Friday, May 3, 2013

Unsettled childhood of Ni No Kuni

[My girlfriend, Helen Berents, is a Peace Studies academic whose research is all about how young people affected by conflict are engaged with. Recently, she finished playing Ni No Kuni and had all sorts of opinions about how it depicts and treats children. I invited her to write out her thoughts in a proper post, and she did! So here it is. If you find the things she says interesting, she also has her own blog for her own academic musings here. There will be spoilers.]




Childhood in Ni No Kuni is a contradiction. On one hand, 13-year-old Oliver is a complex, compelling protagonist with real depth and nuance, a noble child-hero. On the other hand, other representations of children in the game are so fraught with stereotypes and problematic encounters that I’m left wondering if their presence contributes anything to the game at all or if it ultimately harms it.

The notion of childhood in Ni No Kuni is unsettled, and it unsettles me. Conceived, as it is, within a frame of a child’s quest to save his mother in a magical land only he can access with the help of his fairy friend (Oliver’s sidekick Drippy (so-called Lord of the Fairies)), the game immediately poses questions about the stability of the land of Ni No Kuni (quite literally ‘Another World’). With a Studio Ghibli aesthetic (more on Studio Ghibli in a moment), the player is already asked to suspend belief, to have an adventure. The narrative is a classic: boy saves mother, saves world, with help from magical friends and a few fetch quests to get magical items that are requisite for success.

Yet once Oliver is in the land of Ni No Kuni, his childhood is rarely invoked. Characters question his preparedness to fight Shadar the Dark Djinn, and offer him all sorts of assistance from spells to advice to items. However, particularly once he is out of his ‘ordinary’ clothes (pants and a shirt with braces) and into his cape, he becomes a children-hero. Oliver sits uneasily between his own desires as a child to have his mother back, and the desires of an entire world that see him as the saving hero.  


The danger of hero narratives about children is that it presents a decontextualised image of young people affected by conflict. It’s an issue that many academics who study children and conflict have raised[1]. This is less of a problem in a videogame in which you expect there to be a protagonist, and you expect the narrative to be tidy. As the player, you take on a heroic role, and in this case it is a young boy you are journeying with.  In fact, the very fact that Oliver is 13 would be almost entirely unremarkable (even to someone attuned to these things) if it wasn’t for several questionable occurrences involving young people through the game. But first, where I think the game succeeds in negotiating representations of children.


An Active Imagination and Kids with Agency

The potential pitfalls of a child protagonist are eased by Ni No Kuni’s connection to Studio Ghibli. The joys of Studio Ghibli films are their ability to take seriously the adventures, experiences, emotions and beliefs of their (usually) young protagonists. The perils children face in Ghibli films are real and not superficial—the threat of a mother’s death, the loss of parents, growing up—and moreover they don’t infantilise the children, but rather highlight a resilience or strength which can just as easily come from imagination and belief as real world encounters. The tendency of Studio Ghibli to feature female protagonists with feminist convictions has also always endeared me to the films.

Indeed, Oliver isn’t the only young person in the party. Relatively early in the game you meet Esther (in Al Mamoon), whose father is Rashaad, one of the Great Sages (who previously failed to defear Shadar). With her father’s permission—which is worth noting in a discussion of children’s agency—and once cured of a broken-heart by Oliver, she joins Oliver and Drippy on their quest[2].

I recognise that Miyazaki did not have anything to do with the creation of Ni No Kuni, but the art style is pure Ghibli, and music comes from Joe Hisaishi who has scored many of Ghibli’s films over recent decades. These evocations ask the player to accept the conventions we have come to accept from Ghibli films, as we step into another world and embark on a grand adventure. Moreover, they reassure us that the heroic young person we are traveling with is intelligent, caring, imaginative and valuable.


“I’m not a child!”

While Oliver is the ‘heroic figure’, from the moment you meet Pea the game wants you to believe she is some kind of mystical, yet innocent, idealized child. You meet Pea very early in the game, before you’ve even left Motorville for the other world for the first time, and she is a puzzle and a mystery only Oliver can see throughout most of the game. She is a very young looking girl with bright green hair, a propensity to giggle, to disappear mid-conversation and to reappear with new worries. It is once you’ve defeated Shadar and your gang catches on that there is something bigger going on in the world of Ni No Kuni in relation to the White Witch, the Council, and some disaster from times long past, that Pea becomes more important to the story.

Essentially Pea is the pure and goodhearted aspect of the imaginings of Casseopeia, the White Witch (of the title), similar in existence, but diametrically opposed to the Council who seems to be the negative and harmful aspect of Casseopeia’s imagination. These real-but-not-real imaginings are a result of the lonliness Casseopeia has endured for milenia. So Pea is part of Casseopeia, but this isn’t revealed until the end of the game. For most of the game she is just a mysterious young girl with conveniently ridiculous powers. This leads several of the older members of the gang to question her inclusion and usefulness:

“…the three kingdoms are rife with horrors. We cannot send her into their midst. She is only a child Macassin declares at one point. Pea responds “I’m not a child!”, which is largely ignored by the others, as Swaine notes “…have you seen who you’re traveling with? This lot aren’t exactly grown-ups”.




