This review covers the first two seasons of New Game! Season 3 has not been released at the time of this review. This review contains spoilers
I did not like this Anime at all after I watched the first episode. I am now laughing as I read what I had to say right after watching it. I saw it as extremely generic and washed out. It packed all the obnoxious tropes of your average Slice of Life: Gratuitous fan-service, generic art style, low-brow humor, voices that are just too high pitched even for an Anime, it had the same OP style that all of these SoL Anime share, etc... I remember one thing that bothered me a lot was the fact that the main character got hired by a AAA Game Studio right out of high school, having only being skilled at drawing and nothing more. She didn't even have professional experience, it was more like a hobby she picked up. Something so unrealistic that it felt like a slap to the face to all those people who had to work on their skills for years to even get noticed by one of these companies.
I wasn't happy with it. I thought about dropping it right there, but my curiosity won me over, and I'm glad it did. I wanted to know how they were going to deal with the supposed premise and setting of the show, which was the whole reason I gave it a try.
The show takes place in a game studio. The main character is Aoba, a girl aspiring to be a character designer, just as her hero Yagami Kou, which is her boss at her job. Aoba realized what she wanted to do in life after playing Fairies Story and being fascinated with the character designs, which is why she applied for the game studio that made the game.
The show deals exclusively with the relationships between the co-workers, the inner struggles of Aoba and a few other characters regarding their job, and the actual development of the game. Yes, that's right. The show's premise isn't just a front to lure in nerds like me, which is what ultimately impressed me about it. No, this anime is actually about game development and game developers.
And here's the thing. It's actually depicted in a relatively realistic manner. I have worked on 3D and on game programming but never at a AAA game studio, so you might take my opinion with a grain of salt. The way 3D asset production and game programming is portrayed makes me think that whoever wrote this either had experience working on games, or did exceptional research. What shows up on the monitor screens of these 3D artists actually make sense. Of course, a lot of it is simplified (it's an Anime), but it was done adequately. This is one of the factors that really helped me get immersed in the show.
What really connected me to New Game! is the love and passion the characters have about their craft. It really bleeds off the screen. It actually inspired me to work harder on my own projects. Their work is pretty much all the characters think about, and it doesn't feel contrived or artificial. This point is mainly shown through Aoba, Yagami Kou and the relationship between each other, which I think is the most critical element of the show, thematically. I'll get into it later.
An example of this is in Season 1, Episode 3. Aoba is walking to her home from work at night, after working on a 3D character for the entire day. Her childhood friend Nenecchi calls her, and they have a short chat. Aoba feels a bit bummed that she's working on a background character and not on something more important. Nenecchi is a big fan of the Fairies Story Series just like Aoba, so when she tells her about what she's working on, Nene starts talking about her stories playing around with the background characters in those games. This develops into a discussion about what might be the personality of these background characters. And that's when Aoba realizes the importance of her work, and why Yagami is so strict about its quality. She realized how narrow she was being in her thinking, and that every piece of work that goes into the game is important, not just what she wants to work on. This realization gives her a new spurt of motivation which keeps her working hard the next day. All of this happens while the lovely CONTINUE...? theme plays in the background. Great scene all-around.
I found myself genuinely caring about the characters. They all have this trait that makes Anime in general very easy to escape to, which is that they're all so nice, easy-going and goofy, but each on their own way. There's a character called Umiko that is really serious and tough on the surface, but so funny and easy to feel affection to at the same time. I couldn't help but love that character more than most, because you can tell that everything she does is for the sake of the game and their co-workers. Plus, she's hilarious. The characters make you want to be in that world. They make you want to work there. I would not mind working as hard as these characters do in that workplace. I think I'd love it, actually :P
There is a lot of character development in New Game!. Most characters go through it on some degree, but it is specially noticeable in Hifumi, Nenecchi, Aoba, and Yagami.
