One of my most iconic traits is my “openness”— something not clearly defined. It’s a surprising directness, an alien sincerity, or maybe just a dripping heart. All it really boils down to is an unapologetic need to express myself and eagerness to interact with others. Out of my friends, I’m the most likely to blurt out compliments and drop seemingly personal details without batting an eyelash. However, I wasn’t raised that way.
I didn’t have good role models growing up, so I relied on anime and games to teach me how to behave like a respectable human being. In the case of my so-called openness, The World Ends With You taught me to talk to strangers.
Square Enix’s cult classic stands out for a couple of reasons. Creative RPG elements, compelling character-driven story, cool clothes — I can go on. But, after revisiting the game nearly a decade after my last playthrough, I realized what stayed with me most is the message that other people make our experiences more meaningful.
My 15-year-old self booted up the game for the first time in suburban middle class New Jersey, where smelly, snooty Abercrombie-clad teens prowled the high school halls. I sped through the opening chapter on the bus ride home as everyone else seemed to be blathering on about some mundane thing. I mean, it wasn’t like I was going to talk to anyone. Why open the opportunity for some ass to pick on me for who knows what? Thank god for the Nintendo DS.
Neku was one of the first video game protagonists I related to. Like him, I basically distrusted everybody. Life was full of other kids mocking my voice, kicking their feet in front of me in the hallway, and telling me my interests were for boys only. I thought, Why do these people deserve any attention? Why do I owe this largely rotten world any kindness? Neku gets it. People suck.
His world, like mine, was filled with noise. The World Ends With You takes place in Shibuya, a bustling fashion district in Tokyo, Japan. Neku wakes up in the middle of a busy intersection without any recollection of how he got there. His only clues are a mysterious skull pin and cryptic text message: Complete the mission, or face erasure. The prickly, antisocial teen becomes an unwilling participant in the Reaper’s Game, in which he has to cooperate with others to survive and discover the truth behind his missing memories.
Every player in the Reaper’s Game needs a partner. That’s where Shiki comes in. At first, she’s everything Neku hates — a bubbly, persistent girl who pries too much. All he wants to do is go home, so much that he nearly sacrifices Shiki to get there. Luckily, Mr. Hanekoma stops him before he does.
Mr. H, who becomes something of a personal hero and mentor to Neku, later advises him: “The world ends with you. If you want to enjoy life, expand your world. You gotta push your horizons out as far as they’ll go.”
Neku didn’t know what that meant at the time, but he soon found out. He doesn’t make it through the Reaper’s Game on his own.
The game forces him to interact with others by design. Neku can read minds and imprint thoughts with his skull pin, which literally puts him inside people’s heads. Missions also challenge him to consider social conundrums like how to patch up a friendship and what makes a good bowl of ramen. In the process, Neku realizes that these strangers aren’t as superficial and selfish as he thought. Misunderstandings can taint good intentions, and familiar flavors can trump trends.
But, in real life, there’s no Reaper’s Game to force anyone to do anything. I kept socializing to a bare minimum to avoid triggering some insecure adult’s temper or giving my peers something to twist into a scandalous story. When others approached me at school, I assumed they were trying to get a rise out of me. Or, if they seemed too kind, I figured they just pitied me and brushed them off too.
No one wants fake friends. No one wants to fall through a missing step that was supposed to be there.
Neku protects himself from others. It’s only after the incident with Shiki that he starts to change. Mr. H encourages Neku to “trust your partner,” which isn’t just some corny “friendship cures all” advice. The more in-sync Neku is with his partner, the stronger he becomes in battle. If he and his partner attack at the same time, their sync rate increases until they can unleash a Fusion Attack capable of finishing off multiple foes. In short, TWEWY represents the bond with his partner through narrative and combat mechanics.
During Shiki’s arc, Neku comforts her in her time of need after learning that she put on a brave face for him even when she was scared and confused. That kindness and willingness to share her story convinced Neku that some people are worth his attention. He eventually comes to see Shiki as his first friend in a long time — enough for villains to take her hostage. Suddenly, the guy who didn’t care about anybody had someone to care about as part of his world. And, like he feared, it ended up hurting him.
But Neku didn’t regret befriending her. Instead, he owned up to the responsibility of bringing her back.
The transition didn’t hit me right away. I figured Shiki and Mr. H were exceptions from an uncaring, cruel majority that Neku and I believed in. Like him, I needed more accidental exposures of kindness before I slowly branched out.
Change started with small things. Accepting an invite to a lunch table that actually wanted me there. Conversing with the people I’d ignored most of my life on the bus. Taking over an empty computer lab and turning it into an after school hangout (with a little bit of inspiration from Haruhi Suzumiya). Somehow, even simple exchanges at the cash register charmed me. These seemingly meaningless interactions evolved into daily highlights that taught me more about the world and brightened my day. I came to realize that I actually liked people, and I wanted to know more about them.
Similarly, characters like Joshua, Beat, and even NPCs continued to chip away at Neku’s outer shell throughout the story. As he learned about their backstories, dreams, and everything in-between, he realized that the experiences he had with these so-called strangers moved him. All these people filled his world until it brimmed with color. Joshua, who originally egged on Neku’s dislike for humanity, remarked, “Only by allowing strangers in can we find new ways to be ourselves.”
By the time Neku approaches the final boss, he defends the Shibuya that he supposedly hated so much. Neku came to believe that each person had a place in Shibuya, and that interacting with them wasn’t as pointless as he thought. Even after everything that happened, he concluded that connecting with others was worth it despite the pain it might bring.
TWEWY didn’t change me overnight. But, after a few other fateful shifts in my life, I thought back to this game when I decided to trust the people who would eventually become my first friend group. Socialization followed as my life transformed into a more “normal” high school experience. Strangers weren’t scary anymore. They weren’t trying to hurt me. They were people, and possible friends.
Years passed before I remembered the game that opened my world. I revisited TWEWY with Final Remix when I was 25 because I wanted to give it to my best friend for his birthday. It was essentially the same game, though it hit a lot differently than when I was 15. Nostalgia tinges the memories with rose-colored lenses, but not enough to erase the hollowness in my chest — a void of broken promises and friendships past.
I haven’t seen my friend since I gave him his gift, and I’m not sure I ever will.
I’ll admit opening up to others can be dangerous, and I’ve definitely trusted people I shouldn’t have because of it. But the ones who took advantage of me haven’t extinguished the want to create more heartwarming memories with others.
And I know the things I thought back when I was 15 years old are still, sadly, kinda true. There will still be bullies. There will still be injustice. However, I can be above that — I can help the people around me, make them smile, and enjoy my time with them.
After all, the world ends with me.