Have you ever imagined a world where everything is a game? What would it look like? I know when I was younger I would imagine a world where simply being good at games was the most important thing you could be. No Game No Life takes that question and brings that fantasy to life.
I came into No Game No Life with low expectations. Madhouse simply hasn’t made something I have any love for in years. This story about NEETs in another world looked like it would be another otaku pandering mess with more boobs than brains. What did we get? No Game No Life delivered on the otaku pandering in force and it certainly has it’s share of skin, but it proved that showing boobs and having brains at the same time is not always counter productive. As this show progressed I quickly realized that I wasn’t just watching this seasons best fluff piece, but one of the best light novels turned anime that I’d ever seen.
Fair warning, I liked this show a whole lot, don’t mind the drool. I guess I should start by pointing out just how far this show came in the process of exploring its premise. I know a few people watched the first few episodes, thought the show was boring and turned it off. I can’t really blame anyone who tuned this showed out early on. No Game No Life starts off slow and explains the rules before anything of consequence happens. I think the first game we get to see played in fantasy land is rock paper scissors. The game isn’t particularly exciting, but the mentality behind it gives us an insight into the way our protagonists think. The little nuances may seem trivial at first, but they build into an explosion of a story that never slows down once it gets started. Simply put, the scope of the story expands dramatically after the first few episodes.
Speaking of explosions the art and animation of No Game No Life is an explosion of colors. If there is one thing Madhouse does really well it’s bringing this world to life through color. If I could visit any fantasy world on vacation this one would probably top the list. Forgot the gaming for the moment, the landscapes are breathtaking. Each race has it’s own culture and architecture giving the world a sense of vastness. Character designs are equally gorgeous to the extent that I would even buy a figure of the male protagonist. The voice acting is also superb and that helps to bring the theatrics to life. From a production standpoint my only complaint with No Game No Life is that it ends unfinished.
So what is the story of No Game No Life all about? Tet, the god of gaming, has conquered the world of Disboard. After becoming the one true god of the land Tet put into place a set of 10 absolute rules that can’t be broken. The interesting thing to note about this set of rules is that they quite literally dictate reality. If for example a player were to bet their gravity and lose, the winning player would get their weight and the loser would be left without anything to hold them down. That doesn’t actually happen, but the rules have that kind of power and are open to insane amounts of creative abuse while also managing to stay believable in an in universe sort of way.
Sora and Shiro might be insufferable if their part in this fantasy world was any smaller than it is. Their grand goal of world conquest makes their hikikomori personalities into something that synergizes with this fantasy in a way that gives their audacity a charm that is hard to resist. Once they establish their goal and their strange, but endearing love for humanity Sora and Shiro become the rulers of humanity and declare war on the entire world. Their purpose? These two basement dweller kids have no desire to go home. Instead their goal is to unite all the races under their banner and challenge Tet for his title as the one true god of Disboard. Is a game of rock paper scissors exciting? I think it can be when you understand the implications of someone betting their life on it. For all you Death Note fans, is eating a bag of potato chips exciting? This is something similar. If you enjoy logic games with insane stakes there is something to enjoy right off the bat. If you need context for why they are playing logic games that comes a few episodes later, but it does come and it once it does it’s there to stay.
The majority of the anime is spent following Sora and Shiro as they gain influence in Disboard by winning games. The games themselves take center stage and provide logic puzzles that are rarely if ever boring as well as a genuine insight into gamer mentalities. The characters themselves are simply but fill their given role with expertise. They may not have the most complex of personalities, but the occasional insights into their personalities are interesting enough and can be surprisingly heartwarming. Sora and Shiro are always a few steps ahead of the game and their theatrical approach makes even the most mundane of explanations into something exciting. The anime ends with their conquest far from finished, but I am hopeful we will see a second season before long.
In closing I will share one of the games from the middle of the story. Episode 6 is when No Game No Life went from pretty cool to blowing my mind. I won’t tell you the specifics or the outcome, but let me give you the ground work. Sora and Shiro play a game with Jibril who is a part of the 6th most powerful race of Disbord. Her race was created by the old gods to fight their wars for them and she is the most powerful of them. To give you an idea of how powerful that is we are told that she once blew up the eleven capital with a single spell. When she is challenged she creates a game for our sibling duo that she calls materialization shiritori.
The rules of materialization shiritori are simply, anything present will disappear, anything that isn’t present will appear. Only things that really exist can be summoned or dismissed and if you are unable to answer for 30 seconds you lose. Finally everything goes back to normal when the game ends so dying isn’t an issue. The stakes? Jibril bets her library full of humanities knowledge and history as well as her life for a chance to win Sora’s Ipad. The first move? Sora summons a hydrogen bomb that nearly kills all of them. The levels of mind blowing insanity that this game reaches by the end is something you will need to discover for yourself, but I am willing to bet you that you won’t be disappointed. If watching anime characters solve ridiculous logic puzzle in a theatrical manner sounds like fun this is one anime you won’t want to miss.
I want to illustrate exactly what it was about No Game No Life and its approach to ridiculous logic puzzles that I love so much. If you want to explore the themes at work in No Game No Life on your own and haven’t watched the anime yet I suggest you stop here.
