1. Nakahara’s Pride
Kazuma Kiryu spends most of his time solving pocket money disputes and cooking dinner at his orphanage in Okinawa. It’s not what you’d expect from the hero of Yakuza 3, but Kiryu is a former Yakuza – the Fourth Chairman of the mighty Tojo Clan, in fact – and despite his cuddly nature, he does spend the first hour of the game beating up various punks, enemies, and old friends while visiting Tokyo.
But let’s not be mistaken – once Kiryu’s put everything back in order, he quickly heads home to the orphanage. Unlike other videogame heroes, he’s not bent on revenge; or an amoral soldier looking to make a quick buck; or saving the world from an existential threat; or interested in the least by adventure. The old ‘Dragon of Dojima’ just wants to keep his head down, cook some curries, and take care of his kids.
Which he does, for all of a few minutes, until an eviction notice shakes things up. Shortly afterwards, two punks are spotted spying on the orphanage, and Kiryu (that’s now me) promptly follows them into town. A swift beatdown later, and the young men – Rikiya and Mikio – lead me to Nakahara, the boss of the local Ryudo Yakuza family.
On the way, I keep expecting to be ambushed by a mob of Ryudo heavies summoned by Rikiya and Mikio, but instead I walk into Nakahara’s office, preceded by two deep and very genuine bows from the aforementioned punks. It’s the complete opposite to what I’d imagined given the humiliation I’d dealt them earlier, and it gave me my first inkling that Yakuza 3 might be a little different to other action games.
Inside, Nakahara, an old and heavyset man, explains that he’s owned the orphanage’s land for quite some time, and now he wants to sell it to developers planning a huge holiday resort. He doesn’t care much for the resort, but he also doesn’t want to stand in the way of progress either; and at least it’ll bring money and jobs to Okinawa, which it certainly needs. Even more reasonably, Nakahara offers to pay a decent sum of money for the orphanage..
I’ll let Kiryu speak for himself:
What you say makes sense – but it’s nothing more than selfish Yakuza logic. I used to be in the business myself, and I’d make up the same kind of excuse. I always had a good reason for ruining someone else’s life. But I’ve changed. Do you ever think about the innocent children whose lives you ruin? I won’t let the kids at my orphanage meet that sort of fate as long as I’m around. We’re done here.
Kiryu stands up, turn his back on Nakahara, and takes his leave.
At this point, I lean forward with my controller, ready for action. Everything that’s happened in the last hour has been building up to this moment – the suspicious men watching the orphanage, the worried neighbours talking about the eviction notice, my fight with Rikiya, the Lieutenant of the Ryudo family. It’s clear that I’m going to have to fight Nakahara to save my orphanage.
Nakahara doesn’t disappoint me. “I may have spent sixty years of my life here in Okinawa,” he says, snatching up a sword, “but I’m not so old that I’d let a punk from the mainland talk to me like that!” He swiftly unsheathes the sword, and takes up a fighting stance.
What a setup for a fight, I think: Nakahara’s a big man with a wicked-looking sword, but he’s out of shape. Then there’s me – Kiryu – not so young myself anymore, but fast and full of energy. This should be interesting.
And then Kiryu, very calmly, turns around to face Nakahara and says, “Is this really what you want?” He walks closer to the tip of the blade, as Nakahara looks puzzled. “Do you want to kill me, and put all my kids out on the street? Will that make you happy? If you really love Okinawa, you should be worrying about other things, not wasting your time trying to evict us.”
Nakahara stands motionless, conflicted, as Kiryu strides away. Pausing before the door, with his back to Nakahara – and his sword – Kiryuu says, “If you want to fight, I’d be happy to oblige.” He shoots Nakahara a determined look, “But I won’t hold back.” Nakahara’s shoulders slump, and Kiryuu walks out. End of chapter.
In any other game, here’s the script: I’d beat up Nakahara, then beat up his underlings, and then trashed the headquarters. I’d make some powerful enemies, and spent the next few chapters dealing with them. Instead, Yakuza 3 has Kiryuu – who we know is fully capable of taking on Nakahara, sword or not – reason with him, and ultimately win him over. You don’t end up fighting Nakahara at all.
