August 29, 2012

The Shibuya of my memories

Shibuya brings out the feels

In 2008, I visited Japan for the first time in my life. Me and my partner stayed at a little business hotel in the middle of Shinbashi (chosen as our lodging, I’m embarrassed to admit, largely because of a flash animation listing train stations on the Yamanote line). The Shinbashi station is a simple affair: a few rails, a few buildings and a lot of outdoor space. It was from this relatively straightforward place that we boarded the Yamanote line on our first outing to Shibuya.

Now, here’s the thing about the Yamanote line: it’s a long loop line that visits most of the central districts of Tokyo like Ginza, Akihabara, Ikebukuro, Shinjuku, Harajuku and, of course, Shibuya. But in between these hubs the Yamanote stops at smaller stations (which, this being Tokyo, are rather big as well, just not... mind-numbingly gigantic). If you board the Yamanote line at Shinbashi and travel the loop west, you’ll mostly hit small stations, leading you into thinking maybe all the talk about crowded Japanese megastations is the stuff of urban legends after all.

That was what I thought up until we got off at Shibuya. A chill went down my spine. People. People everywhere. So many people, so very very many people. More people than I’d ever seen in one place. A bustle that short-circuited all my senses and left me in a sort of social shock. Coming from the sparsely populated Finland, Shibuya was a bit too much.

The station square at midnight, when there were relatively few people around

The station is the fourth busiest in Japan, with some 2.4 million people flowing through it every day. It serves as a station for two JR lines, three private railway lines and three subway lines, all with their own exits, entryways, ticket gates and facilities. In addition, the station houses an impressive assortment of small boutiques and is integrated with the large Tokyu department store that has its own entrances and exits, some connected to the station and some not. Also, the whole station complex is naturally comprised of multiple floors, from several underground levels to floors rising up to who knows how high.

To this maze of commuters and commercialism we plunged, trusting that we could find an exit to the famous Scramble Crossing and the statue of Hachiko. Alas, we took a wrong turn and instead of going via the short route to the exit gates and the Hachiko exit, we ended up into the maelstrom of passageways connecting the Yamanote platforms to the non-JR substations. I grant, it’s easy to get to the right exit at Shibuya station, but if you take a wrong turn you’re in for a harsh lesson in counterintuitive architecture and spatial traps.

We wandered around the station, in the crush of late morning commuters, trying desperately to see any exit gates or info signs. At one point, through a dusty window, I could see a glimpse of the Scramble Crossing, but could not find an exit anywhere nearby. After a while I caught a glimpse of the same landscape, through the same window. And again, a few minutes later.

We were going in circles, seeing the same bagel shops, family restaurants and station snack booths over and over again. No matter which tunnel we took from the little clearing with the dusty window, we always ended up back, shooting increasingly desperate looks at the grimy window that seemed to mock us in a way that was like straight out of a video game.

It was like the level designer of Shibuya station had locked us within an endless loop of scenery, like a variation of Persona 3’s Tartarus, and had further underlined the artificial nature of our surroundings by letting us see that one dusty window, so out of place in the otherwise immaculately cleaned station, over and over again. The Scramble Crossing seemed like a background texture placed behind the window to offer us a glimpse of things to come, in an obvious act of foreshadowing.

I began to wonder if it wasn’t the window that was dusty but the world beyond it. If something had happened to reality while we were trapped within the surreal experience of the neverending station. Silly, yes, but that’s the kind of place Shibuya station is.

We got desperate. To break the spell, we decided to just keep on going, somewhere, anywhere, until we got out of the nightmarish ouroborean Shibuya station. To hell with signs and layout maps, we’d run straight ahead, always towards the first tunnel we saw, until we got out.

And we did get out. Through the grocery and gourmet section of the Tokyu department store, briskly walking past all manner of dead sea creatures and walls upon walls of cookies and little biscuits.

We stumbled out of the building into the heat and sunshine of mid-summer Japan, having no idea which exit we’d taken, where in Shibuya we were or where we should head to get to our destination; the Scramble Crossing and Hachiko. Scramble Crossing was our anchor, our focal point. The one place in Shibuya we knew, and which we planned to use to orient ourselves in respect to the rest of the district. Without it we were lost.

Our maps showed the station as a vaguely rectangular geometric shape, reminiscent of some asymmetric space carrier from an ‘80s anime. There was no knowing where we were, especially since in our mad dash we’d strayed deep into the department store which spreads well outside the perimeter of the station proper, so for all we knew we were no longer even near the station itself.

Then I noticed the buses, and the bus stops. All around us, the easily distinguishable Toei buses were going about their routes. I realized I had seen something like this before.If my hunch was correct and this was the Shibuya bus depot, I knew to the north there should be a...


