Other: Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom (video game)
Witch Hat Atelier (books 1-4) by Kamome Shirahama
This is the 2018 manga from Kamome Shirahama about a young girl who is whisked away to a school for witchcraft.
The shorthand for this series is "Harry Potter but if Miyazaki wrote it." That gives you the overall shape of the story: after a magic-accident, Coco is taken to an 'atelier' (workshop) where a wizard is teaching a small group of students how to do magic. Her long-term goal is to undo the aforementioned accident, which turned her mother to a statue. But her short-term goal is to get along with her classmates and to learn the basics of magic.
So what's new here?
What jumps out at me is that this is the first story I've read in ages that is (1) set at a school and is (2) actually interested in how education works. Think about it: we all agree that the pedagogy at Hogwarts is kind of a trash fire, right? Don't most stories set at a school give precisely zero shits about how the school does its schooling? And even when you see an 'inspirational teacher' story, don't you get the sense that they don't really 'get' the unsexy nuts and bolts of how to teach things?
Witch Hat Atelier devotes a lot of time to how we learn how to learn. Things like how to be okay with having subjects that are really hard for you, but not let that stop you from persisting at it; or how to recognize what your strengths are in a subject, and then use that as kind of a safe 'home base' for exploring it further; or how to pay attention to the people who are really good at something, compare their work to your own, and thereby getting some useful pointers. As grown-ups, we forget (or 'I forget') that everything we know, we once had to learn, and that includes how to go to school and not completely suck at it.
The world-building is delightful. This is a world where you do magic via *drawing* — which must be dear to Ms. Shirahama's heart, given her lush, detailed illustrations throughout the manga. But it's filled with little moments where you cock your head and say, "Huh, yeah, that makes sense." Like if you were a witch in this *particular* world, you probably *would* go around with a little compact of nearly-finished spell drawings, so you could dash off the last line of one in the middle of combat. And if you were a witch-administrator, you'd probably take measures to ensure that not just any yahoo could dash off a 'nuclear annihilation' spell.
The plot is, so far, very straightforward, and constructed from old, reliable tropes. Yes, our protagonist is an outsider who is whisked into this world of magic. Yes, she has to navigate a new school, and a lot of "who is this *outsider*?" attitude. Yes, there are hints of a mysterious prophecy about her being some kind of chosen one, and of some sort of dark conspiracy among the country's ateliers. It's all sturdy and familiar (you can map a lot of it point-to-point to Harry Potter) — which in this case is good, as it lets us focus on the world-building and the themes of learning how to learn.
The characters are pretty archetype-y too, but they're sharp enough, and the plot construction is solid enough, that you're emotionally on-board for the story. It's clearly pitched at kids: it never gets that dark, it never gets very nuanced, and it's definitely "life lessons about learning" trojan-horsed into an adventure story.
But it's still a great read, and well worth your time.
Ni no Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom (video game)
This is the 2018 JRPG about a young prince who fights to build a new kingdom after a sinister coup.
This is a very beautiful game, but I'm not sure it's a good one.
The team behind Ni no Kuni 2 includes several animators from Studio Ghibli, as well as long-time Ghibli composer Joe Hisaishi. And this absolutely pays off in the game, with gorgeous, expressive character designs, rich visual world-building, and a lovely soundtrack. It is like playing a Ghibli feature.
So what are my objections to the game?
My first instinct is to say that "it's too ambitious", but that misses the mark. It's not really trying to do anything beyond bog-standard JRPG storytelling, with all the requisite combat and fetch quests and boss battles. (More on that in a bit.) It's more precise to say that "it's trying to do too many things."
Yes, this is a standard JRPG where you slowly accumulate a party of adventurers, and they go around battling monsters. As you'd expect, you can purchase and upgrade their weapons (mêlée and ranged), their armor, and their spells. There's also a "skirmish mode", where you direct small armies against each other. There are also rings that buff various characteristics, and food — which you either buy or cook — that provide temporary buffs. There's also a kingdom-management system, where you build research facilities, assign personnel, and create little resource factories. There's also a 'battle board' where you can use 'battle points' to assign party buffs to, say, attack, defense, or damage against particular monster types. There are also "higgledies", little kodama-like spirits that you can find, or breed, and level up, and coordinate in battle.
Oh, and there's a facebook system that lets you keep up with news about what's going on with the kingdom, and that occasionally provides useful hints in among the color.
