This article explores the reception of Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2013) in the West, particularly in terms of the involvement of renowned Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli. I argue that Studio Ghibli acts as a significant paratextual point of reference to the game for the game’s marketers and the critical community (and by extension the gaming public) and demonstrate this through a reception analysis of reviews in the Anglophone gaming press. I use the discourses produced by the critical community in dialogue with the marketers to explore how the design of the game accommodates, anticipates, and discursively produces these readings through its aesthetic and mechanical structures. I do this by leveraging the theory of graphical regimes (Arsenault and Coté 2013), which explores an array of stylistic, medial, and generic features that create the conditions for specific forms of play. Finally, I consider, in light of Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s model of remediation (2000), to what extent these graphical regimes interact with, enhance, and produce those characteristics most associated with Ghibli’s brand to build a heightened sense of immersion. Through analysing the discourses of designers and marketers it is clear that the attempt was to construct not only a hybrid model of a “playable anime”, but something that would appeal to a transnational audience, and I assess to what extent this has been successful based on the interrelated factors of design and reception.
Understanding Ni no Kuni as a transcultural product
Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), developed by the celebrated studio LEVEL-5 (developers of the Professor Layton series (2007-)) in close conjunction with Studio Ghibli. It tells the story of a young boy named Oliver who, after accidentally causing the death of his mother, is accompanied by a fairy named Drippy into a magical world (the “Ni no Kuni” of the title, which translates roughly as “second country”) in order to save her. It was a greatly enhanced version of the game Ni no Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djin, released for the Nintendo DS in Japan in December 2010 but never released outside of Japan. It was launched exclusively for Sony’s PlayStation 3 in Japan in November 2011, and in North America and Europe in 2013 by publisher Namco-Bandai after an extensive 2-year period of localization, a process that required not only significant translation and rerecording of thousands of lines of dialogue in numerous languages (famously adapting accents to local variants as in the case of Drippy, whose original Osaka accent is changed to colloquial Welsh in the English dub, but also a revision of much of the game’s iconic animation for lip-synching purposes. Other cultural changes include making Oliver’s bow more informal and thus less overtly ‘Japanese’ (Akihiro Hino cited in Fleury 2015, p.4). Such intensive efforts speak to the importance of the profile of the Western release.
Mia Consalvo has attempted to account for the Japanese game’s industry’s new-found interest in Western markets. However, after decades of dominating their domestic market, Consalvo argues that Japanese publishers have shifted to making a deliberate and orchestrated push for a global market share and are thus shaping their products more explicitly to Western tastes (see also: Jenkins 2008, p.41). She finds this new necessity has emerged partly due to demands inherent in broader trends of globalized and diversified business strategies in the creative industries (a phenomenon explored in Hesmondhalgh 2013) and as a specific crisis in the form of a shrinking domestic market thanks largely to an aging demographic (Consalvo 2009, p.5). Indeed, it has become commonplace observation in the gaming community that the Japanese games industry is in decline (Byford 2014), facing an ascendant North American and European games industry with increasing global reach (Fleury 2015, p.3). Ni no Kuni is thus indicative of a tendency towards building a transnational brand, a process that Studio Ghibli have been very successful at doing already (Le Blanc and Odell 2015, Ogihara-Schuck 2014) thanks in no small part to their distribution deal with American giant Disney and Spirited Away’s 2003 Oscar win.
For LEVEL-5, the collaboration was thus a means of mitigating risk and creating a unique selling point in a highly-competitive market by “[leveraging] a familiar visual design from a globally recognized anime studio while still making an original product” (Fleury 2015). Meanwhile, Fleury (2015) also overviews Studio Ghibli’s prior, largely unsuccessful, dalliances into videogames noting that Ni no Kuni is a significant turning point, in terms of both its modest commercial and critical success (Karmali 2013) and the scale of the collaboration, and concludes that it may be “intended to diversify into a new medium and revenue stream in which it could pursue new storytelling and merchandising opportunities” (Fleury 2015, p.5). In line with Consalvo’s findings, this suggests that Ghibli are just as interested in appealing to new audiences as LEVEL-5, and probably for similar reasons. Both companies have something to benefit from in the arrangement: LEVEL-5 gives Studio Ghibli access to a large and young global gamer audience, whilst benefiting in turn from Ghibli’s extensive Western appeal and stamp of cultural legitimacy, which is so often denied to games (Stanton 2014).