Moai statue. “Mr Moyai”, to be exact, donated to Shibuya by the kind people of Niijima island in the 1980s.

And if I could navigate from the buses to Mr Moyai, I could surely find an underpass somewhere nearby to the north of us. In the cool shade of the underpass I was sure we’d find Hachiko and the Scramble crossing just ahead.

I knew where we were. More than that, I knew where everything else of interest in Shibuya was. This was my first time in Shibuya, in one of the busiest, most tightly-packed urban districts in the world – and I knew my way. The experience was one of the strongest I’ve ever felt as a gamer. And I wasn’t even gaming, I was standing with my mouth open in the middle of a bustling city!

The reason I knew my way around Shibuya’s landmarks was that I’d been obsessing over The World Ends With You for the last month. Originally bought as entertainment for the oncoming 11-hour flight from Helsinki to Haneda Airport, I was too excited about the game and about going to Japan that I had to play the game right away and get a peek of the digital Shibuya before going there in person.

That little peek turned into around 20 hours of gaming, carefully spent admiring the game’s urban world, grinding for experience points in the fun battles and trying hard not to trigger too many story-advancing scenes so that I’d have something left to play on the flight.

Turns out I had learned Shibuya’s landmarks in and out even before I knew they were real. I had no idea how faithful a representation of the real Shibuya the game really is. Instead of a short – and very fiction-heavy – tour to some of the well-known parts of the district I got a full map and a head full of little details about department stores, restaurants, record shops and tourist sights.

I had a learned a lot, and now it was all being transformed by the experience of actually being there, experiencing the original Shibuya. The clash of digital and physical space was awe-inspiring.

To explore what happened there, let’s dig into some concepts of space and place and the way they pertain to The World Ends With You and Shibuya. 

In his article Kairotopos: A reflection on Greek space/time concepts as design implications in Minecraft [PDF], Isaac Lenhart describes several temporal and spatial concepts that originate in ancient Greek. Of these, especially the concepts of chora and topos made an impression on me as I worked to unpack my experiences with The World Ends With You and Shibuya.

Both chora and topos are words that somewhat correspond to terms we already have in the vocabulary of games writing. They roughly mean a “game world”, as in the full world of a game, and an “instance” (or maybe a “level” in some cases), a smaller unit that’s separated from the larger whole. But game world and instance (or level) don’t really work when discussing a place that’s meaningful both as a real physical place and as a fictional construct within a game.

So, rather than labour under terminology that doesn’t quite fit the bill, lets discuss chora and topos instead.

Chora is a place, an unified area where things can be. As Lenhart describes:

An example of chora would be something like "our country" or "this land", a semi- abstract concept of a world/region that objects can occupy.

Hans Rämö, in his (most awesomely titled) paper An Aristotelian Human Time–Space Manifold – From chronochora to kairotopos [PDF], describes chora like this:

Thus, chora does not denote meaningful place, but a "place" of convergence that is crossed through and "erased".

For Rämö, chora is first and foremost an abstract space rather than a clearly definible physical whole. The exact nuance of the word is somewhat eluding but for my uses the definition of a “space” in the most generic sense of the word is more than adequate. Chora is where things can take place. It’s one level zoomed out from the more specific places of action.

Or maybe it would be more illuminating to say a chora is the space where more specific places can exist. As Heidegger put it in An Introduction to Metaphysics: "[Chora] signifies neither place nor space but that which is occupied by what stands there." Like a stage which in itself is but a space to be transformed into a place by the sets and actors.

Topos on the other hand is a more specific, or more identified, region within a chora. Like a park, for example. Or in Lenhart’s words "[...] topos is a kind of 'special' chora, a subset, a piece of the whole."

The distinction between the two words isn’t, however, especially clear, and they’ve been used for centuries to mean slightly different things.

Lenhart refers to Keimpe Algra and his book Concepts of Space in Greek Thought:

Keimpe Algra goes to great length to tease apart the differences between topos and chora, finding that they are largely synonymous, yet topos connotes a more relativistic and referential kind of space/location.

So, topos is a somewhat subjective term, marking a place as felt, as lived and as experienced, more than a somewhat defined cartographic area. Despite this slight subjective bend, topos does not, in its original form, imply an emotional link or any sort of specifity with a place. For example, it does not imply the sense of "home", as Lenhart states, but is more "neutral and scientific" as a term.

But as is the case with words, over time the term topos has opened up to different interpretations. Lenhart continues by saying that "In the process of by naming and singling out a piece of topos from the general chora, we cannot help but to make it meaningful and significant."

