Monday, 21 September 2015

The World Trends With You

For a game that went into development in 2005, elements of The World Ends With You feel outright prescient. This was a time before Facebook or Twitter even existed (or at least, before they were open to the general public), when ‘social media’ meant MySpace and Livejournal. Unfortunately, largely because of how Facebook and Twitter, and their explosive success, have changed social media and social patterns, other bits of the game haven’t aged well at all.

The good first: TWEWY has a ‘trends’ mechanic whereby most equipment in the game has a ‘brand’ and different brands are in vogue in different areas. Over time, trends shift and brands rise and fall. Equipment with trending brands gets bonuses. The ever-shifting trend chart will feel pretty familiar to anyone who spends a lot of time on Twitter, as will the way trends shift unpredictably and arbitrarily over time and from region to region.

What feels less in-touch is how you interact with these trends. You can boost a brand by wearing it and fighting battles, and some plot events involve using protagonist Neku’s mind-reading powers to manipulate others into setting or following trends. Neku, trapped in a shadow version of Shibuya, invisible to its ordinary inhabitants, becomes a sort of spooky, subliminal influence, enacting the unintelligible whims of vast and sinister powers.

For 2005-7, you can see where the developers were coming from. I’m sure that people who know the ins and outs of the fashion industry have some sense of where the trends one sees in the street come from, but otherwise it can seem very mysterious indeed. This is particularly true for those of us of a male persuasion, who are socialised to find fashion completely opaque.

Having the combat promote brands is one part pure ludus, of course, but it’s also a metaphor for being seen wearing. This is how fashion brands work, or at least how they’re supposed to – people see someone influential wearing <brand> and want to imitate them. That TWEWY also has supernatural forces and mind control at work to create this effect is a pointed comment.

But our understanding of trends – and certainly the definition of the word ‘trend’ – has been transformed over the last decade. There’s nothing in TWEWY to make you feel involved in trends. Neku stands apart from the culture he influences, boxed off by the metaphysics of the Reapers’ Game. Trends happen to the background humans, even to the point that in the end they are all brainwashed into one particular pattern of thought.

And there’s another quirk of the game that takes this from being merely dated[1] to actually off-putting. Neku is a misanthrope; we are first introduced to him as he bitches about how noisy and irritating other people are. The enemies you fight to promote your brands are collectively referred to as ‘Noise’, too.

One of the few insights the game gives into Neku’s character is his preference for one particular designer’s work and philosophy, but the philosophy in question is a conceited, shallow existentialism that feeds Neku’s contempt. Neku seems to hate other humans for existing (and to assume they can generally do no more than exist). His dislike of noise isn’t a now-familiar objection to the ceaseless howling of twitter or the noxious stew of Facebook[2], he’s just petulant and self-centered.

Yes, by the end of the game Neku has begun to open up. One of his final lines is “I have friends now”. But there’s no sense that this is part of a wider development of his empathy. His friendships were developed in isolation from humanity, just like everything else that happens in the game.

It’s the isolation that no longer feels resonant. It’s not just that we see ‘trending’ differently now. It’s that the idea I remember having in 2007 of how trends work seems na├»ve. Had I played the game then, I might have felt reassured by its portrayal of trends and fashions as the work of a sinister corporate nether realm. But the failure to address how we ‘ordinary people’ participate in and propagate trends is now obvious.

The separation between Neku, along with the other residents of Underground Shibuya who can shape and exploit trends, and humanity at large grants the latter group the comfortable innocence of the powerless. They are only ever victims of trends, or occasionally unwitting pawns of trendsetters. If Twitter has a general lesson at all, it’s that this is a fiction.

This is where the passage of time really hasn’t been kind to TWEWY. Something that was hidden in its understanding of its theme has been laid bare. There’s more to be said about TWEWY’s relationship to modernity, but for a game touted as a much-needed update to the JRPG genre, its theme now feels simplistic and outdated.

[1] Not actually a sin, for what my saying it is worth. TWEWY feels right to me as a piece of its time – the retro phone graphics of the HUD are spot-on for the kind of phones I had as a undergraduate (2005-8).

[2] Both of which are probably not quite as bad as the hype suggests, but bad enough that I’d be sympathetic now to most people complaining about noise in those contexts.

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