Unexpected Lessons: The geopolitics of Ni No Kuni 2

Happy New Year, worldbuilders!

Not all stories have to have detailed and lifelike worldbuilding. It’s fine for something to be simple or unrealistic; these things don’t have to detract from the story. Sometimes, though, you’re expecting something to be shallow-but-enjoyable and find it to be surprisingly deep. That happened to me when I played Ni No Kuni 2.

The first Ni No Kuni was a whimsical and moving journey through an alternate world, with visuals designed by people from Studio Ghibli (My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, etc.). The second game took the same world and decided to take players through a story rife with political intrigue and international complexity. It was completely unexpected from something I think is meant to be a kid’s game.

A lot of this works because of the nature of the plot and characters. The story follows Evan, a young king ousted by a coup, as he founds the kingdom of Evermore to fulfill the dying wish of his mentor. He’s helped in this by Roland, a president from our world who has found himself in the land of Ni No Kuni. This gives us a dynamic where players can see Evan, pure of heart but politically inexperienced, tutored by someone with an imposing amount of political acumen. I enjoyed watching Roland come to the same conclusions about the situation and make the same recommendations that I would.

Roland (foreground) and King Evan (background), the pair that will bring the kingdom of Evermore to glory

I’d like to explore the geopolitics of Ni No Kuni 2’s world and story. This will be slightly spoiler-y, but I’ll try to avoid disclosing too much. If any of what I’ve described sounds enjoyable, I highly encourage you to play the game. The script can be overdramatic and the voice acting cringey—they try to mimic accents including Welsh, Scottish, pirate, and others. There are puns everywhere, some of which I find unpleasant (they make a lot of name jokes involving stereotypical Chinese, which I don’t think they meant to be insulting). I believe the positives far outweigh the negatives, and thoroughly recommend the game to everyone.

With that out of the way, let’s meet the world of Ni No Kuni.

Intro to the World

While the world of the game is never explicitly called Ni No Kuni, that’s the name I’ll use. Ni No Kuni is a fantasy world parallel to ours. For the purposes of our discussion, the most important feature is the dominant political system. The most defined political entities are kingdoms that appear to function as city-states—that is, each is made up of one populous settlement that has very little territorial control outside its borders. One kingdom does control a small coastal village that is described as its “vassal,” but that’s it. There are a few people living outside the kingdoms, but the plot doesn’t focus on them much.

Ding Dong Dell (post-coup), one of Ni No Kuni’s most important kingdoms

There’s a clear difference between kingdoms and every other group in the world. Kingdoms are ruled by a king or queen, which is someone who has bonded with a special being called a “kingmaker.” We’ll discuss kingmakers and their characteristics later, but what’s important is that as long as the ruler has a kingmaker, the kingdom can be structured in essentially any way. There’s even a large for-profit company that counts as a kingdom, solely because its CEO has a kingmaker.

At the time of the game’s events, there are five kingdoms. The narrator informs us that there was a recent string of wars between the kingdoms, though we don’t see any evidence of this in-game (except for the kingdoms’ general unwillingness to cooperate). This is the backdrop that serves as the setting for Ni No Kuni 2.

Coups d’Etat and Ethnic Tension

When Roland is transported to Ni No Kuni, he finds young King Evan in the middle of being deposed in a coup (though he’s initially oblivious to this) in the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell. It takes very little time for Roland to see that the coup was clearly planned ahead of time and clearly falls along the line between species: the ratlike “mousekind” are ousting the catlike “grimalkin.” He is informed that for a long time, the grimalkin have been in power and have oppressed mousekind. Evan’s father attempted to repair the rift by taking on a mousekind chancellor, but the chancellor poisoned the king and is now using force to take the crown of Ding Dong Dell from Evan.

A (relatively) bloodless coup, complete with crazy eyebrows

This type of ethnic conflict is sadly very common. We usually see these situations in areas like Africa and the Middle East, where externally-designed borders artificially lump different ethnicities into the same political entity. While we don’t have a clear idea of the origin of Ding Dong Dell’s situation, the results are very similar to what we see in our world. One ethnicity (or species, in this case) ends up having slightly more power than others, then uses its advantage to consolidate its position and repress its rivals.

Ironically, the steps Evan’s father took to address the problem were probably what led to the coup in the first place. Most coups require key people in power to switch sides, since they hold the resources that would be required for the insurgents to succeed. By placing a member of mousekind in a powerful role (it seems like the chancellor might have control of the military, which is especially dangerous to leave in the hands of someone with questionable loyalty), he opened the door for a coup to happen without the grimalkin changing sides.