Tied up neatly in this exchange (and exemplified again later when Pea again restates her objection to being called a child) are many of the tropes associated with children, both broadly, and within the game. Pea is seen to be innocent, young, a potential victim and consequently unable to act. Yet Pea is quick to negate that reading and demonstrate that they cannot succeed without her. While Macassin remains dubious of her ability, and of the others’ abilities to apparently protect her, Oliver claims his place as the child-hero when he names her friend and declares he will defend her. 


Take Heart: Consent, respect and the failure of Ni No Kuni and childhood

With the aesthetic granted by Studio Ghibli’s art, and an easy to follow story, I enjoyed playing through the game, exploring new areas (particularly once you meet the sky pirates and Tengri the dragon, who will fly you almost anywhere on the map), setting out on side quests and meeting new characters.

Part of the premise, and progression, of the game is that Shadar the Dark Djinn has been stealing people’s hearts. As you move through the game one subset of side quests consist of meeting people who are broken-hearted and restoring their heart to them—missing ‘heart’ includes a range of virtues from ‘enthusiasm’ to ‘courage’ or ‘kindness’. This includes, at one point for example restoring enthusiasm to a wife who just wants to go home and sleep rather than working:



You restore heart through two spells. Once you’ve received the quest, you find someone who has an abundance of that kind of virtue, you speak with them, and you cast the spell Take Heart. The precious virtue is popped into a magical locket Oliver wears around his neck and you run it back to the poor, broken-hearted soul where you cast Give Heart, and, wonder-of-wonders, the person is restored and ready to dive headfirst back into whatever task they were unmotivated to do.


Now, and this is really important, the spell Take Heart is described in the Wizard’s Companion (the magical guide book with details on every aspect of the game and world) in the following way:

This spell allows you to take some virtue from a person who has it in abundance, and store it in the Locket. Just be sure to ask for permission before you proceed. Remember: a heart belongs to one person, and one person alone.

Let me just emphasise something before moving on: Just be sure to ask for permission before you proceed.

This is an example of how most of the exchanges go when you ask someone if you can have the excess of the virtue they possess via Take Heart:



Similarly to this pieceby Ana Mardoll, I was surprised and enthused that the game was emphasizing consent. Particularly for a core activity that was so bound up with people’s emotions. As Ana said:

…to see [Ni No Kuni] unexpectedly and unabashedly assert to the gamer community that Consent Matters -- that, indeed, it matters so much that it's literally the difference between a Good magician and a Bad magician -- is amazing to me. And very much appreciated.

As someone interested in and invested in more complex portrayals of young people, and in recognizing their contribution and participation in society, I was pretty excited to discover that the young people in Ni No Kuni often have quests for Oliver and his team to complete, and they also sometimes have the virtues needed for other quests. How fabulous, I thought, that children would get to be an active part of this process which recognizes consent, which is built on moral choices and a benevolent aim of, at the most basic, making people happy!

Sadly, no.

Instead where Oliver needs to obtain a virtue from a child he acts with deceit, condescension and a worrying disregard for the child concerned. In this first example the young girl in Perdida says she’d be glad to help with a favor. Oliver responds “Swell! Would be mind closing your eyes for just a couple of seconds”… I’m sorry. What? If anything Oliver should spend more time explaining what will happen to a child than to an adult. As someone who has had to fill in (piles of) ethics forms for research with children, this exchange violates about every premise. Trust me. If Oliver doesn’t think the girl understands what he wants to do, he should either try and explain another way or find an adult guardian to speak to about progressing the activity. And yes, I understand complex ethics procedures probably don’t have to be written into a JRPG, but why the infantalising and almost creepy exchanges between children and Oliver (who, if you remember is also only 13)? If the game wants to include children but isn’t sure what to do in conversations, just treat them like adults! I could even cope with some awkward ‘tee hee’-ing from the children NPCs, if only they were treated with any kind of respect. 




The exchange Oliver has with a young boy in Castaway Cove is even more bizarre. After a reasonably witty (for the game at least) and adorable exchange about the young boy wanting to be a pirate when he is older—a ‘Future Pirate King of Justice’ no less, Oliver notes he is clearly full of ambition. The young boy asks “Ambition? What do you mean?”. Does Oliver explain? No. Oliver stumbles like a creepy uncle and responds “Oh! Uh…It’s nothing. Don’t worry”. After some more banter in which Oliver makes nothing any clearer for the young boy, Oliver casts Take Heart. Contrasted with Oliver’s heartlessness (oh yes, pun), the young boy still invites Oliver to be part of his crew.




Shame on you Ni No Kuni! You were doing so well with your practicing consent, and your dodgy humour, a complex young protagonist hero, and even some feminist undertones. But then you willfully threw it away at the expense of these young people and missed a fantastic opportunity to extend the nuanced, interesting exploration of childhood via Oliver’s story into other parts of the game. Instead Ni No Kuni seems to freak out, not understanding how to interact with young people. 

