I started playing Ni No Kuni 2 in the middle of the longest government shutdown in US history.
In my mind, the first Ni No Kuni came and went — even if a Studio Ghibli JRPG would have been right up my alley, I didn’t own a PlayStation 3 at the time. But despite having never played Wrath of the White Witch, Revenant Kingdom grabbed my curiosity. I decided to make the sequel the first game I picked up in the new year — a lengthy, colorful fairy tale I could escape to as the weather in Brooklyn grew frigid.
More than that, the game looked like a great distraction from the frustrating, hard-to-ignore political news of the federal government shutdown. The shuttered government didn’t affect me personally, outside of making going through security for my flight home for the holidays take longer. But I was aware of the thousands of federal employees living and working with no pay and angry at the lack of direct action from elected representatives.
At first, the idea of a cartoony fantasy kingdom seemed comforting in the face of constant squabbling between political figures over clashing ideologies. But I quickly realized the game was more relevant than I had considered.
Ni No Kuni 2 opens with one of the most absurd cutscenes I have ever witnessed. Less than three minutes into the story, a city that looks suspiciously like New York is decimated by a nuclear missile and the world’s president is magically transported to the anime-inspired fantasy land of Ding Dong Dell. At the same time, the latter world’s King is poisoned by his most trusted adviser (who happens to be an anthropomorphic rat). This sends his heir, Evan, on the run.
The last thing I was expecting after that introduction was salient political commentary — but to my surprise, the game has a great deal to say about how we hold our leaders accountable for their actions. Specifically, Ni No Kuni 2 directly opposes the notion that one good person can lead a nation to prosperity.
In the real world, things got worse as I progressed through the game. For a grand total of 35 days, more than 800,000 people were asked to offer their labor freely in service of ongoing arguments over a border wall few people even supported. In my mind, the end of this ugly shutdown would only come when Democratic leaders, for all their outspoken opposition to the president, caved and agreed to partially fund his xenophobic monument.
At it turned out, resolution was found only when the people who had suffered the most organized and threatened to make things worse for the people who possessed the power to reopen the federal government. Air traffic controller union leaders warned of airports becoming inoperable — and the elite listened.
For The Realm
Those who the shutdown hurt the most were low-wage earners. They were the security guards, they were the custodians, they were the caretakers. Most of them had their lives upended for more than a month: unable to buy groceries, living without essential medication, and nearly losing their homes, all in service of a government that couldn’t give a damn about their well-being.
And as I read their stories, I began to build my own country in Ni No Kuni 2.
Evan, the kid-made-king of this colorful land, and Roland the ex-president set out after escaping a coup and vowed to build a new kingdom. Slowly, they bring Evermore to life. With the help of refugees from across the continent, Evan establishes a throne and breaks ground on his idyllic settlement. The king’s vision is of a place where everyone is happy all the time. He comes to learn that’s easier said than done.
Evan’s ambitions are challenged in their execution, as both he and the player must reflect on what it takes for a strong leader to deliver on the promises they make to their followers. Ni No Kuni 2 has several deep, interwoven systems — including a comprehensive kingdom manager. Here you can choose exactly what developments to prioritize and with whom to staff them.
To succeed in this story, you need to make sure Evermore functions properly. Between main missions, you must recruit cooks, carpenters, and citizens to build new facilities. Every new outpost needs proper maintenance, and you’re encouraged to check back frequently to track upgrades, personnel changes, and potential problems.
From The Ground Up
Though I was given complete control of the nation’s development, the game never shied away from the idea that every employee I recruited was essential. Evan and Roland trekked across several nations, forming unions and imploring allies to help realize their vision. Without the military security provided by friendly sky pirates or the engineers from Broadleaf, I never could have built the defenses my budding nation needed.
And all of these alliances are built on the explicit acknowledgment that the king is just a child. Several characters doubt him at first, only to be won over by his steadfast determination. Still, his lack of experience threatens to hold him back. At one point, he needs Roland to lay out the definition of corruption.
Though we never see much of his real life in Ni No Kuni 2, I get the sense that Roland was a decent man in his home world. He is patient with Evan, kind to all they encounter, and dedicated to implementing a policy that is best for the entire kingdom. Roland advises the boy king at every turn, equally devoted to establishing Evermore as a sanctuary for all.
One interaction that sticks out involves meeting a displaced baker roaming the woods. After hearing his plight, Evan doesn’t waste time bringing him in.
“If you’re looking for a place to live, you’d be more than welcome to come to my new kingdom. We’re going to build it out in the heartlands.”
Floyd, the new court chef, gleefully accepts and heads out immediately.
“I’ll see you in your new country,” he turns to face the king. “No, our new country soon!”
Long Live The King
Evermore may be an idealized, exaggerated monarchy, but I found the game’s emphasis on the role of individual workers particularly resonant as many lower-level government employees were unfairly furloughed in the United States.
Timing was instrumental in what I took away from Ni No Kuni 2. Unlike a traditional fantasy role-playing game, the often unseen roles of those trade workers and day laborers is prioritized. Their visibility, and necessity, rang true to me in light of modern times.
And as I played, I thought about the kind of leader I wanted Evan to be. Like many politicians in our world, he had big ideas and made bold claims for the future. But given direct control of Evermore’s workforce, I felt the need to see him follow through. Here, I felt more immersed in the game’s world than anywhere else.
I needed this community to succeed because of the commitments I had made. How could I help these supposedly unskilled employees find a home? Was I building a country that prioritized the people it served? Would Evermore be the place where anyone could live freely, where everyone could live happily?
Working for Change
In the past few years, I’ve made it a priority to get more involved in politics and working towards genuine, purposeful change. I’ve canvassed for local senators, rallied in opposition to unjust policy, and helped organize like-minded individuals. Doing so has been incredibly rewarding and helped me better recognize the many kinds of work it takes to run a country.
Ni No Kuni 2’s kingdom-building mechanics made tangible my realization that organized, communal action leads nations to change. In the game, moment-to-moment combat is just as important as balancing the needs of the kingdom and managing resources. It’s crucial to value the workers building Evermore, or the entire system begins to fall apart. This globe-trotting quest isn’t one to rule the world — it’s meant to bring people together.
Early in the story, an adviser tells Evan he’s going to meet many people on his journey. “You have to listen to them,” he says. “All of them. Remember the things they tell you.”
Evan acknowledges that his job won’t be easy. Building a great kingdom is hard work. But he has to try. His partner smiles.
“Spoken like a true leader.”