A few hours in
Welcome back, readers! Welcome, to the world of… tomorrow! With the benefit of the time your page transition has bestowed upon me, I’ve been able to verify that WORLD END ECONOMiCA does not, in fact, have a single player choice. It’s what some people apparently like to call a ‘kinetic novel’, which is a misleading name if I ever heard one, but which basically means it’s a visual novel with zero player interaction. So basically what you would expect from a ‘visual novel’. Why isn’t ‘kinetic novel’ the term for games that do involve player choice?
Anyway, yeah: WORLD END ECONOMiCA is basically a book with the occasional pretty picture. And that, er, makes it pretty hard to critique from anything like a video game perspective? Without meaningful gameplay or player interaction, all I can talk about is the graphics, the music, and the story. And I’m as hesitant to extensively talk about the story in a visual novel as I’ve always been, because if there’s one genre that seems like it would be spoiler-sensitive…
I know, I know. We’ve danced this dance with Sakura Spirit before. Also a Sekai Project-translated game, come to think of it. I can do with WORLD END ECONOMiCA what I did with Sakura Spirit: talk about the story aspects that stood out, describe the experience in general, and try to carefully, subtly convey whether or not I think you should play this game for yourself.
Or, I could re-write a poem about it.
WORLD END ECONOMiCA
How do I dislike thee? Let me count the ways.
I dislike how your story is a mess,
themes, messages, all clashing more or less.
Your narrative so lacking it its grace.
I dislike how your art profoundly fails
to illustrate what’s in your tale put fore.
Relying so on text-boxes galore,
our hero rarely sees that which he hails.
Your words bereft of personality,
so utterly absorbed in what you think
are stunning tales of high frugality,
I read them for the musings of a dink.
And your conclusion, that fatality?
I daresay I believe that it does stink.
If I had to describe WORLD END ECONOMiCA in a single sentence, I’d go with ‘it’s a visual novel where you play a teenage boy trading stocks on the Moon’. Short, succinct, attention-grabbing. Emphasizing its unique selling points in a single stroke. Doesn’t that sound like an interesting game? Tell me you don’t at least want to see a game about a teenage boy selling stocks on the Moon.
Now imagine the narrative elements you’d expect to see most prominently in the game I just described. Teenage boy, selling stocks, Moon. If the game makes a big point about being set on the Moon, surely that should impact the story at some point or another. If Yoshi’s dream is to strike it rich trading stocks so he can fund his dream of frontier exploration, surely, the ins and outs of the stock market should take central narrative stage. And given that Yoshi is also a teenage boy… man, I don’t know what keeps teenage boys up nowadays. I’m 28! I haven’t been a teenager in a long time. But simultaneously, I’m assuming teenage boy interests don’t as a rule change much: looking cool in front of peers, gaining independence from parents, and girls.
Three broad paths of narrative direction and influence, derived the summary. Are they all equal, though? It turns out that they are not: in WORLD END ECONOMiCA, two of the three main themes end up playing second fiddle to the third one. And assuming you’re savvy to this review by now, you’ll probably be able to figure the subdivision out for yourself.
Let’s play this game from the other direction. Looking at WORLD END ECONOMiCA without any preconceptions, what do we see? A story about Yoshi, a young runaway with dreams of greatness. His attempts to strike it big on the stock market routinely hindered by the necessities of day-to-day life, he finds himself living in a church with Lisa, a Christian book collector and general do-gooder who insists on calling your character Hal, and Hagana, another runaway with prodigious math skills who may or may not have been sold as some kind of slave earlier in her life. On finding out that Lisa and Hagana’s relation is strained because of financial issues, and that the whole neighbourhood of kind, fair, hard-working folks is being threatened by forced eviction, Yoshi decides to combine his stock market instinct and Hagana’s amazing talent at math to win ‘the investment contest’, and to make everyone enough money to pay off the evil debt collectors.
Did you notice which narrative element was not at all present in that summary?
If the lunar environment serves as nothing more than a pointless backdrop, the stock market’s role in the narrative is even stranger. Because… okay, it does play a role of importance. It’s the central drama conceit, the challenge that our heroes have to overcome — twice! — in order to reach their dreams. And god knows WORLD END ECONOMiCA is content to keep talking about it.
But for all WORLD END ECONOMiCA’s talking about the stock market, that’s all you get out of it. Talking. Characters, primarily Yoshi, talk about margins and interest and collusion over still graphics of the church background, statistical graphs, or occasionally even a black screen. And I know it’s all life-and-death for these characters, I really do, but do they have to be so dull about it?
Again, I get that this is a visual novel, and that ‘riveting gameplay’ was never at the forefront of realistic expectations. But… do you remember how in Flower Shop, way back in the day, I mentioned how the money-making minigame felt weirdly out-of-place? In that game, earning the arbitrary amount of money that bordered ‘good farm ending’ and ‘bad farm ending’ felt so completely disconnected from the rest of its themes. ‘Steve, learn to have more self-respect, talk to girls, be nice to your uncle. And also make a shit-ton of money you can’t spend on anything!’
