Narrative in Video Games #2: Yo‑Kai Watch and Metaphor, Part One

When Yo‑Kai Watch released mid-July 2013 in Japan it was met with only moderate success. It had strong first week sales, but sales dropped and the public moved on to the next game… or so you would think. An anime adaptation premiered six months later and became an instant hit with audiences. Fresh interest in the franchise propelled sales of the sequel past Pokémon Omega Ruby/Alpha Sapphire by more than half a million units in 2014. A lucrative new franchise was born and expectations were high for the long-awaited North American localization released in November 2015. Did Western gamers get the “Pokémon Killer” they were promised?

The short answer is no, but that’s not a bad thing. Structurally the game has more in common with Level-5’s previous game, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. The setting of Springdale shares designs elements with Motorville, and the Yo-kai themselves have a lot in common with Ni No Kuni’s familiars. The biggest similarity, however, is in how both games utilize metaphor.

In Yo‑Kai Watch, protagonist Nate is hunting for bugs over his summer vacation when he comes across a capsule machine deep in the forest. The Yo‑kai trapped inside, Whisper, gives Nate the titular watch that allows him to see the normally invisible Yo‑kai and the trouble they cause for the people of Springdale. Compare this with Oliver from Ni No Kuni, whose tears bring to life Drippy, a stuffed toy made by his recently deceased mother. Drippy guides Oliver to another world in the hopes of finding a way to resurrect her. Both games are an extended metaphor for Nate’s imagination running wild during his summertime adventures and Oliver’s coping mechanisms in the face of his mother’s untimely death respectively, or at least they could have been.

For all of the metaphorical groundwork laid out by the narratives of Ni No Kuni and Yo‑Kai Watch, both games are still ultimately aimed at a young demographic. What this means is that although both narratives focus on a child removing themselves from the real world around them, both of their adventures are literally happening within the text. Both games are still enjoyable in their own right, but this smacks of a missed opportunity.

[Continue on to Part Two for an analysis of Yo‑Kai Watch’s gameplay.]

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