So, even if the term did not originally mean anything but, basically, “somewhere” (if even that), it has in time transformed to encompass the emotional connections too. The term, as it now stands, refers to a place, in contrast with chora which has more to do with the more neutral and generic term space.

Again, from Hans Rämö:
The difference between chora (space) and topos (place) is that, when the former is a geometric or cartographic extension, the latter (topos) is contextual localization, without sharp demarcations.

As a concrete example, Lenhart sums the terms up like this:

To talk about chora, one needs only theoretical knowledge and some technical skills. "My world", "my land", the Minecraft world, even "Azeroth" all qualify as chora when talking about them in an abstract way. To talk about topos, technical skills and wisdom are needed to identify it, why it is set off from the rest of the undifferentiated chora.

Of course, Lenhart reminds us that the exact understanding of the nuances of the words is a tricky business, and my simplified hack job here does no more credit to Lenhart than to the ancient terms and concepts. Nevertheless, the terms are useful when making sense of Shibuya, both the real and the imagined.

For the purpose of applying the term to Shibuya, let’s say the sprawling urban tangle that I call Shibuya is a vague geographic (and mental) label for a district within the city of Tokyo. It has very concretely drawn borders somewhere in the bureaucratic depths of Tokyo Metropolitan Government and its agencies, but as far as the layman wandering the streets is concerned, Shibuya is just “a district”, a perfect example of a rather abstract place of convergence, or in other words, chora.

Fuck yeah, words!

You could argue (and make a good case of it, too) that this whole “Shibuya of my memories” business is actually contributing towards making Shibuya more of a topos than a chora: A place felt and experienced rather than a mere space for things to take place in. But wait! For this specific instance of defining space and place, the various topoi within the chora of Shibuya justify the elevation of Shibuya into a chora. Shibuya is filled with memories and places of meaning, all of which are contained in the chora of Shibuya.

Within the larger whole of Shibuya there is a multitude of smaller, more specific, nodes, consisting of my personal experiences, as well as of those of countless other people. Places that are set apart from the larger whole of Shibuya. For example, the great Scramble Crossing is a place and a state of mind, a very specific spot within Shibuya, immediately recognizable to anyone who knows anything about Shibuya. A topos if I ever knew one, yet utterly void of identity without the chora of Shibuya lending it its surroundings.

In the context of The World Ends With You, the whole game world – Shibuya – forms a chora. A world in itself. (Now, the real-world Shibuya naturally is a topos within the chora of Tokyo, which itself surely is a topos within the chora of Japan, but for the sake of clarity and sanity, Shibuya is the world as far as this post, and TWEWY, is concerned.)

The chora of The World Ends With You exists as this sort of a half-real place. There is a “whole” Shibuya in the game, but it exists only in the background, as a concept and as a geographical tag for the place the game takes place in. You can see the whole Shibuya on the game map, but you can only ever visit parts of it. It is implied that the game takes place everywhere in Shibya, but actually the player can only access certain key locations of the district. Or, to use the Greek terms, the player never actually experience the chora but instead only the topoi within it.

And this is true for both the game and the real Shibuya. The division into places of meaning and un-places of meaninglessness. Our cities are full of places that are, in general, essentially not places. Roads, alleys and vaguely unmemorable stretches of suburbs don’t stay with you, unless there’s something personal you associate with them. Something to separate them from the larger whole. Something to make them topoi. An unmemorable street you only use once and never remember afterwards does exists, sure, but to you personally it might as well not be there after you leave it behind.

The playable locations in The World Ends With You are centered around major landmarks and points of interest in Shibuya. Each in-game location has at least one iconic object (a statue, a building, a shop and so on) that is instantly recognizable for someone who has visited the place in the real Shibuya. Or, vice versa, is instantly familiar when seeing it for the first time in real life, after having encountered it only in the game.

As such, the places both in the game and in the real world are heavy with meaning and history. Playing TWEWY weaved fictional meaning into these key locations which already were rather well separated from the generic urban noise of the rest of the district. This turns the locations to some sort of über-spaces. Spaces that are more than just spaces in the conventional way. Spatial points where experiences from two different worlds meet, blend, and bleed into each other.

Seeing the statue of Hachiko for the first time in Shibuya reminded me of the story of the faithful dog, and all the tourist photos I’d seen of it. The real-world cultural jetsam and flotsam I’d picked up over the years. But it also reminded me of Neku and Shiki meeting there, trapped in a weird world, looking for a way out from a surreal situation. The experience was a combination of geography, history and fiction.

Aside from chora and topos, analysing my baffling experience in Shibuya requires us to review one more term: The magic circle.