Indeed, Ghibli’s movement into videogames might not be surprising given that medium’s similarities with animation. For instance, Lev Manovich famously saw digital media like videogames as a return of the repressed techniques of animation, which had been obscured by the indexical realism of cinema (Manovich 2002, p.250), and Paul Ward has argued that games be seen as a subset of animation for the similar ontological relationship they have to reality (Ward 2002, p.122) – that game reality, like animation, is created rather than recorded. What is more surprising is the project’s existence in light of Miyazaki’s recorded distaste for videogames as a medium, which he has proposed “[rob] the precious time of children to be children” (Mottram 2010). It might realistically be Miyazaki’s increasing disengagement and eventual retirement that allowed the project to get off the ground in the first place, with Ni no Kuni hinting more than anything else at a changing of the guard at the studio and a concurrent shift in cultural values and commercial priorities.
Despite Miyazaki’s aversion to video games, Ni no Kuni shares many common elements with his and other Ghibli films, most notably the animation style employed in its cut-scenes, but also the myriad themes that many have been seen by many as central to Ghibli’s output: environmentalism, social justice, child protagonists able to enter a hidden magical world, zoomorphism, flying machines, and Shintō mythology (Le Blanc and Odell 2015, Napier 2018). This is all coupled with a coming of age narrative in which Oliver comes to terms with the loss of his mother (rather similar structurally to Ghibli’s work My Neighbour Totoro, 1988) that also aligns perfectly with the fairy-tale quest narratives that theorists such as Janet Murray argue video games specialise in (Murray 1997, p.197). It can be argued that some further concessions are made to the video game audience, indeed the transition from Studio Ghibli’s tendency to use empowered female leads to a male protagonist in the form of Oliver may have been a concession to gaming’s predominantly male audience (Jenkins 1998), but on the whole the game is remarkably faithful to the classical Ghibli vision.
Notes from a ‘Second Country’: Analysing Western game reviews and marketing
The research informing this piece was a study of 12 reviews from the most prominent print and online specialist gaming publications in the UK and America. The methodology is informed by Janet Staiger’s (2000) historical reception studies approach, according to which an ‘event’ is identified as the object of analysis, which is not a specific text but “a set of interpretations or affective experiences produced by individuals from an encounter with a text” (Staiger 2000, p.163). Thus, instead of an understanding of the game broadly, my specific objective was to find evidence of an appreciation of the Ghibli brand identity expressed by journalists, what I refer to as the game’s ‘Ghibliness’, and how precisely this interacted with an understanding of the efforts of LEVEL-5 as principle designers. ‘Traces’ of this event are then found in reviews, industry documents, and publicity texts. I follow Staiger (2000, p.68) in privileging the role of the reviewer as a crucial conduit of negotiated meanings between the developer of the product and its eventual audience. The attitudes of the reviewers explored here can thus be used to extrapolate the wider gaming public’s perception of Ghibli’s involvement with the game, and determine in what ways this modifies the perceived value of the game and its generic qualities.
Stephen Kline, Nick Dyer-Witheford, and Greig De Peuter have influentially proposed what they call a ‘three circuits model’ to understanding video game culture, which takes into account “digital play as it comes into being at the convergence of technological, cultural, and marketing forces in the mediatised global marketplace” (Kline et al. 2003, p.23). Although it has been much neglected within game studies, which historically privileges formalist understandings of game poetics or ethnographic interpretations of the player’s activities, this approach places marketing, which they further define as “communication practices that link marketers, commodities, and consumers in the gaming marketplace” (Kline et al. 2003, p.23), as a crucial contributor to the ultimate meaning of the video game text. Indeed, this article builds on recent efforts in games studies to attend to the importance of this vital paratextual dimension of the game (Vollans et al., 2017). The circulation of reviews and the dissemination of marketing texts through the sphere of games journalism can thus be seen as a convergence of the interests of the game developers (or more specifically the publishers who call the shots) and the wider public, the kind of point of tension and negotiation between producer and consumer that Henry Jenkins sees at the heart of convergence culture; the tight interweaving of media forms, narratives, and audiences that he argues characterises modern consumption practices (Jenkins 2008).
