Motorville & the Portal-Quest

Rhetorics of Fantasy in Ni No Kuni

Michael Hancock is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, and book reviews editor at FPS. He is also sad no one has yet submitted a review of Michael P William’s Chrono Trigger.


The issue of whether a videogame should be studied as a game or a narrative has, to put it mildly, been done to death. In fact, even saying that it’s been done to death has been done to death. So let’s skip past all that to a more interesting question: what does narrative theory have to offer game studies, and vice versa? More specifically, what does fantasy literary theory have to add to fantasy-based videogames, and vice versa? A close study of Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and the Japanese role-playing game Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch not only sheds light on the value of Motorville in the game, but also illustrates how videogames complicate and further existing literary theory through a consideration of their form.


The first space you encounter in Ni No Kuni is Motorville, the city the main character lives in, nominally in the real world. Based on the technology represented in that city, the game takes place in the early 20th century, which is fairly unusual for a videogame. Perhaps unfortunately, though, the game never does much with this fact, as most of the game takes place in the fantasy world you enter shortly after that. You return to Motorville periodically, mostly as a consequence of the game’s concept of soul pairsthat everyone in the fantasy world has a counterpart in Motorville, and if something’s wrong with a person in the fantasy world, the odds are that they’re being possessed by some sort of emotional monster-thing in Motorville.

It’s an interesting concept, one that leads to a late-game revelation that works moderately well. But the problem with it is that the player generally doesn’t spend much time in Motorville, so there isn’t a lot of impact when the connections are spelled out. In fact, the whole game is a little light on the story side of things. Characters are likeable in broad strokes, and generally written in ways that fit with their established personalities, but dramatically speaking, there isn’t a whole lot for them to do. It’s not a game where the characters really develop that much. That seems to be a trend in JRPGs of late, which is unfortunate, because many of my favourite RPGs have a lot to do on that front, In Grandia, for example, Justin progresses from bright-eyed kid to legitimate hero. The ensemble cast of Final Fantasy VI come together, fall apart, and assemble again, in what’s probably my favourite videogame version of “getting the band back together.”  In Suikoden III, characters with very different, very distinct agendas slowly have to come together to fend off a greater force. With Ni No Kuni, there’s much less room for this sort of shifting. There’s a reason for that, I think, but we can get to that later.

The obviously notable thing about Motorville is that it’s a car-centric city. That fits better with the early 20th century, as the subject of American car manufacturing is something of a sore point these days. It’s such a sore point, in fact, that when the game was ported over from Japan, they changed the name of the city, which was originally Hotroit, a portmanteau of ‘hotrod’ and ‘Detroit.’  The game starts with Oliver (the player character) and his friend working on the friend’s box car, and there’s multiple garages even in the small area of the city you see. So it goes to some effort to convey a sense of “car”-ness. On the other hand, that part of the city’s identity doesn’t really come up a lot in the rest of the game, past the introduction. [foot] All right, there’s a car-related reward you can unlock in the post-game, but considering that it take about 50+ hours at least to reach it, I imagine that most players just won’t get that far.[/foot]

Motorville is also the only area of the game (that I can think of off-hand) with invisible boundaries, areas that look like you can go into them, but you’re immediately blocked off. It’s a common enough device in videogamesin fact, as any dedicated long-time player would know, there’s a whole tradition of doors that don’t open, large piles of impassable rubble, and impenetrable police blockades in videogames, all to give the sense that the space you’re in is larger than what you can explore. Invisible barriers, though, have gone out of style as being immersion-breaking, especially in expansive, world-exploring games. And it’s notable that the fantasy world is free of these blocksit’s only in Motorville that they appear. So they do double workit makes Motorvillle seem like a bigger city than what it seems, and it reinforces the boundary between Motorville and the fantasy world.

So what’s the point of Motorville, then? Why bother with it at all, when it’s just basically there to hold a few bosses, and tie in to a few tangential subquests? What’s the point behind having a car-based city, when you just abandon the whole thing for a fantasy world? I won’t say I have *the* answer, but I think I have an answer. And that’s where the fantasy lit theory comes in.

