No Game, No Life – 01-05 Review
Guess, chivalry’s dead after all…
Well, I guess you could do worse than create an anime about Otakus whose solution to life is to not live life on this world at all and instead become kings in some fantasy-land. And the Otakus are naturally free to indulge all their vices and bully the shit out of those worms who can’t compete with their apparent superiority. This series is escapism and wish-fulfillment, is what I’m saying. Doesn’t mean that it’s bad, just means that it doesn’t have anything of substance to say. But after five episodes this series is still worlds ahead of M3. That fanservice, though… and the whole otaku-pandering… I mean, I play videogames, I watch animes (obviously) and it’s frustrating (for me at least) to see someone think that a person with such interests would like to see some of the stuff on display in this series. Liking videogames and animes should mean more than that.
Blank is the name of a legendary gamer in the internet whose sole mission is to break games by kicking everyone else’s ass in these games. In real life, though, Sora and his little sister Shiro kick no one’s ass and are just your typical Hikkikomori. But then some little kid appears who turns out to be the god of some fantasy-land and they get invited to this land where games are only way to resolve conflicts. Why? Because omnipotence, that’s why!
Naturally these obsessive gamers quickly turn out to be the salvation the humans in that fantasy world need as they are besieged by multiple races with magical abilities that make winning for them easier. And since everyone knows that maths can beat magic, that kid-god didn’t call for Harry Potter but instead the Otaku-version of Stephen Hawking split in two because, uhm, the god of the real world loves to use anime-tropes or something.
And the legitimate ruler of the human country Steph basically becomes Sora and Shiro’s dog – because it’s a fun way to express love! …It isn’t but this series never tires of making that argument anyway.
This series really does characterization at the speed of one tiresome anime-trope at a time.
It’s astounding to look at videogames nowadays and marvel at the look of them that gets more realistic with each year. Even more with the development of the technology on which the games are played the games itself are able to not only look life-like but come ever so closer to actually imitating the complexity life offers. Naturally it’s still very much a pipedream to equate the complexity of life with what you can do in a sandbox-world like GTA5 or an MMO like Wildstar. But what videogames do get better at is showing a version of reality that seems far more rewarding, immediate and structured. And it’s this structure of how things work and the immediate meaningfulness of your activities in a game that makes playing videogames so appealing when life itself seems so frustrating in comparison.
But what if your life would actually be like a videogame in that sense? For Sora and Shiro, the siblings, at the centre of this series the fact that life isn’t like that is what pushes them into isolation and being a failure on a social level. But it’s interesting to note here that all this structure videogames provide does exist in life itself, too, only on a far more complex level. According to the Chaos Theory life is comprised of an unbelievably big number of variables and underlying those are mathematical equations that are logically sound. And if someone were able to know all variables the world wouldn’t seem chaotic at all to him (I know, it’s a very simplified version but bear with me here…). Video games in some way just bring this sort of structure and variables down to a level comprehensible for humans. Because of the limits of current technology there’s still a lot of artifice to the way video games can portray ‘reality’ but being able to actually fully comprehend it, it becomes easier to find fun there than in the real world.
A big concern of this series is showing that Sora and Shiro can only understand ‘reality’ on the limited level of these games. All this social awkwardness and all these absurd neuroses and psychological problems: It’s all in service of showing how they’re actually unable to deal with anything beyond the ‘reality’ of these games. And it’s a bit sad to see how this series mostly treats these problems like jokes or punchlines. Because you can say something meaningful about technology, games and reality even with a story that on the surface just looks like banal wish-fulfillment. But the series never seems very interested in talking about what this means in regards to the two main-characters. Instead, Sora and Shiro constantly swoon over the fact that they’ve been transported to this magical land of games in a very dualistic kind of way. The real world is compared to a colourful fantasy-world and naturally they like the latter better. But the series never talks about the fact what it means that these game-geniuses failed at life – and what this means in this game-world.
Another thing that you start to have on the level of videogames is a sense of control. Once the reality is limited in such a way that you can see the variables and equations at work you can understand the ‘reality’ and ultimately you can control it. It isn’t a coincidence that most of the games shown in this series up to this point deal a lot with this ‘sense of control’. In the fifth episode Sora and Shiro talk at length about how a game’s victor can be predetermined before the game even begins because of this ability to control. Even cheating counts in that regard. You would think that in a world where playing games is all that matters cheating would become some sort of blasphemy but instead the only two things this world has to say about cheating are that you better be a good cheater and that cheating is another essential way to control the game. Also, to come back to the Chaos Theory, Sora and Shiro also often display their control over a game by talking about variables and equations underlying the workings of the game. Even in the game with Living Chessboard the emotional side of the game becomes a calculated one relying on certain variables.
