428: Shibuya Scramble – The Mechanics of Storytelling

When we’re talking about conventional games — particularly today’s games — it’s important to consider them from a wide variety of perspectives.

Typically, we look at a game from several different angles: the way it’s presented through its sights and sounds; the way it plays through its mechanics; and, where applicable, how it handles its story.

When contemplating visual novels, the balance tends to be a little different. We tend to up the focus on narrative considerably, and in many cases mechanics don’t enter the picture at all — many visual novels simply don’t have any! That is, unless you’re 428: Shibuya Scramble, in which case your narrative and mechanics combine together to produce something exceedingly interesting…

Before we analyse 428: Shibuya Scramble specifically, let’s contemplate how we can divide visual novels as a medium into a number of distinct categories. And note that I refer to visual novels as a medium rather than a genre of games; this is because although sharing a lot in common with computer and video games, particularly with regards to presentation and method of delivery, they have distinctly different priorities. (For simplicity’s sake, however, many people still refer to them as “games” and having a “player” rather than a “reader”.)

In simple terms, visual novels prioritise story, often at the expense of what we consider to be “gameplay”. As such, someone who is a fan of visual novels may not necessarily be a fan of video games in general, and likewise someone who enjoys video games in a broad sense is not necessarily going to get along with visual novels.

There are several ways in which we can categorise visual novels purely from a narrative perspective, completely disregarding gameplay altogether. The first is to do with the work’s attitude towards sexuality.

X-Change

At one end of the spectrum lie nukige, which are sex-heavy, pornographic games in which the sexual gratification of the reader is prioritised over characterisation, worldbuilding and suchlike — though not necessarily to the exclusion of those aspects. An example of this previously covered here on MoeGamer would be the X-Change series.

We then pass through eroge, which are visual novels that incorporate erotic content, but typically integrate it into the story somehow — either as part of the depiction of a burgeoning romantic and/or sexual relationship, or as graphic depictions of sexual violence. A fantastic example of the former is the Grisaia series, which makes absolutely wonderful use of its sex scenes to enhance its characterisation and help us understand the relationships between the protagonist and the heroines; meanwhile, more “gamey” titles that incorporate strong visual novel elements such as Alicesoft’s Rance series and Evenicle feature a bit of both, with the latter in particular strongly contrasting the heartwarming intimacy of the erotic scenes between the protagonist and his wives with the shocking, raw, animal brutality of its uncompromising scenes of sexual violence.

Grisaia

After eroge, we get into ecchi visual novels, which incorporate sexually provocative material, but do not cross a line into explicit sexual activity. This is where you get your games that are full of panty shots and peeping Tom scenes, but for the most part, like eroge, these tend to incorporate a narrative that is more meaningful than just ogling girls. In most cases, anyway. It’s actually relatively rare to find a pure ecchi visual novel here in the West; typically most examples are actually an “all-ages” version of an eroge, with one of the most well-known examples in recent years being the Nekopara series.

And then, finally, we get “everything else”: visual novels that don’t have any particular focus on sexuality whatsoever. There might be occasional provocative scenes, but not of the “whoops! I fell over in such a way that my panties are clearly visible!” sort of way; the emphasis is on the narrative and characterisation, and in many cases the story doesn’t involve romantic or sexual relationships at all. Good examples of this that we’ve previously seen here on MoeGamer include Steins;Gate, Lily’s Night Off and, of course, 428: Shibuya Scramble — between them showing that this end of the spectrum also tends to have the greatest thematic diversity.

And that brings us to another way in which we can divide visual novels into categories: genre. And, unlike when we talk about genre with regard to video games, we’re not talking about mechanical genre here; we’re talking about genre in the same way as we would in other creative, narrative media such as movies and books. Simply put, what is the overall tone of the work? What is it about? Who is it aimed at?

Visual novels’ focus on narrative over mechanics mean that they can be about literally anything without having to worry about “how to make it a fun game”. They might be a comedy about a young man who wants to become a baker, and is both helped and hindered by his family pets. They might be a Shinto-inspired tale about a young girl with powers beyond her understanding and how she comes to understand and accept her own sexuality. They could be a fantasy tale that allegorically explores how and why people might take up strongly right-wing ideals, even when the rest of contemporary society seems to stand against that sort of thing. Or they could be about learning to live with disability and how to accept other people for who they are beneath their most superficial characteristics.

