Released in 2008 for the Nintendo DS, Square Enix’s The World Ends With You is a hidden gem of a game. Experimental and bursting with identity, TWEWY is a surreal trip of sublime imagination. You play as Neku Sakuraba, an anti-social teenager forced into partnership with various companions in the “Reaper’s Game.” Fail to complete the tasks demanded of you and you’re not just dead, you’re completely erased from existence. Oh, yeah! You also need to make sure that you stay fashionable while doing it.
Keeping up with the various fashion trends in Shibuya isn’t just about popularity—it actually helps you in battle. Depending on the “threads” you are wearing, you receive various bonuses or debuffs. There’s a host of brands to wear: Pegaso, Tigre Punks, Dragon Couture, and more. If you wear the number one brand on the chart, expect to have higher attack or defense. Have nothing but the lower quality brands? Your stats will suffer.
At first, it seems fairly shallow. Having to acquiesce to what’s hip and not make a statement of your own isn’t too great of a moral, and this structure seems to uphold a general sense that Shibuya is superficial and vain—that you’re trapped managing equipment in order to satisfy the uniform crowds that wander the streets. There’s a very real ludic pressure that occurs, a recreation of the social pressures felt in the real world. Fashion, if anything, is just as much about expression as it is about managing impressions of those around us.
Yet, as you battle wearing certain brands, you can manipulate the fashion trends. You’re not stuck at all. It may take a little bit of effort, but you can take the weakest threads and make them in vogue. Game structures always say something, intentional or not. TWEWY tells us that fashion is fickle, but we can always manage to shine through and assert our own sense of expression.
Fashion is not a gendered interest in TWEWY. It is omnipresent and has an effect on everyone. (Neku has the ability to hear other people’s thoughts.) Time and time again, arts and fashion are the focus. A man wonders about his designer jewelry. A young woman tries to work up the courage to ask a passerby about the perfume they’re wearing. From where to get that best cup of coffee, who is writing the hottest blog, where the latest sale is, or what new character to cosplay as, thoughts brim with metropolitan excitement.
Everyone has interests and everyone wants to immerse themselves in those interests and share them with everyone else. While the repeating NPC sprites might give the impression that Shibuya’s street are full of an endless sea of indistinguishable characters, their thoughts and passions tell us otherwise. Most of those thoughts center exclusively on ways to express yourself.
Perhaps the most dramatic way TWEWY handles fashion and expression is in how it addresses gendered clothing. In the screenshot on the right, I’m perusing a store focusing on loligoth apparel. Each piece of equipment in the game requires a certain degree of Bravery to wear. Here, I do not have the required Bravery to have Neku toss on a dress. His partner, a cheerful girl named Shiki, already has high Bravery and can easily equip the item. Neku’s not quite there. But he can be. Given the right investment, I can raise Neku’s Bravery or that of his partners who are men and get them to crossdress.
As previously stated, game structures say things. They speak to us even when they do not intend to. What is TWEWY telling us? A few things. First, through Shiki’s naturally high Bravery stat, there’s an implicit comment being made about the stress of being a woman. The bravery it takes to walk down a street and know that you’ll be judged by others and stared at by men. Having the only girl partner in the game come with the highest base Bravery helps us understand what Bravery is in the context of TWEWY’s structures. It is poise. It is grace under pressure, particularly social pressure. It requires Bravery for Neku and the other men of the game to break through the gender binary and equip women’s clothing because it is a break from the societal norm.
How does one gain Bravery? How do you start to break down those barriers and assert confidence in public? Mingling. TWEWY has a “Mingle Mode” where the DS can connect with other people playing the game or even random passersby. Meeting strangers and being social in this manner gains you experience that can level up the stat. Other ways to affect the stat include standard level ups and eating stat boosting food, but the basic principle exists: to gain Bravery, you need to expose yourself to other people. Better still, you need to actually enact this in real life. Mingle Mode asks that you don’t just play the game, but actually head out and take advantage of the mobile nature of your gaming device. It calls to mind, for me, the first times I ever went out in public while presenting. The more you do it, the easier it is. The braver you are. The more natural you feel expressing your gender identity.
The game explicitly makes its version of Shibuya one where gender expression can be explored. Beyond the nature of threads and the Bravery stat, there is another moment of note. Let us ignore commenting much on Neku’s ability to read minds too much, as the game is not concerned with the morality therein. Instead, the game uses this mode of interaction to introduce the player to diverse individuals, including a crossdresser. They look no different than any other women on the street and you only find out by reading their thoughts. All thought fragments have a name. This one is called Passing. I hunted for a screenshot, but it’s incredibly rare to find. The text is as follows:
“I knew dressing as a girl would be fun!”
“And not one person has caught on—proof that my beauty passes the test!”
“Ooh, I could get used to this …”
It’s … imperfect. Transgender individuals struggle with passing, what it entails, and what existing structures it may uphold. TWEWY makes the mistake of drawing an equivalency between passing and “beauty,” which is false. However, the most important thing is that the NPC can crossdress and express themselves at all. Shibuya, with its large crowds and diverse fashion, provides a great place for investigating your expression. Want to toss on a skirt, walk around, and feel confident? In TWEWY’s game space, this is not only possible, but something that is systemically presented as brave. Everyone is beautiful and can be beautiful in their own way.
The World Ends With You is largely a game about accepting others. Neku pushes back as his various partners attempt to know him better and his inability to form healthy relationships endangers himself and those around him. Narratively, the various trials and events within the Reapers’ Game force him to move beyond himself. The world does not end with him. It only really starts as he lets down his guard and accepts people for who they are. Through the use of fashion and the Bravery stat, the game backs up this personal development by allowing players and even NPCs to find valuable personal expression within the game’s space.