Real talk: I’m the wrong side of 40, and I haven’t been on what I would describe as a “night out” for quite some time. Fairly severe social anxiety, local friends who have all started families and thus rarely have time to do anything interesting and, of course, the global COVID pandemic have all conspired to keep me comfortably in my house for the vast majority of my time. And for the most part, I’m happy with that — but playing some Yakuza Zero recently has got me thinking.
I’m not new to the Yakuza series. I played the original PlayStation 2 release of the first game back when it first came out, and managed to acquire and play a copy of the sequel before it got insanely expensive. I played Yakuza 3 on the PS3… but then my exploration of the series stalled somewhat, largely because there were a variety of other things I wanted to play.
I didn’t stop collecting entries in the series, though; I picked up the two Yakuza Kiwami games, Yakuza Zero, the remastered pack of 3, 4 and 5 and Yakuza 6, and I even have a copy of Yakuza Dead Souls on my shelf. The only titles in the series I don’t own as I type this are Like a Dragon and the two Judgement titles, if you count those.
The other night, I was feeling a bit sorry for myself. I was into my second week of testing positive for COVID (which, thankfully, I can report has now passed me by completely as of yesterday evening) and I wasn’t in the mood for anything that I already had on the go from my collection. I considered diving into Full Metal Daemon Muramasa again, but having experienced two of that game’s intense, powerful endings in rapid succession, I needed a bit of a break from Nitroplus’ unique brand of darkness for the sake of my own mental wellbeing.
So I booted up Yakuza Zero for the first time. I’d been meaning to dive back into the Yakuza series for some time, but I’d also been holding off on the grounds that I probably wanted to write about it, and thus probably wanted to devote the majority of my attention to it when I did decide to play it. But right then, right there, I really felt like playing a Yakuza game. So I did. And, besides the intriguing story setup in the game’s early hours, which sees beloved series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu framed for murder after a seemingly routine debt collection assignment, one thing struck me more than anything else.
Yakuza was providing me the experience of “going out” for an evening — something which, as previously noted, I haven’t really done for quite some time, particularly in the age of COVID. Moreover, it was allowing me to enjoy that experience in a completely safe manner, as well as letting me do things that I would have been unlikely to do in reality, even during my student days of being out on the piss most evenings.
Yakuza achieves this feeling through its small-scale but extraordinarily well-crafted world. This has been a thing ever since the first installments of the series on PlayStation 2, but the improved technology of later hardware has made the experience more and more immersive and convincing as time has gone on. Now, the fictional district of Kamurocho feels more alive, vibrant, interesting — and, yes, dangerous — than ever before. And, as this feeling washed over me, I started to find myself feeling like Kiryu’s problems could probably wait for a little while — the poor guy deserved a fun night on the town, and I was most certainly going to give it to him.
On its most simple level, the liveliness of Kamurocho is created through the vividly realised scenery, and the constant progression of pedestrians proceeding through the area. Everywhere you look, there’s something interesting to see, even if it’s not something you can interact with directly. There are billboards to look at, shop displays to admire, neon signs lighting up the evening — and, of course, people.
There are people wandering by themselves. Couples walk arm-in-arm. Staff members of establishments lurk outside their place of work, calling “onii-san” to Kiryu as he walks past — becoming somewhat more agitated if he runs from them without taking the obligatory pack of promotional pocket tissues. People respond realistically if you barge your way through them; some respond angrily but proceed on their way, some will fall to the floor after you threw them off balance and some will even start a fight with you on the grounds that you insulted them.
Okay, in Kamurocho you’re far more likely to get into a fight than you are on a real night out — although I guess it depends where you go — but for the most part, it’s an interesting place to passively people-watch. But then you can also take a more active interest in things that are going on, too.
One of the most beloved aspects of the Yakuza series as a whole is its “substory” element, in which as you wander around Kamurocho and progress through the game, you’ll encounter various characters and situations and have the opportunity to participate in them in various ways. Through doing so, you’ll meet a varied cast of weird and wonderful people, get some unique insights into various aspects of Japanese urban culture and learn things alongside Kiryu.
In my most recent sessions with Yakuza Zero, I stumbled across a dominatrix who didn’t really know how to play the role properly, and I worked with her to help her be more assertive. I met an enthusiastic girl in one of the local Sega arcades who was impressed with my Out Run skills.
I chatted to a convenience store worker who wanted to help her employer come up with some unique ways to distinguish their chain from their main rivals. I helped a TV film crew complete the day’s shooting after their producer had failed to show up. And I helped some high school girls get off the street and seek a means of gainful employment other than selling their underwear to lecherous men.
Obviously to encounter all these situations in rapid succession is not especially realistic — but they do add to the sense of life in Kamurocho, and there are parallels to the real-life “out on the town” experience.
Have you ever been out drinking with a group of friends and ended up coincidentally running into another group of acquaintances, which ends up leading to some unexpected happenings? That’s a Yakuza substory.
Have you ever been to a pool hall with a couple of friends and ended up having an impromptu tournament against a group of people you met that night? That’s a Yakuza substory.
Have you ever been off your tits on so much vodka and Red Bull that you were dancing like an absolute moron, found yourself forcibly snogged by a veritable Amazon of a woman then given the thumbs up by a complete stranger telling you that “yeah, mate, you’d love ecstasy”? That’s a Yakuza substory, and absolutely not something that happened to me circa 2003 and is still oddly fresh in my memory.
The somewhat unpredictable feeling of Yakuza substories — assuming you’re not just following through a walkthrough like a boring person — is what elevates the virtual Kamurocho from feeling like a theme park to something more akin to a real place. It’s the combination of being able to go to a specific place to participate in a particular activity, and running across other happenings by chance that makes playing Yakuza feel like you’re going on a real night out.
And it’s the fact you can drink yourself into a stupor, lose 50 million yen trying to make trick shots at pool and then get into a fight with a bunch of thugs clad in pastel cardigans without any lasting real-world consequences that makes the Yakuza experience better than a real-life night out, so far as I’m concerned.
On top of all that, nothing in Yakuza is a waste of time, either. Engage with any of the side activities — even the seemingly pointless ones, like bowling, baseball, mahjong and the like — and you can either earn money, which is also used as experience points to power up Kiryu, or you can earn Completion Points, which allow you to unlock various continuous passive bonuses and new game features. So while you’re chilling with your homie Kiryu, you’re making valuable progress in the game also — even if you’re not following the story for hours, days, weeks, months at a time.
Last time my wife went out on a night out with her work colleagues, she came back with COVID. After my last night out with Kiryu, during which we did nothing remotely productive and instead just went dancing, singing, playing baseball, playing pool, drinking, eating takoyaki and chatting up convenience store clerks, I felt an odd sense of fulfilment.
Am I a sad, hopeless case? Almost certainly. But for anyone else who doesn’t exactly feel safe or inclined to have a night out in close proximity with potentially disease-ridden people these days… boot up a Yakuza game, and you might be surprised at what a good time you find yourself having, all from the comfort of your own home.
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