YOU HAVE 7 DAYS...
Adolescence is the strangest thing. It's that confusing period between childhood and adulthood, where you're expected to act more like the latter but can't enjoy any of its perks, and at the same time, you can't fall back on the antics of the former either. For many, it's a confusing period where it’s all too easy to get lost in between finding out who you want to be, versus what you are expected to become. It's a tough act to balance, one that you’re guaranteed to fail at least once, and the way you respond to that failure speaks volumes about your character. Some are not discouraged, while others choose to rebel altogether. It’s a lot to ask of a 15-year-old. I should know since ten years ago I, was that kid trying to cross that metaphorical tightrope and failing miserably. My response was a lot of anger, the source of which I can’t pinpoint to this day. It’s something I paid dearly for, losing friends, pushing away family, and just overall being a human piece of shit. I’m not proud of that time, and it’s not like I didn’t know I had a problem, I was simply stuck in a vitriolic cycle of trying to improve, failing, and then justifying my own actions as "correct". When you're in that deep of a hole, you need help to unstuck yourself, and as someone that has been playing games for as long as he can remember, it probably won’t surprise you to know that it was there that I found the help I needed: the attitude-filled streets of Shibuya, in The World Ends With You.
Joshua, Shiki, Neku, Rhyme and Beat
The World Ends With You is a JRPG, but you'd be forgiven for not picking up on that fact. It plays, looks, and sounds nothing like what you'd expect from the genre. It has a sense of style all its own, and I know that sort of praise is somewhat used liberally when we talk about games, but I swear it’s true this time. 13 years after its original release on the Nintendo DS, I struggle to think of something that might even come close. The game looks like a manga in motion: the expressive and sleek character designs immediately draw you in, the graffiti-inspired design of the enemies sets them apart from its peers, and a stylized portrait of Shibuya—that I’m told is pretty close to the real thing—makes the city feel alive and bursting with people of all walks of life. For a young Nior, this presentation was 100% the thing that drew me to the game, and I can’t imagine that it was an accident. The game has a target, and that target is you. More specifically, the teenager version of you, the one that was lost and doing some dumb shit, and unless you really hate the aesthetic, I’d say it absolutely succeeds at what it’s trying to do.
Beneath all the hip-hop, graffiti, and zippers (those freaking Nomura designs, man) lie the tropes and beats of a story that only a Squeenix RPG could tell: Neku Sakuraba is an angsty teenager with a seriously bad attitude. He wants nothing to do with other people and sees no value in interacting with them. Unfortunately for him, he wakes up at Shibuya crossing, with no memory of how he got there, and finds himself in a game of life or death, where you’re forced to depend on someone else to survive. It’s a simple premise that’s not unique by any means, but despite that, TWEWY ends up being one of the most down to earth games Squeenix ever made. Sure, you have a teenage protagonist that eventually comes face to face with a somewhat godlike entity, and he only wins because of the power of friendship, but the way it presents its themes make for one of the most relatable stories in RPG history. The main thing this game wants to get across is that you should get out of your own world and connect with other people. It’s the thematic pillar that permeates every aspect of its existence, and it delivers that theme with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. More than once will characters either monologue or straight up spell out the themes of the game, leaving very little to interpretation. But that isn't a bad thing. It speaks to the clarity of the game’s vision. If this really is targeted at teenagers, hammering the point home is the only way to make sure the message gets across their thick heads.
It’s not a coincidence then, that Neku isn’t a likable character at all at the start of the game. Scratch that, he’s downright awful, a real piece of shit. His philosophy is something I loathe, mainly because ten years ago, my own outlook on life wasn't too dissimilar. He was a reflection of everything wrong with my 15-year-old self: aggressive, rude, and self-centered to a fault. I know you’re meant to hate his ass, and his journey to becoming a better person is pretty much the entire point of the game, but back then, it just hit too close for comfort. Actually it’s not just him, every main character (except for Rhyme. She’s pure and perfect and would never hurt a soul) seems to have at least one flaw that explores a different facet of the game’s theme: Shiki envies her best friend and that envy makes her depreciate her own identity, Beat has not yet found a goal or dream to call his own, and he feels the pressure from the others (mainly his parents) to “get his life together”, and Joshua is a prick who shares Neku’s nihilism, but still interacts with people so long as they can be useful to him in some way. I won’t spoil the specifics, but suffice to say that in all of these cases, the game has one answer: express yourself, and open up to others. Which leads me neatly into my next topic.