Hifumi starts out being extremely shy, to the point where the mere act of speaking just a bit wears her out. She wants to change that. She wants to improve herself, and she is able to do so with the help of Aoba. It is easier for her to talk with Aoba than to others, as she feels she's more approachable. Through that relationship, she learns to be more expressive and sociable. She learns to smile, and later on she accepts the position of Character Team Leader, even though she knows it'll be something very challenging for her, as the job implies a lot of communication between her coworkers. You can feel how challenging it is for her and how she pushes herself towards a better version of herself. You can't help but cheer.
Nenecchi goes through a lot of changes in the show for the better, mainly in Season 2. At first, she was the most obnoxious and irritating character I've ever seen in Anime. I just wanted her to go away. Her extremely high pitched voice pierced my eardrums. It was physically painful to listen to her. I think they went too far in her child-like design. Thankfully, she transforms into a worthwhile character by the end of the show. She grows a lot by working at her QA intern position, and then later on by working on her own game (the themes of love and passion for one's craft I talked about show a lot in this arc), and then when she eventually gets rehired as a programmer in Aoba's company. She gets way less annoying, for sure.
Yagami and Aoba
Now that we got everyone else out of the way, let's talk about Yagami Kou. The main themes New Game! tries to convey are mainly expressed through Yagami and her relationship with her junior, Aoba. I found myself infatuated with this character from the very beginning. Without even getting into her personality, she is voiced by Hikasa Yoko which I instantly recognized, as she voiced Mio in K-On! (even when she's singing. Her talent is truly astonishing). Hikasa does a wonderful job at conveying both sides of the character: The passion and the commitment Yagami feels about her job; and her casual, easygoing personality that she displays to others that often mask her other side. She's also stunningly gorgeous, even if I ignore all the fan-service shots of her ;).
I found this character really captivating and inspiring. The way she approaches work and how she deals with her subordinates and her competition is something to strive for, I think. Her character dispels many myths surrounding hard work and commitment to productive endeavors. I'm talking about beliefs like:
- "Hard work implies self sacrifice, and its realization is motivated by the avoidance of a negative, like starvation". No. It can be an act of self love and it can be motivated by the pursuit of a positive, like love for one's craft, self-growth, self-expression, and the profound desire to produce something to be consumed by others.
- "Competition should be seen as a threat and must be disarmed". No. It can be welcomed as a great motivator for improving oneself.
- "The degree to which a team is productive is the degree to which such team is strict, boring, and focused on punishing those who don't work as hard". Nope. Yagami and the show itself understand that this is not how you get the best out of people. You get the best out of people by having a workplace that encourages high self esteem. The hard work/fun dichotomy is false, and New Game shows how.
We see bits and pieces of Yagami's backstory throughout the show, which are very interesting. She was much more reserved and shy in the past. I'm not sure why that is. Perhaps she is actually an introvert who prefers to be alone, but her work demanded her to be more open, so she adapted. This is supported by the fact that she prefers to work at night, where nobody is around; and how uncomfortable she feels dealing with the press or showing herself as the face of the game/company.
Yagami's relationship with Aoba is something fascinating to see, and the best this show has to offer. As I already talked about, we can see since Episode 3 that Yagami sees great potential in Aoba, and she's willing to foster it by pushing her bit by bit to greatness, even though she knows that they are in direct competition with each other. This shows such a high degree of confidence, empathy and affection that it's hard to describe. She understands that she is idolized by Aoba. She's her childhood hero. She is the person she wants to be. Yagami handles this great responsibility with a lot of care and with the proper degree of thoughtfulness, despite the fact that she clearly doesn't want to be seen as that.
The relationship isn't one sided, though. We also see Aoba helping Yagami with her inner struggles. Aoba gives Yagami confidence at the times where she needs it the most through her unrelenting respect and admiration for her. The ending of Season 1 is a clear example of this.
There are two story arcs in Season 2 related to this relationship that I want to mention. The first one is at the start of the season, where Yagami and Aoba are working for a character design competition. Yagami's designs are all rejected. Instead, the Game Director decides to proceed with Aoba's designs. This hurts Yagami a lot. She takes out her frustration on Aoba. Aoba feels terrible because she feels somewhat responsible for Yagami's frustration. Yagami feels terrible for mistreating Aoba. After consulting Rin (Yagami's friend), Yagami decides to help Aoba in her designs. I think this was a great arc that developed their relationship, and it reinforces what I said about how Yagami feels about competition. The arc shows how these characters are connected by the love for their work.
