I’ve been consuming a lot of Japanese media lately. I only point this out because things like JRPGs (Japanese role-playing game) and anime aren’t the kind of media that generally speaks to me. I haven’t completed a JPRG since Final Fantasy IX, and while I’ve seen a lot of Hayao Miyazaki’s work, I’m not that versed in anime. I’ve enjoyed sampling the best that the genres have to offer, but have never really felt much resonance with them. Over the past few months however, I have completed both Persona 4 Golden and Ni No Kuni, much to my own astonishment.
In thinking back on the stories in these titles, I noticed one common motif that seemed core to the experiences I was presented with. Both tales feature a young man faced with a new challenge, often coupled with tragedy, who tries to escape his reality. However, in doing so, they allow themselves the space to come to the realization that they must learn how to grow up and face their struggles. Not only must they mature, but in order to overcome the obstacles that face them, they must achieve self-actualization and fulfill their potential. In each instance, this is largely achieved by developing connections with others and the characters define themselves based on their interactions with others. While not a wholly original basis for a character’s motivation, the prominence with which this common thread was displayed struck me, and I want to review the specifics in both instances before speaking to the implications.
Persona 4 Golden is the clear place to start, as the numerous clear references to Jungian psychology are a prominent theme in the game. The game is largely a high school simulator, with a JRPG dungeon crawler attached, and its core mechanic is not the battle system but the way it forces the player to spend as much time possible developing their relationships with their high school friends. The introductory theme song comes straight out and says “the only truth you can find is in another” and in this manner the game explicitly lays out its theme from the onset.
Playing as the nameless protagonist, you are introduced to boring and quaint Japanese town of Inaba as a transfer student (a clever work-around to the common ‘protagonist amnesia’ problem many games face), sent to live with his uncle while his parents are away on long-term assignment. However, a series of serial killings results in our protagonist and his new schoolmates being pulled both into an ongoing investigation into the murders and an alternate reality–the shadow world–which factors heavily into the killings.
Periodically during the story, the shadow world must be entered in order to find clues to solving the serial killings. It is here that your standard JRPG dungeon crawling takes place, but with a twist: most of the dungeons are character-focused and have themes built around the psychological struggles of your teammates who are prominent characters in the story with whom you have been developing relationships with in the ‘real’ world. At the apex of each dungeon, you face a shadow of each character as the boss, which is represented as the corporeal form of the darker side of their mind, their repressed feelings and emotions. The dungeon bosses take their true form and are able to attack the player as a discrete enemy only when your teammate denies that the shadow is a part of who they are.
Over the course of the game, you help your friends face struggles with gender identities, overwhelming familial, societal pressures and expectations, and feelings of having no self-worth or identity. It is only in overcoming these internal battles and accepting that these darker aspects are truly a part of who they are that the characters are able to mature as healthy individuals in real world. In truth, the game posits that by denying our darker sides, our shadows, we may be lead to greater struggles (read: boss battles), but this is a healthy process in which we realize the full extent of what makes us individuals that we can draw strength from. By helping his friends face their inner demons, the player-protagonist unlocks his true potential, and in doing so makes a new home for himself.
Denial of one’s reality also focused heavily in the second JRPG I finished recently, Ni No Kuni. The game takes place in a hyper stereotypical version of the charming 1950s, where the 13-year old protagonist Oliver lives alone with his mother. The set-up presents and overwhelmingly charming and optimistic version of reality in which our hero resides, as is not uncommon with Studio Ghibli productions (who were responsible for the animation and story direction in the game). This is largely done to complement the character as being truly naïve, joyful, and pure of heart.
Tragedy soon strikes, though, as a rambunctious misadventure with a hot rod results in Oliver nearly drowning in a river. His mother saves him though, but due to a weak heart, she dies as a result of the accident. Oliver, stricken by grief and an intense amount of guilt, sobs with a stuffed doll made for him by his mother. The doll magically transforms into a fairy-king and transports him to the magical land of Ni No Kuni (which roughly translates to ‘another world’). In this alternate reality, Oliver is a powerful and rare wizard, who takes it upon himself to save the land from the evil powers that threaten it. Furthermore, he learns that for everyone in the real world, an alternate version exists in Ni No Kuni. The result of this is that if he can save the version of his mother in Ni No Kuni, he may be able to save her in the real world as well.
A realistic interpretation would imply that this is all a clear delusion. Oliver is unable to cope following the death of his mother. Therefore he escapes to a magical reality in his mind, where he attempts to deal with his tragedy in safety. After three days in the real world, as Oliver begins to slowly recover, he ventures out into town, seeking others in which to seek comfort and solace. His first encounter with a local alley cat is reflected in Ni No Kuni as a quest a great Cat King. Next he seeks the friendship of a local shut-in, who becomes a key companion with him in Ni No Kuni. One can clearly imagine Oliver running through his town, stuffed doll under arm with a stick as a pretend wand pretending to be a wizard as he plays out his delusional fantasy to avoid the reality at hand.
In Ni No Kuni, however, Oliver’s primary role as a wizard is literally to mend broken hearts. By seeking out people overflowing with a certain emotion, Oliver then takes a bit of that exuberance and shares it with the person whose heart is lacking. Clearly struggling with his own broken heart, Oliver seeks to find the way to mend his own by helping others. Ultimately, he achieves his potential and comes to understand the true nature of self-sacrifice by helping others, which allows him to learn how to cope with the death of his mother.
Both of these games are commendable for presenting an interesting role to play outside of the ever common ‘power fantasy’ we see in games. I am not sure if it is simply a cultural difference between Japanese and American storytelling in games, or if I am simply cherry-picking. It has been truly refreshing to play games that are about self-actualization through the development of relationships, as opposed to your standard military shooter. Not that there is not a place for these power fantasies, but clearly their prevalence in the market has long passed over-saturation.
I feel that these games should be extolled for the message that they teach and be placed in the hands of more children. Your standard first-person shooter or mature Western RPG is generally not designed with children in mind, however it is clear that too many of them are exposed to these games in an irresponsible manner. Regardless of whether or not these games lead to aggressive tendencies in youth, it is clear that there is a lack of care to promote appropriate games for for younger generations. We should extol alternatives like this, for not only being ‘age-appropriate’, but also for being some of the best games in recent memory.
Especially when children and young adults are in their most formative years, themes of self-actualization, becoming who we are through the deepening of our relationships with other, and learning how to cope with reality can be incredibly potent. The fact that players of these games are often taking a break from their own reality, using the player-avatar relationship to subvert this escapism turns these games into excellent reflections on the player. We all know this stuff gets internalized, even if we aren’t thinking actively on it, and promoting games with these kinds of messages should be considered important.