A virtual city that actually feels alive.
Video game worlds come in many shapes and forms. Fantastical kingdoms, futuristic cities, post-apocalyptic wastelands, modern-day towns, you name it. However, many games struggle to make their worlds feel like real places, despite how fictional they might be. More often than not, these worlds can’t transcend the gameplay purposes they serve. Whether it is the intent or not, some of them feel like they stop existing as soon as the player ceases to observe them.
For example, last year’s Spiderman’s Manhattan introduced itself as an impressive city, but for someone like me who holds no connection to it whatsoever, it feels more like a beautiful, huge playground for swinging and fighting enemies than an actual town where people live. Hitman 2’s levels are vast and full of NPCs, but they only exist as toolboxes for Agent 47 to use in his murder sprees, and the game doesn’t pretend to be more than that because it’s not aiming for that feeling of realness.
There was one very niche game this year, however, that managed to create a sense of place in such a way that few other games have accomplished in my eyes.
428: Shibuya Scramble is a Japanese visual novel that originally came out on the Wii in 2008 but only got a Western release this September for PS4 and PC. However, 428 is not exactly a traditional visual novel. Instead of illustrations combining static backgrounds with character sprites, 428 is essentially an FMV in visual novel form. Pictures of real people and the occasional video cutscene are the main visual elements of the game. It’s thanks to very clever use of these elements and a few other factors that 428 manages to make its own depiction of Shibuya come to life.
For starters, said visual presentation helps a lot. While 428 is certainly not the first game to display real actors, the way in which it uses them includes a lot of small details that could go unnoticed. Since the game does take place in a city that exists in real life, the pictures depict tangible things that don’t feel manufactured specifically for the game. But 428 goes further than that.
Copyright use has always been a big deal. Accidentally showing a brand logo can be a problem if you are using real actors. 428, however, goes all in with it. There are tons of brands on display, without ever feeling like blatant product placement. If you look close enough, you can spot a small McDonald’s ad when a character is riding the subway. There is a Starbucks in the Shibuya crossing. There are Samsung ads there, too. A character disassembles a Logitech mouse but you might miss that because it’s present only in one specific bad ending. Whenever you see cars, you can look closely to see their brand logo and sometimes even their model. And of course, there’s a Coca-Cola logo that you can spot at one point.
While I don’t know how the business behind this works, it adds a sense of realness that it wouldn’t have if it used fake brands instead. By looking at pictures of the real Shibuya, you can spot the same Starbucks that is in the game and, if you somehow find pictures from that time, I’m sure you could also find the rest of the ads in the crossing. Other landmarks are present too, like the statue of Hachiko. And of course, the sea of people that is characteristic of the crossing is captured in the game as well. What’s more, there aren’t any straight up blurred faces. In the few occasions where faces are obscured, it is done through clever use of focus techniques. This makes it feel less like a picture and more like a window to that specific moment in that specific place.
Another aspect that helps this feeling is the structure of the story. Since it’s told from the perspective of five characters in parallel and throughout the course of an entire day, a lot of crossovers can happen. You see a person picking up trash in one character’s story at one specific hour. Minutes later, in another protagonist’s point of view you might stumble upon said character on his way back, carrying what they picked up previously. And with a third character, hours later, you might find that person at the shop they own.
Situations like that happen constantly. Using its own take on real-time narration, 428 makes you feel like these characters have actual schedules, tasks to do, people to meet. Even if your choices in the game can alter lots of events, all these characters still occupy a space in the game world, independently of what the player does. There’s this sense that even when you are not looking, they continue to live their lives in this game’s Shibuya because the town doesn’t stop moving.
And the character themselves are a key part of what makes 428’s town truly feel real. If you see any scene of the game you could probably say that the characters feel larger than life, but that is part of the charm. They still are regular people who do regular things in the town they live. However exaggerated they might be for entertainment effects, there’s an earnestness to every single one of them that makes you feel like they could be people you know.
The teacher that became a taxi driver. The waitress that has to deal with obnoxious guests. The shady guy that sells shady products to pay off his debts. The loan sharks with ties to the Yakuza that go around collecting debts. The gang of punks that suffer from internal fighting. Even if the situations in which 428 puts them in can feel ridiculous, I feel like you could go to Shibuya right now and find people like them without even trying hard to look.
The acting itself brings these characters to life in a very unique way. While the 428 uses pictures of its actors depicting an incredibly wide variety of situations and scenes, these pictures are not just people posing. Instead, the actors actually acted the entire game while, instead of filming, a cameraman was constantly taking pictures of the scenes. This technique makes all these photos feel even more real than they would if they were staged as just pictures.
A lot of these elements are inherent to the genre of the game itself, however. Its success comes down to the way the game uses them. Thanks to the limited player interaction and heavy emphasis on text, 428 can fully immerse you with its own combination of writing, music and real pictures and make you feel like you are indeed seeing a scene play out in physical space without breaking said immersion through player input. Still, the decision to make Shibuya a focus point instead of just background scenery is a conscious one that works perfectly in conjunction with all these other elements.
As the story gets close to the end, Shibuya starts taking the leading role because of the stakes that are in play. It’s hard to not root for the characters as they try to navigate the obstacles the game throws at them because all of them genuinely love the city they live in, and they are willing to do what they can in order to help it. There’s a palpable sense of camaraderie too; people from a lot of disparate groups joining together with that goal in mind, all thanks to the city they love.
In a way, 428’s treatment of its town reminds me of Yakuza’s Kamurocho. While Kamurocho is only based on a real city instead of being a fully digital recreation of one and the Yakuza games offer interaction far beyond anything 428 has in store, they both treat their cities in a similar fashion. Both games understand and effectively use the narrative strength that comes from setting their stories in an environment that feels genuine.
When all is said and done, it’s hard to leave 428’s world behind. Not just because of the love one might have developed for the characters, but also because of Shibuya itself. The game could’ve changed the name of its city to something fictional and it would still feel the same: a city that lives and breathes, loved by the people who live there and with a never ending amount of stories to tell. The fact that 428: Shibuya Scramble accomplishes this seemingly effortlessly with the limited tools it has is a resounding accomplishment. With its quirky and unique charm, the game made me love its city, its Shibuya, as much as its characters love it.