How Video Games Let Me Go Back Home

When physical trips are impossible, games might be the next best thing

As I first stepped through the train doors in Yongenjaya, a wave of nostalgia hit me. This was the station I went to on a nearly daily basis for school as a child. I recognized the positioning of the stairs and how crowded the platforms were. It almost felt like I was home. But I wasn’t — I was playing a video game, Persona 5.

I was born and raised in Tokyo. I spent my formative years walking its streets — it is my home. However, five years ago I had to leave the country to attend university in the United Kingdom. Traveling back to Japan is expensive. On top of that, my parents have moved out of the city, meaning I have no familial connection to fall back on. Because literal return is impossible, I have begun to do some digital tourism to assuage my homesickness.

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You Can’t Go Home Again

“Homesick tourism” and its cousin “personal memory tourism” are concepts from academic tourism studies. They refer to how people living away from their areas of origin travel back to their former homes for catharsis and comfort after they have left them. Sabine Marshall, in her 2015 essay “‘Homesick tourism’: memory, identity and (be) longing,” points out that:

“Return migrants… often perceive a sense of cultural alienation in their country of residence, sometimes to the extent of discrimination; the return to the homeland allows them to immerse themselves in a culturally familiar environment that conveys the illusion of belonging.”

I don’t always feel like at home in the UK. There is always this sense that I am missing out on certain experiences that those who lived here since childhood have; things like certain sweets being cheaper in past years, or whatever was on local television in the past. I also feel out of place based on my experiences of being in Japan. I miss things like being able to travel as easily around because of the lack of public transport, or the simple act of going to a big electronics store (something I have found is bizarrely lacking in the UK). I feel there is this disconnect between me and UK natives in what I know and love.

But I can’t afford to physically visit my home town. Round trips to Tokyo from London cost up to £1000, a fee that my retail job just can’t cover. In the past I might have had to content myself with films or TV shows set in Tokyo. But now, there are a large number of video games set in the city, and their depictions of my home help me assuage that ache to return.

Visiting Home With The Phantom Thieves

Playing Persona 5 lets me retrace my daily routines back home. The protagonist’s home is based on an area called Sangenjaya, which is where I went to school. Oddly enough, his school is close to where I used to live. Because of this coincidence, playing the game meant taking the same train route I used to every day in real life. It also helps that the game recreates the streets of the Shibuya district eerily well. When traversing that station and general area, I tap into what feels like muscle memory of getting around the shopping district. I make each turn to get from the Ginza line to the main crossing in the game as easily as I used to when I was a teenager.

In the Wii U JRPG Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE, the Shibuya district is much more fully realized. Rather than the single street offered in Persona 5, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE allowed me to explore the neighborhood in more detail. I could walk all the way up to the 109 Building and see the surrounding stores up close. Additionally, the game’s pastiches of stores line up a bit better to their real-world counterparts than Persona 5′s do. For instance, the Hee Ho Mart in Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (situated to the right of the game’s “106 building”) is located where in the real world there is a Lawsons convenience store. On top of that, the game also captures the general atmosphere of the area better. It feels more vibrant and alive, possibly due to the more vivid color palette and J-pop inspired soundtrack. Again, the game elicits the same joy I found in exploring Persona 5’s map with recognizable landmarks and features.

The World Ends With You, on the other hand, actually elicits enjoyment from the inaccuracy of its world. Yes, it gets all the big landmarks like the Hachiko statue correct. But its general geography is skewed. It amuses me greatly that a store named Tokyu Hands — which is in northern Shibuya — ended up in the western part of the game’s map. It is because of my familiarity with the area that I find joy in finding these discrepancies.

An aspect of all three games I find very entertaining is the various parodies and pastiches of real-world brands, the most prominent of which being spoofs of the 109 building. In the real Shibuya, the department store is one of the major landmarks of the district and an iconic part of the cityscape. All three games play on the building’s name to refer to it without needing to license the brand. For example, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE calls it the 106 building. Other fun pastiches include the Tsutaya DVD/CD/Book store being renamed to “Scarlet CD/DVD” in Persona 5, or the aforementioned Tokyu Hands becoming Shibu-Q Heads in TWEWY. While these changes are simply to avoid copyright issues, they add a fun element to these games — hunting down the variations in each world’s version of Tokyo.

The Next Best Thing

Going home is often too expensive for migrants to indulge in on a regular basis, but digital trips can help scratch the same itch. And for me, there is a distinction between simply looking at a Google street view of my home and being able to visit it in a video game. The medium offers up a lot more physicality than looking at photos or video.

I am, in a way, actually walking through the streets of Tokyo when I play Persona 5. Yes, it may be only a simulacrum of my home, but video games as a medium offer a unique feature of being able to move within a space that is not one’s own. There is a screen separating me and the world in the game, but it is a world I can interact with nonetheless. Games offer a pseudo-physical encounter with my memories and so offer catharsis.

I haven’t been to Tokyo in over five years at this point. I might not even particularly remember every detail of the city where I grew up. And Reading, the town I live in now, is becoming more and more like home to me. But it will never replace Tokyo in my heart. And until I can afford to go back, these three games — and others like them — let me go home.

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