The press release, sent out by in-house marketing departments or third-party publicity firms specialising in the games industry, is an important document in the publicity hype-cycle that attempts to prime media outlets with specific readings of the game. Press releases can exert significant influence on the topics raised in reviews not only through their rhetorical content but through their regulatory function since pre-release review copies and their attendant marketing materials often come with strict embargoes that not only restrict when a review may be posted but what it may or may not speak about. Refusing to comply with such embargoes results in sites effectively being black-listed from receiving review copies that are crucial to their ability to compete in the highly competitive review marketplace – as high-profile blog Kotaku found to its displeasure after leaking internal data from Bethesda and Ubisoft (Totilo 2015). The press release thus constitutes an industry document that attempts to control or influence the interpretation of the game by journalists during its initial public unveiling to give a strongly positive first impression. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the American press release for the game (BANDAI NAMCO 2011), and the accompanying fact sheet, prominently stresses the link to Studio Ghibli in its by-line and throughout its text. The fact sheet’s marketing bullet-points anticipate and foreground the themes and observations I found throughout the reviews I analysed, for example the articulation of the relationship between the two studios:
An RPG born from the talent of two legendary studios – Ni no Kuni combines the renowned LEVEL-5 video game studio with the animation of the world class team at Studio Ghibli, and the music of the equally legendary Joe Hisaishi, composer on many Ghibli movies. The result is a RPG which expertly fuses these formidable talents. (BANDAI NAMCO 2012)
The collaboration of LEVEL-5 and Ghibli is used as a means of foregrounding and legitimizing the game’s RPG and anime credentials, simultaneously speaking to audiences of gamers and anime fans. But despite the more-or-less equal treatment of these two entities in this paragraph, Studio Ghibli enjoy a disproportionate amount of attention throughout the press releases, which is curious given that this is a video game and not an anime. For instance, the influence of Studio Ghibli over the project is played up again in another bullet point which emphasizes the direct involvement of Yoshiyuki Momose, a long-standing member of Ghibli’s animation team, who is credited as Director of Animation on the game:
Yoshiyuki Momose from Studio Ghibli supervised the storyboards for the in-game cut-scenes and provided stage directions for the motion capture sequences, bringing all his expertise from the animation world to bear on the game’s story (BANDAI NAMCO 2012).
These documents are reinforced by a series of ‘making of’ documentaries released on social media site YouTube, which provided audiences with behind-the-scenes footage of the game’s production and emphasized the strong links with Ghibli. LEVEL-5’s game director is even seen to state, “we worked with Studio Ghibli for the art. Our greatest challenge was achieving Studio Ghibli’s hand-drawn look” (BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012a), thus not only positioning the game within the stable of celebrated Ghibli animations but subordinating the work of LEVEL-5 to that of Ghibli as the source and point of emulation. A further two episodes of the promotional documentary focus on studio Ghibli itself (BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012b) and long-standing Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi (BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012c), clearly placing Ghibli as the dominant partner even though, outside of the game’s cutscenes, the lion’s share of its production work would have likely been undertaken by LEVEL-5. LEVEL-5’s CEO and President Akihiro Hino encourages this view in the publicity materials by emphasizing the influence of Ghibli, for instance in an interview with gaming blog NowGamer that is littered with references to the famed animation house, Hino states:
We were determined to feel the Ghibli world in our bones rather than simply experiencing it with our eyes. It would make us very happy if our fans are able to sense the expression of Ghibli throughout the game. (NowGamer 2013)
The overall impression given by these press materials demonstrates an effort by LEVEL-5 to strategically disappear behind the veneer of Ghibliness.
