If you were to read most of the video game criticism that’s been published in recent years, you’d come away with the impression that video games abound in social ignorance. Some games exhibit a level of political awareness and merely fail to acknowledge a potential issue, and many others deny the problem in the first place by suggesting they exist in a political vacuum. Now I’m not here to argue that these games don’t exist. Rather, I want to point alternatives; games whose strengths lie in their hyper-awareness of the issues at play. Games like Jet Set Radio. While the game’s most appealing feature has always been its zealous energy, what sets Jet Set Radio apart is that its energy is not the product of social ignorance. If anything, the game is all too aware of how capitalist ideals structure our lives, which is why it suggests transcending them by turning life into a radical performance. Given how stylishly Jet Set Radio renders those performances, it’s hard not to be swayed by the game’s arguments.
Our journey chronicles various underground movements in Japan, like the eponymous radio station that plays pirated music and various tagger groups, but it primarily follows the exploits of a group called the GGs. Along with the other gangs, the GGs spend their days tagging Tokyo’s various walls and billboards in an effort to make their voices heard. As cheery and optimistic as their lifestyle might appear, that optimism belies a much more haunting truth about living in a world that was never really theirs to begin with. Some of the causes are material: Jet Set Radio rips away any pretenses of a government that acts in the people’s best interests, and instead depicts one that’s beholden to moneyed interests like the Rokkaku Group. Yet even if the GGs did away with such blatant corruption, the ideologies that define their world would still be incompatible with the way they live. Theirs is a city that expects dominance, or at the very least, submission in the face of a more powerful force. Oftentimes, it’s the police who serve to enforce that culture: rather than uphold the law or carry out justice, this cartoony group of mercenaries is willing to turn Tokyo into a literal war-zone if it means asserting their aesthetic ideals on the city above all others.
By refusing this narrative – by trying to eke out an existence that’s more authentic to them – the underground gangs effectively alienate themselves from everyday life. Yet for as despondent as that sounds, Jet Set Radio’s emphasis on performance and reappropriation allows it to maintain its youthful optimism. More than that, even; they’re what allow the game to be brutally honest with itself. It knows that any notion of a pure, authentic identity in a world like this is wishful thinking, so instead of following characters who try (and fail) to pursue it, the game instead has them rebrand whatever’s been given to them. Beat (Jet Set Radio’s posterboy) wears strange goggles to play into the idea that he’s an alien being; DJ Professor K gladly self-identifies as a terrorist to highlight his opposition to an oppressive regime; and the gangs in general refer to their home of Tokyo-to as “a city that cannot be found on any map” because they perceive it more as an idea than as a physical location. They don’t accept these terms because they’ve resigned themselves to their fate, but so they can take control of their own identities by transforming these terms and rendering them more meaningful to themselves.
And in a more general sense, the gangs’ rebellious attitudes lends a larger than life quality to their activities. If I had to guess, I’d say that quality is what most people remember about Jet Set Radio, if only because of how ubiquitous it throughout the game’s design. The characters are constantly in motion; piloting them through Shibuya’s streets feels loose and floaty, like they’re flying through life without a care in the world. And Professor K is happy to keep the mood alive after you’ve returned from your urban adventures. Accompanying every line of dialogue from him is some sort of wild gesticulation, as if every second of his existence is overflowing with passion. Even the GGs’ rival gangs are happy to get in on the act. None of them may agree on what ideals they should live by; we see the Love Shockers promoting feminist revolution, the Noise Tanks advocating for a cyber-tech future, and Poison Jam pushing….a pseudo-ironic love of trashy pop culture artifacts? The game never makes their case particularly clear. But the point is that despite their differences, they all agree on where their ideals should manifest: on their sleeves, for the whole world to see.
Of course, all of this would be for naught if the game contradicted its values the moment it handed you control. Fortunately, Jet Set Radio’s goals become most clear during play. Outside a few bungling tutorials toward the start of the game, Jet Set Radio is careful to depict Tokyo’s streets as a site of performance rather than domination. You won’t find on the screen a map to tell you where to go, or a number telling you how many tags you have left before you can complete the level. If anything, the game rejects such utilitarian approaches: it asks that you perform tricks that, while aesthetically pleasing, serve no immediate purpose during play. And instead of presenting tags as a “reach wall, press button to lay down graffiti” sort of affair, the game demands a performance out of you. You’ll watch your characters curve all about with flair in their movements as they paint their insignias on the wall. Every moment is just another chance to express yourself; every action another element of the glorious work of art that is your existence. The game hasn’t dropped you on the streets for you to mindlessly complete tasks like a drone. It wants you to resist that and seek out opportunities to express yourself. In this way, the GGs can enact their non-violent opposition to the status quo without sacrificing the transformative power behind their actions.
Furthermore, by approaching Tokyo on its own terms, the GGs and the other gangs form a more intimate bond with their city. Skating through it exposes them to sides of Tokyo that would otherwise be invisible to everyday citizens: its sewers, its drainage ditches, its almost abandoned railways. Where others would leave these locations to rot, Tokyo’s gangs value them just as much as the rest of the city performing their tricks and spraying their graffiti wherever they can. This isn’t just because society at large has rejected these youths, either. Remember, they also spray their tags in easily visible locations, like they’ve hoisted the pirate flag over a conquered ship. The gangs’ decision to inhabit less visible spaces is a conscious one: they seek a more holistic connection with their environment, so they skate through these areas to forge a stronger, more personal connection with the city than they would otherwise have access to. It also enables them to adapt and live with the city in the first place. Contrast this image against that of the police who, in their attempts to assert their own will over the city, find themselves so unable to adapt that the GGs can escape them by climbing up a ledge.
I realize how strange it sounds to describe a commercially released video game that criticizes flashy capitalism. As artistically driven as Sega was during the early 2000s, they were still a major corporation looking to profit off large projects like this. But putting aside that context and considering Jet Set Radio’s arguments on its own terms, I have to give credit where credit is due. The game’s look at youth countercultures is comprehensive and displays a clear understanding of the issues at play. In addition, its cheery optimism and abundant sense of style helps explain that culture’s appeal by making the lifestyle feel more immediate. If it is possible for games to truly embody a countercultural spirit (I have my doubts), then Jet Set Radio remains the standard to which such games should hold themselves.