face of rapid industrial change (sometimes by feeding it, sometimes by problematizing it).

Even though Neku can develop relationships with the cashiers at larger-scale stores, their greetings and farewells receive markedly different treatment. The cashier at Pegaso, a shop “for the richest of the rich,” tells you to return when you can afford his wares if you leave the shop without buying anything—an experience that anyone who has accidentally wandered into a Bloomingdale’s or trendy boutique looking for a pair of slacks can instantly sympathize with. Although the most expensive items in the game are powerful, the game does include a method of combining rare materials with lower-price goods in order to cobble together the most potent outfit. Despite the regularity of shopping in TWEWY, the distinction between the local and the corporate is no more apparent than in the subplot dealing with Neku’s rescue of Ramen Don.

Saving the Noodle Man
If one sat and watched The Food Network for an entire day, one would likely catch at least one episode of a show where the host visits Japan or China. At some point in the episode, the host will visit an aging male who spends his final years preserving the dying art of handmade noodle-pulling.4 The crafting of a fine bowl of ramen is perhaps most thoroughly celebrated in the Japanese film Tampopo—a cinematic, ramen-specific analogue to the curry-restaurant game CoCo Ichibanya analyzed by Ian Bogost. As an exploration of Tokyo culture, TWEWY would be remiss to ignore this significant aspect of Japanese culinary life.

During the second week of the Reaper’s Game, Neku runs head on into the world of the ramen business. Ken Doi, owner of the neighborhood noodle bar Ramen Don, has fallen on hard times. Nobody will visit his shop, because a popular blogger named The Prince of Ennui has endorsed a chain restaurant called Shadow Don. Manipulated by the corporate forces maintaining his popular image, the Prince does not enjoy the empty, loveless noodles crafted at the restaurant he endorses:

I miss the old stuff… Just noodles and broth. Warm, simple ramen.

Using a simplified version of Reaper Creeper, Neku imprints in Doi’s mind the image of an advertisement he can use to recover his business. Later in the day the Prince enters Doi’s shop, demands a bowl of noodles, tastes them, and exclaims:

Let me guess: a whole chicken in the soup? That, and a hint of pork bone, seaweed and sardines… It all blends together so perfectly! Among the flavors, I… I can taste the love you’ve put in this. Your love of ramen… No. Your love for ramen-lovers.

The noodle is a symbol of long life in east Asian iconography; however, no matter the level of craft that has gone into making a noodle as supple and long as possible, a bowl of ramen is very much a product of the harmony between every ingredient—reflected in the Zen-minded placement of different meats and vegetables in a wheel across the surface of the broth. Furthermore, the Prince asserts that the soup becomes more than the sum of its parts when it has been made in the spirit of sharing with others.

This sequence and its underlying metaphor are admittedly melodramatic, but ramen as a model for a community of individuals is certainly more refined than the American conception of a “cultural soup” (perhaps because our semi-liquid culinary analogues are homogenized stews and chowders). Encapsulated in this subplot we find both the game’s preference for the local and its mandate of mutual reliance—the ingredients of ramen maintain their purity even while harmonizing together.

The Red Pin
TWEWY also distinguishes mutual reliance from Hannah Arendt’s characterization of a totalitarian centripetal force on society. Kitaniji, the leader of the Reapers, distributes a red pin that, when activated, forces everyone to march to the beat of the exact same drum (to follow Emerson). One mission early on the game is to aid in the red pin’s marketing to the living; the designers seem to have thought that one of the best ways to hammer a social message into the minds of players is to make them complicit in the antagonist’s master plan.

TWEWY features a peculiar mechanic that allows this mission to make sense: trends among the living are set by the fashions of the dead competing in the Reaper’s Game. By wearing any given brand during combat, Neku will incrementally raise that brand on an area’s popularity chart. The very absurdity of this mechanic stands as a secondary counter-argument to the notion that the game is overly consumerist—TWEWY posits that trends are less a tangible social phenomenon than they are completely arbitrary flukes of popular taste.
In her study of Nazi and Stalinist regimes Arendt argues that,

Totalitarianism is never content to rule by external means, namely, through the state and a machinery of violence; thanks to its particular ideology and the role assigned to it in this apparatus of coercion, totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorizing human beings from within. (325)

This idea relies heavily on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the “aestheticization of politics” that propagandists use to take control of society by popularity instead of force. She asserts that totalitarian governments seek not to control classes, but masses; further, “the chief characteristic of the mass man is not brutality and backwardness, but his isolation and lack of normal social relationships” (Arendt 317).