An actual stock market trading segment would have been perfect in WORLD END ECONOMiCA. I’m not even exaggerating. Not only would giving the player control over Yoshi’s finances would make the link between player and character that much stronger, but it could also marvelously illustrate the big second-act element that is Hagana’s trading program. Have the player play around with the market solo, at first, to illustrate both Yoshi’s prowess and his first slump. Then, add Hagana’s program, which increasingly helps the player achieve high gains… but at the cost of their independence and sense of achievement, again mirroring Yoshi’s second slump. Then, at the end, let players walk into the awful trap you set for them themselves! It would make WORLD END ECONOMiCA so much more emotionally resonant if the player could feel like it’s their goal to make money, their achievements, and their fault when things get sour.
Instead, we get this:
I’m mourning the game that could have been. Maybe that’s not entirely fair. But I can’t help it: WORLD END ECONOMiCA, as it currently is, feels like such a waste of potential. It could have been really interesting.
Or, well, it could have been. But even taking gameplay considerations out of the equation, WORLD END ECONOMiCA is still a disjointed, somewhat rambling story that finds itself burdened with an unlikable sexist asshat for a protagonist.
No, but really. I can’t tell if this was written for laughs, or as a character building arc of some sort, or just because? But Yoshi is really appallingly sexist. Sometimes, it’s overt gems like this…
…and sometimes, it’s casual garbage like this:
And the less said about Chris’ ‘is this person a boy or a girl, I can’t tell, and this is really important information for me arc, the better.
Surprisingly, this make it difficult for me to identify with Yoshi. I was actually very close to scuttling the game right before the prologue ended. Visual novels carry themselves on the strength of their writing, after all. And if I’m having significant un-fun reading it…
While the sexism mellows out later, though, WORLD END ECONOMiCA’s writing never strongly improves. It’s still a thrown-together mess of three themes, held up by a handful of somewhat likable characters and two major jerks. It jumps from narrative point to narrative point at random, going from the debt to the investment contest to the real market to Hagana’s past to the contest again, and so on, and so on, without managing to string a strong connecting thread between all the various plot elements. One act-three exchange is almost literally this: ‘We don’t have time for the contest, we’re too busy with the real market!’ ‘Maybe we should just ditch the contest?’ ‘No, wait, the contest is super important again, forget the real market!’
And then you power through all of that, you read and you read and you read and you put yourself past Yoshi’s sexism, Hagana’s annoying habits, the like five re-used backgrounds and the fact that this game really can’t seem to keep its colour descriptions straight. You do that, and you get to the end, and the whole thing is heading to a major resolution, and…
(I feel I should be explicit in my warning, here. Major story-end spoilers between this picture and the next. If you don’t want to read these, skip down until you see the wheelchair.)
Near the end of WORLD END ECONOMiCA, Yoshi and Hagana are involved in major stock market trading. The neighbourhood residents, all under the squeeze of evil loan sharks, have entrusted all of them with all their money, hoping against hope that this unlikely twosome can make the kind of miracle gains they need to stay afloat.
Luckily, Yoshi has received a hot insider stock tip from his mentor, Barton, that angry guy a few screenshots back who I pegged as ‘Evil McGreederson’ immediately. He acts on it, finally bringing the building clash between Hagana’s algorithmic predictions and his gut instinct to the fore. And then…
…he loses everything. He loses everything, because Evil McGreederson lied. Yoshi loses everything, which means all his new neighbourhood friends lose all their life savings. Yoshi goes into a four-day coma from the shock, church-lady Lisa has to sell off her priceless irreplaceable books and maybe even her whole church, and Hagana runs off in desperation, possibly intending to sell herself back into prostitution to pay for the debts she feels are her fault.
Cut to credits.
To say that WORLD END ECONOMiCA’s end is a disappointing downer would be to massively undersell it. I think I’d actually have preferred moon rocks falling, everyone dies.
And, hey, okay. WORLD END ECONOMiCA is a trilogy! I understand that the latter two games intend to continue on in this world, looking at a more fully-grown Yoshi as he… does whatever it is he does. Trade more stocks, I guess? Still futilely chase his dream of going to Mars one day, but, like, without putting any actual work into it? Videos I’ve seen of episodes 2 and 3 do seem to include Chris, Hagana and Lisa, so that’s something.
Here’s the thing, though: I don’t want to continue this story anymore. The ending alone was enough to turn me off the whole thing, but that could have been forgiven if the rest of the game had really grabbed me. But as it stands, my experience with WORLD END ECONOMiCA was interesting setting, interesting conceit, boring execution, uninteresting and poorly-written characters, text, text, text, building up to emotional crescendo, punch in the jaw. Why would I ever go back for seconds on that?
WORLD END ECONOMiCA is currently thirteen bucks on Steam. Those thirteen bucks haunt me, reader. Do you know how much ice cream I could’ve eaten for thirteen bucks? We’re talking, like, almost three tubs of Ben and Jerries!
I do not recommend you play WORLD END ECONOMiCA. At the very least, I do not recommend you play WORLD END ECONOMiCA Episode 01, alone. Maybe the trilogy story gets really good later on? Maybe the gut-punch ending of Episode 01 is only the first-act drama of the whole story, and it’ll resolve to something of a satisfying ending later on.
Maybe it will. And maybe I’ll find out. And if that happens, maybe I’ll let you know.