Are all videogames naturally authoritarian?
To begin, let us consider the concept of authority. Most of us encounter authority first through parents, who are generally adverse to a child’s natural predisposition to licking delicious wall outlets. From there, childhood is a virtual gauntlet of different authority figures. And some of those so-called “authorities” can’t even get their act together long enough to present the same messaging! Which homework am I supposed to focus on for “three hours of studying” a night, teaching staff? You all claimed every subject was the most important I’d ever encounter, and me not even believe that English class could ever be helpful! And coach says I’m supposed to be working on my gluts during that time, anyway! I’m going to just give up and lick some more outlets until mom yells at me again.
But, to be clear, authorities do not stop just because you finally graduate past the school system. In our daily lives as adults, we frequently encounter men and women that have authority over us, whether that authority be real, imagined, or distant. A boss may control whether or not you have a weekend to yourself, and a politician that was elected in Kentucky may for some reason have authority over whether or not you can control the functions of your own body. And, since this is a videogame blog, let’s go ahead and claim some of those “imagined” authorities don’t even know they are authorities. Nintendo says its latest retro release will not be available after March: does that mean they have commanded you to make a purchase now, because you are terrified of missing out? Authority comes in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes from the most unlikely of sources. Or, sometimes, there are super likely sources, like the police.
The police are… a bit of a thing of late. Or maybe they always have been a thing? This is a difficult topic to broach, as this is a very public blog, and I hesitate to make any statements that could be interpreted as overtly political. Ha ha ha. Just kidding. The truth is I hesitate to make any statements that could get me fired, politically ostracized, or outright jailed. Do I think all cops are bastards? I can say, with complete confidence, that I know one retired police officer that I would not describe as a bastard. I also know one not-retired, not-fired police officer who, when my house was robbed, immediately accused my neighbor that was literally across the street because “you know, we get a lot of calls about that mixed family,” despite the fact that actual evidence proved this to be a completely baseless accusation. So, ya know, there are people on both sides (“Aren’t you missing a word in that quote?” “No.”). And, regardless of my feelings on individual police officers, I am all for defunding the police, as even the smallest PD seems to account for enormous chunks of city budgets. I have absolutely no qualms about stating that our teachers should have more funding than our police officers. But maybe this thinking is influenced by my love of videogames? I have only played a handful of games where high school teachers have been villains (and they mostly involved anime teens), but I have played a lot of videogames where the opponents were the police. I wonder why that is…
Today’s featured title, Jet Set Radio, is one such game. Technically, the real, “final” enemy of JSR is a billionaire mogul who thinks that reassembling a magical record is going to kick off a thousand years of Shin Megami Tensei, but, if you’re looking at the street level villains of Jet Set Radio, it’s only rival gangs (that eventually become friendly) and cops (who are never friendly). The plot of Jet Set Radio is (initially) simple: sweet ass magical rollerblades have been invented, sweet ass music has always been invented, and now the kids with their blades and their hip hop are skating around town and spraypainting their logos all over the place. You are one of these kids, and, since you’re actively breaking the law at all times (being this radical is illegal), the police are your constant enemy. Some are anonymous storm troopers, some are very well-defined enemies of Lupin III, and some are using friggin missile-launching helicopters to take down teenagers; but they all work together to stop the kids from having a fun time. I just want to shred and tag, man, don’t be all The Man about it.
And, if you’re just following the plot of Jet Set Radio, it is extremely anti-authoritarian. The police are a problem from the first level, but they are, more or less, little more than a nuisance. JSR distinctly portrays the police as incompetent, and, in a game that technically doesn’t have any offensive options (the “bosses” of this game are defeated by spraypainting and then becoming too embarrassed to be a threat), they are easily thwarted by simply skating around. They’ll never catch those wily kids! And, similarly, when the “real” big bad surfaces with a plan that could obliterate the city and potentially all life on the planet, it is eventually revealed that… it wouldn’t have worked. Magical demon summoning isn’t real, silly, and Evil CEO Goji was always going to be just as unsuccessful as Police Captain Onishima. The message here is clear: not only are known authorities ineffective, they’re downright goofy. The hip teenagers were always going to succeed, and these squares never had a damn clue.
And this is very common in media aimed at teenagers. Hell, you could claim that the very concept of a “teenager” is the result of identifying that at a certain point a “child” reaches an age where they object to authority (and maybe we should be able to market directly to that demographic). As such, in many videogames, you continually see teenagers save the world from evil organizations (or occasionally religions) that are run by fussy old men. Videogames don’t really have a “punk” genre, but it does have any number of teens that pathologically battle the very concept of authority. Is there that much of a difference between Beat and friends battling against the authority of a corrupt company and Cloud and friends combating another, slightly different corrupt company (and don’t claim Cloud isn’t a teenager: coma years don’t count). Tifa might not be shredding around on rollerblades (and we’re worse for it), but she’s fighting for personal freedom just as much as Gum.
