Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Art of Extroversion

[ek-struh-vur-zhuhn, -shuhn, ek-struh-vur-, -stroh-]
1. Also, extraversion. Psychology.
the act of directing one's interest outward or to things outside the self.
the state of being concerned primarily with things outside the self, with the external environment rather than with one's own thoughts and feelings.

Jet Set Radio Future (2002) is about freedom—freedom of movement, freedom of action, freedom of self-expression. While we're actually stripped of the freedom to interact with the city in most of the ways we normally do, this is so we can experience it according to the game's specific terms—those which have to do with exaggerated skater fun, as well as contextualising the actions of skater kids as expressions of resistance against oppressive authorities ruled by corporate interests.

Skater grinds along an elevated billboard with crows perched on it

These terms have everything to do with the environment. Everything about JSRF is focused on the city itself, and how it defines freedom and the existence of those who seek it. The city is both playground and battleground. The most important thing in the game, enabled through the action of skating, is to go where you want to go, albeit in the game's particularly defined way—it keeps you out in the open, in the public space, where freedom of movement means something. There are secret places, hideouts like the underground sewers, but these are still places of public concern, territory that matters, turf where you're vying with the authorities or other gangs. It doesn't generally entail building interiors. What building interiors mostly represent are private lives, and the last thing the game wants us to do is go burrowing into those. Then it would no longer be about the city itself.

You're not meant to stay put in any one place, either. The focus on speed and traversal means your contact with any one part of the city is glancing. It's about the lay of the land, and how skilled you are at navigating it, signalling intimate knowledge of the environment as you reach all those places you're not meant to and slip beyond the reach of those in pursuit. All the items you're supposed to get to—mixtapes, graffiti patches, and most ambitiously Graffiti Souls—are there to encourage exploration, to get you to figure out the trickier paths and discover the highest peaks and hidden nooks and crannies. For the most part, you're also free to venture back and forth as you want, across districts, and from neighbourhood to neighbourhood.

JSRF draws directly from hip hop culture, which originally developed as a culture of reactionary self-expression in the African American, Jamaican and Puerto Rican communities of New York City (a city which the original Jet Set/Grind Radio reproduced more directly). Hip hop was about capturing and expressing what it's like to live in such an environment, often with violence and poverty. The most relevant element of hip hop culture to the gameplay of JSRF is graffiti, stylised writings or drawings spray-painted illicitly in public spaces. With the ability to choose your tags in the game's options, or create your own with some very clunky tools, the game asks you to collect spray cans and leave your mark in designated places across each map in order to lay claim to those territories, painting over the tags of rival gangs or the prohibitory signs of the authorities.

Skater sprays graffiti over anti-graffiti signs while grinding a rollercoaster

The spray can is also where the game places your trigger finger. Graffiti is weaponised, literally, and you'll use it to take down rival gang members, police, even tanks and helicopters. Disturbingly, the police come after you with guns, rockets and all kinds of real weapons—which, though cartoony and sanitised, still signal their method of using deadly violence and military force as a way of trying to keep you under control. The metaphor in this combat is obvious: these kids are asserting themselves and their freedom against their oppressors via self-expression. Tagging is claiming ownership of the city, a refusal to be erased.

The titular Jet Set Radio is a pirate radio broadcast operated by the mysterious figure of DJ Professor K, who uses the broadcast to let the GGs, your gang, know what's going on around the city and fill them in on their next mission objectives—though with the feel of keeping them in the know rather than ordering them around. He seems to be on the side of the GGs specifically, because this includes guiding them in turf wars with rival gangs. As a pirate broadcast, it's illicit and underground, and through it, like the skating and graffiti-spraying, DJing and MCing—two more pillars of hip hop—are similarly 'weaponised', actively involved in disrupting the status quo.

From the GGs, you can pick from a few different characters, the number of which increases as the game progresses and you impress rival skaters through challenges all around the city. Each character is defined mainly through their distinctive style: how they look, how they move, how they trick and dance (incorporating another hip hop staple, b-boying). They're also calibrated slightly differently according to different skillsets: how fast they can move, how good they are at cornering, grinding, accelerating; how many spray cans they can hold; how much health capacity they have, etc.

