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Monday, September 14, 2020

The Yakuza Series, Sandbox and Setting Density

The North American PS2 cover
of the original game.
The Yakuza videogame series, or Ryu Ga Gotoku (Like A Dragon) in its original Japanese title, is a SEGA-produced beat 'em up/sandbox. Originally confined to the Playstation console for a long time, it has since seen the first three chronological entries (or rather, the remakes of two of them) ported to PC. This is how I finally got to play these games since I haven't owned a Sony home console since the PS2 days. This has allowed me to since experience Yakuza Kiwami 1 and 2 (the remakes of the original two games) and the prequel Yakuza 0. As one would expect, the Yakuza series is a beat 'em up/adventure/sandbox game about the seedy Japanese criminal underground and the world of the Japanese mafia, the Yakuza. At least on paper because this is a series which is truly the king of mood whiplash, going from a hard biting crime drama full of drugs and murder to silly side stories about remote car racing or helping a young woman become better at her job when said job is being a dominatrix in an S&M club where she's too nice and polite for her own good. Yakuza is fucking weird.

The real standout element of these games, at least to me (beside hilariously surreal sub-stories) has been its setting, the fictional Kamurocho which is a fictional counterpart to Kabukicho. The interesting about Kamurocho, as a setting for an open world game, are two factors: one, its really damn small and two it return in every game as the story continues ranging from the 1980 of Yakuza Zero to the 2000 of Yakuza and forward into the 2010 and beyond as the series continues. Most open world games tend to go for truly massive scale or at least an attempt at faking it. In addition, most open world videogames usually go for a completely different map with each incarnation of the series to keep exploring fresh. Yakuza, however, completely and utterly sidestep this concept with Kamurocho. While the map does change slowly over time due to the place being renovated and rebuilt (as well as game and engine tweak) as well as adding other areas or places to explore, Kamurocho itself is a mostly static place when it come to its size and shape. The businesses obviously change location once in a while with each iteration of it but this is a fairly natural consequence of life in Tokyo as buildings are brought down, renovated and business change place. With its key streets, features and staple in place from Yakuza 0 to Yakuza 6, Kamurocho may yet be one of the most fleshed out and realized videogame settings out there. While the stories can get goofy and the protagonist ability to dispatch various punks and thugs border on the absurd, the location themselves feel very grounded.

Density Of Details

Kamurocho's oldest map chronologically
in Yakuza Zero (1988)
Kamurocho is very small by sandbox standards. If Tokyo as a whole was a hexcrawl, then it would be but a single hex. The difference is that Kamurocho feels rather 'lived in' and not just because it sometimes looks old and like crap, especially its back alleys. Every store, building, office and more displays a unique appearance of flashing neon signs. Every building is unique, even if due to gameplay limitations only a sparse few can be entered per game. One interesting aspect is that even in the mere few city blocks which forms Kamurocho, one can get a very different 'feel' from their environment, with the main streets such as constantly lit by neon and abuzz with people feeling quite different from the cramped Champion District, which is nothing but super cramped old buildings, back alleys and tiny bar. In addition to all this, there are added details such as the various restaurants which naturally do the locations: those which can be entered by Kiryu (the protagonist) all have their own unique menu of food and drinks, unless its a chain restaurant in which case the menu will be the same across Kamurocho or even other places which can be visited such as Sotenbori.

Another detail of the Yakuza series which is both budget-saving as much as it add to the setting is the fact that, since the world which the protagonists inhabit is so small, they are bound to constantly run into action in the same locations. From random encounter of thugs and drunks as one walk by them to side quest and story missions, there are only so many street corners and buildings in Kamurocho. As one plays through Yakuza, both a single game and sequels, there will slowly form a tapestry of stories which unfolded in certain locale. In any other game, a location called 'Park 3' where homeless people gather would be rather forgettable as a dime a dozen city location that looks like shit. However, in Yakuza 1, when a cutscene occurs there I am reminded that in Zero, more than a decade ago in-universe, this was a location of a quest where some bums want booze and turns you into an errand boy. This may seem innocuous or not-so-noteworthy but within the context of Yakuza Zero the information they give set the protagonist further along the path of starting the story of said game proper and uncover the mysteries of its plot. Playing through a few Yakuza games slowly build a sense of familiarity with Kamurocho, turning even empty backlot into places where some story, no matter how minor, may have happened. For another example, the South eastern parts of Kamurocho are fairly barren streets in mosr games, lacking any major plot location or more than a single diner or a single mini-game location. Yet even an area which seem devoid of content is not, because these streets were the location of other side stories which began elsewhere in the neighborhood.

Is such a small scope setting suited to all tabletop campaigns? Obviously not. However there a few things to learn from Kamurocho. While a location in a campaign may initially just be randomly generated (and that's fine), the small and tightly knit Kamurocho make me ask: "Why create a new location if you don't need it?". Perhaps the next time players are chasing a goblin infestation or trying to corner a thieves band, their enemies run back into a known location which has been previously visited by the players. Describe the same old alleys. There is something to be said about the familiar and it slowly but surely build the setting into its own character. Why create new locations which are described in crude terms once when one can slowly build on top of a pre-existing setting? Of course, it doesn't mean that the setting can't change over time: it will, absolutely. New buildings pop up, old buildings are torn down. People move in, people move out. New criminals enter an area and cut their turf in new ways. However, with a solid foundation of recurring locations it make people, in my opinion, care more.