I'm dead certain I'm missing a bunch of other mechanics. I got to the end of the goddamn game before realizing that there's also a "kingmaker meter" that you're supposed to maximize during all of the boss battles.
It's a lot.
And when a game tries to keep all these plates spinning, it starts to fail in predictable ways. For instance: if you've got a dozen different combat mechanics in your game, some of them will be underdeveloped and sucky. The army-skirmish battles are never fun. Occasionally you can employ an actual deliberate strategy — I cheered up the one time I lucked into getting the only squad that got an advantage from attacking from higher ground, onto higher ground — but usually it's all just chaos.
And other aspects of the game will just get swept aside. There's a whole system in place for various "ailments" — ways to inflict them, ways to ward them off, and so on. I got afflicted by noticeable ailments maybe a half-dozen times in all my gameplay.
Also, if you've got a zillion different mechanics floating around, your documentation is going to be shit. And so it is in Ni no Kuni 2, with vital play mechanics only mentioned in passing, and never any obvious way to get from a screen to the relevant help info for that screen. So a lot of what you do in Ni no Kuni 2 feels like (again) chaos, as a dozen different systems that you don't really understand all collide in one maelstrom of activity.
And most significant of all: if you have a zillion different combat mechanics, there are going to be a zillion ways to 'game the system', methods that neatly sidestep all the complexity. For instance, I just picked one 'tank' character, gave him a ridiculously overpowered crossbow, and spent most of the boss battles just running back and forth, patiently strafing the latest monster from a distance and giving healing potions to the poor AI saps on my squad that kept engaging the behemoth in mêlée combat. Eventually the bad guy falls down, and there's no reason to optimize the bazillion different combat angles.
A brief sidebar: having your game do a million things usually means your UI won't be great on some of them. This is painfully true of the "kingdom management" system. It's a fairly simple system: you have a little plot of SimCity-esque land. You can spend currency to build facilities to do research (unlock new abilities) or gather resources (usually for creating spells, armor, and weapons), and then you can assign personnel to those facilities.
I was surprised to realize: wait, this is a project management system in disguise. You've got a bunch of tasks, you've got resources — money and personnel — for the tasks. And all the tasks have intricate interdependencies.
So: is Ni no Kuni 2 a good project-management tool?
No, it is not. Nothing is intuitive, and even simple tasks are needlessly complex.
Let's say I have a citizen named Jeremy.¹ And let's say I want to assign Jeremy to the armory. A logical system for this would give you, maybe a 'Personnel search' screen, and then you can type "Je" and it'll give you an autocomplete list, and you click "Jeremy". And then you get a screen with Jeremy's info, and you pop up on his "current assignment" box, type "Ar", and select "Armory". We could get fancier with this — maybe add options to filter the facilities to "places where Jeremy is well-suited" or "places with open spots for Jeremy" — but regardless, that's Jeremy squared away with four keystrokes and two clicks.
Even *finding* Jeremy is an ordeal in this game.
You get to the users list, and it's in random order. You try typeahead; there's no typeahead. Eventually, you might see the tiny help text that says you can press "x" to change the sort order, and then you get a modal where you can change the sort to "alphabetical", and then the game never *retains* that default, because we can't have anything nice, can we. And then you can scroll to the J's — except no, mousewheel doesn't work, page-up page-down don't work, and the scrollbar is maybe three pixels wide.² And then you actually select Jeremy, and... there's no way to reassign him from that screen.
Instead, you have to go to the facilities list. This also shows up in random order. You can eventually find the armory, but there's no way to assign users to it 'til you actually go to that facility on the map. And then you have to select "staff", and click an empty slot, and go through the list-menu nonsense with the users again.
It's not quite Lotus Notes bad, but just the fact that I'm making this comparison should tell you a lot.
The storytelling is bad.
Mind you, the storytelling has *promise*. We start with a run-of-the-mill "prince wrongfully ejected from his kingdom" inciting incident. But then it turns towards the prince building a new kingdom, and gaining support, one by one, from the other kingdoms of the land. And with each new ruler, he learns something new about how to be a good king.
That's actually an amazing story concept. It's bizarre to write this, but I could imagine Plato writing something like that, as a way to illustrate how a good government should work via negative object lessons.
