The World Ends With You came out on the Nintendo DS a whole 14 years ago to great acclaim. It was lauded for its gripping storyline, great gameplay, and exquisite depictions of modern fashion and food in Japan. All these years later we now have a full sequel set three years after the events of the original game — but it feels lightyears ahead.
This game looks at certain aspects of queer culture and says “Yes, I’ll take it all, please,” and it genuinely feels like a richer experience because of it. It was jarring at first, with characters spouting off RuPaul’s Drag Race quotes like a meme-loving teenager, but soon it becomes clear that this is just an accurate and endearing representation of how queer culture is embraced by individuals not in the community.
Note: There may be light spoilers for the game in screenshots presented below.
I wasn’t kidding about the RuPaul’s Drag Race references by the way. There are direct/slightly altered quotes from iconic queens such as Jasmine Masters, Latrice Royale, and even Ru herself. But this is just the icing on the cake that only the die-hard fans will recognise right off the bat. One character who likes cat-themed clothing is often called Kitty Girl, though this may be the most tenuous connection here.
The references don’t stop at the dialogue, either. The game has a feature where the player can read the thoughts of random Shibuya citizens, each denoted with a thought bubble and a title. One of these is entitled “Inner Saboteur,” which is particularly egregious for long-time detractors of RuPaul’s personal brand of psychobabble.
Another reference to this empress of all things drag is in an achievement of all places. The game’s achievements are presented as pieces of well-drawn graffiti which you place one by one on the large wall in the Udagawa backstreets — the wall itself changes to reflect your placement choices, which is cool. The achievement for wearing a matching set of clothes is called “You Wear It Well” and the graffiti is a huge pair of rainbow wings — it’s very on the nose.
Bolstering this queer showing are liberal sprinklings of slang that the queer community has either popularised or appropriated. At one point a celebrity dresses in drag to avoid a throng of fans — reading his mind will reveal that he knows how to use the phrase “beat a mug” well enough. At another point, a member of the incredibly camp rival team, the Variabeauties, will drop the word “hunty” into his flowery speech.
It’s rather a shame then, that there are precisely zero visibly queer characters in the game. Sure, there are sparse references to gay attraction in some Variabeauty dialogue but nothing that solidifies anything. There are plenty of NPCs in the game with names and backgrounds but even the most flamboyant are pinned as heterosexual by the Social Network feature, such as the nail polish-wearing, lipstick-sporting cashier of Cyco Records, Naoto Kuwata.
It feels like something of a missed opportunity for the game to not include some actual solid queer representation, especially when it seems to understand and embrace the queer community in a big way (or at least, the localisation team does at least).
And that brings me to a theory/headcanon I have about a certain character, Kanon Tachibana. She is the leader of the Variabeauties, a team playing the Reaper’s game filled with fashion-loving camp dudes who love Cosmos and calling each other gurls. It’s blatant. They even call Kanon their “kween.” She is notably the only woman in her team and there seems to be some evidence in the game suggesting that she’s queer in some way, perhaps trans.
Kanon makes it known early on that she doesn’t feel comfortable recruiting random players into her team as they might not fit in. This tracks with the idea that the Variabeauties are an LGBT+ team that acts as a necessary safe space for those dead people in Shibuya’s UG. Kanon welcomes these distressed twinks into her embrace and honestly, making her a member of the LGBT+ community is the only way I can reconcile their acceptance as their leader. Having all of “the obviously gay-coded dudes” led by a cis het woman would be a bad look that doesn’t gel well with the rest of the game’s tone. It’s not like she’s a mediocre pop artist who sings about the patriarchy, after all.
Overall, I’m pleased with the way the game interacts with the queer community. It’s not blatant or tokenising, rather it feels like a shout out to those who will recognise the references and appreciate the specifically chosen language. It could have gone further, and I hope that any potential sequels in the franchise explore this idea further. Really though, I raise a glass of Absolut vodka to the localisers, they made my lil’ gay heart burst with excitement at the first “and I oop.”