Video Game Cities Are Too Convenient to Feel Real

'NEO: The World Ends With You' gives its Shibuya a sense of place through your relationship to other people.

Aug 6 2021, 1:00pm

When I wake up in Shibuya, before I even know what today's mission is, I am building a battle plan. All my favorite stores have new clothing to try on, and I want to do a little shopping today, walking all the way from Udagawa to Takeshita Street to Shibuya Stream. On the way I'm hoping to grab a bite, stopping either at the donburi place on Center street, but saving room for a bubble tea on Spain Hill. It'll be exhausting, and most likely drain my wallet, but that's Shibuya for you.

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NEO: The World Ends With You is a pitch perfect sequel to the original The World Ends With You, which came out in the United States in 2007. The original game was something I really needed to play as an 18-year-old on the verge of college, and its message of getting outside and making friends is still something I hold close to my heart. As an adult who lives the city life that I'd imagined as a teenager, what's capturing my heart in NEO is how accurately it depicts what it's like to live in a dense city brimming with loud personalities.

Both the original The World Ends With You and its sequel take place in Shibuya, a prefecture of Tokyo. When you first open up NEO, the game seems huge, especially compared to the original game on the Nintendo DS from almost a decade ago. Rindo and Fret, the game's lead characters, are Shibuya natives; NEO brings you into their world, but not in a literal way. 

The things that turn just living somewhere into feeling a part of a community are often ineffable, and only really understandable once you get there. NEO does this in part by introducing characters from outside of Shibuya. The antagonistic Reapers, who run the Reapers' Game that Rindo and pals are trying to escape, come from neighboring Shinjuku. Compared to the larger than life Reapers from the original, like the math obsessed returning character Sho Minamimoto, these character designs are subdued. These are characters that dress in blazers and have slicked back hair, contrasting with the hoodies and dyed hair of the Shibuya citizens. The only Reaper who seems to like Shibuya at all is the sarcastic Shoka—the rest of the Reapers talk about Shibuya in the same way that Blair Waldorf from Gossip Girl bemoans having to hang out in Brooklyn. Given that the Reapers are villains, it puts you as a player in a defensive pose: Well, if they hate Shibuya then I love it!

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But I do just love the Shibuya of The World Ends With You and it's sequel. Mostly, I love walking around in Shibuya and seeing the sights. Both NEO and the original game are dedicated to not ever letting you fast travel from place to place, meaning if you're at the West Exit Bus Terminal and need to get to O-East you have no choice but to walk. But walking allows you to learn the neighborhoods and their landmarks, to find new shortcuts to your favorite shops and go to Tower Records just to say hi to the cute cashier there:

Passively absorbing this knowledge doesn't just make the game easier to navigate overtime. Some of Rindo and pals' daily missions involve literally being quizzed on where businesses and buildings are located. NEO guides you towards acting like a local by refusing to give you the video game-y conveniences in games like Grand Theft Auto or Insomniac's Spider-Man. There is no mini map or fast travel, and the connections between streets don't necessarily signal themselves to you as a player. You can definitely get lost in Shibuya if you're not paying attention, and it's up to you to pay attention to your surroundings so you don't. You're traveling through a smaller city than New York or any of the GTA's facsimiles of various American cities, so you won't be using a car or taking the subway. You're a teenager who's not in school and chilling in the city instead—you're gonna be walking.

Despite how much cities try to be convenient for their citizens, they're not frictionless. Busses and trains don't always run on time. As people move between neighborhoods, the flows of traffic change on both the roads and on the sidewalks. So much of living in a city is about waiting, navigating tedium, and familiarizing yourself with ways to circumvent those two things and dealing with the frustration that comes with hundreds of thousands of people living on top of each other. When I lived in Chicago, I soon learned how to optimize the trains and buses to make it from Logan Square to the north side as quickly as possible, cutting my travel time in half. I felt like a genius, like I understood something about Chicago that you wouldn't be able to know if you didn't live here. In NEO, whenever I found a new way to get across the map just a little bit faster, I felt the same way. It made me feel just a little bit more like an insider, rather than an interloper. If you're constantly using fast travel to magically teleport across Manhattan in Spider-Man, or your experience of driving around Los Santos in GTA V is mostly looking at a mini map, you don't experience the same frictions that make a place unique.

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A place gets its character in part from how you react to it. Becoming a regular, a game mechanic that's unlocked by shopping somewhere a lot and wearing their clothes about town, at any of the shops you frequent in NEO makes returning to each store delightful. Not only do you get more options for things to buy, the shopkeepers' expressions change. Their dialogue indicates they recognize you. You'll never develop a deep relationship with them, but I kind of love that. The baristas at my local coffee shop know my order, and they greet me with at least a nod of recognition if not a smile. Seeing a friendly face every day who recognizes me as part of this neighborhood makes me feel like I'm a part of a community.

The original The World Ends With You was deeply concerned with friendship on a one-to-one level. In this game, you had a partner to play the Reapers' game with and you had to trust them. Along the way, the misanthropic Neku would learn the value of opening up to people—the horizons of the world end and begin with you, after all. NEO still wants to discuss how people are connected to each other, but it's much more so about community. 

As you befriend the people in Shibuya, they show up on a "social network" map, showing you how all these people are connected to each other. It turns out the shy cashier from Tower Records is actually the lead singer of a punk band called the Dead Seatbelters. She's self conscious about her stutter, but not on stage. She's in that band with another employee from Cyco Records in Udagawa, who plays bass, and an employee at the punk fashion house Tigre Punks, who's on drums. Their biggest fan is the middle aged woman who works at the Moyai Mart convenience store at West Exit Bus Terminal. Her description on the social network map reads, "headbanging to their songs is her sole relief from her daily stress."

As the game progresses, the social network map expands, and the game throws more and more mechanics at you until the web of them feels tangled, though never incomprehensible. Overall, NEO says that Shibuya only exists because people love and believe in Shibuya. As the plot rolls on, multiple characters define the city as a place where different kinds of people and perspectives collide. Without those people, Shibuya isn't Shibuya anymore.


If I ever visit Shibuya I'm pretty sure I won't be trapped in a series of games to determine whether or not I die. But based on what I've seen in the original The World Ends With You and its sequel, I'll spend a lot of time hopping from shop to shop, trying on everything I can at each boutique, eating Instagramable food, scouring the racks at record stores and admiring the street art and graffiti as vastly different kinds of people meet each other, if only briefly, in the winding streets of the city.

Tagged:

neo: the world ends with you

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