Skater falls through the air between skyscrapers to a walkway below

This is pretty much the extent of characterisation, and again it has to do with keeping all markers of individuality extroverted. As art director Ryutu Ueda notes in the retrospective making-of documentary for the original game (which was released with Jet Set Radio HD):

Well, in games these days, for example, characters with incredible backstories, where the person came from, what kind of family he has, what he thinks about, is the norm in character creation, I think. At that time, when I was making the character, what I thought was that I wanted to make it more like an icon. In other words, not like a human but a character like a symbol. I thought about this a lot. A representation.

In JSRF, we almost never see inside the minds of any of these characters. The game discourages introspection, keeping the focus on the reality of the outer world. It's not about thoughts and feelings, but action. For the most part, character is confined to the means of creative self-expression in the context of the environment—the individuality of the skaters is defined by however much individuality they assert. And as Michelle Baldwin points out in her analysis of the JSRF story, while all the gangs in JSRF assert their own identity, the GGs in particular are the only gang whose members each have their own style. Gangs like Poison Jam, Rapid 99 or the Immortals 'are actually quite conformist, wearing matching uniforms, and dancing in a regimented style', while the GGs, stressing individuality, 'flirt with the ideas of rebellion and creativity more than any other group.'

Skater wreaks havoc in a Tokyo shop, knocking over shelves

Characters don't always remain icons—we get glimpses of intentions, thoughts and feelings whenever a character speaks, either with occasional speech bubbles for the skaters or voiced dialogue for everyone else. It's the story behind the game, as it's delivered via snippets of dialogue, that's responsible for a lot of the kids' game feel of JSRF. Characters are flat and telegraphed in their speech, their lingo sometimes awkward, the villains and their nefarious plots fit for a kid's Saturday morning cartoon. In a way this doesn't matter—it is, after all, a game for a young crowd—but it also reveals a flatness in a game where most other 'cartoon' elements have dimension. Some of the characterisation we get supposedly for the benefit of story feels perfunctory and lazy.

The problem with introducing this kind of characterisation at all, even if only lightly, is that it signals a certain kind of narrative aspiration, which then feels like a deficiency when it's not given much attention: the internalising speech asks us to view the minds of these characters, and then we find that internally (emotionally or psychologically) they feel like cardboard cutouts. In line with the principles of extroversion, though, the answer is probably not deeper characterisation. Instead, it's removing this type of internalisation completely, ensuring that all character is conveyed through extroverted modes—not replacing speech with pantomime, but removing all kinds of characterisation that look to the interior of an individual for their significance. What matters in JSRF is not individuality itself, but solely how it's represented in the urban space. DJ Professor K might work a little differently here, in that being the voice of pirate radio is, in the context of everything else, his expression of resistance. If the skater kids want to express themselves, they skate, trick or pick up a spray can.

As part of their role as icons, the characters are almost graffiti art themselves. The art direction, cartoony and cel-shaded, distorts characters graffiti-like, allowing their style—in looks and in movement—to be even more expressive. This, of course, extends to the city itself, applying the same philosophy of self-expression to the way the urban landscape is defined.

Aerial view of an industrial area

What exactly does cel-shading do to the environment? For one, it wipes away the grit, making everything clean and colourful. Even the more rundown areas are treated with pastel hues. It's a way of making the bleaker areas just as interesting as the more glitzy, bringing out their own character beyond simply being rundown. These are, after all, spaces inhabited, owned, used and fought for as much as any other. So the art style—not just the cel-shading, but the cartoony proportions, expressively distorted like the characters themselves—is used to bring out the underlying patterns, features and workings of these places, whether it's the favelas of Kibogaoka Hill, the neon-strewn rooftops of 99th Street, or the bright towers of Skyscraper District. In fact, some of the glitzier places feel tacky and false where others feel real and inhabited, but every district has its own thing going on, and familiarity and ownership matters with them all.

Instead of dirt, there's clutter: garbage, bicycles, billboards, cars, signs, traffic cones, tables, chairs, stalls, statues, shop displays, animals, and many, many pedestrians—an urban hodge-podge. It's a city of accumulated objects, of cultural artefacts, adding to the lived-in city feel and bringing attention to the character of a place through the detail. These objects never get in your way or impede your movement, instead collapsing into nothingness or, in the case of people, leaping aside with a scream should you skate into them, but they lend the city its sense of complicated visual reality—the disordered noise given a clarity that applies the delirious object-focus of shiny Shibuya malls equally to garbage and refuse, to give both sides of the city the same level of reality.