Rhetorics of Fantasy

In her book Rhetorics of Fantasy, Farah Mendlesohn argues that there are four rhetorics of fantasy that can be determined through the means in which fantasy enters the narrative world. There’s the portal-quest fantasy, where we are invited through into the fantastic; intrusion fantasy where the fantastic enters the fictional world; and the liminal fantasy, where magic hovers in the corner of our eye. Last is the immersive fantasy which “presents the fantastic without comment as the norm both for the protagonist and its reader.” Mendlesohn is quick to caution that these categories should be treated as rhetorics rather than genres; they are not meant to be strict definitions, but forms that call upon the readers and authors to respond with other corresponding forms. Before returning to Ni No Kuni, I want to demonstrate how fantasy videogames correspond to these categories.

Liminal fantasies are pretty rare in videogames–and in fantasy in general, as Mendlesohn notes. It’s fantasy that exists in the fringe of the narrative world, but the characters don’t seem particularly interested in it. Such a fantasy is about maintaining a blasé attitude towards the fantastic, and consequently usually involves a distance from the protagonist that seems antithetical to story-based games. A Twine game is of the right form to allow such distancing and there’s some text-based interactive fiction that qualifies too, for similar reasons; their text-heavy forms allow them to more easily incorporate traditional literary techniques. Dreamweb qualifies, in its early stages; it’s a 1994 game wherein the PC is told in dreams that he needs to go out and kill seven people that the dreams tell him are evil and there’s never any point in the game where this element is questioned. Kentucky Route Zero, in the first two acts at least, is one of the best examples of this rhetoric in action.

An intrusion fantasy is one in which the fantastic comes to us. It’s often marked by horror and amazement on the part of the protagonists. Its big difference to the portal fantasy is that the protagonists and reader are never expected to become accustomed to the fantastic. It can even happen in a real world fantasy, if there’s the still normality and intrusion separation. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, could be considered an intrusion fantasy in terms of how the game is predicated around fending off the Darkspawn invasion. Videogame-wise, I think this scenario is a little more common than liminal, just because so much of videogames is predicated around antagonistic relationships. Even though it’s a sci-fi setting, alien invasion games fall under this broad description, for example. So do most horror games. The difficulty in doing a straight intrusion fantasy in videogames is that it requires constant amazement, and videogames tend to settle into repetition; anyone familiar with the survival horror genre knows how quickly it falls into tropes and escalating shock tactics.

The immersive fantasy is actually pretty rare for videogames; I’d argue that what appears to be immersive is often, at best, an immersive-portal-quest hybrid.  While some videogames make a point of starting in medias res, most adopt a blank slate protagonist in order to justify diegetically introducing the player-character to the game world at large, which turns it into something closer to the portal-quest fantasy. The post-apocalypse videogame may contain the best examples of the immersive fantasy, as it’s become so familiar a genre that the player can reliably fill in the gaps herself; Tokyo Jungle, for example, thrusts the player into the chosen animal avatar, and focuses on survival, leaving the how and why of humanity’s extinction to in-game newspaper clippings and the like.

And that leads us to the final category, the portal-quest fantasy. Crucially, says Mendlesohn, in the portal-quest, magic is on one side, and does not leak into the other. [foot] When it does, we’re moving into intrusion fantasy; Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a perfect example, with its Oblivion gates weakening the barriers between worlds.[/foot] The quest part is when the fantasy character goes out into that larger magical world, and becomes well-versed in its forms. It relies on the protagonist and reader gaining experience of the fantasy world at the same time, to the point where the protagonist gradually learns enough about that world to be able to change it.  Dragon Age’s Warden is such a character, as is the blank-slate protagonist of the Elder Scrolls series—even Mario hopped down a pipe before entering the Mushroom Kingdom, once upon a time. In fact, the very form of the RPG—gain experience, improve skills, explore the world—makes it ideal for portal-quest fantasies. Mendlesohn works through some common traits of the portal-quest fantasy: the protagonist’s viewpoint is accepted fairly unquestionably as accurate; the world is compressed into a travelogue that is presented to reader and character as the latter moves from place to place; and the fantasy as presented is imperialist: “only the hero is capable of change; fantasyland is orientalized into the ‘unchanging past.’” Again, these are meant to be only common rhetorical forms rather than solid constraints, but I would argue that these points hold for many RPGs as well—particular character types are found only in a single village because only the PC can move from place to place; nothing happens in the game until the player acts, because “only the hero is capable of change.”