Sora and Shiro as a Team
Throughout the anime Sora and Shiro overcome obstacles that they are only capable of taking on together by using their combined strength. On the internet they became known as “Blank” a group of gamers that never lose. Their far less exciting reality being that they are really just two siblings cooped up in a small room who do nothing but play games. Sora is the passionate gamer and resident otaku, Shiro is a super computer of intelligence. On their own both of them are fragile. It is only by playing games together that they were able to become so strong.
Humanity Doesn’t Have Magic
It’s often the things the heroes of a story can’t do that makes them interesting. In this world where the entire universe is one big game and Sora and Shiro the ultimate gamers there wouldn’t be much of a challenge if the playing field were fair. Instead humanity is the weakest of the races. They don’t have magic and are technologically behind other nations as well. What this means for the story is that Sora and Shiro are forced to be creative with every game they play. What that means for us is that Sora and Shiro’s conquest never gets boring.
Gamer Mentality and the Entire World as a Game
Everything Sora and Shiro do is a game. Even in their old lives the the world they lived in was a game, just a shitty one. That isn’t really a new sentiment for NEET gamers, but No Game No Life takes the mentality in a new direction when it places them into a world that really is a game. Everything they do is a move toward winning and everyone involved a piece to be manipulated. In the real world this could make them villains, but here in fantasy gaming land? It’s part of the fun.
Knowledge as a Weapon
Something any gamer instinctively learns is that knowledge is power. Knowing where to find a power up or where to strike a boss can be the difference between winning and losing. Sora and Shiro’s primary weapon for conquest is information. There are an untold number of fantasy stories that involve violence to incite conflict. Violence and murder brings with it a bunch of baggage that has become the norm in the fantasy genre. There is no real violence in No Game No Life. In fact murder is against the rules of the universe. It’s something that can’t be done. This is a bloodless story of conquest and glory and that is something I appreciate greatly. It is not because I have a problem with gore, but because of what it means for the themes of the story. Games are supposed to be fun after all.
Humanities Weakness as a Strength
One of the recurring themes of the story is that Humanity’s weakness is it’s strength. That their ability to get creative in order to survive gives them a chance for victory against the other more powerful races. The beastmen have their natural instincts, the flugel have their vast knowledge, the elves have their magic. What does humanity have? A sense of wisdom honed from always being in last place.
The Symbolism of “Blank”
I like to think Sora and Shiro’s urban legend of “Blank” symbolizes the potential of mankind. This is something that Sora talks about a few times throughout the anime. First in his coronation speech and again latter in a more intimate manner with Steph. Sora and Shiro can do all kinds of incredible things that obvious go beyond the capabilities of a real person, but ultimately their belief in the potential of humanity keeps them grounded. Blank never loses not only because this is a wish fulfillment fantasy, but because Blank is the potential of humanity and that is an important theme of this story.
Respect for the Unknown
This was a high point of the show for me. Take a look at military history and you can find examples of generals who take advantage of their enemies arrogance to bring them down. What made this theme so great for me was the specific emphasis on respecting the unknown. This is a principle I value highly in my own life so to see it take center stage in the game with Jibril left me giddy. Jibril is a highly intelligent being who has collected tons of information about humanity, but even knowing that Sora and Shiro are from another world doesn’t give her a reason to respect the things she doesn’t know. Jibril is defined by her curiosity, respect is not part of the equation. Ultimately that is why she loses to them.
Humor that relies on referencing other media is usually a pretty big minus for me. I don’t like jokes that rely on other media for their laughs. Why? Because I want to see a franchise be creative and make their own jokes. The thing is the reference humor in No Game No Life never turned me off. The show makes up for this lack of creativity by being creative with the situations surrounding the games. There is also a degree to which the reference jokes feel genuine because these characters are in fact otaku from modern Tokyo. On top of that I found that most of the jokes are funny even if you don’t get the reference. Why can I say that? Because it’s funny to watch these kids play out their fantasies even when I don’t recognize them.
Such a Steph
Stephanie Dola is the daughter of the previous king. She inherited his love for humanity as well as his status as a complete noob at gaming. The ironic thing about Steph is that she would probably be a highly successful person in the real world and this is acknowledged in the anime itself. In Disboard she serves the role of Sora and Shiro’s pet and sidekick. Her perspective helps ground the show and presence lightens the mood. She is the human part of this story and it wouldn’t be the same without her. She even provided us gaming anime fans with a new term for our noob friends. “You’re such a Steph.”
Make me a Fulfilled Person
At one point Steph challenges Sora to a game to make him take their kingly duties more seriously. If Sora loses he will become a “decent person”. He immediately challenges her to make him a “fulfilled person” if he loses and she agrees. Of course, Shiro reminds him that Blank never loses and informs him that fulfilled people are a myth. In the end Steph is incapable of beating Sora even though he wants to lose. Read into that a little and it isn’t hard to a find a statement of how the potential of humanity is never fulfilled. Arrogant or clever? It left me grinning from ear to ear.