Despite the undeniable cultural influences, the game's busy visuals and soundtrack convey the tone and character of its Tokyo setting more than New York, reflecting the youthful, multicultural vibrancy of Shibuya and other districts, where hip hop itself was an import.

Skater ascends the tail of a dragon in 99th Street, surrounded by neon lights

The soundtrack of JSRF is focused on mixes and remixes. Introducing a whole slew of music genres—rap, trip-hop, soul, funk, rock, J-pop, breakbeat, acid jazz—from a range of Japanese and non-Japanese artists, the feature they all have in common is that they are bright, noisy and danceable. On the whole, they're more about texture, representing and recreating the urban environment—and conveying the energy of the moment—rather than being moody and introspective; fast-paced, layered and busy like a bustling city, mixing pop punk anthems with lighthearted, ear-splitting tracks about birthday cakes. Hideki Naganuma, along with The Latch Brothers and Richard Jacques, provides most of the music, composing rich, scratchy, beat-heavy tracks consisting mainly of samples. Like the rest of the game, the tone is joyous and celebratory, playful rather than angry, though there is a defiant, righteous undertone.

Along with colourful, mall-like cosmopolitanism, Tokyo is also associated with the futuristic. In Jet Set Radio Future, the future is mostly an aesthetic that subtly emphasises the Tokyo-ness of its Tokyo, exaggerating the curious manifestations of city life. The clutter of the Garage area, for example, incorporates an entire plane fuselage, seemingly just fenced off and built around after it crashed; the Fortified Residential Zone has residents inexplicably running around in giant hamster wheels; pedestrians wear anything from tophats to motorcycle helmets to a garment that could equally be a burkha or a hazmat suit—occupying a weird liminal space between the recognisable and the alien.

In their excellent piece on JSRF, which they wrote as part of their Time Extend series (and which happens to be one of my all-time favourite pieces of games writing), the enigmatic entity known only as 'Edge Staff' described these pedestrians as

masses of curious people whose eccentric appearances raise more questions than they answer, and hint at existences that are quirky and insular. The graffiti war waged against the Rokkaku Group means nothing to them, and rightly so: if the game really seemed to revolve around the player, much of its appeal would be lost.

Spectators cheer at a horse race on the small TVs in a shop window

The reduction of pedestrians to mere scenery is an interesting choice, and once again, it has to do at least partly with the game's resistance to subjectivity or internal reality. JSRF is more interested in the external and often cryptic manifestations of city life than the internal lives of the city dwellers themselves. Though the level design is geared towards exploiting the city for the benefit of the GGs' self-expression, and is constructed from their perspective in that sense, the city's own reality is still represented, with lives that are secret and varied and have nothing to do with you or the skaters. Like the skaters, all we know about these people is how they are defined by their self-expression in the urban space, but this self-expression—the curious fashions, obscure gatherings and worshipping practises, and whatever unspecified purpose has them roaming the streets—is more ambiguous than the skaters', less clear in its intent, largely consigned to the private.

The game's stance on these people isn't quite neutral. There's something vaguely antagonistic about your relationship with this public, in the way that your only interaction with them is getting yelled at when you skate into them. While you're fighting not to be erased from existence, they seem to regard you as nothing more than a nuisance, mutually incomprehensible. Their ambiguous insularity gets them into trouble later on, though. An existence marked by obliviousness or indifference to the goings on of the Rokkaku Group eventually leads to bewildered panicking when their city suddenly fills with robots and armed mercenaries. It's then up to those who are already fighting for their place in the city—those pesky skater kids—to clean up the mess.

Sunshine behind a futuristic Shibuya skyline

If this population is treated with ambivalence, it's because what matters in Jet Set Radio Future is the city itself: how it defines the freedom of its inhabitants, and how those inhabitants define their own freedom in relation to it. It encourages the kind of awareness represented by the skaters—an awareness necessary for their survival—that the rest of the population lacks. As the Time Extend article points out:

It's no coincidence that the story—take back the streets by riding and tagging—puts ownership of the city at its very heart. For once, it's not your life that's at stake, but your way of life, and the success of the tale rests entirely on the game's ability to make you care for the space you're protecting.

Built around its most basic nature as a spatial simulation and layering on the appropriate creative dimensions as it constructs this city, Jet Set Radio Future operates almost wholly by rules of artistic extroversion, in order to define this way of life and the importance of protecting it.

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