There is no more perfect connection between the late capitalist environment of Shibuya and the aestheticization of politics than the notion that youth culture can be easily manipulated by the manufacturers of trends. Trendiness begins as a way for a select group to declare themselves as unique, quickly cuts across class boundaries, and finally becomes normalized when it hits market saturation. The game clearly does not consider the bond of common hipness to constitute a “normal social relationship,” but rather a weak grasping at straws in the face of the highly encapsulated social life of the Tokyo citizenry.

The creeping trend of wearing the red pin in TWEWY is a process that begins early in the game as a hip accessory that only a select few possess and surreptitiously gains momentum in tandem with Neku’s three runs through the Reaper’s Game. By the end, Kitaniji has complete control over a population that voluntarily accepted the yoke he crafted for it. Neku, who has become so involved in the Game due to his newfound fellow feeling for the predicament of his previous partner Shiki (she faces erasure if Neku fails, because the Reapers take what is most important from each Player at the beginning of each week), is the only person in Shibuya who managed to ignore the trend. Thus the communal sense, which saves Neku from mind control, is differentiated from a hive mentality.

Pop Matters
Rhythm games have now firmly established themselves across player demographic boundaries. Most interesting for our analysis of mutual reliance games is the recent transition from single-player games such as the first three Guitar Heros to team-based experiences such as Rock Band and GH: World Tour. Notably, these “party” games feature the shared health bar (here a general level of positive or negative audience vibe) that has proven itself to be such a risky move in other genres. Similarly to other mutual reliance games, individuals rack up “star power” that they can use to either increase their own score, boost their audience vibe, or save a fellow bandmate from failure. This is further proof that games in this thematic genre recognize individual effort in-game while allowing players to make a semi-ethical meta-game choice that leads the group to either enjoy or become frustrated by their experience together.

It is notable that a critique of rampant consumerism is relatively easy to build against these games: buying instruments and clothes only provides surface-level aesthetic change. Further, World Tour is the first rhythm game to feature dynamic in-game advertising provided by IGA and Massive, while Rock Band 2 features corporately sponsored events and competitions. Comparing the rhetoric of shopping between TWEWY and these games only highlights how carefully the former handles the matter.

TWEWY makes numerous connections to the world of music through its naming conventions. Joshua, the local demi-god of Shibuya, is known as the Composer. His second-in-command, Kitaniji, bears the title of Conductor. The most common enemy in the game—characterized primarily as being not-human—is called “Noise.” Though not immediately apparent, the ghostly Players of the Reaper’s Game are also players (that is, “instrumentalists”) in an orchestra or band. When Kitaniji invokes the power of the red pin to control the living and the dead, he subverts the natural musical order of Shibuya’s society and replaces it with a Fascist march.

Theodor Adorno famously associated the early jazz of the Tin Pan Alley with Fascism:

The effectiveness of the principle of march music in jazz is evident. The basic rhythm of the continuo and the bass drum is completely in sync with march rhythm, and, since the introduction of six-eight time, jazz could be transformed effortlessly into a march[…] the jazz orchestra[…] is identical to that of a military band. (485)

Further, he observes that “the most drastic example of standardization of presumably individualized features is to be found in so-called improvisations” (Adorno 445-6). His claim is that popular music, because it must appeal to the aural  inclinations of what the uneducated masses perceive as musically “natural,” risks becoming entirely normalized. Once this process is set in motion, popular music creates a feedback loop wherein both the performers and their consuming public become progressively more regularized in turn. The discussion of whether Adorno knew what he was talking about or was simply biased by his experience with Nazism and training as a classical pianist still goes on today. For our purposes we simply recognize that TWEWY’s red pin story echoes Adorno’s exact fears: the same instrumentalists who compose a completely unique jazz band can one day find themselves following the beat of the same drum.

There are no soloists in TWEWY; like the members of a two piece band (The White Stripes and Mates of State come to mind), the Players of the Reaper’s Game only have a limited amount of actions to perform and tools to use to craft their music (or combat). They pass a puck of light back and forth that increases a damage multiplier if they keep a steady beat. The Player’s pins thus become his instruments, and the price for following the popular trend of wearing Kitaniji’s red pin is the total control of one’s mind and music.

A Biblical Critique?
What we in the West know as the “Christ figure” is in fact a fairly common archetype in many religions and spiritualities—from Amitabha Bodhisattva, to Prometheus, to Japan’s own Amaterasu (the protagonist of the videogame Okami). In TWEWY, Neku himself becomes a Christ figure. Joshua slays Neku, choosing him as his champion in a Job-like contest against Kitaniji; Neku  transforms himself in the land of the dead and is finally resurrected anew.

