The Radical Fairy Tale Politics of 'Ni No Kuni II'
‘Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom’ advocates simple rules, strong claims, and a demand for empathy and honest governance.
All images courtesy Bandai Namco
Postscript is Cameron Kunzelman's weekly column about endings, apocalypses, deaths, bosses, and all sorts of other finalities.
Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is told like a fairy tale. It has flat characters with clear, simple motivations. It has a linear and uncomplicated story that neatly takes you from the beginning to the end. It is not a game that is trying to wow you with the mature depths that it can plumb for overwhelming emotion.
Instead, it is simply about a boy named Evan whose father dies. The heir to the crown of Ding Dong Dell, Evan is chased from his kingdom in a coup, making his escape with the help of a man named Roland who appeared for Evan in a time of need, and it is from this position that they roam the land grabbing up allies, solving problems, and doing typical RPG stuff.
I’m not wielding this claim about fairy tales as a weapon here. Fairy tales do work; they’re instructions for living. As an offshoot of mythology, fairy tales are stories for guiding children into a culture, and they work through repetition. They teach you that Red Riding Hood’s virtue toward her grandmother is good and that the woodsman is always someone you can depend on. Simultaneously, they inform you of the danger of wolves who dress up as your grandmother, enemies in the guise of friends. Fairy tales are tools to separate the good from the bad, ours from theirs, and the valued from the pointless.
The swerve that Ni no Kuni II takes from fairy tales is in scale. A couple hours into the game, Evan gets an idea: He wants to create his own kingdom where no one ever has to be sad, unhappy, or unfulfilled. More than that, he wants to use that kingdom to create a unified world where there is no fighting and war, where all social problems are solved, and where equality reigns. The work of achieving this goal makes up the bulk of the game as Evan and his crew roam from city to city encountering their rulers and doing large-scale quests to convince those rulers to sign a Treaty of Interdependence.
The clandestine actions of royalty are familiar territory for fairy tales. Kings and queens appear in stories as escape hatches for the common person, a way of imagining what your life would have been like if you could truly transcend the destiny of the social class you were born in. If you’re a German or French peasant in the 18th century, the idea of a prince or princess showing interest in you, nevermind sweeping you off of your feet, would probably seem as fantastical as having God whisper in your ear. Just as terrifying, too. Royalty are a nightmare combination of wealth, social status, legal protection, and divinity. They stand in for something in these stories. They are summaries of a particular kind of power.
So if Ni no Kuni II is a fairy tale and King Evan’s actions stand in for something, then it’s worth performing the follow-through and outlining what that is. The game’s flatness and simplicity means that Ni no Kuni II is one of the only games in recent memory that states its politics up front. Like all fairy tales, it has something to say.
Evan is going to create a powerful state, with strong diplomatic and military abilities, so that he can unite the world. Period. There is no secret desire, no “real” reason that remains hidden from us until a critical moment. His father died, he was almost killed, he lost people important to him, and later in the game we find out that the coup he was deposed within was ultimately the end result of a racist system of cat people oppressing mouse people. When Evan learns this, he seeks to eradicate it. There is no room in the unified world for first- and second-class citizens. Through his power and divine right, Evan wants to guarantee equality for all under the law.
This unilateral approach toward using the state to rule the world is traditionally the realm of unsavory types. In his review for Kotaku, Jason Schreier noted that Evan “might make for a good JRPG villain” of the Kefka type, and he’s not wrong. Games in this genre can generally only conceive of nations or countries, those giant systems of governance that dominate our lives, as structures that produce bad byproducts at best. At worst, you have the church-state in Final Fantasy X, the evil empire of Suikoden, the state-corporation of Final Fantasy VII, and the clashing factions of The Legend of Dragoon. In so many of these role-playing games, a state is a grim reality that produces strife and violence both within itself and against other social groups.
Ni no Kuni II is unique because its explicit politics and fairy tale simplicity means that the game has no room for a complicated vision of the state. If a country isn’t doing well, it is because of bad leaders and a lack of empathy. The form of governance isn’t bad, it’s the people who operate those governments. In contrast to so many games in its genre, Ni no Kuni II has a positive view of ruling and the kind of good actions that good rulers can achieve.
In this world, governing people can’t just be a necessary evil or the great big villain that has to be overcome. Instead, a country has to become something you can believe in and that creates a world that people might want to live inside of. In its own simple way, it is embracing the utopia of what is possible when you take the idea of governance and the state seriously as things that have major impacts on people’s lives and then pursue them rigorously.
Maybe that wouldn’t seem so radical to me if this game wasn’t released around Far Cry 5, a game that reproduces the world we live in, adds in some zany cow attacks, and then calls it a day. After all, I already live in a world chock full of anti-government militias, preppers, and gun-toting libertarians who spent an entire administration railing against the very idea of being governed.
As far as many people are concerned, being governed is the same thing as being punished, and they’re not wrong to feel that way. Many people only deal with our real-world governing structures in the form of violent policing, a biased legal system, and as ways of extracting money from a population. Still others are constantly on the receiving end of a media narrative that tells them that government is the worst thing invented since the plague, demanding instead to put their faith in the free market. If the state is even something for us to think about, it cannot be the state that we have now. It has to be a utopian one that we can hold out as a model or image of emulation.
If the world we live in, that one that’s so grimly reflected by Far Cry 5 or our cyberpunk stories of the near-future, is going to change, then it will necessarily have to be through imagining new ways of governance. If everything bad about our political world were wiped away tomorrow, we would still need food, healthcare, fuel, industrial chemicals, and on and on. To even think about that world, we need some positive and utopian dreams about what a government is supposed to do.
Half of the work of producing the future is finding imaginary things to emulate, and if the state form is to be saved, it might be worth returning to the educational method of the fairy tale. Simple rules, strong claims, and a demand for empathy and honest governance. The fairy tale could fuel that world to come as a vision of what all of our resources could do for one another if managed appropriately. It’s divorced from reality. But fairy tales are tools that do work, and Ni no Kuni II is the first one I’ve seen in a long time that seemed like it might be worth picking up and using to think with.
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