And these games also work perfectly because the series is very straightforward about its worldbuilding. It understands that brevity is very important to a series that’s more about what the characters are doing instead of why they’re doing things. There’s a very linear and predictable plot-structure inherent in dropping Sora and Shiro at the heart of the human nation among all those other magical races that are better at gaming than the humans. And the motivation gets resolved quickly as humanity’s story in this world basically becomes an underdog-story of having more potential to do good with their inability to do magic. An interesting side-note to that world-building, though, is the fact that before that new God implemented these Commandments about gaming humanity controlled that fantasy-world. But once it all started relying on games they became the weakest faction in that world. So, basically humanity failed to compete in this world of gaming while Sora and Shiro meanwhile excel in that world. Essentially this exemplifies this dualistic view again that this series is pushing where the real world and the gaming-world are seen as contradictory. So, it’s a bit odd to hear Sora talk about the potential of humanity with that in mind. He makes it seem like humanity is failing because it doesn’t live according to the ‘reality’ of this game-world but instead tries to live like in the real world. Who knows where the series will go with that train of thought but I think I have an idea what the series wants to imply here…
And that brings me to the two things I absolutely hate about this series: Otaku-pandering and fanservice. Let’s first talk about the fact that the two siblings who failed at life but are geniuses when it comes to games – become the rulers of humanity. And they manage to succeed as rulers since they have Steph, the docile one-woman-fan-group along and because they conveniently have access to modern-day knowledge about history and also know how to implement that knowledge in a kingdom. There’s no real discussion of what they do that far. They just jump at the chance to put themselves above humanity as their absolute ruler. I mean, despite all their obsession of using modern-day knowledge to improve the technology, culture and so on of this medieval nation it never once occurs to them to give up their power to form a republic. They’d rather leave it all in Steph’s hands so that she can rule absolutely in their stead when they’re otherwise busy. In that regard much of what is happening here is so simplified that it just becomes wish-fulfillment and glorification. And there’s nothing wrong with chasing such a sense of escapism, especially since it’s heightened to such absurd heights that it’s fun in its own way. But if they’re already allowed to do whatever they want and the audience is supposed to cheer for them or be entertained by their achievements, I would really like them to be a little more heroic. And I’m talking about little stuff that goes a little further than occasionally petting Steph like she’s a low dog (well, she literally is in the fifth episode). There’s this moment in the first episode where Sora is challenging some lady to a card-game and she immediately dismisses him because she doesn’t know him. So Sora then asks her in a challenging tone whether she’s just too much of a chicken to play against him. And she’s insulted in the most theatrical way imaginable and immediately agrees to play with him as if her pride was wounded by this. There are more moments like this where this sort of cockiness is treated like Sora’s being cool. And while this can be entertaining in an over-the-top-way I get the sense this series seriously thinks that Sora is cool in those moments. It’s totally stupid anyway how self-confident his behavior during games is. If he’s really such a badass-gambler he wouldn’t have ended up in the position he was in the real world. Maybe he can’t control real life like he can control game-‘realities’ but then again nobody can control real life and the sort of talents on display in this series should make him more than adapt at somehow finding a way to live in the real world without escaping into these games. But instead the series celebrates how Sora and Shiro shun the real world and act like they’re the masters of the universe in this game-world.
Once again the female love-interest-character just has to accept sexual abuse being done to her for the sake of fanservice.
I fucking hate fanservice and I barely tolerate shit like pantyshots, women being in revealing positions and whatnot. All that stuff isn’t very good but hey, it’s Japan so whatever. But the way this series treats Steph is a little bit too condescending for my tastes. There’s an actual mindcontrol-sequence where the fact that Steph is supernaturally forced to fall in love with Sora is treated like a joke! And that she quickly ‘naturally’ falls in love with Sora is no consolation. And what happens in the fifth episode just one giant shitshow of fanservice and condescension towards Steph. Not only that Shiro and Sora essentially bully Steph into going nearly naked through the town, they also give her a dogtail and dogears and make her act like a dog! Even worse than that, though, is the fact that her character is written like she’s a complete idiot. The episode started with her sort-of impressing Shiro and Sora by explaining that she understands how diplomacy works and that she’s an actually very capable ruler of the human kingdom. But then she proceeds to constantly make up these really stupid challenges to somehow force Sora to become a ‘decent person’ (again with the mindcontrol-bullshit…). But naturally she loses every time and gets bullied because of that… which doesn’t stop her from still getting all sentimental when after all that emotional abuse Shiro and Sora suddenly thank her for her work. That’s just fucking stupid! And the sad thing is really: At the end of the day what this series truly values is not its comments on videogames or its discussion of reality, chaos, probability, what this series loves is glorifying the Otaku-stand-ins at the center of the story and creating stupid scenarios filled with fanservice.
It’s hard to adequately summarize how I feel about this show that can be so entertaining at times but then can suddenly turn into one of the most blatant fanservice-fests I’ve seen in a long time. And both sides are so closely intertwined that it’s hard to ignore the pesky flaws of this show. It really comes down to how you feel about fanservice, I guess. Because there’s a lot of it in this show and it’s not the kind that should make you proud to be watching this anime. On the other hand the game-portions, while a bit too reliant on the main-character’s superhuman gaming-abilities, are very energetic and unburdened by unnecessary pathos or angsty drama which makes them a joy to watch.