January 18, 2009


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.


Anonymous said...

Oh, wow, that is one hell of an idea. Actually I think it could work and you yourself have suggested the method. Have it be a weekend getaway in the realistic equivelant of toonseltown. What I consider what you've just described. Have the goal be about the recreation and the soty follow a path of if you've leanred anything about life or work vs. play. Ok a little meta in that last one. The market has moved towards having collections of minigames, well why not put them in a narrative structure like that you've suggested. It doesn't even have to be a full city like Osaka or a New York knock off ala Liberty City. A small sea side town on the Jersey Shore would suffice. Now I want to work on the design document.

Sparky said...

Yes, but without the mafia story there would be no excuse for the scene in which Osaka Castle splits open to reveal an identical Osaka Castle made of gold hidden inside.

I think you're on to something here with that city exploration idea. At the same time, it seems to me that you're selling short the connection between the disparate parts of the game. The sidequests would make even less sense and would not have the same comic effect without the context of the bloody mafia melodrama. Similarly, the minor absurdities of the town quests soften up the player to accept the more ludicrous moments of the main plot, such as the aforementioned castle. Each part provides important context for the other.

That said, I would happily play the game you suggest. I've heard people mention the idea of using video games as a proxy for tourism before, and this is a particularly interesting take on that concept -- using the game as a way to replicate the experience of visiting the people of a city, rather than the sights.

Nels Anderson said...

I've thought about this before, both in the context of Yakuza 2 and Fallout 3, and kind of talked about it here.

While the idea of a total open world whose content exists solely in "side quests" sounds interesting, I'm not sure it would hold up as well in actual implementation.

As you said Sparky, it's the contrast against main narrative that makes the sidequests in Yakuza 2 so delightful. Without that, I can't help be feel a game would just look like an MMORPG you can't play with anyone else. Would it be possible to make a game like that well paced and engaging? I'm honestly not sure.

Duncan said...

Sparky: Yes, that's my concern also. I'm not convinced that a game would work if it was nothing but Yakuza 2's crazy interstitials. I like that concept but I doubt its practicality. I do think that this game needed the mafia story for balance, which I don't mean to sell short -- as a design element, it's just less interesting to me personally. Although there's no reason that these minute interactions can't also be serious and dramatic. The whole game doesn't have to be a wacky comedy thing.

Nels: Yeah, exactly. If you basically reproduced Yakuza 2 and stripped out the main story then I think that would be a disaster. And the player would have to direct the overall pacing, which seems problematic. But TheGameCritique in his comment puts it well, I think: there's something to having a time limit (a weekend) that progresses regardless of the player's action, and the game becomes a question of what they can achieve in that time. Sort of like Groundhog Day, I guess. Apparently this game can only be compared to Bill Murray movies.

I feel like that idea has tremendous potential, but yeah, I wouldn't greenlight it yet.

Thanks for the link to your post, Nels, I look forward to reading it.

Sparky said...

Actually, in line with the "dramatic sidequest" idea, the movie I actually thought of with reference to your idea was Before Sunrise. With a good team of writers, you could come up with a deeply affecting game about meeting someone in a foreign city that you absolutely have to leave in a set period of time. Although often reviled, the countdown timer is a popular way element of games, movies, and even books (The Andromeda Strain comes to mind) precisely because it is a very effective way to manufacture tension. If you could create sufficiently compelling characters, a game like this would generate its own plot on each playthrough, based on which characters appealed to the player and what he could do with them in the time allotted.

Duncan said...

That's a great example. You reminded me actually of The Last Express, a game I absolutely love, and has a lot of similarities to your outline. You're stuck on this train for three days (which progress in real-time) and a huge part of the game is tracking all this optional character interaction. It's different in that there's a linear plot and fail states, and your character's involvement is restricted to the story events. But it captures a lot of the emotions you're talking about and it does a great job at allowing you to investigate seemingly irrelevant characters if you're interested in them.

Nels Anderson said...

The Last Express is a good analogy (and a fantastic game). But as you mentioned, it's got a real strong single main narrative that everything else is anchored to.

What I worry about is that if a game were made really open and completely nonlinear, would people say it was "pointless?" I can't help but think a lot of folks would. A very strong epilogue of what impact your interactions had might help ameliorate that a lot.

Don't get me wrong, I think this kind of structure is very interesting and I'd really like to see it explored. I just think there's going to be a lot of pretty big challenges too and I hope the audience has enough trust and patience to give it a genuine evaluation.

Duncan said...

I'm sure it would be called pointless, especially these days when hardcore gamers are hypersensitive to anything remotely "casual". I don't know what you can really do about that though, other than shrug and point to Shenmue/Animal Crossing/The Sims, which all do pretty well for themselves. It might take a beating but I doubt that it would matter much in the long run. If the developers worried about it and tried to compromise then I think that's how you end up with guns in Mirror's Edge.

Anonymous said...

This really makes me want to play Yakuza 2. Unfortunately, I'm way too busy to invest in a lengthy game like that.

At least I can enjoy your articles! Keep 'em up. I don't usually post comments here, but your articles are some of the only deeply interesting, thoughtful writing about games that arrive in my RSS inbox these days.

Duncan said...

Thanks for reading! I appreciate it.