The only Yakuza game I’d played before Yakuza 0 was Yakuza 2. And it had been eight years since I’d played Yakuza 2, so I didn’t remember it particularly well; just a vague memory was that it had some similarity with Shenmue but that I didn’t like it nearly as much.

Anyways, I started Yakuza 0; and yeah, it felt reminiscent of Shenmue but not as much to my taste, harder-edged in particular. But then a funny thing happened: I made it past the intro and was able to wander around town a bit, and the streets started to feel familiar. And, as the eight-year-old memories came back: this was the same part of Tokyo that I’d seen in Yakuza 2, and then a bit further on, the same part of Osaka.

This is something that I have a lot of respect for: my memory is that, while Yakuza 2 didn’t have areas that I liked as much as the ones in Shenmue, they were still treated with care, significantly more so than in most games. But returning to those exact same areas over multiple games (I now assume over the entire series?) is a whole new level of conviction: the series isn’t just following people’s lives, it’s following the lives of people who are embedded in a community, and treating that community, including the physical space, as worthy of ongoing care.

I’m sure there are other series that do the same thing, but I’m having a surprisingly hard time thinking of good examples. Different Zelda games, for example, hit the same notes, but different games in the series take place in what are effectively different worlds; the Mass Effect games return to the Citadel but you see different parts of the Citadel in different games, and most of your time is spent outside of the Citadel in environments you haven’t seen before; each Dragon Age game explores a different portion of the map.


This idea that the Yakuza games are about lives embedded in a community isn’t, of course, limited to the persistence of the physical space. It’s there in the main plot and the way it plays out, with Kiryu and Nishikiyama having family ties to each other and to Kazuma senior, with the Kazuma family being part of the Dojima family and the Tojo Clan, and with the other intertwined relationships that appear in the game and series. It’s there in the side missions and the minigames: these show the ongoing strands of life in Kamurocho and Sotenburi in ways that whichever protagonist you’re playing gets to touch on but that aren’t actively about him. And it’s there in the non-plot personal development threads, Majima’s cabaret club and Kiryu’s real estate business in particular, showing how the two of them might live and grow their lives if they weren’t embroiled in a huge internal gang war.


And, well, that’s a lot for one game to show. When I was playing the game, I felt like it was too much, and there’s no question that the game would be improved along some metrics if it tried to show less, or at least worked harder to have it all fit together.

Concretely, when I started playing Yakuza 0, I was happy to alternate between spending a fair amount of time hanging out and doing random stuff for an hour or two, and then spending the next hour or so moving ahead to the next chapter. And I assumed I’d be able to continue doing that.

But then the plot started to get urgent, with Majima having deadlines (with death backing up those deadlines!) a day away, so how would it make sense to put in multiple shifts in the cabaret club while all of that’s going on? And then all of a sudden I realized I was almost done with the plot and hadn’t even made it through a fifth of the cabaret club; so my choices were to either stop all plot activities and spend the next 5–10 hours of play time only doing cabaret club managing, or to miss out on large chunks of the cabaret club thread; those weren’t great choices! (And, of course, similarly for Kiryu; for the record, I did all of the cabaret club but very little of the real estate business.)


Looking back over the game, though: it’s certainly a game where the plot is important, but the plot is important in service to a larger vision. Maybe I should think about the game through a sort of Cubist lens: the game and series are depicting Kiryu’s life, Majima’s life, and the communities that those lives are embedded in, and it’s looking at all of that through various perspectives. The plot is one of those perspectives, but it’s only one of those perspectives; and the game simply isn’t trying to tie together all of those perspectives into a transparently coherent whole, it’s instead showing different perspectives and points of contact between those different perspectives without worrying too hard about global coherence.

So, in particular, it’s totally fine to be hard to, say, align Majima’s timelines of saving Makoto and running a cabaret club, or for Kiryu to pop over and do some pocket racing while a massive group of Yakuza are trying to hunt for him. Each of those activities is providing a real perspective on the broader context that the game is representing; and it’s totally fine that, if you focus on one of those perspectives, the other perspective starts to get fuzzy, doesn’t fit well.


I’m significantly more curious about the series now than I was after playing Yakuza 2. And hopefully I’ve learned something about how to appreciate the series that will serve me well when I next return to it…

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