Jet Set Radio’s unique world is why it can never be Fortnite
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 it with my phone by my side. Partly, I just wanted to feel the game under my feet again – that hectic, free enjoyment of urban space and cold night air. Partly, though, I wanted to take pictures of Tokyo-To on the phone like a tourist would. I ended up taking screenshots of the actual screen. Instantaneous!
Ok: so while I was doing that, it was super dumb. If I already look like an idiot here – and I’m pretty sure I do m8s! – I really felt like one. It was not at all like being a tourist in a city. It was more like being a strange man sitting in his living room, pointing his phone at a television screen.
And yet! Here’s the thing. It kind of worked. It just didn’t work out then. I played Jet Set Radio Future with my cameraphone to feel like I was traveling somewhere, to feel like I was escaping from my living room, my house, my street, necessarily a bit of myself. escape. And now, months later, when I look at the pictures on my phone – a blurry street corner here, Dogenzaka Hill tearing slightly as a light bulb in the background renders the screen a pearly blue – the effect finally works. I look at the pictures and think about where I’ve been and the different times I’ve been there. What it meant to me. How did it feel.
All this to say: like many people, I read the news yesterday that Sega wants to give some of its games the Fortnite treatment. Jet Set Radio is one of them. Now: I want to clarify, somewhat awkwardly, what I’m trying to do here. I don’t for a minute think Sega is just going to throw Jet Set into Fortnite’s structure. I don’t think you’re going to make Tokyo-To an island, so to speak, with you fighting dozens of other people. I don’t know anything about business or game design, so I would never pretend to have any idea how this will all pan out.
What I want to talk to you about is slightly different: For a few minutes this morning, I thought about Jet Set Radio through the lens of Fortnite. Not 100-piece jazz, just geography. I was wondering how Tokyo-To would function as a Fortnite island. And the reason I mention this is because, just thinking about it, I ended up feeling that I understood both games a little better.
Fortnite is an open world, single island. Tokyo-to is one city. Many open-world games have taken unique cities and done it well. Spider-Man in New York, GTA 5 in Los Angeles – sorry, San Andreas. I play these games and I think: how vast, how finely crafted. What a great sense of belonging.
And yet. I play Fortnite all the time. You’re still reveling in the place, but you’re still moving too. In an average game, I could cover half the island. I inevitably see it as a very united place. I know how to get from a mountain, say, to a nearby town. And when I’m in town, I can look out and see the mountain.
Great stuff. 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 rooms: Top Pot Donuts, the top floor of the Top Pot near the Monorail, a place where I really like to sit and meditate with an Ovaltine latte. I think of the library, my favorite building on planet earth: I think of the rise from basement level into the main atrium and this explosion of angles and light, the sheer bold rush of what the building wants to do for you. I’m thinking of 4th and Battery, where Popcap had offices – maybe he still does – in one of the most detestable office buildings in the world. I think of the Space Needle, but only part of it: Starbucks inside, late night, city shining outside.
Whenever I think of Seattle, I imagine it in a few moments. I remember it in a few moments. Fragments. I could theoretically hop into a helicopter outside the library and zip through the air for five minutes and hover above 4th and Battery. But I never have and I never will. These places are connected, but in my memory, in the reality of how 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 ever looked more like a real place than the jumble of different maps that makes up Tokyo-to in Jet Set Radio Future. These places are compact, and they have boundaries, and inaccessible skyboxes beyond the boundaries that give you a sense of the unseen scale and scope of the city, its possible connections. They have hours of the day that never change. When you’re in the Skyscraper District, it’s always dark. It’s always like 11am on a Monday morning at the bus station. You couldn’t glide in a helicopter from the bus terminal to the skyscrapers. You would need to jump between maps, and there would be pauses and loading.
Oddly, I appreciate that there are no pauses and loading in a real location. My trips to Seattle, without blinking, sleeping and occasionally sneezing, were moments of bravery, single, very long shots that any director would marvel at! But they don’t feel like that. Because consciousness – mine at least – provides the breaks. You are drifting. You go on autopilot. Neighborhoods suddenly change because I was talking or not paying attention. I’m in the library, and a few breaks later I’m on 4th and on drums – feeling different, more tired, more dizzy from the sun, and thinking about different things, following different threads.
That’s what I learned while trying to imagine a Fortnite Jet Set Radio. Jet Set Radio feels like a real – and huge – place because it’s broken up into bits, moments, and feelings. Fortnite is great, but it’s more like a toy town on a quilt. Because you can see everything from above when you arrive. And you can cover huge toytown distances in seconds.
Strangely, I even feel that way about GTA sometimes. I get in the helicopter in GTA San Andreas and I take off, and there’s the desert, and there’s Las Vegas and San Fran and LA below me, and it’s toytown on a blanket again. A world without cognitive barriers. A world that wouldn’t work so well, I think, broken down into blurry snapshots with a camera.