At this point I'm wondering if JRPGs are even a good way to tell stories. I've played four of them now — Cat Quest, Trails in the Sky, To the Moon, and now Ni no Kuni 2 — that share one thing in common: they all have really good story ideas, and those stories just don't work well as a game. Maybe it's that the pacing is all wonky when it's so often interspersed with mindless combat grinding. Maybe it's just hard to translate nuanced story beats into the "kill <x> thingmajigs" or "bring me <y> fooblyboos" mechanic.
Regardless, what I saw in Ni no Kuni 2 failed on some pretty basic levels. Like, if you're writing an epic story about "how to rule a kingdom", that's great! You can do good work with that! You just need to do two things: (1) know about your subject, and (2) have opinions about it. You could see this in The Good Place. It has far less promising subject matter (moral philosophy), but the writers have clearly done their homework, and clearly have opinions (like "solipsism is bullshit" and "utilitarianism is ultimately impracticable").
Instead, we get stories that are kind of... woolly. Either the story itself is told so clumsily as to be opaque — the nonsense at Hydropolis is a pile of self-contradictory, hand-wavey bilge — or it's so simple as to be dull. ("Yes, don't lie to and cheat your citizenry. Got it.") And when the story talks about what is *good* about a ruler, it's as bland and vague as possible: "I want a kingdom where everyone can live happily ever after!" is supposed to be triumphant and inspirational, but instead you find yourself thinking this person should not be in charge of a small-town Wendy's, let alone a kingdom.
So thematically, it doesn't work. Character-wise... it has some promise. They do come up with sharp character designs and fun voice work, and they lean on typical manga tropes to give us a (say) big obstreperous pirate and an elegant bishonen nobleman. But there aren't any relationships. The big pirate is gruff and combative with everybody, in the exact same way — which is weird, given one of those characters is his own daughter. And the relationships don't have arcs — for example, Evan's attitude towards Roland after the initial escape from Ding Dong Dell is exactly the same as their relationship at the end of the story.
The way the story resolves is just dismally hand-wavey. I think I can avoid spoilers here. Let's say you're watching an adventure story, and you see a bunch of weird stuff happen, and you figure that it'll be explained eventually. And then the answer that you get, in like the last five minutes of the story, is that it's because of a monster that can rewrite people's thoughts — memories, attitudes, opinions, what have you.
You'd think, "Okay, I guess that's an explanation?" But it's unsatisfying. It's bringing in story elements that haven't been set up anywhere in the story. And it's such a broad power that you could use it to spackle over nearly any plot weirdness. It's not so much a "tidy explanation of these ten weird things" as a catchall that could hand-wave *any* weird thing.
And even then, they have story elements that remain unresolved, and elements of the resolution that just make no sense. It runs very high on the "sure, that might as well happen" meter.
The biggest surprise for me with Ni no Kuni 2 was that, while it looks and sounds like a Ghibli movie, Ori and the Blind Forest is absolutely the one that *feels* like a Ghibli movie. There's so much stuff that happens in Ni no Kuni 2, and none of it adds up to anything — it's really just standard JRPG adventuring. Gather your party. Go through the worlds — tutorial, desert world, forest world, water world, tech world, final battle.³ Go through the relentlessly linear main storyline, and pepper it with the usual "kill fifteen grumpkins" and "gather three billifarts" side quests.
But Ori, with maybe fifteen minutes of actual storytelling, created deeply moving characters and heartbreaking story moves. You felt the deep themes that underlie so much of Miyazaki's work — of misunderstood villains and ill-advised threats to the natural world.
How is it that Ni no Kuni 2 ultimately feels like nothing?
Weirdly, I can still, on balance, recommend the game — just because the design work is so good, and production values are so high, and the combat, even when it's a jumbled mess, is still pleasant. Just don't come into this expecting anything better than video-game junk food.
For next week: giant backlog to write about: Roma, Watchmen, BoJack Horseman (season 3), and Raising a Thinking Pre-Teen. Plus I'm just about done reading Las Grietas de Jara. On The Great Courses, I'm still watching that course about infrastructure engineering. And I've started watching the Ni no Kuni movie on netflix, just to see if this material works better as straight animé. Plus I've got the second DVD of Chernobyl arriving soon, if I'm up for watching the rest of that.
¹ Of course he won't be named "Jeremy" — nearly everybody has Generick Fantasie Naymes here.
² I suspect these are signs of the game's console origins — possibly also why "the left alt key" (just the left one; the right one does nothing) is so often used as an action key, which makes no sense on any computer platform.
³ Though I have to give them a lot of credit for making one level "fantasy Macau".