No Game, No Life
The world of Sora (age 18) and his sister Shiro (age 11) is limited to the room where they play online games. (They have a reputation as an unbeatable "player" in that community, and are only known as "Blank" because they never fill in their names.) You might wonder how they are meeting the material needs of human existence, but such ponderings are shortly made moot, for after winning a chess match with another mysterious gamer, they are whisked into the world of Disboard by a self-proclaimed god named Tet. Their gaming talents are actually useful in Disboard, a world where all disputes are settled by games, and where humans are only one of 16 races, and have been (literally) losing ground to those other races, due to the ability of the other races to use magic. Blank might be just who the humans need to recover what they've lost, and maybe even achieve dominance in this world.
I never quite felt that this show was as clever as it aspires to be, first of all because, to use an appropriate metaphor, it keeps stacking the deck in Sora's favor. (Shiro is of the "emotionless loli" type, as I believe Tim put it, complete with the silver hair common to that species, and usually doesn't say much; Sora is the pair's spokesman and is an arrogant, cocksure lout.) To explain: Disboard is governed by ten Rules, of which Rule 8 is "Being caught cheating equals instant loss." Note that the phrasing of this rule already creates an ENORMOUS loophole; since cheating is implicitly OK if it isn't caught, those other races that CAN use magic can run roughshod over the humans, who cannot easily detect its use.
Before I continue, let's adopt a definition of cheating. I consider cheating either knowing in advance the final state of the thing being gambled on (for example, using marked cards); or (and in my mind even worse) deliberately creating the outcome that you bet on (for example, drugging all the horses in a race except the one you bet on to win.)
So back to Disboard, which will let you cheat if you aren't caught. It seems that there's a further qualification applied here: it's not sufficient to point out that the other player is cheating; you have to explain exactly how they're doing it. (This is not explicitly in the rules, by the way.) Dishonest players can, of course, come up with ingenious ways to cheat that wouldn't even occur to an honest, naïve individual, and once again, since humans can't even use magic, how can they identify what kind was used to cheat?
This show's principal honest-but-naïve human character is one Stephanie Dola, who is also thus the show's principal foil, and is subjected to an incredible amount of abuse and humiliation by Blank, which is apparently intended to be humorous. (More about her, and the show's odd sense of humor, below.) For example, Stephanie is naïve enough to think that blackjack is a completely chance game; at least Sora has the decency (once she's lost to him, of course) to explain card counting. (By the way, while card counting will get you cast out of a casino, to my mind it really isn't "cheating", since the person doing it neither possesses knowledge actually unavailable to the other players, nor does the counter really know the exact state of the cards; it's just an algorithm that gives the player some statistical advantage in repeated trials.)
But where Sora is concerned, even these apparently pre-existing exemptions that Disboard had for cheating, that are so wide you could put the Strip in Vegas inside them, are not enough. Stephanie and Sora make a bet on something that really would be likely to have a chance outcome, but then Sora deliberately creates the situation that he bet on. So he cheats in a way that's so obvious even Stephanie can spot it, and she calls him on it, and yet he still gets away with it; he explains that when they made their wager they didn't explicitly exclude his doing this!
At this point, I realized that the show was going to allow Sora to move the goalposts, which were already very loosely placed, pretty much wherever he damn pleased, and the show lost a lot of its potential charm and interest for me; if he's allowed to relax Disboard's already EXTREMELY loose rules even more, where's the challenge?- or, for that matter, what's the point of bothering with any concept of rules at all? (Again, it's Sora who's the vocal member of Blank; Shiro usually just quietly goes along with Sora. We get the impression that SHE plays honestly, but has a deeply analytical approach, while Sora is all about deception, ruses, and intuition; she's a strategist, he's a tactician. We DO get to see Shiro get emotional in one episode, and it was a welcome change, albeit a temporary one.)
I'm afraid I must rant a bit more about the show's treatment of Stephanie. She's the granddaughter of the old King of the humans (he's drawn just like the king in a deck of playing cards, nice touch), and she's actually a dedicated and competent administrator, and a skilled diplomat; she's just not skilled at games (or, at least, at cheating), and as a result is subjected to constant abuse by Sora, who uses the name "Steph" as a synonym for "stupid", and her clothing, especially her underwear, is the usual stake he demands in their wagers. At one point Blank parades her around publicly in dog cosplay, with her underwear on Shiro's head. Besides serving as fanservice, remember this is also supposed to be funny. It's also supposed to be funny when, shortly after meeting Stephanie, Sora sexually molests her, because, he explains, it's the first chance he's had to do anything with a real girl. (Whose fault IS that, Sora, and do you really think this is the appropriate way to get to know a girl? Perhaps you should read something besides game manuals before attempting to interact with another real human being.) On the other hand, the show does have occasional bouts of genuine humor. The Warbeasts, another of Disboard's races, are delightfully rude to humans, and their efforts to sugarcoat this in the name of diplomacy are hilarious. ("Adding 'please' to the end of every sentence doesn't make it polite.")
I've some issues with the art as well. Disboard has kind of a cluttered, dark look, even in the outside, daylight scenes; it always somehow reminded me of something shot in someone's attic. (The giant chess pieces in the backgrounds were kind of interesting though.)
AND I've got a problem with the ending, too. It's got what I call an Arlington Road-style setup. By that I mean (from the film of the same name) one where a plotter's (could be villain or hero) scheme 's success utterly depends on a series of contingencies, all beyond the plotter's control and many equally (or even more) likely to occur in a way that would defeat the plan, nevertheless all occurring in exactly the manner the plotter intends. This is the sort of plan that makes a story writer sit up from his keyboard with pleasure and satisfaction at his own cleverness, but which any actual, sane schemer would find about as sensible as making everything utterly dependent on rolling ten sevens in a row on an honest pair of dice.
"Cluttered attic" is a good metaphor for No Game, No Life in general; there are some actual treasures here, but they're mixed in with quite a bit of junk. I hovered between two and three stars on this one, but finally went with three just on the show's sheer ambition. It has aspirations to a kind of Alice in Wonderland feel- after all, Lewis Carroll loved games, puzzles and paradoxes, so maybe it's fitting- but it's often defeated by its gratuitous fanservice, and just cruel in how this is manifested toward Stephanie, who is in many ways an admirable character (I liked the flower in her hair, too) who deserves better than the show gives her. And the show just loads the dice way too much in Sora's favor, in addition to the fact that he remains, through the entire show, a smug, egomaniacal jerk. — Allen Moody
Recommended Audience: Stephanie is never COMPLETELY bare, though Blank makes her come close. It isn't just Sora's lust driving this; it's also Shiro's jealousy, NEITHER of which are Stephanie's fault. This business of forced public near-nudity, along with Sora's initial molestation of Steph, to my mind were not funny, but rather uncomfortably close to certain themes normally found mainly in hentai titles.
Version(s) Viewed: Streaming on Crunchyroll.
Review Status: Full (12/12)
No Game, No Life © 2014 Madhouse, Kadokawa Corporation.
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