One might initially assume that Japanese artists have no stake in exploring  Christian mythology; however, Japanese cultural historian Susan Napier writes that,

For most consumers of anime, their culture is no longer a purely Japanese one. At least in terms of entertainment, they are as equally interested in and influenced by Western cultural influences as they are by specifically Japanese ones. (22)

While Napier only explicitly references Japanese manga and anime, the consumers of JRPGs comprise essentially the same market within and outside Japan. Crosses, angels, and demons are common icons in Japanese games, from the winged forms of Kefka and Sephiroth in Final Fantasy VI & VII to the aping of Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “Gott ist tot” in Xenogears. J.W.T Mason explains this by asserting that Shinto, the national spirituality (for it cannot exactly be called a religion) of Japan, is a recognition of the divine seed in all peoples and cultures.

TWEWY inverts the Biblical story of Abraham’s plea with God to spare the city of Sodom. God agrees to spare Sodom for the sake of ten good men, but the angels sent to survey the city can only find one, Lot. Not until the New Testament are the sins of mankind worth forgiving for the sake of one (Jesus). Echoing the God of the Old Testament, Joshua decides that Shibuya has become so vile and imperfect a place that it must be destroyed and composed anew. He bets Kitaniji that the city cannot be redeemed within three weeks, leading the otherwise benevolent Conductor to perpetrate his Fascist control of the populace in an effort to constrain their vices. Joshua murders Neku (he’s an Old Testament God, after all) in order to have a thrall inside the Underground, disrupting Kitaniji’s efforts.

Yet Joshua decides at the end of the game that the otherwise vile city is worth saving for the sake of one man’s (Neku) capacity for betterment. This directly contradicts the story of Christ, who is born and lives without sin in order that his sacrifice might redeem the souls of the imperfect. Neku’s teammate Beat originally died trying to save his little sister Rhyme from being run over by a car. If Christ’s example were meaningful to Joshua, then Beat’s sacrifice would be enough for him to decide that Shibuya could produce virtue; however, it is the transformation of the thoroughly imperfect (selfish) Neku that changes the demi-god’s mind.

One could hold that this celebration of the actions of an individual undercuts the message of mutual reliance, but this would ignore the fact that the very transformation Joshua values is the development of a sensus communis. Christians rely on Christ’s sacrifice for their salvation; in TWEWY it is the bond of mutual reliance formed between Neku and his teammates—forged in  countless dual-screen battles and the twisting little passages through the shop-filled alleys of the city—that saves Shibuya.

The World Ends With You establishes the importance of mutual reliance while explaining how to maintain one’s individuality. The game distinguishes between a sense of community and the negative analogue of a hive mentality. It delivers these messages through a tight coupling of its mechanics, controls, and narrative. More so than any other game with a similar moral, TWEWY displays the expressive strength of the rhetoric of mutual reliance. The fact of its relegation to a portable gaming device only makes its message all the more poignant for the player.

In the end, one comment by Croshaw re-emerges to hold true of the experience, namely that the player has been led through the game on a leash. TWEWY, like a raiding guild in World of Warcraft, is such a finely tuned machine that performativity and agency have been robbed from the player. This strikes one as distinctly counterintuitive to the possible goal of allowing players to decide for themselves whether or not to develop a sensus communis. If the mutual reliance game is to mature as a genre, it may have to abandon some of the explicit conncections that TWEWY maintains. Maybe the coupling of two partners is too restrictive to allow true group dynamics to develop. Perhaps an answer lies in the story-free experience of playing Left 4 Dead, wherein game design exists simply as narrative architecture for the team’s emergent story of survival—as great a proof as any that game mechanics, when finely tuned, can carry semantic freight on their own.

[1]Adorno, T., “On Popular Music” & “On Jazz.” Essays on Music, University of California Press, Berkeley (2002), 437-469, 485-488.
[2]Arendt, H., The Origins of Totalitarianism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston (1973), 308-326.
[3]Certeau, M. The Practice of Everyday Life. University of California Press, Los Angeles (1998), 91-110.
[4]Certeau, M., Giard, L., Mayol, P. and Tomasik, T., The practice of everyday life, Volume 2: Living and Cooking. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis (1998), 126.
[5]Holveck, E., “The Blood of Others: A Novel Approach to The Ethics of Ambiguity.” Hypatia vol. 14 no. 4, Univeristy of Indiana Press (1999). Retrieved online at 21:20, 4/20/09.
[6]Kent, S., The Ultimate History of Video Games. Three Rivers Press, New York (2001), 397.
[7]Manovich, L., The Language of New Media. MIT Press, Cambridge (2007), 33-34.
[8]Napier, S., Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke. Palgrave, New York (2001), 22 & 181.


