428: Shibuya Scramble – A Question of Identity

Well, it’s time to unravel some of the mysteries at the core of 428: Shibuya Scramble. And there are plenty of them!

Not only that, but “beating” the game isn’t the end, either; once you’ve seen the “normal” or “true” endings, there are other, more deviously hidden scenarios to track down… but that’s a tale for another day. Today, we’re going to focus on the how the game explores its various protagonists and one of its most important core themes.

Let’s step back into Shibuya, then… the beating heart of one of the world’s busiest cities.

We join 428: Shibuya Scramble as something big is going down by the famous “scramble crossing” near the station — that which the game is named after. Hot-blooded young detective and first protagonist Kano is preparing for an elaborate operation to take down a kidnapper; it seems that Maria Osawa, daughter of the renowned virologist Kenji Osawa, has been taken, and a ransom is being demanded for her release.

As the story opens, Maria’s sister Hitomi is standing by the Hachiko statue, a well-known landmark in the area, clutching an attaché case filled with the ransom money. The police have the area surrounded, and it seems like there can be no possible escape for the kidnapper… but, of course, things don’t go according to plan — particularly once second protagonist Achi Endo shows up.

In contrast to Kano’s desire to impress others and live his life by a series of clear rules — “Dick Dictums”, as he calls them, mostly gathered through his observations of a senior detective he respects enormously — Achi is very much someone who is independent, living life his own way. This doesn’t mean he’s selfish, however; quite the opposite, in fact. Achi chooses to live his life as someone who loves and respects Shibuya — so much so that he spends most of his days going out and picking up trash around the area rather than finding a job for himself. It’s a never-ending, thankless task — but Achi feels like he “owes” it to this town that he grew up in, and the streets that helped shape him.

The opening chapter of the game initially concerns how the two characters’ actions have an impact on the attempts to capture the kidnapper. As it happens, failure of some description is inevitable thanks to the mastermind behind the situation having proven themselves more than ready for police intervention, but whether or not it’s a failure that can be recovered from is dependent on both Kano and Achi’s actions, as we’ve previously discussed.

Right from this initial “tutorial” section, it becomes clear that each protagonist’s path through the narrative is going to be markedly different in tone and feel. Kano’s story is a high-pressure, hard-boiled cop thriller, while Achi’s is a personal story about living life as a youth on the streets and finding a place for yourself in the world.

The differing tones can be clearly seen through the style of narration; despite both being third-person past-tense, there’s an obvious distinction between the pair of them.

Kano’s is very businesslike, making use of a fair amount of jargon (and good use of the Tips function to explain this jargon when it comes up for the first time, allowing you to immerse yourself in the “police life”) juxtaposed with the more personal interactions between Kano and his peers; a significant part of Kano’s story involves the poor cop trying to juggle his responsibilities in attempting to solve a serious crime with the distinctly personal concern of getting his girlfriend’s rather brusque father’s approval for the couple to wed.

The treatment of Kano’s narrative brings up the first example of a recurring theme throughout 428: Shibuya Scramble: the simple question “who am I?” Kano’s literal struggle between his professional responsibilities and his desire to do the right thing for his girlfriend reflects his own internal conflict between wanting to be the detective he admires so much and wanting to do things his own way.

Kano’s girlfriend Rumi is an interesting treatment of this theme, too. When we’re first introduced to the fact he has someone special in his life, his partner Sasayama believes her, from a photograph on Kano’s phone, to be a famous actress named Masami Nagahama. Kano denies this, though interestingly we never seem to quite find out for sure if his “Rumi” is actually Nagahama operating under an alias — or perhaps under her real name rather than a stage name.

Even more intriguingly, we never actually see Rumi clearly throughout the story. We hear her over the phone a few times, but on the one occasion Kano actually manages to find some time to speak with her father, she just happens to be off-screen in the toilets. Who is Rumi? Is she really Masami Nagahama — and if so, does it matter to Kano, who clearly loves her for who she really is, rather than who the world and the tabloids think she is?

Achi’s narrative, in contrast to Kano’s, takes a more contemplative, almost nostalgic tone — though there’s also a slightly light-hearted angle to it all, too; were it not for some of the more violent things that happen throughout the narrative, I’d even go so far as to say that there’s almost a “children’s book” feel to some of it.

We hear about Achi’s love for Shibuya and its surroundings; we hear about how he is socially conscious and picks up rubbish around the neighbourhood for no other reason than he feels it’s the right thing to do; we learn that Achi isn’t especially bright or well-educated, but he consistently means well.