The other story arc I want to talk about is the one on Season 2, Episode 6. The arc revolves around Yagami and Aoba competing for the main promotional art for the game they're working on. A very emotional scene takes place in this episode. The night before the deadline, Aoba asks Yagami to show her her submission. When she sees it, she begins to cry. She cries on Yagami's shoulders for a few seconds until she gains composure. I've seen people say that she's crying because she knows she's going to lose. I think it's more complex than that. My interpretation is that seeing Yagami's illustration shook her off her tunnel vision. She's been humbled by her work. She's crying out of admiration for Yagami, and it's absolutely beautiful. I don't think it's a "...Oh sh*t" moment. I'll explain:
Aoba holds two sets of beliefs, or "selves", that are often at odds with each other. The first one is, I believe, the one that comes from her real, true self, and the one that is more empirical and true. It is the belief, or love, for Yagami as an artist that developed since Aoba first experienced the Fairies Story Series. It is the love and admiration and respect for her art. It is also her love of her own work, and her natural self-confidence. The belief that she has what it takes, and that with time, she'll reach her goals. Her other "self" is very related to self-centeredness and arrogance. This comes from insecurity, of course. It is the belief that she's above others. That she doesn't need the time nor experience to reach greatness, the same level of greatness that others take decades to achieve. We can see this side of her very clearly on Season 2 Episode 3, where she thinks that just because she's a character designer, she should know more about 3D than experienced 3D modelers. Please, don't misinterpret me. I'm not damning Aoba at all here. It is understandable for someone as ambitious as her to have this false self inside, and I feel sympathy for her. It is harming her more than anyone else, as seen in Episode 3.
With that said, I can look back at the crying scene and say that Yagami's illustration "woke her up" to her true self. She's been fooling herself. When she saw the picture, she was reminded that she has a long way to go and that it's perfectly fine, so she shouldn't be so hard on herself. That's where the outburst comes from. It comes from repressed emotions of inadequacy.
To finish off this Yagami/Aoba section, I'll talk a bit about the ending of Season 2. I'm really, really glad they ended it that way. I wasn't liking the direction the show was taking by mid Season 2. I thought that Yagami wasn't getting enough screen time. That's why I was relieved when I found out that they decided to make the ending about her. And it's beautiful. She decides to go work on another studio in France to improve herself. I don't think I need to keep explaining how this is just another act that shows her love for herself and her work, how she welcomes challenges and competition, and how admirable it is. But this time it may be even more admirable, as she's actively pursuing challenges for self improvement, even if that means getting away from the work environment and the colleagues she loves to work with.
With all of this said, I don't want to give the impression that this is a great Anime. It's not. It has a lot of issues. For example, the second half of Season 2, excluding the ending, is just garbage. They introduced two characters that added nothing to the story except for annoying distractions. I don't completely disagree with the reaction I first had at the first episode of the show. The art style is generic, some emotional moments the show tries to pull fail spectacularly, some scenes are way over the top, there's fan-service, some jokes are terrible, there's an odd lesbianic element plaguing a lot of the characters, there are no males anywhere in the show for some reason, etc. The list goes on and on. It isn't exactly an ambitious Anime. But I think it has enough substance for me to write a review about it. Some elements the show has are truly great, as I wrote about them.
With all of its faults, I still recommend watching it. There are a lot more interesting aspects to pick up on about the characters and their relationships that I haven't covered here. The characters are likable and cute, the humor works most of the time, and it has something to say about work and art. It especially appealed to me, as I'm very interested in game development, and it certainly did not fall short in that area. It is surprisingly accurate about technical things, and I appreciate that a lot. The Anime has plenty of very relatable moments, too. Not just for game developers, but for anyone who had a job once in their life. Things like these are what make New Game! a very easy, familiar and relaxing show to escape to. I look forward to Season 3.