5 Responses

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  1. Krystian Majewski said, on May 3, 2009 at 7:24 pm

    Great read! I love how you are able to pull from so many different sources to give a broader perspective on each topic. My only critique would be that among all those references it is sometimes difficult to follow your main argument (that is is a mutual reliance game). But maybe it’s only because it’s late and I only skimmed the text. Will read more carefully later.

    And now you’ve done it – I REALLY need to play it now. *grr*

  2. Simon Ferrari said, on May 3, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    Of course you like it! 1/2 of my sources are German!

    But no you’re totally right: tt was my first serious effort researching a bunch of sources and… using block quotes. I’ve never used them before! Because I hate quoting, really. The first draft just wasn’t as engaging to read as I wanted it to be, so I went ahead and re-read a few books and found some new ones to check out. I knew I had to quote this time and I think I went overboard.

    I think the main thing I need to do is add a bit more of a Japanese perspective, study what Japanese culture critics have written on the topic. I got the Napier stuff in there but there was a lot more I could have done with it. The thing is, a lot of the good stuff that’s been written about anime can pretty much be carried over directly into a study of JRPGs. But nobody has written that book yet, or at least I haven’t come upon it. I didn’t want to go overboard talking about why Japanese RPG characters look like white anorexic girls. The reason is in the Napier book, but I didn’t want to get into that whole bag of beans. I tried to only talk about what I saw as important from the standpoint of mutual reliance.

    One last thing I realized I didn’t do right was link back to the genre discussion at the end of each section. There were a few parts where I compare the discussion of a particular source to multiple games in the genre, but I need to do more of that (for instance, the tourism section could really use it). There’s a lot of work to be done before I can publish it, but I already got the hard part out of the way: hitting 5000 words and finding all of my sources. Woot!

  3. TheGameCritique said, on May 19, 2009 at 3:13 am

    Amazingly deep criticism of the game. It was an enjoyable read, depsite its legnth it kept my attention throughout. It seems though there could be more to talk about in the game and that it holds even more than you discussed.

    However, I do not think you addressed Crowshaw’s argument entirely. Though you laid down the basics of hwo the mechanics and story can corrolate, you only did that thematically. Storywise, as in character interaction and plot points, the game still seems to run with you as an observer. While no game has entirely intigrated the two, there is at least the presentation of you actively doing something to progress the story. J-RPGs in my expirience do not do this and will stop momentary while walking at certain points to give a short cutscene and then allow you to continue on with nothing else having changed. That is the gate.

  4. Simon Ferrari said, on May 19, 2009 at 9:16 am

    @TGC/Eric: Thanks for the kind words, man! I agree that there’s *a lot* more to talk about with this game–I’ve always found thesis papers to be sooooo self-limiting. I’ve never really understood why the thesis became the standard format for academic papers. I suppose the fear is that most papers would get boring if you just let people compare and analyze all day… but they didn’t have videogames to talk about when they made that decision!

    As to Croshaw, I agree with you completely. There are two parts of his argument, one is that the story and the mechanics don’t match up. That one I disprove. The second one is that the story leads you through on a leash without letting you make choices or experience change. That one is true, and I confirm it toward the end of the conclusion: “In the end, one comment by Croshaw re-emerges to hold true of the experience.”

    The question is, and you may disagree with my answer to it: is the game about choice, or is the game about mutual reliance? I think we’re still a really far way off from having a game about choice (I analyzed Fable II as a game about being a pedestrian god earlier this year), and if Croshaw thinks JRPGs are the only usual suspects here then he’s completely wrong–I don’t believe I’ve played a single game where I didn’t feel fairly well led on a leash (and he’s a Prince of Persia fan, mind you). I think that the game is primarily performative in its approach to decision-making: it wants you to make better choices in real life, not necessarily in the game world. This makes it a bad game but a fairly good epic poem.

  5. Ray said, on November 24, 2009 at 11:58 am

    Great paper Simon. I’m glad to see the evolution of it from the version you presented for Ian in April. I agree with many of the points you have stated, especially the tension between seeming to offer a narrative choice, and yet yoking players to a story. While my knee-jerk response (given my JRPG player pedigree) is that a tightly controlled narrative is part of the deal (usually one of the better parts of the deal!) with a game like this, I think you may have a point when it comes to looking at truly reliant games such as L4D as space where gameplay can do much of the narrative work and gives players a free space to act.

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