The “children’s book” angle on some of Achi’s narration is actually rather fitting with this latter aspect of his personality. In many respects, Achi is rather child-like; despite the fact that he grew up as a street punk and part of a struggling single-parent household, there’s a certain innocent quality about him that makes him rather endearing. And this is particularly brought to the forefront once he starts interacting with Hitomi, with whom he escapes after the police’s initial attempts to capture the kidnapper don’t quite go according to plan.

Over the course of the story as a whole, we see an Achi who, despite a somewhat gruff, determined exterior — a relic of both his gang leader past and a desire to grow up self-sufficient after his mother’s death — most definitely has a soft centre, and is absolutely willing to entertain the possibility of making someone an important part of his life. He goes well out of his way to help Hitomi, even before he realises and acknowledges his feelings for her; he initially justifies his actions through a promise he once made to his sickly sister Suzune, who is hospital-bound with a serious heart condition.

“If you’re going to help someone,” she once said to him, “make sure you see it all the way through to the end. No calling it quits partway through.” Achi took these words to heart, and sees Hitomi’s precarious situation — on the run from an apparent gang of kidnappers and seemingly being hunted down by a mysterious assassin with a cane — as an ideal opportunity to fulfil this promise. And indeed, he demonstrates his devotion — initially to his promise and subsequently to Hitomi — pretty consistently over the course of the complete narrative.

Hitomi’s importance to Achi is apparent even before he admits it to himself. It’s not quite a love-at-first-sight sort of situation, but he is smitten with her almost immediately — so much so that he clearly lets his guard down around her quite frequently, with this most commonly being demonstrated when he attempts to come out with some sort of saying that he’s obviously not completely familiar with, and inevitably gets it wrong.

That’s not all, though; through his deepening relationship with Hitomi, we come to learn more about Achi’s past: his background as the leader of the “S.O.S” gang, the circumstances of him abandoning this position, how he feels about the direction the gang has seemingly taken since his departure, and the reasons why he does the things he does.

His story is as much about him learning to answer that question “who am I?” as it is about the main overarching narrative. And through this aspect, ultimately Achi becomes one of the most sympathetic characters in the whole cast; while there isn’t a single “true protagonist” in 428: Shibuya Scramble, probably the closest we get to that is Achi, since throughout his own personal journey he comes to play a key role in pretty much everything that is unfolding.

Once past the first chapter, the overall narrative opens up with the other leading cast members, and between them we start to see some very different stylistic treatments. Probably the biggest contrast to Kano’s energetic cop thriller and Achi’s personal tale of self-understanding is that of Kenji Osawa, father of Maria and Hitomi and a man struggling to process the situation.

Osawa’s narrative initially appears to contain strong elements of psychological horror; there’s a very clear focus on his mental state and how various stimuli have an impact on this. And while the images used to complement the text aren’t especially explicit or gory — the most “horrifying” images are more implications than anything — the text most certainly gives us a very clear idea of the things that are… bothering him, shall we say.

Osawa’s narrative revolves around the Ua virus, a deadly agent that he has been studying and developing an antiviral treatment for. Over the course of 428: Shibuya Scramble’s complete runtime, this virus takes a role of key importance in the overarching narrative. But Osawa’s story isn’t just one of scientific discovery, breakthrough and the never-ending battle of man to overcome nature’s biggest threats. No; like most of the other protagonists in the game, Osawa is struggling with questions of self-identity; that old question of “who am I?”.

His relationship with his wife is on the rocks — not that it seems it was ever particularly “right”, for reasons that become apparent later — and he is wracked with guilt over his relationship with his daughters, particularly that between him and Maria. He doesn’t know anything other than how to devote himself to his work, and the idea of showing any sort of emotional vulnerability clearly terrifies him.

Osawa’s anxiety in this regard is pretty much manifested physically in the form of Kajiwara, a detective assigned to his house and family as part of the task force attempting to track down Maria. Kajiwara is initially presented as a sinister, threatening figure whose intentions are not at all clear; this, combined with the perpetual darkness Osawa’s chapters are bathed in even with it being the middle of the day (justified in-universe as all his house curtains being shut so no-one can see the police at work in his living room) allows us, as the reader, to be right in Osawa’s position. Anxious. Uncomfortable. Desiring nothing more than to get away as soon as possible.

