Everyone remembers the infamous "your games are terrible" comment. Phil Fish will probably never live it down, and for good reason. While not absolutely true, as his statement suggests, games from Japan have been generally relegated to "niche" in the west, and between Japan's slow approach to HD and the mainstream shift from PC to console development in the west, Japan has fell behind in some areas they once dominated in. The severe drop-off in JRPG presence on consoles this generation has been a perfect example; once a pillar of the industry, JRPG's are now mainly a handheld affair.
In walks Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Consoles haven't seen a game like this one in years, and the game uses this to its advantage. With this time, gamers have reflected on what makes the genre tick, what works and doesn't. It seems that no one has been thinking about this more than Level-5, who ensure many elements within Ni no Kuni's structure as a game, narrative, and cultural touchstone make this title the savior of console JRPGs.
A mix of pop culture references, a whole bunch of RPG nostalgia, engaging characters, and beautiful graphics... No, I'm not talking about Earthbound, but I very well could be. Ni no Kuni is probably the most important Japanese game since Earthbound. Not because the two games share the aforementioned traits, though. Its because they both reach out of your TV, and slap you in the face with the real world.
I won't go into Earthbound here, that's been done, and much better than I could ever do it. There are thematic elements that don't exactly present themselves readily within the game, so I would definitely check out some writings on that if you haven't already. Studio Ghibli's works sometimes have deep subtext as well, which also lends itself to Level-5's work here.
Like Earthbound, you've got to look below Ni no Kuni's shiny, impervious layer of cute to get to the core of whats really going on. As young Oliver, you live in a quiet podunk in Americana. After a horrible accident, your Mom has a (tear jerking, i'll admit) heart attack and you are left on your own for three days being looked after by the neighbors. After crying onto your stuffed animal, he magically comes to life and takes you to save Another World on the flimsy pretext of possibly saving your mother. Gathering a spellbook and wand, you head into a world of magic, monsters, and experience points.
What you get is an interesting mix of Pokemon, Harry Potter, Dragon Quest, and Christian metaphor, and it is a truly interesting mix indeed. But they aren't mixed because they make a great game when all crammed together. Well, they do make a great game, but that's not why they did it. They did it because videogames are good for humanity.
Games are an easy target nowadays for their perceived harm, but what about the good they could do? Some study that someone did at some point that I don't feel like looking up said that video games could be helpful in cases of childhood trauma. Basically, child gets traumatized, then goes and plays video games for a few hours, the period of dealing with trauma can be decreased in length and intensity. Even if its not measurable, it sounds logical, right? Distraction allows less mindshare for grief, after all. IGN's Greg had an awesome article talking about periods of grief and videogames, and provides an awesome anecdote to back up my likely-preposterous claims here.
So anyway, Level-5 is basically showing us a boy who experiences trauma, and after three days of isolation and grief, creates a dissociative fantasy (i mean, that's what videogames really are, aren't they?) based on a mosaic of pop culture influences that the child's tiny brain has been bombarded with since birth. A psychologist would call it absorption, and probably give the child medication and therapy.
But on this journey, the boy learns lessons and grows because of them. He's given other characters he can interact with, obstacles to overcome, and goals to achieve. Sounds kind of like a video game... so am I playing a video game that is thematically a representation of the grieving process? Perhaps video games are good for us, and perhaps Level-5 wants to show us that.
Thanks for reading, hope you guys will chip in and help fill out my argument a bit. This was just a way to get the ball rolling on a conversation about this game that really needs to be had. Please help me continue the conversation so that this game can be recognized for what it is: a masterpiece.