Normally I would wait until the rest of the shows I’ve been following during the Spring 2014 anime season were finished, so I could review them all at once, but with No Game No Life, I actually had to invent a scale, a measure of my opinion of certain kinds of shows. Thus, I felt it was appropriate to give it a post of its own, to properly document exactly how bloody disappointing it was.
(I also decided to do this late at night after a long day, such was the strength of my opinion, so please forgive my depressed, disappointed rambling if it becomes too indecipherable.)
Like many shows, No Game No Life started with a great deal of promise: the animation was exciting, there was symbolism behind even the color scheme (a world disturbed by a capricious, game-loving god colored in, of all things, a sunset palette? Oh yeah; we know where this is going), and even the fact that gamers—albeit obsessed as to be nearly unrecognizable as such—were the heroes, well…let’s just say I was intrigued, to say the least.
It started off pretty well: gamer/NEET “siblings” Shiro and Sora are sucked into a world where games are the medium of arbitration, and all results—however silly—are binding. In a (really damn cool) falling sequence, they meet Tet, the local god, who, after a long war, established the ten rules of the world that govern all conflicts, even national ones. Cheating, oddly, is allowed (and tends to dominate the games; it’s cheap, but fine, whatever), but if you’re caught you lose (though what “caught” means tends to be somewhat ambiguous; they “catch” people all the time, but some arbitrary level of “proof” is required). Sora and Shiro win clothes and supplies through games, try to tip off a girl (the opinion-pivotal Stephanie Dola) that the person she is playing for control of the human kingdom is cheating, etc.
Long story short: Sora and Shiro become co-rulers of Elkia, the Kingdom of “Imanity” (*sigh* fine) and decide to conquer the rest of the world so they can…play chess with god for command of the world.
Actually, that sounds badass: defeating powerful opponents using mental skill instead of magic (humans have no magic; they’re the only ones who don’t, in fact)? Tactics that don’t require excessive suspension of disbelief to accommodate? Bring it on! You’ve got a good plot (check: fighting god is always cool) and good characters, let’s do this!
Actually, that’s where it breaks down: the characters are…overshadowed…by how shit the mains are. You see, though Sora and Shiro are supposed to be “weak” (“only the weak can know what it is to be weak and therefore defeat the strong or something we dunno LOL”), they are, in fact, some level of Mary Sue. Literally everything they try works out in the end, and it gets worse as the series progresses; what starts out as layers of backup plans (a sensible precaution for uber-gamers such as they) turns into “totally planned that otherwise utter coincidence”. It’s grating, but actually pretty forgivable. They have to win, they’re the heroes. The fun is seeing how.
But it doesn’t stop there. The show has a handful of middlingly interesting characters, and one really damn interesting character: Stephanie Dola. In a world dominated by games, she is shit at them. She compensates for this by being a really good diplomat, adroit in backroom dealing and a deft hand at international politics. She should be; she’s the granddaughter of the former King.
What has this to do with the S-siblings? They treat her like shit. At one point she is literally dressed up as a dog, chased around a mystical game of shiritori, and killed. She gets better, but that isn’t the point. What did she do to deserve that kind of treatment? Nothing. She’s bad at games, she’s (somehow) popular and has lots of friends (who never show up), and since that’s pretty much the opposite of Shiro and Sora, she gets fucked with on a near-constant basis. She becomes progressively less competent as the show goes on, actually: even her one moment of glory in the last episode of the season turns out to have been planned the entire time, and the one time she got to show off her skills they were rendered moot by the main characters’ frankly idiotic and clumsy machinations.
This might not be such a big deal to you, but for me it completely, utterly, irredeemably ruined what is otherwise a fiendishly clever show (at one point, in order to win a game, they remove the Coulomb force and collapse the sun). I can accept the characters always being successful, because it is at least established that they are really good gamers. I can accept that they are not nice people in general, due to their self-imposed isolation. I can even accept that they play fast and loose with the assumptions they make about other people that, of course, turn out to be correct (once, Sora relies on Shiro to play a game she can’t see with pieces she doesn’t directly understand, just because she knows what Sora would expect of her). I cannot accept this dissonant (seriously, out of nowhere) treatment of the most interesting character in the show.
So, the scale: If we imagine a show that perfectly meets my expectations of it to be an even zero, where a positive score means a show “exceeds” (and a negative score means a show “fails to meet”) my expectations of it, No Game No Life scores about a -7 (where the magnitude of the score represents the magnitude of my opinion), mostly because fixing it would be so easy:
- They don’t treat Steph like shit.
- Steph doesn’t care about being King, she just wants to help Imanity (pretty much canon, actually).
- Steph is consulted for her expertise in international politics, as they are literally taking on the world here.
It could be done with a few sentences and a couple of character swaps. Easy. EASY. TOO EASY TO LET PASS. It would be one of my favorite shows ever, if it didn’t treat its most interesting character so poorly for no good damn reason.
The show is based on a manga which is based on a light novel, so there’s not a lot that can be done by the showrunners, but damn if it couldn’t have used an editor or three along the way. I will in all likelihood watch the next season of it, if only for the parts that I liked, but it would require a time machine, a pen, and an understanding of the Japanese language to really save the show now. Too, too bad. At least there’s Mekakucity Actors.
P.S.: If you’re interested, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is about a -3, the first HTTYD film is about a 6, and any given moment in Symphogear is about a bazillion. Best show 10/10 forever.