At first glance, Yakuza 2 has rendered the city of Osaka in realistic and modern detail. The open world exists as a kind of interactive relief to the game's linear and cutscene-driven story, a pretty dour affair featuring gangsters, detectives and people getting slaughtered. In between, there are restaurants, convenience stores, driving ranges, arcades and random fist fights with deadbeats. There's also a pregnant lady who demands child support from you but is actually wearing a large rubber ball under her shirt, a guy who needs a steady stream of tissues to plug up his running nose, a petition to save the trees which is a front for an extortion ring, secret parties, illicit video dealers and nerds who attack you with laser swords.
The streets are lined with baffling non sequiturs. Scripted encounters with pedestrians last a few minutes, convey some offbeat theme or situation, usually just in text, and then vanish forever. Urging a guitarist to pursue his dream or feeding a picky cat might feel inconsequential compared to saving your love interest from a sniper attack, and why, in this crime epic, is the protagonist spending half an hour helping a man buy presents for his girlfriend? Yakuza 2 is like Mass Effect if every piece of side content was like the fan who wanted an autograph. These small, weird moments would seem like afterthoughts if their inclusion in this game wasn't so deliberate and unapologetic.
The city is steeped in subdued surrealism: in Osaka, no one thinks it's insane for this yakuza to field all these bizarre and unimportant problems, like the guy who claims to have an icecream toothache and shakes down a store owner down for dentist money. This aspect of the game's character is self-evidently incongruent with its very serious and bloody mafia story. The contrast might be more irritatingly dissonant if it wasn't also so charmingly absurd. There's a likable quality to an open world that works overtime to hold the player's interest rather than abdicating all control of the sandbox. Other games often hide backstory and lore in incidental characters and elective missions, but Yakuza 2 tries to make them as superficially entertaining as possible, even when limited to dialogue text.
I like Yakuza 2 because of how it slowly makes you realise in the middle of a fight that you've been violently beating a room of Mahjong players, and that when you win a bowling match against one of the employees, you win a sealed fried chicken lunch. All right! The silliness can work against the long and humourless story -- every character has a remarkable tolerance for getting shot -- but they usually stay separate, to their mutual benefit. The plot remains high melodrama, and Osaka a place where hilarious things happen.
It leads to a strange kind of roleplaying, where your actions might not reflect either your personality or your notion of a tough yakuza character. You might think it's a really bad idea to involve yourself in a certain sidequest, but follow through on it anyway because Yakuza 2 is trusted to make it worth your while and ensure that you'll get more than extra playtime out of it. Example: A loud and obnoxious drunk is harassing a cabaret girl on the street. Usually the RPG hero's cue, instead her boss shows up with a bouncer and threatens the drunk to lay off. At that moment you are given the opportunity to intervene on the drunk's behalf. If you accept, you'll fight the bouncer, after which the drunk is revealed to be a famous manga author who is now really upset that you did that because he was trying to research what it was like to get beaten up. Now the boss is enthusing wildly because he's a big fan of this guy's work. The author changes his tune and proposes a manga written about you. Never has the JRPG mainstay "..." been more effectively employed.
For hypothesis' sake, imagine a game that was comprised entirely of these moments, without any pretense at a larger story. Yakuza 2 is not the worse for its operatic revenge saga; it hints at a different model of game, not a better version of the extant one. Pretend that you weren't flying to Osaka to settle a score, but to hang out in the city for the weekend. It would be a game with all the same bowling and golf minigames and the self-contained and ludicrous vignettes, but with much deeper potential for interaction, the ability to enter into extended relationships with other characters, operating under the overall premise of cool things that you could happen on your vacation. You don't start the game thinking that you're about to be drawn into a web of intrigue and body counts, but that you're in a new city for two days and you should make the most of it. It recalls Warren Spector's long-proposed "city block" game concept -- a comparatively narrow game space with much higher levels of interaction -- without Spector's penchant for science fiction and conspiracies. It'd be Lost in Translation.
It might be a novel representation of a game world, and if it was anything like Yakuza 2 there'd be a surprise on every street corner. I wonder, though, how long a game like that would be able to sustain itself, or remain tolerable outside of the overt direction of a narrative or conventional video game goals. Without any counterbalance, what was refreshing in Yakuza 2 could easily become monotonous or lack any incentive to continue. Could it work? I hope so. I'd visit.