So it's been kind of a long month for me, between dealing with new assignments at work and gathering materials for a non-fiction deconstruction book on feminism in Studio Ghibli / Hayao Miyazaki movies. And in the midst of all this, the Christmas present that Husband ordered finally arrived in the mail: a Studio Ghibli video game called Ni No Kuni ("The Wrath of the White Witch", or so the English subtitle declares). So we thought we'd take turns playing through and seeing how the game holds up to the usual high feminist standards of Studio Ghibli.
First impressions were initially a little disappointing, as I'd known in advance they would be. The reason for this is that the protagonist is a young boy named Oliver, instead of the usual Studio Ghibli tendency to star young girls as protagonists. I assume, without a shred of evidence whatsoever, that game partner LEVEL-5 insisted that the game had to have a boy protagonist in order to snag the all-important male gamer demographic. Because we all know that male gamers are just beating down doors to play cheery cell-shaded games where an innocent little boy (called "Pure-Hearted One" without a trace of sarcasm) helps citizens of a magical kingdom regain their lost emotions while searching for a way to save his kindly single-mother.
But! Getting past my disappointment that I'm playing Oliver instead of a theoretical gender-swapped Olivia, I've been tremendously enjoying the game, both from a gameplay perspective and a plot perspective. And then an exchange happened in-game that literally made my jaw drop, and in a good way. But first, some backstory.
Oliver is traveling through a magical alternate universe looking for a way to save his mother and defeat the local evil Big Bad Shadar. Shadar has an unusual method of terrorism that he holds over the local populace: anyone who defies him or becomes inconveniently threatening has pieces of their heart magically stolen -- these pieces include things like "enthusiasm".
Once a piece of your heart has been stolen, you become an emotional husk relative to what was stolen -- so if you had your "enthusiasm" stolen, you can't perform even the most basic of tasks because, you know, fuck it. And while that might not immediately sound like the worst thing an Evil Overlord could do, the game does a commendable job of pointing out how evil it is to screw with people's minds and emotions without their consent and to slam them with the equivalent of instant-onset clinical depression.
So now that all this has been established, Oliver is at the gate of a city he needs to enter. Only the gate guard won't let them in because he's had his enthusiasm stolen. It's a standard Broken Bridge, and it's up to Oliver to solve the problem with Magic. And this is the exchange we get:
Drippy: First off, what that guard's missing is a drop of good old-fashioned enthusiasm. Find some and give it to him, and he'll be right as rain!
Oliver: Okay. But... where do I find enthusiasm?
Drippy: Well now, feast youer eyes on that other guard by there. He's got more get-up-and-go than a sack of squirrels! If he hasn't got some enthusiasm to spare, I'm a monkey's uncle!
It's at this point that I looked at Husband and said, "Um... I'm not okay with this." And because Husband knows me so well and because he'd already played past this part so that he knew what was coming, he smiled and said, "Don't worry -- you ask his permission first." And lo and behold, it was so! And how.
Your support character tells you to go ask the guard if he will give you some of his enthusiasm. You then go up to the guard, and ask him outright if you can have some of his enthusiasm. The guard agrees, and you open your spell book to access the "Take Heart" spell and it explicitly says that the subject has to consent to the spell in order for it to work. Here is a screenshot and everything:
Liberates some of a consenting subject's emotional essence.
Consenting. Consenting. Oh my stars and garters, consenting.
This is not something that video games -- heck, that my entire culture -- has trained me to expect. I honestly expected the whole sequence to go from Drippy pointing out the Extra Enthusiasm Guard, to me walking up to him and casting the spell without his permission (with maybe some banal flavor text if I'd spoken to him first to establish that he's Very Enthusiastic Today!), and then seeing him shiver under the influence of the spell, and then watching him calm down noticeably to indicate the spell took effect. I also expected that very probably he wouldn't realize that I was the reason for his sudden change of heart.
I expected that sequence of events because I've played video games for as long as I can remember, and that's how these things usually go. In a protagonist-centered universe filled with nameless NPCs, I'm used to barging into people's houses to take their things and to barging into their hearts and minds via magic to take their thoughts and emotions. In a world of Fetch Quests and Broken Bridges, morality has to take a backseat to not merely convenience but actual narrative necessity, built into the game by the programmers.
Mind Reading example: Golden Sun
These aren't necessarily bad things; my argument is, as usual, a bit more subtle than This Game Is Bad And You Should Feel Bad. I have myself experienced the vicarious pleasure of tromping all over the entire world to brain-scan every NPC on the planet once the telepathy power enters my possession. And this can be fun because, when done properly, the process feels less like intruding on the minds of real people and more like tracking down little sticky notes left for the player by a dedicated development team. Back-tracking all the way back to That One Village isolated on the other side of a tedious dungeon for the reward of an unexpected Star Wars joke can be the moments that you remember as a gamer.
Star Wars Hilarity example: Lunar Silver Star Story
But those are the sometimes-silly games, the ones that don't mind leaning on the fourth wall hard enough to make it bulge. And that's not what Ni No Kuni is; it is -- or at least has been so far -- a serious game, with serious themes, and serious concepts. And to see it 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.
Not everyone will take this lesson to heart because not everyone plays games for moral lessons and feminist themes. Some people just want to have a relaxing old-school RPG adventure, and for these people having a magic system that can't be min-maxed for player gain and requires "flow-breaking" conversations establishing consent each time will be unwelcome. In searching for screenshots and videos of this scene for this blog post, I found such a conversation, lamenting that it would have made for a better game if Oliver could have given and taken heart pieces at will as needed and without establishing consent each time:
Subject: Give/take heart could have been such a cool mechanic
Imagine if you could take and give whatever piece of heart you'd want from NPC and have different reaction. Like give kindness so that merchant just give you a discount, or have multiple way to get through story point depending on what piece of heart you give (I wont't list any possibility for spoiler, but you get the idea). Instead we got this super hand holding system where we don't even have to figure out what to use since it's labelled in big red letter.
Another minor gripe I have with NnK. It was fun and refreshing for the first few towns, but eventually without any variety or evolution in it, as TC suggested to influence merchant prices or even branching story paths, we ended up with a squandered opportunity.
it would have been fine IMO if you didnt have to sift through the text and then wait for the spell menu prompt to give take the heart. If you could just walk up to them and cast the spell I would have liked it more because then it would be a less painful process at least.
And then it would have blurred the line between what Oliver was doing, and what Shadar did.
"Oh, hey. Lets just take a piece of this woman's heart because she showed us some gratitude, and throw it into the merchant's body so I can get a discount." [emphasis mine]
I respect where the min-maxing gamers are coming from, because I'm a min-maxer myself at times. But when it comes to Ni No Kuni and whether or not the Give/Take Heart mechanics were a wasted opportunity, I fundamentally disagree. Any game mechanic that asserts basic feminist principles about bodily autonomy and the importance of choice and consent is something that I want to see more of in video games.
Even if it means I can't buy the Infinity Plus One sword at a magically-reduced discount. Because the +10 to Feminist Awareness bonuses are worth it, by far.