This tendency was also observed by the reviewers who, on the whole, prioritized the work of Ghibli above and beyond LEVEL-5. All the reviews apart from one (Gamespot) explicitly and prominently mentioned the involvement of Studio Ghibli. Eurogamer devote three of their opening paragraphs to praising the connection with Ghibli (Welsh 2013), and for IGN Ghibli’s influence is so strong that, “you need to look outside of the game’s developer and into the firm actually responsible for the graphics: Studio Ghibli” (Moriarty 2013). This longer quote from Games Radar is representative of the tendency to appeal to the audience’s assumed pre-existing affection for Studio Ghibli:
If you’re a fan of Japanese animation or animated films in general, you’ve likely marvelled at My Neighbor Totoro or dabbed at tears during Grave of the Fireflies at some point in your life. Storytelling just doesn’t get much better than the delightful Studio Ghibli films, starring wistful adolescents with heartfelt wishes and plights that could reach even those with a heart of stone. (Vincent 2013)
From these statements we can see that the publicity department has been successful in seeding and foregrounding the connection with Studio Ghibli; time and again notions of whimsy and charm were brought up as evidence of the game’s Ghibliness (Webster 2013). Furthermore, the reviews set up clear perceptions of a division of labour between LEVEL-5 and Ghibli, in which Ghibli was seen to provide the aesthetics and its attendant charms, whilst LEVEL-5 provided the mechanics and genre trappings of the JRPG.
Kotaku’s superlative review is a case in point as it presents the game as a hybrid resulting of the strengths of the two studios:
The product of a collaborative effort between animation house Studio Ghibli and the game developers at LEVEL-5, Ni no Kuni is a stellar mash-up of both companies’ strengths, mixing Ghibli’s eye-popping style with LEVEL-5’s Dragon Questy substance. It deserves a lot of adjectives. (Schreier 2013)
And in the Endgadget review Kubba’s conclusion clearly highlights the equality of Ghibli and LEVEL-5 as successful custodians of their respective forms, working here in perfect harmony (Kubba 2013).
But not all reviews saw LEVEL-5 and Ghibli as such equal partners. The GamesTM review in particular notes how the game front-loads the Ghibli influence in its early cutscenes, which quickly recede to give way to LEVEL-5’s gameplay. Despite this, it is suggested that the influence of Ghibli is seen to be guiding LEVEL-5’s hand in most aspects of the game: “[LEVEL-5 is] on script duty just with its pens clearly loaded with Ghibli-branded ink cartridges” (Games TM 2013), a metaphor that is all the more striking since it emphasizes the analogue craftsmanship Ghibli are famed for even in a digital form. Although LEVEL-5 were deliberately deferring to Ghibli’s aesthetic, as argued above, there is also a somewhat condescending tone to this sentiment since LEVEL-5’s labor on the game was clearly more than ‘script duty’ implies, a dismissiveness that is echoed in Eurogamer’s note that LEVEL-5 are seen rather unflatteringly to be: “doing the legwork while putting on its best Ghibli impression” (Welsh 2013).
In addition to being dismissively seen as a second fiddle to Ghibli, where reviews are negative of the game the problem is almost always located with the JRPG elements and, therefore, with LEVEL-5. The Polygon review, for instance, begins with the usual evocation of the Ghibli-LEVEL-5 split whilst finding the latter to be the weak link in the system (Kollar 2013), but it is Susan Arendt of The Escapist who writes the most scathing of all the reviews:
Ni no Kuni clings ferociously to every worn-out JRPG trope it can possibly think of – excessive grinding, slow pace, idiotic heroes – and then wraps it all in truly beautiful artwork and character design. Hardcore JRPG fans will love Ni no Kuni despite its clunky quirks, and the game has just enough going for it that almost anyone will enjoy playing for a little while. (Arendt 2013)
For this critic, the lush Ghibli aesthetic merely served to distract from a lacklustre and highly generic game. Indeed, the genre of the JRPG is repeatedly referred to as worn out or passé in these reviews, whilst Ghibli is seen to breathe new life, not only in to the medium of video games, but the genre too. Polygon’s review, for instance, attributes all the positive, convention-breaking aspects of the game to Ghibli, even though many of them can be seen to be common roles of game development rather than art direction: “There’s a sense of wonder to seeing how Studio Ghibli interprets even the most obvious of RPG tropes — the evil empire, the rogue with a heart of gold, the boy wizard with a powerful destiny” (Kollar 2013).