But Kajiwara is actually there for another purpose; as the narrative proceeds, it becomes apparent that, despite his seemingly murky intentions at the outset, he is simply a friendly, good-humoured, empathetic and very caring sort of person. To Osawa, who is still unfamiliar and uncomfortable with human contact — despite having had two children with a previous wife and having what is technically a stable nuclear family now — this is alien territory, with Kajiwara’s friendliness even seeming overbearing at times. But Kajiwara simply harbours an earnest desire to help someone who he can clearly see is suffering.

Much of Osawa’s narrative concerns how this troubled man struggles to trust people, and indeed on more than one occasion we see that people with whom he has previously developed a sense of trust actually turn out to be some of the most dangerous in his life. Meanwhile, Kajiwara, who intially seems to be a threat, ends up as one of the most positive influences in his life, helping him to both process his past traumas and come to terms with what is happening right now.

But Kajiwara isn’t the only postiive influence on Osawa in this regard; there’s also Aya Kamiki, and the culture surrounding her.

Osawa found an unexpected connection with his daughters — albeit one that he hasn’t explored in person at the time of 428: Shibuya Scramble’s story unfolding — through the performer. He discovered that he appreciated Kamiki’s music; it soothes his troubled mind and his ever-churning soul, and thus he frequently turns to it as a means of “therapy” when times get tough.

As part of his discovery of Kamiki, he involved himself in her fandom, and is shown to be a regular participant on her forums. There, he also found himself connecting with people — most notably a poster named Pretty Honey, who is posing as a teenage girl, but who is actually someone we see somewhere else in the narrative. And the sense of delightful revelation when we, the audience, have the opportunity to discover who it really is… well, let’s just say it’s a wonderful moment.

Through all these interactions, we discover that Osawa is most definitely much too hard on himself. Despite his obvious difficulties in opening up to others, it’s very clear that he cares about more than just his work. Yes, he absolutely does care about his work — perhaps a little too much — but it is not at the complete expense of normal human emotions and empathy like he has come to believe about himself.

“If the worst should happen to my daughter, how am I going to feel, I wonder?” he ponders to Kajiwara. “I’m not a man with a wide range of emotions. My heart is… always cold, somehow. And the truth is I’ve wanted it to be that way. Which is why, if I do lose my daughter, my heart might remain unmoved. I may not even be able to feel a father’s sorrow. That’s what I’m anxious about.”

“It’s all right, sir,” responds Kajiwara simply. “People who really have cold hearts don’t worry about that sort of thing.”

Next up, we come to Minorikawa, a journalist who finds himself having a very strange day, pretty much from the outset. Although it quickly becomes very obvious that Minorikawa is perfectly comfortable with very strange days, and in fact is often the cause of very strange days for other people due to his unusual demeanour.

In contrast to Osawa’s dark, quiet, introspective narrative, Minorikawa’s story is joyful and exuberant, with a highly exaggerated quality that gives it a distinctly “anime” feel despite unfolding using live-action video and still photographs just like all the other routes.

Minorikawa’s signature move is the “exaggerated point to camera” to emphasise something he is saying, and it is used liberally throughout his story along with plenty of over-the-top sound and visual effects. If you’re familiar with how the Ace Attorney series tends to punctuate its dialogue with cartoonish explosion, punch and slap sounds to highlight and exaggerate the emotive content of a scene, then you’ll be right at home with Minorikawa’s route.

For much of his narrative, Minorikawa seems pretty comfortable in who he is, suggesting that he might be free of the game’s core theme of self-identity. But he, too, has plenty of opportunity for personal growth — both through the way in which he helps out two other supporting characters, and through the eventual conclusions he reaches about himself in the process.

Minorikawa’s narrative initially seems largely divorced from the broader context of the story. We join him as he is attempting to prevent former editor Toyama from committing suicide to escape the debts he has accumulated, and subsequently follow him as he attempts to help Toyama get his mojo and enthusiasm back, assemble the best ever issue of the gossip rag he works on and perhaps find a great scoop in the process.

Along the way, we also see Minorikawa have an impact on the life of a young woman: Chiaki, an aspiring freelance reporter. Chiaki is extremely nervous — to such a degree that she can’t bring herself to interview people properly. Given no other options to get the magazine out on time, he is forced to try and help Chiaki develop her confidence and ultimately understand why she still wants to be a reporter despite seemingly lacking some of the key skills required to excel in the field.

