Monday, November 24, 2008

Spiritual Bridges in Video Games - The World Ends With You

If you were to die today, do you know where you would go? Heaven? Hell? Shibuya? Well, according to the minds over at Square-Enix and Jupiter, the answer is c) Shibuya. The game is called "The World Ends With You" (Japanese title: Subarashiki Kono Sekai - It's a Wonderful World)--an RPG (Role-Playing Game) for the Nintendo DS released earlier this year. I (Scot) picked it up without any idea that I'd be writing a post on it; I simply wanted to play what I anticipated would be one of the greatest games of all times. [In that, I wasn't disappointed; this easily falls into the top 10 Nintendo DS games ever made, and it will be remembered long after the system becomes defunct.] What I wasn't anticipating was that the story would be an unintentional modern re-telling of the book of Job that directly deals with the pitfalls of Buddhism.

This came as a huge surprise to me, since I have been playing games by this development team for six years now. They are responsible primarily for the Kingdom Hearts franchise, though they have contributed to a half a dozen Final Fantasy titles too. Having played most of their games, and having even read the director's personal blog for a short stint, I can say with utmost confidence that this is not a Christian company. All of the spiritual bridges I am about to write about were not intended by the creators, but are simply evidence of God's law being written on every man's heart.

Before we begin, let me offer up a warning. I am going to go very far with the spoilers here, not only talking extensively about the ending, but also referencing things that are only unlockable on the second playthrough. If you have any desire to play this game, please stop reading right now and come back to this blog when you are finished. (For the unitinitiated, gamers are even touchier than movie-goers when it comes to spoiling the ending.) But also be warned, this is one of the most difficult games I have ever played, so I would ward off inexperienced gamers. With those warnings in place, let's begin.
The World Ends With You
(すばらしきこのせかい - It's a Wonderful World)
Developers: Square-Enix, Jupiter
System: Nintendo DS
English Adaptation: Square-Enix

The game begins as the protagonist, Neku Sakuraba, wakes up in the middle of the Shibuya crosswalk. Annoyed by people in general, he puts on his headphones and tries to get out of sight. Unfortunately, his headphones don't seem to be blocking out anything. Instead, Neku finds that he is not only able to hear people's words, but also their thoughts. Just what he needs. As he is trying to figure out why he has this ability, many things happen in rapid succession: he recieves an email on his broken cellphone that gives him a mission telling him to make it to the 104 building in 60 minutes or face "erasure", a timer painfully appears on his right hand, frog noise appear out of nowhere and start attacking him, and a cheerful young fashion designer named Shiki forms a pact with him that saves both of their lives. All of this, and the bystanders don't even bat an eye.

As events unfold, Neku slowly learns that he is involved in "The Reaper's Game", a sadistic underground game that takes place in a parallel dimension, allowing him to be invisible while reading and eventually making imprints on the thoughts of others. He and his partner, Shiki, are fighting towards the ultimate prize, which will be awarded to the winners at the end of seven days. Both of them gave up the thing most valuable to them in order to participate, which will be lost forever if they are erased. For Neku, it was all of his memories before waking up in the crosswalk, and, by inference, his identity. For Shiki, it was her appearance, as she now looks exactly like her best friend whom she had been jealous of for years. Oh, and one more thing: they're dead. The ultimate prize is none other than being restored to life.

Most of the missions include clearing areas of noise, which are the physical manifestations of negative emotions and distractions. Oftentimes these noise will be hindering a person's relationships or business. By clearing them, you are restoring friendships and helping people to succeed. In short, you're making the world a better place. But in the meantime, you are being hunted by reapers, who can survive only by erasing you.

Fast forward. Many events happen, and Neku and Shiki end up winning the game after Neku opens up and makes his first friend (Shiki). Shiki deals with her own jealousy, which had been eating her up. But there is a twist. Only one can be restored to life; the other must play again. Neku is forced to play again, and his entry fee is none other than his previous partner--the only person he had ever let inside his emotional walls.

Fast forward again. Neku ends up playing the game a total of three times, partnering second with a self-possessed boy named Joshua who entered the game illegally while still alive, and third with a hot-headed boy named Beat, who gave up his status as a reaper in order to help Neku proceed through what he percieved to be an increasingly unfair and malicious game. Both boys, Joshua and Beat, are obsessed with taking down and replacing a man named "The Composer"--the creator of Shibuya and the Reaper's Game. They see his creation as deeply flawed and in need of renewal. Neku, in addition to completing his missions, helps them on their quest, as he knows that he can't survive without them.

The story continues to progress, and we discover some startling things. Mainly, that the composer is absent, and the game is being run by his proxy, The Conductor. The Conductor has his own plans for "saving Shibuya," which include eliminating everyone's individuality and causing them to think alike. His missions have been slowly building to that crescendo, and Neku has been helping him reach that goal without realizing it.

When the game reaches its final showdown between Neku and the Conductor, we are still in the dark about why all of this is taking place. Why is Neku in the game, and what is its true purpose? Upon defeating the Conductor, all of the loose ends are tied up. The Composer was disgusted by the depravity of his creation, and had plans to destroy it. The Conductor stepped in at this point and proposed that the two of them play a game to decide the fate of Shibuya. (The Conductor was playing for his own gain, as he really wanted to become Shibuya's Composer.) Each side had limitations placed on them. The Conductor had 30 days to complete his assignment, and the Composer was not allowed to play directly. He chose Neku to play as his proxy, knowing that Neku would go through untold suffering, but also knowing that Neku could win in the end. In the final moments, Neku finds out that the Composer was none other than his second partner, Joshua. Having won the game, he has given Joshua the right to destroy Shibuya. Worse yet, as his memory returns, he finds out that in order to make Neku his proxy, Joshua killed Neku in the real world. Everything, from a limited understanding, points at Joshua as the bad guy. Thankfully, Neku doesn't have that limited understanding, and he realizes that though Joshua was sometimes harsh, he always helped people whenever he could. Even his sharp demeanor was there to goad Neku into making the right decisions (Joshua confirms this in Mr. Hanekoma's secret journal entries). So, at the last moment, Neku realizes that he cannot be the Composer, and decides to trust Joshua, even if he doesn't fully understand. As the story wraps up, we discover that Joshua not only decides to sustain Shibuya, but also to restore people's individuality. As a parting gift, he restores Neku, Shiki, and Beat to life.

