The stuff of Fairy Tales
January 30, 2013
Some think the World a Mysterie
Through which to blindlie blunder,
Yet Wiseards since Prehistory
Have sought to know its Wonder.
--”The Wizard’s Companion,” Ni no Kuni
A hundred years from now, when cultural historians and literature professors look back on the games we’ve played for the last 30+ years, they will see a renaissance age of Fairy Tales. They will study a deep catalog of storytelling games filled with heroes and supernatural helpers, anthropomorphic animals, magic potions, healing fruit and epic sojourns. Tales of fate, souls redeemed, loved ones lost and found. Nature as leitmotif. Wise trees, restorative stones, and guiding wind. The stuff of fairy tales.
The Legend of Zelda, The Elder Scrolls, Dragon Quest, Mass Effect, Fable, despite their obvious differences, all exist within the "Perilous Realm” described by J.R.R. Tolkien in his essay On Fairy-Stories:
Fairy-story as “stories about fairies” …is too narrow. Faerie contains many things besides elves and fays, and besides dwarfs, witches, trolls, giants, or dragons: it holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky, and the earth, and all things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, mortal men, when we are enchanted. The definition of a fairy-story - what it is, or what it should be - does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.
Like the video games we play, “fairy tale” is fraught with misconceptions, perceived by many as mindless frivolity aimed at children and adolescents. But we should know better. Like Grimm’s Fairy Tales (actual title: Children’s and Household Tales), our wildly imaginative games are accessible by children, but they also function on a deeper level where adults may unpack metaphorical connections to themes that challenge and captivate us, no matter our age. The melancholy, for example, that casts its shadow over the apparently childlike world of Wind Waker may not be apparent to children, but it’s there if you’re mature enough to see it.
When those curious academics look back at our fairy tale games, I believe they will recognize Ni no Kuni as a significant achievement. Few games have captured the once-upon-a-time magic and fanciful spirit of fairy tale so completely. Menacing darkness - a mother’s death, an abandoned child, and an evil spirit bent on destroying him - underlies a bright enchanted universe of eccentric fairies, cat-kings, and cow-queens. A boy overcomes his fears. A perilous journey is undertaken.
Of course, as with most fairy tales, there’s little new here, but novelty plays almost no role in such stories. Familiarity is a pivotal dimension of fairy tale because it is in the act of telling and re-telling that we dig into these apparently simple tales and derive meaning. In Ni no Kuni the infusion of Studio Ghibli style is notable because it distinguishes the game from the avalanche of teen-angst anime that has dominated JRPGs for so long. But in the end Ni no Kuni rings bells we’ve rung many times before, built with blueprints borrowed from Dragon Quest, Pokémon, and Spirited Away.
So, if Ni no Kuni is so familiar, why does it feel so irresistibly fresh? Why does it captivate my imagination so thoroughly? Why does it linger in my thoughts, and why, as I near the end, do I feel a genuine foreboding that this intoxicating journey with friends will also soon end?
I believe it has something to do with Tolkien’s notion of the Perilous Realm and “the air that blows in that country.” Ni no Kuni situates the player similarly to our position reading or hearing fairy fales like The Frog King or The White Snake. These stories aren’t about kissing frogs or talking animals. They’re about enduring values like patience, devotion, and abiding love. The designers of Ni no Kuni know what the Brothers Grimm understood about persuasive storytelling. A good storyteller allows his most cogent themes to drift serenely in Tolkien’s “air that blows in that country.”
Oliver searches for his mother in a land of fairies and monsters, enveloped by game design elements (collecting stamps, leveling up familiars, etc.) that quietly reinforce the game’s central values. He heals broken hearts and helps lost souls find their spiritual middle way. These are presented as apparently extraneous “sidequests,” gameplay padding to fill the 40+ hours that post-Final Fantasy JRPGs are expected to provide.
But like the servant in the Grimm’s The White Snake (and many other faithful fairy tale heroes), Oliver’s simple tasks - small missions he accepts from townspeople or minor characters - are the ones that define him. Grimm’s servant discovers what Oliver also learns: the big quest and the many little tasks are all part of a single overarching journey of sacrifice and self-discovery. In both stories the little things matter, but the reader/player may not realize that truth until the end.
Sometimes we try too hard to squeeze video games into the kinds of meaning we derive from books and movies. Think Cinderella and her stepsisters and those shoes. Maybe we're looking at games like Ni no Kuni the wrong way. Perhaps the fundamental structure of most games makes their narratives more akin to fairy tales than Hollywood pics. Given the enduring nature of fairy tales and their marvelous capacity to reach the elusive "children of all ages" demographic, maybe that's a good thing.