What happens when you take two expert gamers and drop them into a fantasy world where everything is centered around games? You get the smart, beautiful, funny, and just plain all-around enjoyable No Game No Life.
Good -- Two Sides of the Same Coin
No Game No Life is the story of a brother and sister -- Sora and Shiro -- who together make up "Blank": an undefeated gaming group that goes from game to game, mastering it before moving on. In the real world, they are shut-ins who view real life as a crappy game with poorly designed rules and too many players. So when they are drawn into a fantasy world where games are the central aspect of life, the two, unlike other characters in "trapped in a fantasy world" stories, don't want to leave; they like this new world far better than ours.
As characters, what's so interesting about Sora and Shiro is how they complement each other and cover each others' weaknesses. Shiro is a certified genius, capable of running the complex probabilities of games of chance in her head and thus seeing the perfect strategy for victory. But at the same time, she has problems dealing with people who don't choose the best move or strategy. Sora, on the other hand, while being nowhere near as intelligent as his sister, gets into the head of his opponent, figuring out his or her strategy and making a plan to exploit any weaknesses. In other words, Shiro reads the game while Sora reads the player. This is what makes them an unstoppable team.
Good -- A World of Rules
The world of Disboard is a game in and of itself with a set of ten rules that all the 16 fantasy races must abide by. There can be no murder or thievery and all conflicts have to be resolved by games. Of course, there are loopholes. When one of the laws says "being caught cheating in a game is grounds for an instant loss," it also implies that as long as you're not caught, cheating is ok. Moreover, anything can be wagered in a game, from memories and romantic feelings to the fate of an entire race.
What's most interesting about the wagers is that, unlike a genie or a deal with the devil, the wager gives you not literally what you wish for but rather what you mean to wish for. For example, when the two win a bet against Steph (their friend in this new world), their demand is that she be their "dog for a day." However, while most people define a day as 24 hours, Sora and Shiro's definition is "for as long as they are awake." Thus, the wager follows Sora and Shiro's definition -- which makes for some interesting, yet frightening, implications.
Good -- Not "Will They Win" But "How"
From the start, one of the show's undergirding principles is that "Blank" never loses. The two of them together quite simply make the single best game player in our world. Thus, if they are guaranteed to win each game they play, all tension shifts from "will they win?" to "how will they win?"
This is always a risky gamble in a narrative, as to have any sense of tension, the dilemmas they encounter have to (1) seem insurmountable, (2) have a solution that the audience can theoretically guess (or at least understand), and (3) not have any solution so obvious that the audience sees it plainly from the start -- lest it makes the main characters seem slow and stupid for not winning immediately.
Amazingly, No Game No Life develops the necessary tension perfectly and makes Shiro and Sora seem like the geniuses they are supposed to be while taking us along for the ride as each dilemma is overcome and game subsequently won.
Good -- Beautiful Bright Colours
No Game No Life is one of those anime that is just fun to look at. The art direction goes out of its way to use bright colours for most everything. Even the character outlines are done in a red instead of the typical black. This makes for a world that looks vibrant and alive -- and, more often than not, exceedingly beautiful. Thus, later in the series when there is a sudden art shift alongside a major plot point, everything seems bland, drab, and more than a little surreal -- exactly as the main characters are perceiving it. It's anime like this that show the unique qualities that anime can have over books or live action films.
Mixed -- Prepubescent Panty Shots
Near the beginning of this past anime season, fellow Kotaku writer Mike Fahey asked me for my recommendations. No Game No Life was at the top of the list. But, the following week, Fahey told me he had to drop the series. When I asked why, his response was simple: "Things change when you have a daughter." What could I do but shrug and nod sympathetically?
Shiro is 11 years old in No Game No Life. In the first episode alone, we get two panty shots of her. Over the course of the series she is naked several times (though of course it is self-censored in one way or another); and while the only one that young, she is far from the only girl seen in varying states of undress.
But while there is a fair degree of fanservice in No Game No Life, it is often used to poke fun at the very concept. At one point in the middle of a game, Sora wishes away all the girls' "erogenous zones" and then wishes away their clothes. Thus without vaginas or nipples, he is quick to note that what he has done is not sexual at all and totally safe for TV -- a clear satire on the uselessness of that kind of censorship when it comes to sexual content in anime.
Another great joke comes as a point where Steph, having lost a wager, has had to give up her panties. Shiro takes them and wears them on her head. When confronted, she says she is just a kid and wouldn't know about perverted things like her brother is implying -- poking fun again at the sexualization and supposed innocence of young female characters in anime.
But used as satire or not, that doesn't change the fact that the fanservice, while never superseding the plot, is still a constant presence -- and 11-year-old Shiro is a part of that.
Bad -- Sometimes the Rules Just Go By Too Fast
If there is one downside to No Game No Life, it is that the series' pace leaves very little time for explaining the rules to each game. When the game is chess or an MMO, little explanation is needed as we are likely already familiar with the rules. But when we come across a complex twist on Paper, Scissors, Rock or a game likely unknown to English speakers like Shiritori, we need more than a brief review of the rules. Simply put, if we don't understand the rules, we can't understand how Shiro and Sora are twisting said rules to their advantage. Thus we are left knowing that they are doing cool things but are not sure how or why -- and much of the emotional impact is therefore lost.
No Game No Life is an anime that never left me disappointed. The episodes, centered around one game or another, were always exciting; and those that served as downtime between battles were full of comedy and helped to flesh out the world. It has smart characters, great humour, and games that are just fun to watch -- though you may need to occasionally watch the rules twice to keep up. The only real turnoff I can see in this one are those moments of fanservice with Shiro at its center. But other than that, everyone should at the very least give No Game No Life a try.
No Game No Life aired on AT-X in Japan. It is currently available for free with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.
For more recommendations on the spring season's excellent anime, check out our article on the five anime of Q2 2014 your should be watching.