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Bet You Can’t Guess How I’m Gonna Relate The World Ends With You To Race

April 29, 2008

The World Ends With You is responsible for the lack of updates over the past week. I guess that’s the up-side of writing about video games; I have no qualms about calling gaming-time my “fieldwork” for the blog and sleeping well at night. And, frankly, games rarely catch my attention like TWEWY, so when it does happen it feels like a disservice not to ride it until it’s over.

For starters: the game is a breath of fresh air. I rarely find myself playing much in the Japanese RPG realm; too often, I find, most of these games are timesinks just as bad as World of WarCraft. I am a bit more willing to make exceptions on the DS, because DS games tend to be shorter by nature (see Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: Rings of Fate and my under-10-hour finish time), and designing for the DS seems to push games into far more interesting realms than their console counterparts. The World Ends With You is one of these games – while it is, at its heart, a Japanese RPG in all its grinding glory, all the standard dynamics are tweaked just a little bit to make it interesting. I’m by no means a completist, but TWEWY makes me want to be one far more than any other game I’ve played in the last few years. The combat system is an inspired mix of Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword hack-and-slash and micromanaging abilities, the dynamic difficulties and amazing variety in weapon “pins” keep the combat interesting, and the game doesn’t make you grind or throw you in hundreds of completely random battles – basically, it’s a JRPG at its very best.

I recall reading somewhere that the game was designed after the setting. I imagine that’s not always the safest design strategy, but in the case of TWEWY, which is set in Japan’s teen-pop-culture-land Shibuya, it works just fine. Having spent plenty of time in Shibuya myself, I can appreciate how playing the game – and, in particular, the mind-reading dynamic and Neku’s perpetual loneliness amid a sea of people – reflects a lot of the thoughts and feelings I had while kicking it there myself. Even the map design slightly resembles the actual place, with names changed around some of the prominent spots (Shibuya 109 becomes “104”) and other places, like Dougenzaka or Hachiko faithfully kept in. Sadly, they didn’t include any of my haunts (Guinness Records! Shibuya Kaikan!), but I digress. TWEWY is a traditional JRPG designed around Shibuya’s unique sense of space, and it works very, very well.

You’ll be seeing this a lot – Neku is an Emo.

Part of the game’s allure is that nothing is completely reduced to a video game interaction. NPCs don’t just show up once and disappear, for the most part; the story is very good about keeping the characters versatile, and well-written.

It makes me wonder what kind of other games could be designed around a real-world physical space. And, of course, since this is Token Minorities, it makes me wonder how that kind of game design philosophy could be used to bring out race as a theme. I must admit that I’ve had a predilection for the “hood movie” genre lately, with Friday on the better side and Don’t Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood on the not-so-great side. Still, I’d love to play a game where my protagonist was a Friday era Ice Cube, navigating life’s daily challenges as a young black man. Give him the ability to read minds – and maybe the occasional departure into a white upper-class neighborhood – and it’d have lots of potential. Something like Do The Right Thing could work well too.

From a theoretical standpoint, this might be a more promising angle to work in race as a central design theme for a video game. Part of the socially constructed nature of race is that its meanings are constantly in flux; the meanings that we ascribe to race aren’t universal but differ according to time, physical space, and politics. Even words like “Asian” or “Black” don’t necessarily mean the same things – see “Asian” in England, which is generally analogous to “Southeast Asian”, vs. “Oriental”, which refers to East Asians but has commonly fallen out of favor in the United States. Basically, the “racial common sense” (Hi Omi and Winant!) differs by community. Instead of designing a game aimed at addressing Race with a Capital R as it applies to the US – why not set a game in the hood? In the inner city? In the South? In Chinatown? – and design the game around that particular locality, complete with its racial common sense.

It’s that last bit that games set in the hood, etc. have largely failed to do so far. Yes, there are a precious few games with people-of-color protagonists. Some of them have even managed to take the California gangsta-rap life and translate that into a video game experience a la GTA San Andreas. But it needs that last step: a game design, and a complementary story with realistic and well-written characters, that makes the effort to recreate the full experience of a person of color and tell a story about race, rather than offer up the experience with a voyeuristic, identity-tourism (Hi Lisa Nakamura!) appeal.

To be frank, that last step could very well be the difference between a game made in a predominantly white industry, and a game made by a progressive development studio composed of people of color.

pat m.

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