One of the most tragic things I did during lockdown was load up Jet Set Radio Future for the first time in a while and play with my phone by my side. In part, I just wanted to feel the game under my feet again: that frenetic, free pleasure of city space and cold night air. In part, though, he wanted to take phone photos of Tokyo-To like a tourist would. I ended up taking screenshots of the actual screen. Break!
Okay: so while I was doing this, I felt super stupid. I already sound like an idiot here, and I’m pretty sure I do m8s! – I definitely felt like one. It was not at all like being a tourist in a city. Instead, it was much like being a strange man sitting in his living room, pointing his phone at a television screen.
And yet! Here’s the thing. Somehow it worked. It just didn’t work at the time. I put on Jet Set Radio Future with my camera to feel like I was traveling somewhere, to feel like I was escaping from my living room, my house, my street, inevitably escaping a bit from myself. And now, months later, when I look back at the footage on my phone (a blurry corner here, Dogenzaka Hill tearing slightly apart as a lightbulb in the background turns the screen pearly blue), the effect finally works. I look back at the photos and think about the place I’ve been and the different times I’ve been there. What it meant to me. How did you feel.
All of which is to say: Like a lot of people, I read the news yesterday that Sega wants to give some of its games the Fortnite treatment. Jet Set Radio is among them. Now: I want to clarify, a little awkwardly, what I’m trying to do here. I don’t think for a minute that Sega is just going to dump Jet Set into the structure of Fortnite. I don’t think you’ll get Tokyo-To to be an island, so to speak, if you drop in to fight dozens of other people. I don’t know anything about business or game design, so I would never want to pretend to have an idea of how this will all turn out.
What I want to tell you is slightly different: for a few minutes this morning I thought about Jet Set Radio through the lens of Fortnite. Not the jazz of a hundred players, just the geography. I was wondering how Tokyo-To would work as an island in Fortnite. And the reason I bring this up is because, just thinking about it, I ended up feeling like I understood both games a little better.
Fortnite is an open world, a single island. Tokyo-to is a single city. Many open world games have taken on individual cities and done well. Spider-Man in New York, GTA 5 in Los Angeles – sorry, San Andreas. I play these games and think: how expansive, how finely realized. What a great sense of place.
And yet. I play Fortnite all the time. You are always reveling in the place, but you are always moving too. In an average match it could cover half the island. I inevitably see it as a very close-knit place. I know how to go from a mountain, say, to a nearby town. And when I’m in the city I can look and see the mountain.
Good thing. Very realistic. But now: This is how I remember Seattle, a favorite city in the real world.
When I think of Seattle, I think of these pieces: Top Pot Donuts, Top Pot’s top floor near the monorail, a place I really love to sit and reflect over an Ovaltine latte. I think of the library, my favorite building on planet Earth: I think of going up from the basement level to the main atrium and that explosion of angles and light, the sheer audacity of what the building wants to do for you. I think of 4th and Battery, where Popcap used to have offices, maybe still does, in one of the nastiest office buildings in the world. I think of the Space Needle, but only part of it: the Starbucks inside it, in the late afternoon, the city glowing sodium orange outside.
Every time I think of Seattle, I picture it in moments. My memory of that is moments. Fragments. In theory, I could get in a helicopter outside the library and fly through the air for five minutes and hover over 4th and Battery. But I never did and never would. These places are connected, but in my memory, in the reality of the way this city lives in my memory, they don’t feel connected. They have their own times of day, their own moods.
That’s why, to me, no place in a game has felt more like a real place than the jumble of different maps that make up Tokyo-to in Jet Set Radio Future. These places are compact and have limits, and unreachable boxes beyond the limits that give you an idea of the unseen scale and scope of the city, its possible connections. They have times of the day that never change. When you’re in the Skyscraper District, it’s always night. It always feels like 11am on a Monday morning at the bus terminal. You couldn’t get on a helicopter from the bus terminal to the skyscrapers. You would have to jump between maps, and there would be breaks and loading.
Strangely, I appreciate that there are no breaks and loads in a real place. My trips to Seattle, without blinking, sleeping and the occasional sneeze, have been brave, really long single shots that any auteur director would marvel at. But they don’t feel that way. Because conscience, mine at least, provides the breaks. You walk away. You go into autopilot. Neighborhoods suddenly change because I was talking, or I wasn’t paying attention. I’m at the library, and a few breaks later I’m at 4th and Battery. I feel different, more tired, more sun dazed, and I’m thinking about different things, following different threads.
This is what I learned trying to imagine a Jet Set Radio Fortnite. Jet Set Radio feels like a real place, and a huge one, because it’s divided into pieces, times and feelings. Fortnite is great, but it feels more like a toy town on top of a duvet. Because you can see everything from above when you arrive. And you can cover huge distances from Toytown in a few seconds.
Weirdly, I even feel this way about GTA at times. I get in the chopper in GTA San Andreas and take off, and there’s the desert, and there’s Las Vegas and San Francisco and Los Angeles below me, and it’s Toytown on a blanket again. A world without cognitive dividers. A world that would not work so well, I think, divided into blurry camera phone snapshots.