A Prototypical Portal-Quest Fantasy

I hope, at this point, that Ni No Kuni’s Motorville is somewhat evident: it is a prototypical portal-quest fantasy, with extra emphasis on the portal.  Essentially, Motorville exists because Ni No Kuni, at its purest, is a hybrid of a children’s story and a JRPG. The gameplay is JRPG to its core. But the storya fairy brings a small boy into a fantasy world to save his mother, and the boy grows into a powerful wizard–is traditional portal fantasy, to a degree that can’t be overstated. Motorville is every bit as fictional as Ni No Kuni, but it isn’t supposed to be real—it’s supposed to be ordinary and normal, to provide a constant contrast to the fantasy world Oliver and the player explore. [foot] And it would take another entire essay at least to work through what it means that a Japanese developer is setting up an idyllic American city as its ordinary norm.[/foot] The frequent returns to Motorville reinforce the difference between the two worlds. One of the common reasons to go back ends up being a boss fight against baleful spirits that have possessed Motorville residents; in this way, Ni No Kuni fulfils another common element of the portal-quest fantasy, that its main action is a restoration brought about by the protagonist (another common trope that maps well onto videogames—‘save the world’) but also emphasizes the difference between the worlds again by incorporating an intrusion element, where Oliver is banishing an invading evil spirit. The wrongness of the spirit is emphasized by its presence in the “ordinary” Motorville world.

Further, the aforementioned simplicity of Ni No Kuni’s characters work with this children’s story aesthetic, as does its visual style. While the game’s story was  written by developer Level-5, the visual style is a result of Studio Ghibli’s involvement. As a cinematic studio, Studio Ghibli is known for their films in which children are called on to become part of a fantasy world, through a combination of intrusion and quest-portal fantasies, such as in Spirited Away and The Cat Returns. By utilizing anime sequences and an aesthetic so directly associated with these films, Ni No Kuni establishes that childhood aesthetic as a paratext for its own play. And the simplicity of the characters fits that aesthetic as well. Corresponding to the notion that the portal-quest fantasy is often a travelogue of a fantasy world, Mendlesohn notes that the stucture “posits many characters as mere sign posts”-that is, their personality is developed only as much as necessary to highlight the nature of the area they are in. Similarly, the protagonists of Ni No Kuni are kept in simple broad strokes so that their perception of the world around them can be taken as the “proper” perspective; Oliver is kept bright-eyed and innocent to reinforce how the player is meant to respond to Ni No Kuni, and the idyllic nature of Motorville and the periodic return to re-establish that idyllic nature further reinforces that innocence.   Rather than consider Motorville as something anomalous and separate from an otherwise fairly typical JRPG, Mendlesohn’s rhetorics suggest that the visual aesthetic, the quest gameplay and the Motorville setting spring from the same rhetorical construct, the portal-quest fantasy form.

While I hope I’ve demonstrated what fantasy literary theory has to offer game studies—or at least a study of Ni No Kuni—it would require a second, complementary essay to fully demonstrate what game studies has to offer literary theory. A future investigation into that side of the equation may be asking how procedural rhetoric could complement or complicate rhetorics of fantasy. And in a similar vein, it has been suggested that the problem with games is that their focus on antagonistic confrontation and success limits the stories they can tell (Hollis; Sztajer). Perhaps the problem is that we are all trying to tell portal-quest stories; what if we shifted the form to something else? And how does a form like an MMO map onto Mendlesohn’s rhetorics, if it fits at all? Fantasy is not limited to a single medium any more than games are; a study of those intersections may prove worthwhile to all those involved.

Works Cited

Hollis, Line. “Moral Incentives and Story Structure.” 12 Nov 2011. Web. 19 May 2014.

Level-5. Ni No Kuni. 2013. PlayStation 3.

Mendlesohn, Farah. Rhetorics of Fantasy. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Kindle e-book.

Sztajer, Paul. “The Half-Cinderella: Why Gameplay never leaves the Ball.” Gamasutra Blogs. 5 Aug 2011. Web. 19 May 2014.