A boy comes to his senses in a crowded intersection, surrounded by people who seem not to notice his existence. It’s fine with Neku: he doesn’t like dealing with people anyway. He uses headphones and a harsh attitude to shut others out, and he might take The World Ends With You as a mission statement. If Neku’s going to escape the nightmare Shibuya he’s trapped in, though, he’ll need to learn to trust others, to let them into his world, so that it begins, rather than ends, with him.
Role-playing games usually work best with a story of personal growth. This doesn’t necessarily mean a coming-of-age tale, although the heroic fantasy that forms the cultural context for most RPGs is thick with that plot. What’s important is that the story of the hero’s growth as a person is matched with the growth-based mechanics. Even though the player is not always in control of the main character’s personal development, the act of developing the character in gameplay provides a parallel that the player does control. The World Ends With You takes this idea and runs with it.
It’s fairly easy to identify the game as a coming-of-age story: all the characters are teenagers, and much of the gameplay involves acting like a teen. After all, what you do in the game is run around a hip section of Tokyo, hang out in malls, keep up with the latest trends, and eat junk food all day. Neku has some familiar adolescent characteristics, in that he is a moody, selfish, sarcastic prick. Many of the secondary characters are facing normal teenage problems, too: Shiki is so jealous of a friend she takes on her shape, and Beat has arguments with his parents. In agreement with the impressions of most teens, adults come across as hopeless squares—one advertising executive (Makoto) wanders around town trying to sell pins, using lame, out-of-date catchphrases.
Pins play an important part in the game because they contain essentially all of Neku’s combat abilities. Shibuya is inhabited by demons called ‘Noise’ that seem to be related to people’s negative emotions. In order to defeat them, Neku has to use ‘Psychs’ associated with his pins, but his attacks alone are not enough. In order to fight through the Noise he’ll need the help of a partner (who acts in the DS upper screen). Neku and his partner—a different one each week of the game—share their HP, so there’s no resurrection spell that can be cast. Once you die, it’s game over. The strength of a pin is determined by the PP it has accumulated (separate from the EXP that increases Neku’s HP), and also by the popularity of the pin’s brand in the particular district of Shibuya where Neku is fighting.
Much of the story is also concerned with popularity. One of the early tasks in the game is to popularize Makoto’s pin, and several incidents in the first two weeks involve the Prince of Ennui, who defines what’s popular in Shibuya with his “F Everything” (F for Fabulous) blog. Yet, even the prince has to fight to be himself. Shiki, as mentioned, longs to be popular, but finds she doesn’t enjoy being the person she thought she wanted to be. The mechanics force players to acknowledge popularity by strengthening and weakening the pins, but they also allow them to take control of the trends. Succeeding in battle with unpopular pins or clothing increases the popularity of their brands in that section of Shibuya. In this sense, the gameplay offers the player the same choice that the characters face: follow the trends, or blaze your own path. The former is easier, the latter more rewarding.
Some pins can level up and evolve into more powerful forms using only the PP that you obtain from battles. However, there are additional mechanisms for gaining PP. For instance, turning off the DS grants you “Shutdown PP” relative to how long you leave it off. If you carry it around with you and encounter another DS (or play a minigame against a friend), you can also gain “Mingle PP”, and earn new items in shops. Shutting off the DS grants you another benefit, related to the food that your characters consume. Each item of food that they eat grants them a temporary bonus for a certain number of battles, and then a permanent stat increase once it is digested. However, the characters’ stomachs can only take a certain amount of food per day—not per game day, per your day. So shutting The World Ends With You off overnight allows you to eat more food and gain more stat bonuses.
All of this benefit to turning off the game seems very strange at first blush. The difficulty of combat, the tunability of the game system, and the intricacy of its rules makes it very clear that this will mostly appeal to core gamers. Yet the beneficial aspects of shutting off the DS enforce a schedule more familiar to casual players. The point of the game’s story, however, is that keeping to yourself is the wrong way to live. By rewarding the player for turning the game off and hanging out with his (DS-owning) friends, The World Ends With You encourages the same behavior in the player’s life that it is suggesting for Neku’s. The mechanics are constructed to make the player’s actions fit the theme.
Adolescence is not a peaceful period for anyone. Transforming from a passive child who is controlled by the world into an adult who can shape it involves a lot of pushing against friends and parents and authority figures. Neku’s reaction to this is to close himself off from everyone else; he wears headphones to shut out other people’s noise. When he is eventually forced to cooperate with others it doesn’t go very smoothly: the friendships he forms during the game have plenty of friction. The difficulty of the combat system may be intended to evoke the frustration (and occasional awesome rewards) of trying to get along with others. But, as Neku himself eventually realizes, it is conflict that makes people grow (a sentiment that invokes the mechanics of nearly all RPGs). By confronting the Noise he has been shutting out, Neku’s world expands.
The story of The World Ends With You is interesting, and in spots it’s cleverly written (not when it’s using amnesia, though), but by itself it’s hardly remarkable. In a way, the plot falls apart at the end, never really explaining why the city was saved, but the story isn’t really about saving Shibuya… what’s at stake is Neku himself. Still, what makes The World Ends With You great is not the story, but the way in which the mechanics reinforce the story’s message. The genius of the design is that the theme is developed not only when the game is being played, but also when it isn’t. The World Ends With You doesn’t just aim to expand Neku’s world—it aims to expand yours.