Scholars of game studies have, for a good time now, used the concept of a magic circle to describe various spaces and boundaries of play. For as long as the term has been in use it has attracted both adamant support and schorching criticism, both of which stem largely from the vagueness of the concept and its origins.

The magic circle was first introduced to game studies via the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga, who made some references to it in his seminal book "Homo ludens" in 1938. This is the passage that is often quoted from the book:

All play moves and has its being within a play-ground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the "consecrated spot" cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground.

The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.

Huizinga never thoroughly investigates the concept of the magic circle, and though he certainly makes a case for play being separate from non-play (or everyday life in general), he remains rather ambivalent about the whole term.

The commonly used contemporary interpretation of the term comes from Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, who in their book Rules of Play introduced their own version of the magic circle, based on – but not limited to – the works of Huizinga. As Zimmerman pointed in his magic circle retrospect on Gamasutra earlier this year:

To be perfectly honest, Katie and I more or less invented the concept, inheriting its use from my work with Frank, cobbling together ideas from Huizinga and Caillois, clarifying key elements that were important for our book, and reframing it in terms of semiotics and design -- two disciplines that certainly lie outside the realm of Huizinga's own scholarly work.

The bottom line is, there really is no “magic circle” as such. It’s a metaphor – a tool for effective separation of play and non-play, to be used as one best sees. The use of the term hinges for the most part on one’s definition of it rather than an agreed-upon fixed meaning.

But if we distill the magic circle to its most basic form, we can define it as a boundary between a game and the rest of the world. It demarkates the game, basically.



What The World Ends With You does is it extends the magic circle beyond the game and into the real world. All of a sudden, the separation of the fictional Shibuya and the real Shibuya is blurred. By enhancing the speciality of the already rather special topoi of Shibuya, the game hurls you into the physical city in a way unlike anything else I know. It felt like I was playing even when the game was turned off.

It’s like the game is constantly layered over the observations you make when walking around Shibuya. And the game, when I went back to it after the trip, felt more real, it’s locations more tangible. Not real as in “realistic”, of course, but it felt like the locations somehow contained more of themselves, like they had gained a stronger identity. I had a better understanding of what the game objects signified and symbolized. The chora of Shibuya – the overall game world of TWEWY that is – felt just as it had previously, but now it was filled to the brim with something new: Topoi with an air of life. Places of significance that starkly stood out from the rest of the fiction.

The game world had escaped the digital and entered the real, and simultaneously the real world had come rushing in, subverting the caricature of itself, lodging itself into the game.

The World Ends With You stretches and transforms the magic circle until it covers all of the real Shibuya. The chora of the real Shibuya was overrun by the multitude of fictional topoi, each more important than the other. The effect was most starkly felt near the major landmarks of Shibuya. I could go to any of the central locations of Shibuya and feel like I’d never closed my DS. Walking into Tower Records I almost expected to see the familiar sales guy behind the counter.

But it did not stop with the specific locations. The magic circle was everywhere, filling every street and alley. Even if I wasn’t next to a topos, I knew I was close to one. When I wasn’t at a place of meaning I was inhabiting something else, traversing the meta-Shibuya of the loading screens and background maps, on my way to the next interesting location. The magic circle did not break even when I wasn’t close to recognizable topoi.

In Shibuya, I can’t watch the storefront of Tower Records without thinking about boss battles and cutscenes. I can’t walk from Shibuya to Harajuku, seeing all the little cafés and fashion boutiqués that fill the space between these two magnificent districts, without thinking that somewhere nearby Mr H is fixing yet another cappuccino at WildKat.

And so it is that now the chora of Shibuya is filled to the brim with topoi; The space filled with places, all thanks to just one game. The awe I experienced when the game’s geography started lining up with the real geography was what happens when a magic circle breaks – or doesn’t break, necessarily, but at least spreads to cover much more than a game.

The World Ends With You has a central theme of how the world doesn’t, in fact, end with you, but that we’re in this together, all of us. And only by sharing our worlds we can expand the borders. It is fitting, then, that the game itself has offered such a perfect chance for me to have the boundaries of my personal experience be so radically altered.

It’s a common worry for many a concerned person that video games make us forget what is real and what is fiction. That we somehow lose ourselves in made up worlds and afterwards find ourselves unable to handle reality as it is.

I’m sure those people have never lost themselves and stood in awe in the middle of a foreign city, amazed by how they know where everything is just because they’ve been there before, in another life.

I have fought, I have laughed and I have cried in Shibuya, and I don’t care whether it was real or fiction because I remember it all; The Shibuya of my memories.