But, while many videogames focus on the freedom that their protagonists are fighting for, these heroes, in actuality, have absolutely zero autonomy. Final Fantasy 7 is practically a game all about how there’s no getting off the train your controller is on, but Jet Set Radio is a lot more similar than it cares to admit. Yes, there’s the obvious overarching plot that requires a playthrough, so Beat is always going to go from “new kid” with a new gang to ultimately the savior of the city (and Coin is always going to be nebulously having a bad time). But the more important thing is that, like it or not, you are locked into this game where Jet Set Radio happens to happen. Want to just cruise around on your wicked blades? Well, too bad, there are malevolent cops and/or assassins in every level. Want to escape those cops in new and interesting ways? That’s great, but there are only one or two pre-approved “escape routes” per level. And do you just want to skip a level, maybe because skating around the sewers tagging moving targets 30 times has never been fun? That’s another negative, kiddo, because you absolutely have to progress in JSR linearly. You want to play this game in a manner not prescribed by Sega? Not on my dime, pal.
Jet Set Radio is about being an anti-authority radical teen, but playing Jet Set Radio means submitting wholly to the authority of its directors. Jet Set Radio, in its most popular form, is wholly authoritarian.
But all is not lost! There is still freedom out there for Beat, Gum, and whatever that third guy was named (uh…. Beanie?). While the console versions of JSR must languish in a world without change, mods are available if you’ve decided to start skating on PC. And let us consider how much the gang from JSR has moved past their initial medium, and now frequently appear through fanart, fan videos, and enough cosplay to keep its admirers hating any conventions involving stairs for years. In short, whether it is in the digital world or the real one, the fans have wrested control of Jet Set Radio away from its authorities, and now the humble player has more than a few options on how they want to play around in that anti-authoritarian world. The system works!
And what’s the moral there? Well, there is hope. Videogames are, by their nature, authoritarian, because, more than in any other medium, a videogame can be programmed to force the player to either play the game how directed, or walk away. A book or movie is always going to include a fastforward feature, but videogames can allow for so much as a “chapter skip” to be outlawed. However, given enough time and effort, fans can reclaim practically anything, and, before you know it, Tab (that’s his name!) has been replaced by C.J., and authority has been reclaimed. It’s not easy to make such mods, and it’s not necessarily easy for a player to simply install such a thing, but it is possible. It is worth the effort.
Authority can be overthrown. Whether it be in Jet Set Radio or in our real world, things can change. Things will change. We just need to work together.
FGC #546 Jet Set Radio
- System: Originally Sega Dreamcast, and then all over the place as of about the Playstation 3/Xbox 360. It’s currently Xbox One backwards compatible, which I think means it will work with the XboxxobX or whatever the next system is called.
- Number of players: You’ve got a full gang, but you skate alone.
- So, does this entire article exist because apparently your old Dreamcast VMU crapped out, and you never made any progress in the PS3 version, so, in order to capture gameplay from Jet Set Radio, you had to start completely from scratch despite beating/unlocking everything about twenty years ago? Maybe.
- Urge to continually call this game “Jet Grind Radio”: High.
- Favorite GG: Yo-Yo always looks like he is going to start some #$&!, so I see that lime-green hoodie a lot. He also says “yo” a lot, which, as someone who used such a word roughly 40,000,000 times in my school days, seems relatable.
- Do you hold a grudge against Jet Set Radio because you always blamed it for the continual usage of grinding in Sonic Adventure 2 and later Sonic games, which you have always hated? Yes.
- For the Future: I’ve never actually played Jet Set Radio Future. This is because… uh… um… I guess because the robot never told me to play it. Is it any good? It’s weird, I just never thought we needed more JSR than OG JSR.
- Did you know? The logo of Goji and the Rokkaku Group is meant to be a hexagon (which is a pun on “Rokkaku” in Japanese), but it looks an awful lot like the Nintendo Gamecube logo. Granted, this is somehow before the Gamecube even existed, but it still seems rather fascinating.
- Would I play again: Hell, why not? It would be nice if I could play it in a new, unique way, though…
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Super Mario Bros. 2! Wait, didn’t we already do that one? I’m sorry? I’m receiving word that there are two Super Mario Bros. 2s. Oh, well that works. Please look forward to that!
Authority or not, this is pretty fun