We won’t dive too deeply into this today, but 428: Shibuya Scramble is particularly interesting in this regard in that it actually incorporates a number of distinct stylistic genres over the course of its complete runtime. Each of the five main narrative paths has a clearly defined sense of style and genre at its outset — though this doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll stick to that over its duration. In fact, in many cases, the writers subvert expectations, zipping off in unexpected directions while still maintaining a sense of overall coherence. Just one of many ways that 428: Shibuya Scramble reflects the chaos of daily life in modern urban Japan.

The third way in which we can categorise visual novels concerns how much of a “game” they are.

At one end of this spectrum, we have kinetic novels such as Nekopara and Ne no Kami, which feature no player input whatsoever besides clicking through the text and, in the latter case, pulling up “tips” for definitions of particular concepts when they are introduced for the first time. At the other, we have titles such as Aselia the Eternal, which is clearly a visual novel in terms of how much it focuses on its narrative, but which also has a mechanically dense “gameplay” component to complement the storytelling. And somewhere in between, we have the amorphous mass of “visual novels with choices”. It’s this bit that we need to focus in on further in order to understand where 428: Shibuya Scramble fits in to the big picture, and how it works as a “game”.

Visual novels can handle choices in numerous ways. The simplest way is for them to have straightforward binary choices that immediately branch off in different directions according to the reader’s choice. Alcot’s My Girlfriend is the President works like this, with each of its four narrative routes being based on a series of very obvious binary “yes, I want to see this girl’s story / no, I want to check out the other girls” choices in its opening hours.

My Girlfriend is the President

Then we can have something like how The Fruit of Grisaia works, with a lengthy common route in which you make several choices, and the exact combination of those choices determines which route you proceed down for the latter half of the game.

Or we could take an approach like Fate/stay night, in which there are numerous choices throughout the narrative, some of which have an immediate impact (usually between suffering a premature, bad ending or averting that particular fate) but some of which are quietly tracked in the background to determine whether you get a bad, good or “true” ending at the overall conclusion. D.O.’s Kana Little Sister also works somewhat like this, with each choice having one of several different hidden, invisible “points” values, and the conclusion you reach depending on which one of these categories you placed the highest value on through your choices.

And then we have 428: Shibuya Scramble, which features a complex network of interdependent choices across its five distinct narrative paths, with choices one character makes more often than not affecting what happens to a completely different character — perhaps at a completely different time.

So in summary, to categorise 428: Shibuya Scramble using these criteria we’ve defined here: it’s a visual novel that eschews eroticism completely in favour of narrative; it encompasses a number of different narrative genres over the course of its duration, including comedy, tragedy, psychological horror, hard-boiled cop thriller, farce and an “everyman” getting in somewhat over his head; and while it doesn’t have what we’d traditionally call “gameplay mechanics”, it definitely makes very interesting use of choices rather than simply being a linear, passive storytelling experience.

With that in mind, let’s look closely at 428: Shibuya Scramble specifically.

There are several discrete components to what we’ll call 428: Shibuya Scramble’s “mechanics”: Characters, the Time Chart, choices, tips, jumps, Keep Outs, Bad Ends and To Be Continueds. Let’s take each of these in turn.

Characters simply refers to the five main narrative paths through the game. During the initial chapter, you only have access to two of these as you play through an optional tutorial that demonstrates how these aren’t completely isolated from one another. After the tutorial is over, you can switch between characters whenever you like by bringing up the Time Chart.

The Time Chart is a graphical depiction of what happens when to the five different characters. Down the left of the screen, you see the time, and scrolling to the left and right allows you to see images that summarise what is happening to each of the five characters at that particular moment in time — assuming you’ve already read that part of their story. If you haven’t yet read that part, their fate at that time remains a mystery. From the Time Chart, you can jump between characters and even jump “back in time” to change choices you made — no need for save scumming here, since experimenting with choices is a key part of the overall experience.

Those choices, when they come, tend to be two or three different options. Sometimes they will have an immediate impact on the character you are presently following; sometimes they will have an indirect impact on another character — we’ll come back to this idea in a moment — and sometimes they are purely for flavour and don’t affect anything whatsoever.

Tips are pieces of text that are highlighted in blue. These can be selected to bring up a screen of additional information relating to the highlighted term. Typically, these define concepts that the reader might not be familiar with, such as police jargon or scientific terminology, but occasionally they simply provide some sort of pithy remark on what is going on; the further you go in the game, the more it feels as if whoever is “narrating” the tips is a character in their own right, almost like a non-participant “chorus” character in a classical play.

Jumps are similar to tips in that they are highlighted text, though this time in red. They generally involve a mention of one of the other playable characters, and allow you to directly jump from the character you are currently reading to the character referenced. Sometimes jumps are hidden inside tips, just to confuse matters.