Phew. Compressing 20 hours of plot into one page is tough. I am scared that I've done nothing but make your head spin, rather than communicating the depth and humanity this story contains, much less its spiritual relevance. Those that have played the game will hopefully have their memory jogged by this synopsis. (My apologies for leaving out the subplot with Mr. Hanekoma and Sho Minamimoto, but adding in their "wild card" status would have made this post surely incomprehensible. Hopefully, I will be able to include Mr. Hanekoma in a future post about the role of the "sin-bearer" in anime, manga, and video games.)

The story borrows elements from many Biblical stories. Certainly you can see the presence of Abraham and Lot as they pleaded for the salvation of Sodom and Gomorrah. You may have even seen Moses pleading with God on top of Mt. Sinai to spare the Israelites. For me, it is Job who stands out most clearly. Job was a man in the Bible who suffered in untold ways for very unclear ends, only given the assurance in the end that God was sovereign and good. The whole time, he is told to curse God and die, but he remains faithful, and in the end, God restores his life in such a way that he has more than he did in the first place. It is a story about God's sovereignty, and his right to direct our lives not only for our own gain, but for the gain of everybody. This is reflected in the character of Neku, who suffers physical, mental, and emotional strain from three weeks straight of playing a game where he could be killed at any moment. He gives up his memories, his only friend, and even the potential of making more friends and allies, all for the purpose of proving the Composer's right to create and destroy as He pleases. In the second playthrough, Joshua, the Composer, explains that the purpose of taking away the things most valuable is not to make people suffer, but to free them from things they are hanging on to in order to mold them into better people. In the end, Neku chooses to trust the Composer rather than taking matters into his own hands, and the Composer not only restores everything he had previously, but gives him everything he gained during the struggle--mainly, the ability to feel, empathize, and have friends, which he had previously lacked.

On a more philosophical note, we have the intriguing character of the Conductor, who is more than a stand-in for the role of Satan. I find it extremely interesting that his idea of salvation was to "snuff out" individuality and make everyone part of the Universal One. It's intriguing because, at the heart of it, that is the goal of Buddhism, the main religion in Japan. Yet here, we have a story that portrays that idea as a half-measure compared to the real salvation. Whether the creators meant to put it in or not, the message is clear: loss of desire and individuality is not something to hope for, but something to be avoided.

Finally, we have the character of Joshua. The name in iteslf should be a dead giveaway of this spiritual bridge, as it has the same meaning as Yeshua (Jesus). His decision to make Neku a proxy caused Neku suffering, but Joshua didn't leave him to flounder for himself. He, in a sense, "incarnated" himself (he entered the Reaper's Game) to impart to Neku the knowledge that he needed (the existence of the Conductor and Composer, and where to find them), and to make sure that Neku wasn't alone. I'm am not partial to Joshua's portrayal as an apathetic and annoying individual, but the seed of truth is still there. I am very interested in the fact that after his "ascension" back to his original place, Joshua decides to show mercy and speaks as an advocate for the people that he met. Connect that with Hebrews chapters 4 and 5, which talks about how we have an advocate (High Priest) who can sympathize with us.

As you can see, the spiritual truths are abundant. They are unintentional, and a little bit murky, but they are there. And as this is one of the highest-rated games on the Nintendo DS, people who have played it will know what you are talking about. They will have something concrete to latch onto in order to understand the ideas of why suffering is necessary, and how God can still be good in those circumstances.


Paul Nethercott said...

"If you were to die today, do you know where you would go? Heaven? Hell? Shibuya?"

That is a great opening to your post Scot! And, while I am not into gaming (my daughter is) your article is very interesting.

I do think that it is highly likely that the writers of this story have been exposed to Biblical stories and images in movies, literature, visual art, etc.

Thanks Scot!

Scot Eaton said...

I know that you will probably never play this game. It's the one that I was playing on the porch in Karuizawa. It is SO hard though, that I wouldn't recommend it to Naomi for another few years. I've been playing video games since I was 8, and even I had a difficult time making it through the game.

nihon said...

Sounds fun. I hope I can get a DS some day. Thanks for your spiritual parallel posts like this.

Jonathan Herring said...

Hey Scott, I actually bought this game because you recommended it on facebook. I really liked it, very fun, great story, and it was challenging. I don't think it was the hardest game I have ever played, but I get the feeling you didn't look anything up online.;)

I enjoyed your analysis of the story very much. It was eye opening and made me like WEWY even better. Your biblical comparisons are right on.

You mentioned you didn't necessarily like Joshua's attitude. Funny, he was actually my favorite character! Something about his cocky abrasive demeanor was absolutely hilarious to me.Haha, anyways thanks for the great post(and recommendation).

Scot Eaton said...

I'm really glad that you enjoyed it Jonathan. My disappointment in Joshua's attitude was mainly the fact that it weakened the Bridge I was trying to build. :) I thoroughly enjoyed Joshua, though I have to say that Beat was my favorite.