As an aside, I can't speak about childhood in Ni No Kuni and not speak about the truly bizarre, neo-colonial, weirdly-sexualised quest, "An Artist's Muse", where an artist in Al Mamoon decides he needs one of the forest dwellers, a young girl "as wild as the hills", with a necklace for his painting. Around the world are hidden 'forest dwellings' within collections of trees whose inhabitants are caricatures of indigenous people; wearing skins, with face paint, and unable to speak in complete sentences. So you head off to collect her, she comes back with you and the artist is grateful. To me, the undertones of that exercise are problematic enough (noble savage anyone?), but then they young girl starts striking a series of sexualised poses 

 She's still there winking and posing if you leave and come back later. I felt protective of her like I hadn't with any of the other children in the game; if this is how Ni No Kuni would treat children as-if they were adults, as I hoped for above, then I'm stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to how I'd prefer children to be represented (more like Oliver and Esther, perhaps?).


So, How Then Should We Think About Children in Videogames?

Games have a complex relationship with children. I understand this. I understand why. It would not only be deeply unsettling to shoot children in an FPS, it probably wouldn’t pass a classification board. And I’m a peace studies academic for goodness sake! I don’t really want to shoot anyone, particularly not children! So often game worlds, which are otherwise richly developed, beautifully looking, and complex places either have no children in them at all, or treat them essentially as part of the wallpaper, where your crosshair/cursor refuses to recognizes them as something to be interacted with.

Lest I be misunderstood, I don’t want children that can be shot at added to my videogames!  But if your game is going to include children as members of the world you are moving through, can we at least treat them with the same ethical and moral consideration as the adults? Why do adults receive the courtesy of an explanation before they have a spell cast upon them, while children are either asked just to close their eyes or not even asked at all?

It has a lot to do with how we think of children and young people. “Don’t act so childishly”, “grow up”, “you were behaving like a child”; common place comments which reinforce a view of children as incomplete, as passive, as unable to participate in a ‘proper’ adult world. In academic work these kinds of assumptions are said to operate in frameworks that are ‘adultist’, which privilege adult competency and re-inscribe incompetence and incompleteness upon children. This growing critique of these views, argues instead that children can make sense of their world, they can and do participate and contribute to family life, to communities, to their everyday lives[3].

Of course, Pea both is and isn’t a child. And in many ways the better parts of Ni No Kuni’s engagement with the themes and issues of childhood are encapsulated in that statement. On one hand the game gives a lot of credit to children and their practical and imaginative capabilities, their resiliency, and their capacity to respond to the world around them. It is just a shame that at particular points the game seems entirely unable to sensitively engage with children and reduces them to the equivalent of a magical chests in which Oliver and his friends find convenient aids scattered throughout the land.

The game gives us an opportunity to reflect on how we speak about children, both in gameworlds and in real life, how we engage with them, how we perceive them. Yet it continues to rely on harmful and dehumanizing narratives about who or what children are.  Ni No Kuni is a fantasy, an escape; both as a videogame, and as Another World for Oliver to conquer his fear and sadness. I loved the sensitivity with which the main story is told, and the wonder and sense of exploration Oliver has. I’m only sad it had to come at the expense of more nuanced understandings of other children in his ‘other world’.

[1] In an excellent academic study of former child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Myriam Denov argues that children in conflict are frequently constructed through “the logics of extremes”: “extreme victims, extreme perpetrators or extreme heroes”, or in another way “dangerous and disorderly, the hapless victim and the heroic figure”. The critique of these neat (and flat) representations here is that the messy, difficult aspects of living amongst conflict (or even day-to-day in relatively peaceful societies) as a young person is erased by a logic that speaks before the reality of life can be explored.

[2] As an aside, it is worth commenting on the gendered implications of Esther, both within the game, and more broadly in a discussion of children and conflict. Esther (like so many other women in JRPGs before her) is the healer of the party, with low defenses and limited attack potential. In academic discussions girls’ invisibility has been increasingly recognized. While girls are actively involved in combat roles in many armed groups (Colombia, CAR, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Nepal…) frequently they are seen only as silent victims, particularly as ‘wives’ of commanders, as victims of sexual slavery, and in support roles (cooks, cleaners). While this gendered portrayal speaks to the experiences of some girls, it comes to characterize all girls in this way, and highlights their victimization rather than their agency.

[3] In the field of peace and conflict studies there are some fabulous works on this topic including the volume edited by Siobahn McEvoy-Levy “Troublemakers orPeacemakers” and Lesley Pruitt’s recently released “Youth Peacebuilding: Music,Gender and Change”. Ethnographic/anthropological work by Alcinda Honwana, Myriam Denov, and Carolyn Nordstrom are also making fascinating contributions to this field.

2 comments:

Amee said...

This is cool!

Anonymous said...

I'm just glad someone else noticed those two encounters with those kids, especially the one where he says for the girl to close her eyes. I was like, "Whoooooah, creeper..."