Ni no Kuni, The Legend of Zelda, and a Link to the Player
Despite its harsh title, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is so sweet you could tap it for syrup. That may be too sweet for some, but I can’t get enough of it. The turbulence of the past year took me away from Ni no Kuni, but reuniting with the game and its unrelenting kindness has been something I’ve really needed. It’s something games in general need.
Returning to Ni no Kuni has me thinking about kindness in video games: how kindness is portrayed and how it is incentivized through gameplay. That may seem trite, but as video games have gotten more intricate, they have also become much more mean-spirited. Whether that’s because of the rise of military shooters, easier access to anonymous voice chat, or just changing attitudes, games have kept and encouraged a “kill everything to win” mentality. That’s not a new phenomenon, but increases in fidelity means more graphic depictions of violence and more detailed stories that have to justify that violence. I’m far from a prude — I laugh at hyper-violent Mortal Kombat fatalities just like everyone else — but it can get a bit taxing to play through another story with another morally grey protagonist who is nevertheless justified in their killing of hundreds or even thousands of enemies.
Then there’s Ni no Kuni, with its innocent child protagonist, Oliver, who has the magical power to instill others with virtues like courage, belief, and kindness. All of that layered on top of a Studio Ghibli art style, music by frequent Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and a Welsh-accented sidekick named Mr. Drippy. Just typing it out, it’s hard not to smile. There’s a city with pig iconography called Hamelin. There’s a coastal town whose citizens are required by law to exclusively wear swimsuits. It’s good stuff.
The pieces of heart Oliver magically transfers to the broken-hearted people of Ni no Kuni (the world shares its name with the game’s title) are taken from those who have certain virtues in abundance. In the context of the game, that means if, for example, Oliver encounters someone who is extremely confident, he can use his Take Heart spell to take a sliver of that confidence and give it to someone who needs it (with his Give Heart spell, naturally). The people who require Oliver’s assistance have had their hearts broken by the evil wizard Shadar because it’s a video game and of course they have. Despite the silly reasoning, it is nevertheless easy to want to help these people because of Oliver’s earnestness, whether he’s politely asking someone if he can take a piece of their heart or awkwardly trying to explain how giving a piece of heart to someone actually works.
If you’re at all familiar with The Legend of Zelda, you might be raising a few eyebrows at my choice of words, but that’s Ni no Kuni’s terminology. The positive emotions Oliver shares with Ni no Kuni’s citizens are referred to as pieces of heart, as are the items Link collects to get a new Heart Container in the Zelda games. This doesn’t seem to be a localization thing either. Despite using different kanji, the only major difference between Ni no Kuni’s kokoro no kakera (こころのカケラ) and Zelda’s hāto no kakera (ハートのかけら) is their separate words for heart. The terms are otherwise identical, save for it being a proper noun in Zelda and not in Ni no Kuni.
The Pieces of Heart Link has collected ever since A Link to the Past usually come from two sources: the world and the people. While both are important for getting Heart Pieces, the latter are far more memorable and make the rewards feel more substantial than an ordinary health boost. No one gets attached to the random rock they have to bomb to fall down a hole to get a Piece of Heart, but they do get attached to the person who gives them a task that leads to an interesting side quest to get a Piece of Heart.
Although Zelda’s Heart Pieces do not usually have romantic or even emotional correlations, certain quests have made the connection. Link’s reward for playing postman to a star-crossed Hylian-Moblin couple in Wind Waker is, appropriately, a Piece of Heart. A Piece of Heart is awarded in Majora’s Mask for completing the challenges of the aptly named Honey and Darling. Majora’s Mask is also home to Anju and Kafei, whose reuniting gets you a mask that then gets you a Heart Piece.
I could probably write a separate essay on Majora’s Mask and how its quests encourage kindness and optimism in a world that is staring death in the face, but all future writing aside, Heart Pieces in The Legend of Zelda are evidently more than just health extensions. Instead, they are often an extension of the characters’ own hearts, though many Heart Pieces are still found via random pits in the ground. It’s never been clear within the fiction whether Hearts Pieces are literal crystalline jewelry or if they’re more symbolic, but in either case, they are frequently given to Link out of gratitude. A kind gesture in exchange for a physical manifestation of kindness.
Ni no Kuni’s heart pieces are less corporeal than Zelda’s — the symbols in the menu notwithstanding — and they only come from Ni no Kuni’s people. The biggest difference, however, is in who benefits from them. A Piece of Heart in The Legend of Zelda benefits the player: Link is healed upon getting one and gets an extra Heart Container if he collects four (five in Twilight Princess, but that’s a weird outlier here). They are always something Link, and the player by proxy, receive. This makes sense within the context of Zelda’s progression. It is a very “player first” mentality, focused on the upgrades the series is known for. You got a new Heart Container! You got 100 Rupees! Remember that Hookshot you got? Now you have two of them! There’s an inherent sweetness baked into Zelda games, but that doesn’t stop them from being very you-centric games.
A piece of heart in Ni no Kuni, meanwhile, is something Oliver and the player must give away. This not only makes heart pieces thematically consistent with the gameplay and story, but also makes the world feel much more communal. Ni no Kuni becomes so much more connected when you take a piece of heart from someone in the snowy town of Yule and give it to someone else all the way in the feline-filled Ding Dong Dell. The items you get for completing the quests are their own reward, of course, and help give the game a steady sense of progression. Outside of that mechanical sense of progression, though, is a sense of earnest kindness and the urge to continue doing good on the part of the characters.
Link was named after his role as the literal link between the player and the game’s world. That is part of what has made Link such an enduring character, and is the key factor to making acts of kindness enjoyable to play. Beyond the idea that it’s good to do nice things, games have to make doing those nice things rewarding. Part of this is giving meaningful rewards to the player — items, experience points, extra health — but of more thematic importance is the connection the player has to the game world’s people, which will always be linked to the player character. While Link’s adventures are usually more concerned with the former, Oliver’s definitely encourage the latter. Oliver’s existence as the player character demands that you be as kind as he is, and magically enough, it works. Blame it on the Ghibli influence or the charm it develops on its own thanks to cute creature designs and clever dialogue. All of it combines to create a world worth helping with a protagonist worth connecting to.
Video games have always been a violent and competitive medium. In Pong, you win upon defeating your opponent; in Space Invaders, you win upon destroying all the enemy ships. Despite its big heart, this fact even applies to Ni no Kuni. It’s still a JRPG inspired by classics like the early Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy games: you don’t beat it until you’re strong enough to defeat the final boss. That applies to The Legend of Zelda too, but the devil — or angel, in this case — is in the details. Oliver is not motivated by revenge, nor by a desire to show off his innate power. His morality is not questioned. To him and everyone in his party, it is a no-brainer that Oliver will always do the kindest thing possible. Some people may take this to mean that Ni no Kuni is naive, or even kiddie. If it is, then so be it, because I think it would be a disservice to Oliver, his party, and the inhabitants of Ni no Kuni to not indulge in their inherent kindness.