Yakuza and Closed-World Environments

The Yakuza series is available across Playstation 2, 3, and 4. Yakuza 0 and Yakuza Kiwami are available on Steam.

The Yakuza series of games has been gaining a lot of traction recently in the West – its straight-faced crimeworld drama coupled with its full-throated silliness creates a disarming juxtaposition that really draw the viewer in. And the latter of these is borne from the game’s notorious five-mile-long list of diversions, from helping the neighborhood citizens with their petty disputes to a night out singing karaoke to high-stakes competitive slot car racing against schoolchildren.

Normally, with so many things to do and explore in a game, you’d expect Yakuza to turn you loose inside an approximation of Tokyo in all its splendor, ready to run the streets and punch up any civilian that looks at you funny. Because hey, if you’re already playing as a mobster, you might as well live the dream, right?

Wrong.

You get about ten city blocks to play with, and you can only fight when provoked. (Granted, it’s really easy to provoke the punks who wander Kamurocho. Who knew?)

But, like with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s sparse inventory space, Yakuza’s unwillingness to let the player off the proverbial leash actually works in its favor.

For one, you’re not just rushing between missions and punching the occasional bystander for a lark like the overwhelming majority of players will do in just about every Western-made sandbox game. Instead, because you have to take your time on foot – and there are all sorts of elements to put a cap on your speed: pedestrians bumping into you, gang members wanting a piece of you, and protagonist Kiryu’s tendency to tucker out after running for more than about a block or two.

Do some cardio, man.

It’s a lucky thing that you play as a man of little stamina, then, because Kamurocho has every bit as much to do and see as a game like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed – it’s just all inside that little square kilometer of space. So much that you might miss it if you were going at speed – and in many cases you still can, even at the default lighter jog.

Unlike most open-world or sandbox games I’ve played, Yakuza feels like it’s set in an actual approximation of a city. You don’t walk through most downtowns and pass five nondescript grey buildings without any designs. Rather, every single one of them will probably have a slightly different architecture, clearly house some different kind of business, and in many cases will be open for you to walk right in (at least to the lobby). But that’s an awful lot of detail, so most productions rightfully will spend their time and effort elsewhere.

Yakuza spends its time and effort on those details.

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Busy little district – and you can bet that most of the shops on that street are player-accessible.

Every single building in a Yakuza environment feels like it has a reason to be there – the apartment buildings are densely-packed and have such details as overstuffed garbage cans, disused bicycles, and individualized signs of aging and disrepair (funnily enough, the first two of those have actual gameplay uses). The hotel district has a different establishment with a different construction and unique signage in each lot. Even the big, business-like buildings probably used for business offices where business gets done all look like distinct businesses.

The non-player populace works in this way too, teeming the streets with a hundred people moving on a hundred individual tracks that can cross over and actually get in the player’s way. Some stop for a smoke break, some are stumbling home after a long night out, and others cluster together in little cliques that stand there, chatting and laughing. Couple that with your inability to turn them into punching bags (though you can rudely bump into them), there’s a real sense here that the city is alive with actual, breathing people, creating a whole ecosystem of different sorts for the city to serve rather than it just being a playground for Kiryu.

Then there’s the arcades, karaoke bars, and dining establishments scattered throughout the city – a bit denser in some areas, but prevalent throughout. It’s a wealth of activity for the player – to the point where one city block will house eight different mini-games and vibrant bodegas for you to interact with. It’s also incredibly textured. The arcade features full playable emulations of classic SEGA games like Outrun and Space Harrier, the karaoke bar launches you into performative music videos starring the player character, and all of the alcohol and vending machine items on tap (and much of the take-out instant food) is a recreation of actual brands and products available in Japan.

Man, branding must either be a nightmare or a huge revenue stream for these games. Quite possibly both.

You can ignore most of these entirely, sure, but the game pointedly encourages the player to interact with the city in more nuanced ways than just a space to have a punch-up or the dead time between story missions. For example, eateries are the prime way of restoring your health between brawls. They also visibly keep track of what you have and haven’t sampled from that restaurant’s menu, and provide the player an achievement point for trying one of everything over time. And those achievement points can then be spent for gameplay benefits like extending Kiryu’s pathetic sprinting distance and bolstering your sources of passive income.

It’s a lot to do, but it’s not like it goes into just the one game. All the games at least partially share a setting, and while I haven’t played the series extensively outsize of 0, much of the city appears to be re-used between games. Things change over time (the disco parlors from the 1989-set prequel are certainly gone well before 2016) and other explorable districts come and go, but the designers have given themselves a baseline to work off of here so that, even if they have to build things from scratch in a new engine, there’s already a strong blueprint from which to reconstruct Kamurocho.

While re-using environments and assets can be a bit of a red flag for a lot of players, in Yakuza I find it brings a sense of familiarity. You’re following one man over the course of his life as he continues to interact with the city and have it act on him, both inside and outside the written story beats. Things shift around a bit and new diversions cycle through from game to game, but the bones of it are still there as ever, and the city never really seemed to exist just for him in the first place. It always feels like most of your old haunts are still there, but there’s new blood in town for a change of pace.

So forget the rest of Tokyo. I’m actually not even that interested in seeing it in a Yakuza game at this point.

Kamurocho, more than almost any other video game setting I’ve ever experienced, feels like the main character’s home.

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