One of the aspects that make the setting in The World Ends With You stand out is that it is based on the real world Shibuya, a district in Tokyo, Japan. Almost all JRPGs I’ve played in the past have had fantasy or sci-fi settings with airships, magic portals, and dragons. Bustling with a melting pot of youth culture, it felt more grounded in reality in a way most JRPGs I’ve played aren’t. It is partly because of this grounding that I felt myself relating to Neku Sakuraba as a character.
This past summer, I decided to treat myself to the mobile port, The World Ends With You: Solo Remix. To my surprise, this game would be unlike any other JRPG I’ve played before. It begins with the main protagonist, an anti-social fifteen year old, waking up in a parallel version of Shibuya where he’s forced to become a Player in what is known as the Reaper’s Game. He has no memory of how he got there; all he has is a mysterious black pin with a white skull on it. After being attacked by creatures called Noise, Neku is forced to partner up with a teenage girl called Shiki to fight them in order to survive a week in the game and figure out the mystery behind it all.
On the surface, Neku is a pretty unlikable character, especially at the beginning of the game. We are introduced to him with a cutscene where he says, “Shut up, just go the hell away!! All the world needs is me. I’ve got my values, so you can keep yours, alright?” When he meets Shiki, he initially tries to avoid her for a bit. A few days into the Reaper’s Game, Neku nearly kills her to save his own skin. They both end up meeting two other Players called Beat and Rhyme, and Neku outright refuses to work with them to solve a mission. Yet, I saw something within Neku that resonated with me: symptoms of social anxiety.
While these aren’t an excuse to be a jerk or harm someone, Neku’s symptoms do provide some explanation for his initial behavior. Since I have social anxiety myself, it wasn’t difficult to see in Neku himself. At their worst, some people are so anxious in social situations that they will lash out or isolate themselves to keep from getting hurt or rejected. They may also block out the world around them using items such as noise canceling headphones. Throughout the entire game, Neku wears purple headphones that could be interpreted as noise canceling, a music player, or some combination of both. Ironically, Neku also has the power to read people’s thoughts while being in the Reaper’s Game, and the Noise he and his partner fight are the embodiment of other people’s negative emotions.
Throughout the story, Neku gradually learns to open up to others’ in a poignant character arc, and this is represented in gameplay as well. The player controls both he and his partner by making various gestures and taps with one or two fingers. Tapping the black and white skull pin allows you to scan the surrounding area for Noise and read other people’s thoughts. In battle, attacks are done by selecting pins that hold different abilities, and wearing trendy clothing to boost certain stats. Attacking with Neku and his partner at the same time results in an increase in your sync rate, too. Once you have the Fusion Attack ability unlocked and your sync rate is 100% or more, you can perform a Fusion Attack that can wipe out a bunch of Noise at once. In between battles, you solve missions the Reapers give to you by scanning people’s thoughts or simply talking to them to see what they need.
Not only does Neku grow more powerful physically, but he also matures emotionally even as traumatic memories slowly start returning to him. As he gets to know Shiki, his other partners Joshua and Beat, and the world around him, he learns why people struggle to connect with others and the good that happens when people do manage to connect. He goes from not caring about anyone to caring about the entire district of Shibuya (both the parallel version and the real world Shibuya where he is from). By the time the game ends, Neku has expanded his world and has a stronger connection to it. This is demonstrated in one of the last scenes of the game when Neku returns to the real version of Shibuya, and takes off his headphones for the first time.
While The World Ends With You also has other themes and aspects that I enjoy, the depiction of social anxiety is one of the first things I latched onto. Neku Sakuraba might be a prickly character to play, but his prickliness resonated with my own. It’s a character that spoke to the worst aspects of my social anxiety that I rarely admit to others, and showed me that trying to relate to others isn’t easy, but it also isn’t completely impossible.
When you’re socially anxious, the world ends with you, but something bigger, and better, can begin from it.