As Fleury notes, the JRPG, once an important genre amongst Western audiences thanks to the breakthrough success of Final Fantasy VII (Square 1997), had long seen its popularity in decline (Fleury 2015, p.4). This may be an odd choice, then, for a company trying to reach a Western audience, but it might be argued that the JRPG, a genre which still maintains a dedicated niche fandom amongst Western anime fans and self-proclaimed otaku, is the perfect fit for a work designed to whimsically appeal to a sense of nostalgia. In this sense the painstaking evocation of Studio Ghibli’s characteristic hand-drawn style is analogous to the utilization of a fading genre from the golden age of Japanese video game production – recalling a halcyon time when the Japanese games industry didn’t need to aggressively pursue the Western market because they simply “produced a disproportionate share of software and hardware sold globally” (Consalvo 2009, p.6).
Graphical regimes in the JRPG
The evocation of the JRPG genre, and its peculiar graphical and mechanical quirks, is not accidental but can be seen as a coordinated strategy to nostalgically speak to American audiences whose coming-of-age as gamers corresponded with the height of the Japanese influence during the fondly remembered sixth generation of consoles (and particularly the year 1997 when Final Fantasy VII, one of the most successful examples of the genre ever, was released). JRPG’s are also a good fit for the relationship because they incorporate a wide variety of discrete visual styles and modes of engagement. Dominic Arsenault and Pierre-Marc Côté have attempted to construct a theoretical framework for discussing such specific configurations of game aesthetics that goes beyond a simple appreciation of style or a vague notion of gameplay. By doing so, they examine how these configurations close down or open up new gameplay possibilities. Because of their instrumental impact on the experiential qualities of play, they call these configurations graphical regimes: “defined as the imaging of gameplay and the gameplay of the image, independently of the technological graphical capabilities or limitations” (Arsenault and Côté 2013). Such graphical regimes go beyond the aesthetics that reviews attribute to Ghibli’s influence, although these are no doubt an important factor, but also relate to representational qualities more associated with the medium of the video game including: point of view, framing of on-screen movement, spatial configuration of that space, movement of the camera, and the materiality of the medium itself. Broadly speaking, we can identify three graphical regimes at work in Ni no Kuni, all of which are deeply typical of the JRPG, which I argue provides the perfect generic canvas for a mixing of the two studio’s styles given its classical division into distinct aesthetically and narratively delineated spaces.
The first of these spaces, presented through a distinct graphical regime, are cutscenes. Effectively, short animated film sequences, digitized and played to the audience with no interactive elements, these cutscenes appear the closest to Ghibli in style and tone. This is unsurprising because these are attributed directly to Studio Ghibli in the publicity materials, having been storyboarded and directly overseen by Yoshiyuki Momose as Director of Animation: “It was Studio Ghibli who set the tone for the art… I directed and staged the animated cut-scenes and art for the game as though we were making one of our usual animated films.” (Yoshiyuki Momose in BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012a) From Ghibli’s perspective these cut-scenes were handled in a similar fashion to their animated films, which indicates that for all intents and purposes these sequences behave like Ghibli films embedded within the game’s larger aesthetic systems.
The second graphical regime can be seen in Ni no Kuni’s combat sequences. Combat sequences are highly characteristic of the JRPG genre, although Ni no Kuni presents a rather fresh twist on them drawing elements from Pokémon’s (Game Freak 1996-) famous system of creature collecting and battling (Sapach 2017). These mechanically rich sequences are the most demanding parts of the game in terms of player strategy and reflexes, and therefore the sections that are most interactive and thus closest to the fundamental qualities of the video game as an interactive medium (Aarseth 1997, Murray 1997). After enemies are encountered on the map screen, the screen blurs and the scene transitions to this new graphical regime. These battles are shot from a zoomed-in, side-on perspective and allow the player limited control of the camera which dollies around the action delineating the spatial dynamic of a closed-off arena. The graphical details in the environment are much lower than the painterly map screen, probably because the player’s attention is on the frenetic action of the fight, but this means that the usual level of Ghibli-influenced art direction found elsewhere in the game’s environment is much weaker, making way for LEVEL-5’s combat design.