What delighted me about this (mostly computer-generated movie) sequence was not its impeccable camera work, direction, and voice acting. It was how it confounded my expectations of violence being the best – and the only – way of resolving this conflict; expectations that are reinforced with each and every game that seeks to paint the world in only black and white.
2. Ballistic Missile Defence
Since WW2, the US has maintained over 20,000 troops in Okinawa, occupying over a tenth of the total land mass. The troops are deeply unpopular among locals and so during his election campaign late last year, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama pledged to move them away from the island, or even off Japan entirely. A mere eight months later, he resigned, largely because he hadn’t been able to make the move work. Yakuza 3 was released in Japan in February 2009, shortly before the election, and a great deal of the game’s story revolves around the question of the US troops in Okinawa.
Early in the game, we learn that Defence Minister Ryuzo Tamiya wants to expand the US military base in order to test a new Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) system, capable of intercepting nuclear missiles from ‘hostile Asian countries’ (read as: North Korea and/or China). The Minister of Land, Yoshinobu Suzuki, opposes the BMD system, instead promoting the massive holiday resort to stimulate the economy (understandably a more popular choice among locals). It soon emerges that the two Ministers have made a deal to let each go ahead, in return for one of them being given a clear path to become Prime Minister. And of course, the Yakuza are all tied up with this scheme.
To anyone not familiar with Japanese politics, the story of Yakuza 3 seems either fantastical or boring, but in reality, it’s genuinely very sensitive. Let’s get this straight – an equivalent game in the West might be Grand Theft Auto covering corrupt Republicans covertly working with Wall Street to render banking reform toothless, or the next Call of Duty seeing the player as a British soldier in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
No-one has the stones to tackle really serious issues in Western games, but to me, Yakuza 3 demonstrates that it can be done, and that it can be successful.
3. Good Bad Guys
Yakuza 3 has a fine range of bad guys, who – as tradition dictates – must be taken down one by one before revealing the true bad guy(s) behind them all. Some of the bad guys are disgusting idiots, but even these caricatures are given a level of style and malevolence that outshines the bumbling clowns of Grand Theft Auto et al. You really hate these guys – you hate them for what they’ve done, and you take real pleasure in taken them down.
I would’ve been happy if the game left it there, but your real antagonist in Yakuza 3 (whose identity is pretty obvious fairly early on) is not the type you’d see in a typical game or movie. He’s drawn with a real sense of sympathy and honour, and his character development arc over the course of the game is a pleasure to watch. Fittingly, you don’t take much joy in taking him down at the end.
I feel confused about the state of storytelling in games. It’s no secret that I think it’s mostly dire. What confuses me is that many gamers – and reviewers – think it’s actually improving. I spent a while thinking about this while wincing my way through such ham-tastic bestsellers like Grand Theft Auto 4, Mass Effect 2, Fallout 3, Modern Warfare 2, and Assassin’s Creed 2, and have come to a startling conclusion: game designers think that cynicism, sarcasm, and irony equals a good, complex and deep story.
Let me explain. It used to be that your average adventure or action game would follow the standard hero’s journey of hearing the call to adventure, teaming up with some allies, bashing some enemies, learning some stuff, overcoming some personal weakness, and then winning.
Many games still do this, but this well-worn route is being superseded by criminal, conspiracy and military-minded games that populate their worlds with men who delight in evil for no particular reason, with a small group of reluctant, marginally less evil guys (i.e. the player) who can and must do anything to stop them. It’s an attitude clearly borrowed from the TV and movie industries for whose legitimacy and approvals game designers so desperately ache for, and it’s not only ugly – it’s also boring.
Yakuza 3 delighted me because – despite its frequent violence – it gave Kiryu, and other characters, wisdom. Not the cod-wisdom and tepid platitudes seen in most fantasy games, but the individual struggle of people trying to take a noble route in the midst of temptation. I suspect that many would snicker how naive this sounds, but it’s refreshing to see an action game take a different path.
It’s not a perfect story – it’s often melodramatic and over-emotional – but Yakuza 3’s characters and conflicts are treated with a degree of subtlety that is sadly lacking elsewhere. As I played the game, I saw the characters change and grow, and incredibly their motivations actually made sense, even if the situations sometimes didn’t. Yakuza 3 has set a high bar for story in any game genre, and it’s one I hope other game designers strive to beat.