The World Ends With You wanted me to wake up. I was miserable the year The World Ends With You released on the Nintendo DS. It was the summer of my graduation from high school (2007, and yes, I’m working on this essay from the comfort of my nursing home) and I was having an impossible time finding any meaning in life. Friends had made plans — vacations, getting ready for college, summer internships. I had only recently landed my very first post-school job at a movie theater, a job where my soles stuck to the soda-stained floor and I came home every night smelling like trashcan popcorn.
Desperate for a change and dreading my upcoming semester at the local community college, I did what I always do — I played video games.
We were blessed that year. Bioshock and Odin’s Sphere were brand new, and Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions released on PSP. Prior to finding my job at the movie theater that summer, I would spend several hours each day “looking” for a job, and by looking I mean parking my car in a different grocery store parking lot and playing my DS until it ran out of juice. That’s where I was able to fall into the chaotic Reaper’s Game of The World Ends With You, and where the charming and strange characters of Shibuya were able to transport me — briefly — away from the misery and indecision that had overtaken the 18th year of my life.
The World Ends With You, like all of my favorite video games, had instead entered my life in order to teach me something.
Neku — the game’s despondent and apathetic protagonist — wakes up dead in the Reapers’ Game. He’s told that within seven days, he has to fulfill certain conditions and “win” the game in order to return to life. Over the course of the game, it becomes apparent that the Reapers’ rules are arbitrary and can change on a whim, and their nefarious game is more about abusing the participants than helping them return to life. The Reapers’ Game is more than just a contest for survival, it's a literal metaphor for the rat race of life. True meaning in the Reapers’ Game isn’t about following the laid out rules of the game, but by breaking the rules entirely and finding meaning in your own life.
Stuck as I was, the future an uncertain mess where the rules were unknown to me, the Reapers’ Game was a bit too on the nose.
In order to play through the Reapers’ Game and survive, each player must partner up in order to activate their psychic abilities and prevent erasure. Neku, who has spent much of his life deciding that he’s better off being alone, is immediately put off by the task of partnership. It’s through these forced partnerships with three very different characters that Neku’s worldview begins to expand, and the complications that arise from caring for others and fostering friendships depend on Neku’s perception of both reality and himself.
It’s in the everyday struggles and surprising normalcy of The World Ends With You that the game became so endearing to me as a young person. It came to me at the perfect point in my life, where my apprehension for the future crafted my behaviors and relationships. I myself — a lifelong introvert — found far too much in common with Neku and his preference for shutting the world out over letting anyone in. Neku, like myself, had to endure some painful lessons before finally opening up to the world and discovering that the only way forward was to realize that, in fact, the world does end with you — your perceptions of yourself and reality are either a wall or a bridge.
The World Ends With You seeks to deconstruct JRPG and anime tropes by presenting its concepts in a familiar and comfortable setting (emo protagonist and an anime Shibuya) and then subverting them entirely. Within the first week, Neku’s frustration with Shiki grows into a fond and powerful attachment. While Shiki blames herself for Neku’s painful and rude responses, Neku’s flagrant dismissal of the Reapers’ Game causes them more problems. Neku views kindness and positivity as weak and disingenuous, in part because of his own unhappiness with himself. It’s only by the end of the week that Neku realizes that his fondness for Shiki has grown into full attachment, and as he faces week two of the Game, Shiki, unfortunately, becomes his entrance fee.
Neku is self-centered, angry, and apathetic. His worldview has no basis in any individual concept, only that he believes that everyone who isn’t him is worthless, small, and troublesome. The walls that Neku has put up are crafted to protect himself, but his protections invariably hurt others. In order to grow, Neku has to bring down his walls and become vulnerable. His despicable nature is borne of the selfishness we see far too often in common life — my world is valuable, and yours isn’t. Loathe as I am to admit it, I understood Neku. That pain of being known and wanting to be known had permeated every facet of my life. I viewed everything outside of myself as cruel, needless, or frustrating. It was only as I began to reach outside my comfort zone and let people in that I finally began to understand that the world is not one single thing but the amalgamation of every single person’s individual world coming together.
