One of the more tragic things I did during lockdown involved loading up Jet Set Radio Future for the first time in an age and playing through it with my phone by my side. Partly I just wanted to feel the game under my feet again - that hectic, freewheeling pleasure of city space and cold night air. Partly, though, I wanted to take phone pictures of Tokyo-To as a tourist would. I ended up taking screenshots of the actual screen. Snap!
Okay: so while I was doing this, it felt super stupid. If 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. It was instead very much like being a strange man sat in his living room, pointing his phone at a TV screen.
And yet! Here's the thing. It sort of worked. It just didn't work at that moment. 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, inevitably escaping from myself a bit. And now, months later, when I look back at the pictures on my phone - a blurry streetcorner here, Dogenzaka Hill tearing slightly as a lightbulb in the background renders the screen a pearly blue - the effect finally works. I look back at the pictures and think of the place I have been to, and the different times I have been there. What it meant to me. How it felt.
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 amongst them. Now: I want to clarify, slightly awkwardly, what I'm trying to do here. I don't for a minute think that Sega is just going to dump Jet Set into the Fortnite structure. I don't think you're going to get Tokyo-To as an island, as it were, with you dropping in to battle dozens of other people. I don't know the first thing about business or game design, so I would never want to pretend to have an idea of how any of this will turn out.
What I want to tell you about is slightly different: for a few minutes this morning I thought about Jet Set Radio through the lens of Fortnite. Not the hundred-player jazz, just the geography. I wondered how Tokyo-To would work as a Fortnite island. And the reason I'm mentioning this at all is because, just by thinking it about it, I ended up feeling that I understood both games a little better.
Fortnite is an open-world, a single island. Tokyo-to is a single city. Plenty of open-world games have taken on single cities and done it well. Spider-Man in New York, GTA 5 in Los Angeles - sorry, San Andreas. I play these games and think: how expansive, how finely realised. What a great sense of place.
And yet. I play Fortnite all the time. You're always reveling in the place, but you're always moving too. In an average match I might cover half the island. I inevitably see it as a place that is very much joined together. I know how to get from one mountain, say, to a nearby town. And when I'm in the town I can look over and see the mountain.
Great stuff. Very realistic. But now: here is how I remember Seattle, a favourite city from the real world.
When I think of Seattle I think of these pieces: Top Pot Donuts, the top floor of the Top Pot near the Monorail, a place I really love to sit and ponder with an Ovaltine latte. I think of the library, my favourite building on planet Earth: I think of rising up from the basement level into the main atrium and that explosion of angles and light, the sheer audacious rush 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 most unlovable office buildings in the world. I think of the Space Needle, but only part of it: the Starbucks inside it, late evening, the city glowing sodium orange outside.
Whenever I think of Seattle, I picture it in moments. My memory of it is moments. Fragments. I could theoretically get into a helicopter outside the library and zip through the air for five minutes and be hovering over 4th and Battery. But I never did and I never would. These places are connected, but in my memory, in the realness of the way this city lives in my memory, they do not feel connected. They have their own times of day, their own moods.
This is why, for me, no place in a game has ever felt more like an actual place than the jumble of different maps that makes up Tokyo-to in Jet Set Radio Future. These places are compact, and they have limits, and unreachable skyboxes beyond the limits which bring you a sense of the city's unseen scale and range, its possible connections. They have times of day that never change. When you are at the Skyscraper District, it is always night. It always feels like 11am on a Monday morning at the bus terminal. You could not zip in a helicopter from the bus terminal to the skyscrapers. You would need to hop between maps, and there would be breaks and loading.
Weirdly, I appreciate there are not breaks and loading in a real place. My trips to Seattle, minus blinking and sleeping and the odd sneeze, have been bravura oners, truly long single shots any auteur director would marvel over! But they don't feel like that. Because consciousness - mine at least - provides the breaks. You drift off. You go into autopilot. The neighborhoods change suddenly because I was talking, or wasn't paying attention. I am at the library, and a few breaks later I am at 4th and Battery - I feel different, more tired, more sun-dazed, and I am thinking of different things, following different threads.
This is what I learned trying to picture a Jet Set Radio Fortnite. Jet Set Radio feels like a real place - and a huge one - because it is broken up into pieces and times and feelings. Fortnite is great, but it feels more like a toytown laid out on a duvet. Because you can see the whole thing from above as you arrive. And you can cover huge toytown distances in a few seconds.
Weirdly, I even feel this about GTA sometimes. I get into the chopper in GTA San Andreas and 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 dividers. A world that would not work so well, I think, broken down into blurry cameraphone snapshots.
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