Evan is forced to flee the kingdom with Roland. The aftermath is also in line with what we would expect from an ethnic coup. There is an immediate exodus of grimalkin refugees, fleeing the mousekind’s retaliation. The borders are soon closed to keep the grimalkin in, after which they are confined to ghettos (here, underground and monster-infested slums). Mousekind replace grimalkin in all positions of authority, and the average grimalkin faces harassment from mousekind police and citizens alike. It’s implied that this is significantly harsher than what the mice endured before the coup, but this kind of disproportionate response is also common.

Legitimacy and Social Contracts

Once outside Ding Dong Dell, Evan decides to found a new kingdom. However, he can’t just find an empty plot of land and declare himself king; he first needs to bond a kingmaker. We learn that without a kingmaker, no one will take a would-be king seriously. In political terms, the kingmaker is the source of a king’s “legitimacy.” After some adventures, Evan manages to bond a kingmaker. Well, kind of…

Left: Oakenhart, majestic kingmaker of Ding Dong Dell. Right: Lofty, doofy kingmaker of Evermore.

There are several reasons a king needs a kingmaker to be considered legitimate. First, a kingmaker will only bond with a ruler who meets certain moral criteria. The bond can even become stronger if the king is willing to sacrifice more on the people’s behalf. Second, we’re told that a kingmaker can act as a powerful soldier on the battlefield, though we don’t see this happen on a large scale. Late in the game, we also see that subjects of a kingdom can be protected from powerful magical attacks, simply because of the land’s kingmaker. Third—and most importantly—if a ruler begins mistreating his people and becomes unfit to rule, the kingmaker will rebel against the misbehaving monarch. This is a key part of the plot, as the game’s villain manipulates rulers into betraying their subjects’ trust, then steals their kingmakers from them.

This is what happens when you lose your right to rule by violating the social contract, Zip.

This falls in line with a theory of rulership from the European Age of Enlightenment called the social contract. According to Thomas Hobbes in his book Leviathan, mankind is naturally uncivilized and brutish. People implicitly agree to cede some of their freedoms to governments—an arrangement he calls a social contract—in exchange for benefits and protections of their inalienable rights. If the government violates these rights, then the contract is broken and citizens are no longer required to submit to the government. Interestingly, Hobbes concludes that the only form of government that can meet the needs of the people is an absolute monarchy.

There’s also a bit of the theory of “divine right to rule.” By this philosophy, a ruler gains legitimacy by being chosen by a supernatural power. Proving their chosen status is a vital goal for rulers with this type of legitimacy. Kings in Ni No Kuni get their blessing from a magic dragon instead of a god, but it still counts.

As mentioned, we see this in action several times. A king or queen breaks the people’s trust in one way or another, removing their bond with the kingmaker. One thing I wish the game had handled differently are the effects of losing this bond. For all intents and purposes, the kingdom seems to function exactly as it did before. In some cases, the change of heart that the ruler experiences after the kingmaker is stolen can lead to renewed loyalty from the citizens. This isn’t what would happen in real life. In divine right to rule systems, a ruler that has lost the blessing of heaven in the public’s eye can face real consequences. Opportunistic nobles can lead rebellions, for example. Ni No Kuni’s kingdoms should be breaking down, not growing stronger.

Non-State Actors

Not everyone in Ni No Kuni lives in a kingdom. On their way to retrieve their kingmaker, Evan and Roland meet and gain the loyalty of the Sky Pirates. After learning of Evan’s mission, they quickly sign up and become the first citizens of Evan’s new kingdom, Evermore.

Evermore’s first citizens, recruited from non-state groups

In a world where there are key benefits to being in a kingdom, this is completely realistic. Existing kingdoms might have refused to give the Sky Pirates citizenship, since they’re dangerous outlaws. Evermore doesn’t have this luxury, since it needs residents in order to function. Batu, the Sky Pirates’ leader, claims to see Evan’s pure heart and believe in his mission, but he’s also securing a lot of benefits for his people that he would never be able to get otherwise. (It also helps that it’s implied that Evan and Batu’s adoptive daughter get married after the game ends, ensuring his posterity will be part of the royal line.)

Things are different in real life, mostly because there isn’t an objective test of legitimacy. Early Rome absorbed Italian tribes by pitting them against each other, not by convincing them of their right to rule. This is usually how things work. Regardless, the way things are depicted in Ni No Kuni are a natural result of the kingmaker system, and line up with expectations.