The World Ends With You is about self-awareness. It’s about breaking down misconceptions, assumptions, and beliefs in order to empathize with everyone else. It’s a game where we literally see the representations of other people’s wills and desires, and how the interaction with other people’s needs and wants only to create a more complex and understanding self. So many of the relationships that happen within The World Ends With You occur outside of the struggles of the Reapers’ Game, or maybe in spite of it. The Reapers’ Game is paying rent, it’s going to school, it’s living within a fascist government. The Reapers’ Game is having to participate in any society where the rules are unfair and change upon the whims of the powerful, where survival depends upon stepping on others and scrambling for the bare minimum. The Reapers’ Game, presented as it is to benefit the player, is actually the major impediment to everyone’s life.
The struggle, I would come to realize, is not just in knowing and being known, but developing oneself under the constraints of a society that has no desire whatsoever to help you succeed.
One of the best representations of how even the most genuine efforts under capitalism often fall to ruin is that of the businessman, Makoto Miki. This rather unassuming secondary character exists in the first week as a failing employee who is tasked by his employer with shaping popularity in Shibuya so that they can sell into current trends. At the apex of his success, Makoto transforms from a meek and worried clock-puncher into a self-absorbed and manipulative business owner. While Makoto’s sudden capitalist change seems to come as a result of Neku’s influence, it is the appeal to upward momentum that drastically alters both his personality and life. Makoto is only a symptom of the rat race, and his transformation from meek and anxious employee to ego-centric businessman and back again feels like the game’s way of showing us what exactly the Reapers’ Game is, and how the only result of playing into the expectations of society’s whims is to lose.
The World Ends With You shines not in its moments of rampant anime-style villains and psychic powers, but in how it shows the woes of the everyday person suffering under the constraints of a crumbling, rapidly-changing society. The relationships that are curated under the weight of the Reapers’ Game are where the power of the players actually shines. It’s in the connections built, the constant testing and battling of wills, and the pushing of emotional boundaries that grow the players. Neku only becomes the person that can win the Reapers’ Game when he finally allows the friends and comrades he’s made along the way to exist in his heart. Together they are powerful.
Shiki faces her own self-hatred and the desperate desire to be someone different. Beat faces his self-loathing, and how his deep love for his younger sister has stoked his outward aggressions. Neku faces his own flaws and misconceptions about reality, and how allowing change and intimacy creates a world that merely begins with him. Expectations, misunderstandings, and the imbalance between perception and presentation are the unfortunate woes of simply being a person, and The World Ends With You attempts to handle the precarious balance of self-love and self-hate with refreshing poignancy.
The World Ends With You is a complex narrative that has aged surprisingly well in most respects. What has changed is my perception of the game between myself in 2007 and myself in 2020. The younger, freshly adult me played through the game for the first time with a near-subconscious level of respect, the attachments to the narrative almost too raw against the loneliness and uncertainty I felt at the time. Looking back on the game and what it represented for me and the others that played it, I see a showcase of growth and friendship that video games can explore in a rare form unique to the medium. While the me of 13 years later still faces much of the same woes as I did in my early twenties, I can say for certain that the one truth I learned from that game is the only cure for the broken, lonely, hurt ego is to trust in others and open up my perception of the world and myself to allow growth.
The only way to conquer the Reapers’ Game is to rely on one another, to constantly subvert expectation, and push back against the cruel laws of an unjust society.
Where it’s so easy to believe that the world ends with me, the truth is that I’m only one small part of it. The world outside of me is unfair, apathetic, and complex. It’s only in the bonds I forge with others that I can begin to understand the shape of reality and realize that every “world” contained within the perceptions of others all come together to form our myriad selves.
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