Finally, these two regimes are sutured together by the player’s exploration of the world map, a long-standing tradition in JRPGs which sees players exploring a miniaturized world presented in a completely different scale to the game’s story spaces. Here the camera is extremely zoomed-out and viewed almost from above, as though from a bird’s-eye view. Meanwhile, the player has the limited ability to tilt and pan the camera. The perspective, along with the allure of Ghibli’s influence on the art direction, is designed to encourage exploration. As LEVEL-5’s Map Director Tadahiro Masuya says “Studio Ghibli’s beautiful scenery will make people want to explore… the goal was to keep players immersed while progressing through the game” (Tadahiro Masuya in BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012a).
Here in Ni no Kuni, the map screen is a hybrid of the previous two regimes. The lush environment strongly evokes Ghibli’s world building and nostalgic sense of adventure (indeed, parts of the world include specific intertextual references, such as Ding Dong Dell which recalls the Cat Kingdom from The Cat Returns, Hiroyuki Morita, 2002), whilst not being as rigidly cinematic as the cutscenes, thus leaving room for limited player interaction and LEVEL-5’s level design. Indeed, Ghibli were not directly responsible for the environmental art, though behind the scenes video showing LEVEL-5 artists clearly extrapolating the Ghibli brand to these environments (BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012a), shows Ghibli’s continuing influence as a stylistic reference for the entire project. The JRPG, with its carefully demarcated aesthetic and narrative spaces, thus proved the perfect fit for a merger between two such established studio, as was picked up in some reviews like Eurogamer’s: “it’s comfortingly familiar to the point of nostalgia, with the action divided between dungeon-like “dangerous places”, [and] the sweetly miniaturised map of the wide world” (Welsh 2013).
The division of labour between these two studios and their respective mediums, as identified by the reviews and clearly embodied in the game text itself through these discrete graphical regimes, can best be understood in terms of Bolter and Grusin’s theory of remediation, a process in which a new media can be seen to create greater immersion by comparing itself against or incorporating older media forms (2000). The authors break this process into two seemingly contradictory but mutually dependent aspects which they refer to as “the double logic of remediation”: the first of these is ‘immediacy’, which is the desire to erase the medium entirely, and which fits neatly with video game’s much lauded promise of immersion, where the awareness that the player is playing a game recedes and they instead feel a sense of unmediated presence (Calleja 2011, Murray 1997); the second is ‘hypermediacy’, the overt multiplication and deliberate reflexive foregrounding of acts of mediation (Bolter and Grusin 2000, pp.5-6).
Ni no Kuni’s blend of spatial logics and graphical regimes mix the double logic of immediacy and hypermediacy, resulting from the fusion of the media of the animated film and the video game within the gamespace. Ghibli’s most overt intervention into the game is in the form of the anime cutscenes and is an obvious act of hypermediacy – a moment when the game explicitly draws on another medium and foregrounds its aesthetic qualities in a discrete and contained manner. Here interactivity is temporarily suspended and the player becomes a spectator. But rather than completely break immersion, as some game theorists and designers believe (Rouse III 2004; Eskelinen, 2001), these cutscenes only seem to serve to enhance the player’s engagement with the game, as is apparent in the almost universal praise lavished on these elements by the reviewers. As Bolter and Grusin argue then, this hypermediacy, in which and older medium is deliberately evoked in a newer one, paradoxically increases the level of immersion because it draws on a familiar, pre-existing form. The manner in which Ni no Kuni evokes the immediacy part of the equation is through LEVEL-5’s attempt to erase the markers of the video game itself through appropriating elements of the Ghibli house style and narrative thematics, extending them from the cutscenes to extrapolate them throughout the game’s story space and graphical regimes.