Geography

Once Evan has his kingmaker, it’s time to actually found Evermore. Roland stresses the importance of a kingdom’s location, prompting Evan to consider his choice carefully. In the end, they settle on an area known as the Heartlands, which seems to have everything. It’s an area of rolling plains, which look to be agriculturally fertile. In addition, they’re close to a large forest for lumber and the world’s main ocean for fishing and trade. Once they start building facilities, they discover that there’s ore deposits underground as well.

There’s one important problem: the area isn’t too defensible. There aren’t any natural barriers that Evermore can use to set up a fortress. The locals are hostile to travelers, and especially hostile to Evan and his fledgling kingdom. These bandits and the area’s openness are likely why existing kingdoms haven’t been able to claim the Heartlands for themselves. (A DLC also reveals that the ghostly previous kingdom of the Heartlands will attempt to eliminate any kingdom on their turf, but that’s slightly outside the scope of this article.)

The founders survey the Heartlands, an agricultural revolution waiting to happen

There are clear real-world parallels here, not all of them good. The Heartlands and Evermore’s story closely mirrors the North American Great Plains and the United States. The problematic part is the comparison of Native Americans to the Heartlands’ bandits. The US committed atrocity after atrocity, driving the Native Americans off of their ancestral lands. With this agricultural breadbasket under its control, the US’ production and population growth took off. The nation’s wealth encouraged a massive wave of immigrants, strengthening the pool of human capital and further increasing its advantage.

The Great Plains are essentially identical to Ni No Kuni’s Heartlands, though waterways are rivers instead of the ocean. The bandits are savages, and Evan’s warring against them is viewed as unambiguously good. Like the US, Evermore’s use of these precious lands leads to prosperity, bringing a flood of immigrants from the other kingdoms (these immigrants quickly eclipse the Sky Pirates in numbers). There’s no moral grey area about how this success came by forcing locals off of their lands, which I would’ve liked to see.

Coalitions and Supernational Organizations

Now that the kingdom has been formed, Evan and the others are able to fully turn their attention to the plot of the game. Roland encourages Even to come up with a national strategy, pointing out that Evan’s initial goal of “make a place where everyone can live happily ever” is nice, but not very actionable. After some discussion, they decide to create a treaty between all the kingdoms of Ni No Kuni prohibiting military conflict. They call this treaty the Declaration of Interdependence (warned you about the puns), and collecting signatories is a major goal throughout the game.

Looks cool and magical, but in the end, I have no idea what it does

This is the area where Ni No Kuni sacrifices verisimilitude for the sake of the story. It’s a good plot, but it would absolutely never happen in real life—especially in the premodern or early modern period that influences the game’s world. One of the biggest obstacles is that the Declaration seems to place Evermore in a dominant position, in charge of coordination and conflict resolution. Whenever a nation has taken this role, it’s almost always a regional hegemon that can essentially force other states to listen to its decisions. The notable exception is Switzerland, which managed to deal with being surrounded by powerful neighbors by committing itself to neutrality and acting as a mediator. It had a few things going for it that Evermore doesn’t, which are a bit too complex to go into now.

Instead of having one nation dominate others, something that works a bit better is having a separate, non-state organization that is (theoretically) politically independent. The United Nations serves that role now, and in a very weird way, the Catholic Church tried to accomplish this in Medieval Europe. This is rare, and is usually very fragile, especially in the early modern or premodern eras. It doesn’t make much difference now, since that’s clearly not what Evermore is trying to do.

There is one thing that the Declaration has going for it. At the same time that Evan is looking for signatories, Ni No Kuni’s kingdoms are facing an existential threat from the game’s villain. Several kingdoms sign the Declaration explicitly to join forces against him. This does happen in the real world, and is called a “coalition.” Several times in history, there have been alliances against common enemies. The classic example is Napoleon, who faced seven coalitions against him. The difference is that coalitions are temporary by nature. Once the threat is gone, the nations naturally split up as their conflicts surface again. The Declaration is apparently meant to be permanent, and events in the epilogue make this clear.

All that said, I still think that this is an area where the writers weren’t trying to follow real life. The dynamics of the plot were more important, and I think I agree. The game is supposed to be an idealistic exploration of basic, childlike morality, and it’s fair to focus on that in this case.

In the end, I have to congratulate the devs on making a surprisingly sophisticated political story. I had a great time, and I hope any readers will, too.

Do you have any works of fiction that surprised you with their deep worldbuilding? Let me know—maybe I’ll have a look and do an analysis!

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