Art, the way one expresses themselves, and the connections we form through that expression are a very important part of this game. We see it as a mechanic in the brand system, where the popularity of said brands affects your combat pins, how there are very few restrictions on how you build your deck of attacks, encouraging you to play it your way. Even the way your most powerful attack requires Neku and his partner to be in sync, something that as anyone who has played the DS version will attest, is not easy, necessitating you divide your attention between the two screens. In the plot, most of the characters you meet are artists in some way or another, and their expressions vary from a simple bowl of ramen to actual in-universe music. And music is an extremely important part of TWEWY. The main character is named Neku (the Japanese word for sound), he wears big headphones constantly, your enemies are called Noise, the guy in charge is called the Composer, and so on. The headphones in particular are where I think the message of the game shows the most. The surface-level reading is obvious, the phones block external noise and leave you with just what to hear. It’s a symbol of isolation. But there's one curious thing you notice when playing: each week has its own set of songs, with only a few being shared between the three. The entire OST is very eclectic, not limiting itself to a single style or genre, with lyrics that are almost always reflective of either the person Neku is partnered (or fighting) with, or that relate to the plot in some way. Mechanically it just gives the game a great sense of variety, but the implication is that no matter what you do, other people will influence you somehow. Their ideas and creeds will make their way into your own world, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide how to act upon them.
So it's very poetic that the final boss theme is a remix of Twister, the opening theme and usually considered Neku's theme. While the original version of the song is very good, compared to this one it feels incomplete, and I don't say that just because it lasts for less than two minutes and ends abruptly. This remix goes all out, incorporating samples and styles from the entire soundtrack. It's grand, richer, chaotic, and all over the place, but it all comes together to make a beautiful melody. Much like Neku's world after meeting with so many different people. But what really sells that idea is the break at the point where the original song ends.
The power is yet unknown...
When the song reaches that point, the singer addresses a virtual audience, like this is a live concert. Let me tell you something about live performances. When you're upstage with your bandmates, you riff off each other. Maybe someone is off tempo so you tip them off and adjust on the fly. Maybe your drummer is pulling a kick-ass beat that you guys didn't practice but you all rock along anyway. Or maybe the bassist has pulled a slapping improv during that break and you all can't help but smile. My point is, when you're live, you can perform the same song a thousand times and all of them will be a unique moment in time that only that group of people could've pulled off. Making this remix of Twister a live performance is nothing short of genius storytelling. Neku's world isn't static anymore, the people around him all bring their own unique melodies into his performance. It changes him and in turn, he changes them, and it's fucking awesome! It’s one of my favorite boss themes of all time, and the perfect song to end this journey.
By the time the credits started to roll, I just sat there. Thinking. Partially because of the very last plot twist that caught me off guard, and partially because I wasn't sure how to proceed. I got the message loud and clear but pulling it off looked impossible for someone like me. Maybe I was still afraid. The hedgehog dilemma kinda applies here now that I think about it. Or maybe I just had to figure out how to love myself first. But as fate would have it, my opportunity would show itself sooner rather than later. I had to change schools a little after finishing the game, and no one from my past class would be there. It was the blank slate I was hoping for. Now, I'm not gonna sit here and tell you it was all good from there because God knows it wasn't. Getting out of that shell of self-hatred took effort, but little by little I felt a bit better. I learned the guitar if only to impress the girls (it didn't work), took better care of my looks, and reconciled with the people I metaphorically (and sometimes, literally) punched. Hell, I even joined a band and recorded a song as part of a school project! Slowly but surely, my world expanded, and I can't imagine how miserable I could still be if I hadn't changed back then.
The original DS combat is taxing but central to the game's message.
TWEWY is about a lot of things, more than I can reasonably explain or cover in a single blog, and all of it feels more relevant than ever in 2020. Even disregarding our current state of social distancing, we've grown colder and more distant as people. Echo chambers provide a comfortable but ultimately harmful way of life, and when I look at social media, all I see is a vapid pursuit of validation that leads to the expression of a fake self. In both scenarios, any connections formed end up being shallow and meaningless. It’s the ultimate antithesis to the game's message, where it's all about the genuine moments where two different ways of life clash and both parties walk away better for it. These moments don't need to be life-changing events, they just need to be true and actively sought after. Not an easy thing to do, especially when you're young and still trying to find your place in the world, and it won’t simply happen overnight, but it’s an idea well worth pursuing.
Maybe this is why it resonated with me the way that it did. TWEWY wants you to realize that despite the bad, the world is still a beautiful, vast, and wonderful place. That's why it rewards you for taking breaks, for finding other people that also play the game, for getting out of your own world. There are billions of other people, billions of worlds marching to the tune of their own songs, dissonant lives that may or may not mesh with your own, each a unique encounter waiting to happen. "The world ends with you" is a lesson that everyone will need to learn at some point and an obvious one at that, but I argue that it's because it's so obvious that it tends to be overlooked. More than that, it's also a call to action. Find out what's limiting your world and get rid of it, whether it is anger, fear, apathy, ego, or self-doubt. Push your borders as far as they can go.
Let the world begin with you.