The weight of expectation looms large in the world of the geek. Larger than in other worlds for the simple fact that we are geeks. Our childlike excitement for the simplest crumb of news, our hours of frame by frame dissection of trailers or leaked scripts. The vitriol we spill if, god forbid, someone’s visions and ideas for a beloved franchise do not match our own. We all have those games or books or films that we want to see, and then when they arrive we almost always want to see them done better. Sometimes it can be great, Skyrim (for all it’s bugs) was a great game. And in the face of some of most pedantic of geeks managed to meet most expectations (unless you happen to be playing on PS3). Duke Nukem Forever would be antithesis of this. We waited year after year with bated breath for the defining game of many of our childhoods to rise for the ashes. And then finally release day came, and we all died a little inside. I’ve chosen 2 games as examples here because rabid fan base is coupled with long development times lead inevitably to huge levels of expectation and indignation when they are not met.
Being a Studio Ghibli fan in the west is to live a life full of expectations. The excruciatingly long waits we face between a new film being released in Japan and it landing over hear coupled with the generally lack luster promotion they receive when they get here means that you hear news about a new story or world, and then for 2 years you hear nothing until one day its being played on about 3 cinema screens 40 miles away. This is then coupled with the insult of having Totoro (Ghibli’s adorable furry mascot) whored out from every market stall as cute hats and back packs sported by ‘quirky’ teenage girls who have no clue who he is, like 12 year old Miley Cyrus fans walking around in Ramones shirts. (Note to ed: yes my only reference point to youth culture is the Cyrus family)
Ni No Kuni therefore represents the pinnacle of expectation for me. And the tale has been a long one. A little over 2 years ago I first heard that a DS game being developed by Level 5 studios in collaboration with studio Ghibli was set for release Christmas 2010. It was shortly after Christmas that I heard that the DS game would never leave Japan, but its was ok because a PS3 version was in development. This version hit Japanese shelves in November 2011 and we in the west waited, and waited. Now, a little more than a year later Ni No Kuni has finally landed in the western market. Throughout this time my expectation’s have been high. Unrealisticly high in fact as my personal enjoyment of the game had one big 4 letter hurdle in its way. JRPG. I suck at them. Always have. I have the same problem with RTS games in that I have never been able to get the hang of turn based combat and the strategies involved. This is a pain when it means I can’t get past the first hour of games I’d quite like to play like Secrets Of Mana, Earthbound or Final Fantasy 7 but when it could mean that I don’t get experience and explore a new magical and beautiful world created by Studio Ghibli it becomes a horrible fear.
I need not have feared. If you’re interested in a break down Ni No Kuni’s combat system there are plenty of reviews out there that can spell it out for you, I will say simply that it is a time based, rather than turn based system. This allows for far more freedom and a greater sense of control than I normally get from JRPG’s. I’ve now spent 15 hours in the world of Ni No Kuni and much to my joy it manages to meet my core expectation, it feels like Ghibli. There is a sense of wonder about the beauty of the world but everything somehow feels familiar and natural, like it belongs. Of course king of Ding Dong Dell is a cat, to be addressed as ‘his meowjesty’, and inevitably he will at some point get stuck in a well, it’s just familiar enough to draw us in and then they can make it their own. The incredible artwork and intelligent gameplay are complimented by a world of great characters soaring music and a story so epic I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Whilst writing this piece the UK video games all platform sales figures have come out and Ni No Kuni has kicked COD BlOps 2 off of the no.1 spot. Ok, so Black ops 2 has been out for nearly 3 months but it’s still an impressive feat, due largely I’m sure to the huge marketing push over the last few weeks but also, as happens so rarely, because its a bloody good game. A few years back Disney brought the western distribution rights to Studio Ghibli films and have seemingly decided to do nothing with them. They could learn a lot from the success of Ni No Kuni and its marketing campaign proving that this sort of story and world is marketable on a large scale if you simply try.
I think the problem of our nerdy little branch of humanity is that we too often blur the lines between expectation and anticipation. Anticipation is great, the very fact that we get so excited about frankly quite trivial things like movie’s, comics of video games (sorry but its true) is what makes us geeks, a sense of childish wonder that stops us from taking real life too seriously. Expectation means we end up taking everything too seriously and we’re almost always disappointed. This probably would have made for a better moral tale if Ni No Kuni was terrible and crushed my dreams, but alas it is awesome in every way I wanted it to be. Time to go play another 15hours.