Keep Outs relate to jumps. In some narrative paths, you’ll reach a point where you are unable to read any further until you have seen something happen to another character elsewhere. Progress in the first character’s story will be blocked by a piece of yellow police tape with “KEEP OUT” in large black letters on it, and you’ll need to find a jump point in another narrative path that mentions the “blocked” character in order to tear through this tape and continue. This will, of course, be found after a piece of relevant story that happened to the other character, even if it doesn’t seem directly relevant to the path that is blocked at the time.

Bad Ends are pretty self-explanatory: they bring the whole story to a screeching halt. These can either be the direct, immediate result of an “incorrect” choice made by a particular character, or the result of you failing to contemplate the consequences of another character’s choice on the one you are currently playing.

The latter aspect might sound a little confusing, but consider this. Street punk-turned-rescuer Achi encounters some of his former gang members and has a confrontation with them. During this confrontation, someone else shows up and scares the original hoodlums away. Achi then has the choice of whether to pursue them or interact with this newcomer. Choosing the former means that when detective Kano is coming around the corner in a taxi in his narrative path, Achi is running out into the road and gets hit by the car, killing him; this leads to a Bad End in both Achi’s and Kano’s route, because now Achi is dead, and Kano is unable to reach his original destination because he now has to deal with this mess instead.

Bad Ends shouldn’t be thought of as a negative thing, however, much as they are not in titles such as Corpse Party and the Nonary Games series. On the contrary, Bad Ends can sometimes provide additional narrative context that you might not get in other routes, or provide hypothetical futures for one or more of the characters that, in some cases, seem rather more pleasant than what the main story has in store for them! On top of that, there’s incentive to “collect” as many Bad Ends as possible, as they’re tracked in a list and numbered, have achievements and trophies tied to them and even serve as a prerequisite for one of the several possible actual conclusions to the story.

You’re not expected to figure out how to avert a Bad End completely by yourself until the final chapter. Prior to this, each and every one of them comes with its own tip suggesting what you might need to do; in the early hours of the story, these are very specific and helpful, but as you progress, they become more vague. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Bad Ends become somewhat more “serious”, violent and brutal later in the game, too; in the early hours, most of them are just “you fucked up and now no-one can solve this”; later, however, someone — perhaps everyone — will die if you don’t sort out the correct combination of choices to proceed!

Finally, we come to To Be Continued. This is a sign that, in theory at least, you’ve done everything right and you’ve successfully steered that character to the end of another hour, and they are now ready to proceed to the next. Once all of the characters reach To Be Continued for the hour they are on, you move on to the next.

However! Here’s the twist. Reaching To Be Continued on one character is not necessarily a guarantee that they won’t still cause another character a Bad End. In fact, in at least one case over the course of the complete duration, reaching a To Be Continued with one character specifically causes another character’s Bad End, meaning that you need to find a completely different To Be Continued that allows that particular fate to be averted. At this point, you’ll find yourself tangled into a veritable Cat’s Cradle of intertwining, interdependent choices — yes, my choice of terminology was deliberate, there, as we’ll see in a subsequent piece! — potentially messing up all your hard work on that particular chapter with just one little change.

This is a really interesting approach to interactive narrative design, avoiding the common “Choose Your Own Adventure” feel of some multi-route visual novels and instead providing something that, in some ways, feels like a puzzle game. Each hour-long time block in the narrative is its own puzzle that you need to unravel, determining how each of the routes crisscross each other and at what points in the overall timeline. It’s a real pleasure to work out a combination of choices that sees everyone get through to the next hour safely, but the various Bad Ends also stoke the curiosity, so it becomes oddly compelling and addictive to specifically try and seek them out for the sake of your “collection” before you advance the story properly.

And it’s this cool, unconventional structure that is a big part of why 428: Shibuya Scramble is so well-regarded — both among veterans of the medium, and even among people who typically don’t tend to engage with visual novels as a general rule. There really is nothing quite like it out there, and if you’re yet to experience it — well, just make the right choice.


More about 428: Shibuya Scramble

Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoyed this article. I’ve been writing about games in one form or another since the days of the old Atari computers, with work published in Page 6/New Atari User, PC Zone, the UK Official Nintendo Magazine, GamePro, IGN, USgamer, Glixel and more over the years, and I love what I do.

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4 thoughts on “428: Shibuya Scramble – The Mechanics of Storytelling”

  1. This sounds a lot like one of the Zero Escape games, as far as getting bad ends is necessary to completing the plot. I see visual novels as the sort of black sheep of media – they fit nowhere and get no respect. But they also include some of my favorite works like the Infinity series, Umineko, and Saya no Uta.

    Liked by 1 person

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