This state of repurposing old media by new is often assumed to be a temporary tactic for an emerging medium still finding its own voice. Bolter and Grusin find this particularly true of video games, which have long sought to gain the cultural cache of cinema. According to this position, the animated cutscenes in Ni no Kuni, which so obviously embody the characteristics of a Ghibli animation, not only exist as guarantors of the game’s Ghibliness, but are an attempt to legitimize the game as a cultural product. But ultimately Ni no Kuni does more than simply appropriate the aesthetic of the anime as a claim for legitimacy (LEVEL-5 is famous enough as a developer, especially in Japan), and the ultimate aim of this convergence, rather, seems to be to an attempt to create a hybrid media that transcends the cultural form of the video game and the anime – just as the game’s protagonist Oliver transcends his own reality in the game itself to enter another world – an attempt to become a new entity entirely: ‘a playable animation’. This is an expression of the double logic of remediation at work, fusing two media through hypermediacy and remediation as immersion, a project the marketers allude to as the desired effect: “players will be able to immerse themselves in a series of incredible environments, landscapes and cities, as if they were entering an animated movie universe inside a video game” (BANDAI NAMCO 2012). Many reviews agreed with this assessment with Games Radar stating “it’s easy to forget you’re playing a video game” (Vincent 2013), meanwhile Kotaku’s review also sees Ghibli’s animation as a salve for jaded gamers, pointing out that the game is “designed like an animated film” (Schreier 2013).
For LEVEL-5’s CEO Akihiro Hino, this process is tightly bound up with the tendency, noted earlier, for LEVEL-5 to recede into the background, by making it clear that part of the studio’s aim was to erase the medium of the video game itself: “Of course, games are made from geometric shapes called polygons, but this game doesn’t make you feel like it’s been built out of Polygons…. It’s like being in an animated world, and that feeling hits you as you play.” (Akihiro Hino in BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Europe 2012a) But even as they attempt to erase the fundamental signs of video game mediation in the form of the polygon (the immediacy part of remediation), they are dependent upon Ghibli’s stylings and cut-scenes (the hypermediated element) to complete the proposition. The extent to which this pre-existing understanding of the Ghibli brand was deployed by the marketers and interpreted by the reviewers is testament to the extent of Ghibli’s discursive influence over not only the game’s anime stylings, but its entire structure.
The game’s Ghibliness thus paved the way for a reception of this old-school JRPG, breaking it out of the niche appeal it might have been restricted to by priming the interests of a larger audience familiar with Ghibli’s work. The fact that this Ghibliness can be traced so readily through the publicity materials and the reviews, with only a few commentators seeing through the veneer to comment critically on the systems beneath, is testament to how well the developers have pulled off the operation. We know something is animated (or fictional) argues Ward, not just because of the evidence of our eyes, but because it comes indexed or coded as such ahead of time, by paratextual elements (Ward 2002, p. 131). This is certainly true of Ni no Kuni, which is deeply dependent upon, and deeply flaunting of, its relationship to Studio Ghibli and all the associations and values that carries.
What we see here, then, are multiple forms of convergence. Between and across a storyspace expressed through multiple media, as is the common definition of transmediality (Jenkins, 2008); between and across two global cultures as argued by Consalvo (2009); between and across two distinct media brands as argued by Fleury (2015); but also, and this is crucial, between two distinct generic forms – the JRPG and the distinctively Ghibli approach to anime. As I have shown through an application of the theory of graphical regimes these generic elements are enacted and mixed (converged) in the multimodal gamic text with various degrees of separation: the cutscenes are purely Ghibli, whilst the combat sequences belong to LEVEL-5, whilst the interstitial exploration sequences on the game’s overworld map present a curious hybrid of the two. These are the moments, pitched between Ghibli’s aesthetic sensibilities with Joe Hisaishi’s score in full flow and LEVEL-5’s extrapolation of the art direction to their own world-building, but with the player in full control of the protagonist exploring the space, where the two styles fuse most closely. These are the moments that come closest to realizing the transcendent form that is neither primarily recognisable as a game or an anime, but that of a ‘playable anime.’
Dean Bowman is studying a PhD on the function of narrative in video games within production contexts at the University of East Anglia. He also teaches games studies and cultural studies at Norwich University of the Arts, and edits for Intensities: Journal of Cult Media. He is an avid board game player and has a forthcoming book chapter in the edited collection Rerolling Board Games by McFarland Press and on the gamer person of Jason Statham for Manchester University Press.
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BANDAI NAMCO (2011) “Roleplaying Masterwork ‘Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch’ For Playstation 3 Coming to North America in 2012 (Press Release).” San Jose, California. Accessed 20 May 2018.
BANDAI NAMCO (2012) Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (Fact Sheet). Accessed 20 May 2018.
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© Dean Bowman
Edited by Francis M. Agnoli and Rayna Denison, University of East Anglia