In essence, what Minorikawa is doing is help Chiaki answer that same question: “who am I?” We can interpret from her somewhat idiosyncratic appearance that Chiaki already has a reasonable idea about certain aspects of her own identity, but she’s been really struggling with the question of why she has apparently been pursuing a dream she is ill-equipped to achieve.

Minorikawa goes about this the only way he knows how: with a bit of tough love and a lot of finger-pointing. In the process of delivering the several pep talks he gives to Chiaki over the course of the complete narrative, he comes to understand quite what an impact Toyama had on him back in his earlier years as a reporter — and in turn, how important it is to him to pass on his skills and knowledge to a “new generation”… not to mention how much he genuinely wants to seek out the truth and justice rather than simply tabloid-style scandals and rumours.

And finally, we come to Tama, the game’s most literal embodiment of the question “who am I?” in that she literally doesn’t know who she is. At all.

When we join Tama, she is wearing a huge fluffy cat mascot outfit, and her only memories are of emerging from a storehouse, spotting a pendant in a junk shop window that she thought might possibly be important to her, and acquiring a somewhat sketchy job for an even sketchier individual named Yanagishita. And so it was that she found herself standing outside Shibuya Station attempting to hand out free samples of a questionable diet drink called “Burning Hammer”.

One of the most interesting things about Tama’s narrative is that it is the only route to be presented in first-person, present-tense narration. In other words, we effectively get to see what Tama sees, hear what she’s thinking and get a real understanding of who she is. Except can we really say that, given that she doesn’t know who she is?

Despite lacking her memories, Tama still clearly has a sense of self, and some instinctive responses that are seemingly called up automatically. Upon first encountering Yanagishita, for example, she unleashes some devastating self-defense moves, so clearly there’s something still in there… but what?

Unsurprisingly, much of Tama’s narrative concerns her desire to reawaken those seemingly lost memories, but in the process she demonstrates herself to still clearly have a personality of her own rather than being a “blank slate”. She has a delightfully deadpan and self-deprecating sense of humour as well as a strong sense of wanting to help out, even in the most seemingly hopeless situations. Why else would she stay on to assist Yanagishita, even when it becomes clear that he is not so much a scam artist as a gullible idiot?

Tama believes that following this particular thread is as good a way as any to try and set about getting her memories back, but there are some unexpected wrinkles along the way — most notably the fact that she finds herself completely stuck in her cat suit for quite some time, and thus she is unable to even look at “herself” in a mirror. We, the audience, are thus also deprived of the opportunity to at least see Tama’s visual identity, even if, as ride-along guests in her mind thanks to the narration style, we have to wait until she figures things out to discover the real truth.

Actually, that’s not quite true; towards the end of one of her chapters, Tama finally manages to break free of her costume, and we see her in “human form” for the first time. Her true identity isn’t immediately made explicit, though we can make a few deductions for ourselves based on what we know at this point.

These deductions are confirmed once and for all by the time all the protagonists move on to the next time block: even though Tama doesn’t know her own real name at this point, the game’s interface starts referring to her by her actual name instead. From this point on we, as the audience, are put in an interesting position: we’re still riding along inside her head, hearing everything she thinks and following along with her thought processes, but at this point we absolutely know something that she doesn’t. We know the answer to the question “who am I?” that bugs her throughout her entire narrative; we just have no means of telling her as an outside observer. It’s an interesting treatment of the material.

Another interesting aspect of Tama’s route is that her coming out of her “shell” provides her with the opportunity to be much more expressive. And, in contrast to all the other characters, who are very much “in role” for the duration of the game, Tama is one of two people in the game who, on more than one occasion, directly address the camera with an exasperated look regarding the ridiculous situation in which they find themselves.

The other is an unfortunate waitress in a coffee shop, who finds herself repeatedly having to deal with Minorikawa’s particular brand of enthusiasm over the course of the day. Both of them very much want out of their situations, and wish that we could help them. But we cannot; we are simply (mostly) passive observers in the unfolding events.

And so that’s how 428: Shibuya Scramble not only explores its main protagonists, but also the concept of identity. This hasn’t been an exhaustive rundown of all the ways in which the narrative delves into this theme, mind — the true identity of the main villain of the piece is a key one we haven’t touched on, for example, as is the mystery surrounding the character “Canaan” who shows up partway through — but hey. I have to leave at least a few things for you to discover for yourself, don’t I…?


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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