Why Yakuza 0 is a Masterclass in Managing Tone – Writing on Games

    {“en”:”Hi, Iu2019m Hamish Black and welcome to Writing on Games. You know, there was a moment when I was playing Yakuza 0 where it all clicked for me. It was when Kiryu was helping some wannabe punks maintain a tough image despite being the kinds of people who literally use the phrase u201cgee-willickers.u201d After sitting down with them for a while, Kiryu finally asks u201cwhy me?u201d To which the unfortunately sensitive yanki responds with u201cYouu2019re my ideal of what a hooligan should be! The barb wire attitude that says, u201cTouch me and get cut!u201d And yet, you also exude a sense of kindness. A guy who extends a helping hand to the weak. The hooligan with a heart of gold!u201d It was at this point that I realised just how prevalent this sentiment was in Kiryuu2019s character, and ultimately why Iu2019ve been having so much fun with Yakuza 0. The overarching drama of a yakuza being framed for murder and uncovering a larger political conspiracy within the organisation is immensely compelling and often rife with tension.

    It gets pretty dark at times and the characters have, for lack of a better term, seen some shit. That said, I almost always found myself treating with equal importance the smaller substories that Kiryu would stumble across on his way to these larger objectives. As Kiryu I felt the sense of honour that he did. Iu2019d constantly stop in the street to help people getting bullied, even though these experiences always play out the same way (you approach, you fight, you get a small reward). Outside of this, there exist slightly larger but self-contained stories in which you, for example, advise a timid dominatrix on how to more effectively humiliate her clients; or when you take the role of a producer and have to wing your way through the insider terms the crew throw at you; or when you take the role of other playable character Majima and pretend to be someoneu2019s boyfriend in order to convince her father to give her distance.

    Itu2019s strange, though, because I started to wonder why I was so engrossed in an experience that largely presents itself through non-interactive means. Youu2019re mainly reading screens and screens of text (albeit extremely well-written text) and staring at cutscenes (albeit extremely well-produced cutscenes). As I began to find it harder and harder to tear myself away from the game, however, I came to a realisation about what I was playing. Itu2019s not just Kiryu or Majima that have the compelling duality of character I mentioned previously. Hell, itu2019s not even that everyone within this wacky cast shares that same depth. Itu2019s that every part of this game, interactive or not, acts as a constant push-and-pull for the player; constantly and aggressively shifting tone in the blink of an eye between super serious gangster narrative and a strange but playful innocence.

    In other words, Yakuza 0 works so well because of how wildly dissonant an experience it is. Yakuza 0 is a game whose story will see you desperately trying to find out who is framing you before you get sent to jail for a murder you didnu2019t commit, yet the next minute will have you spending an inordinate amount of time tracking down the leader of a ring of high school girls selling their underwear to less than savoury characters. It has you considering the subtle political nuances of your superioru2019s actions before having a half-naked man labelled u201cWalking Erectionu201d tell you how to watch softcore porn.

    On a deeper level, however, the game subverts typical gangster games by realistically depicting the consequences of a single civilian murder, whilst your key mechanical input in the game is brutally beating the shit out of anyone in the street. Hell, after the first one almost the entire series features this weird, indefinable tone constantly shifting on you, with one spin-off adding in zombies to further weird you out. Far from feeling disparate, however, every element of the game revels in the same kind of absurdist joy which all stems from this weird tone. That said, when we think of dissonance in video games we tend to think of it in negative terms. It’s the concept people refer to when talking about how the story of Nathan Drake being a loveable rogue doesn’t line up with the player using him to murder hundreds of people. I mean, yeah, that stuff is bad and thought should be put into how mechanics convey narrative themes, but when I think of dissonance, I don’t automatically make those negative connections. Most of the music I like, for example, relies on dissonance. Most experimental literature is experimental precisely because it doesn’t allow the reader to get comfortable.

    That’s because the use of dissonance makes you ask yourself “why is this dissonant?” What purpose does negating a consistent thematic throughline hold? In instances like this I like to take the Schklovsky or Brecht approach and say that narrative and thematic elements that appear to clash with one another force the audience to stop in their tracks and consider the wider cultural and political elements of what they’re experiencing. Yakuza 0 could have presented a super serious gangster narrative on its own and the quality of writing proves that the game could stand without the need for the extravagance it shows in other areas, but the question remainsu2014why didn’t it do this? To begin formulating an answer to this, I don’t think it’s coincidence that series creator Nagoshi is good friends with Beat Takeshi, and that the renowned director plays a significant role in Yakuza 6, which was recently released in Japan.

    Not only are Takeshi’s films almost always focused on some form of organised crime, they’re often surprisingly similar in tone to the Yakuza series. A film like Hana-bi defines itself through long, fairly static shots or scenarios depicting tender, human moments which are then broken by sudden, graphic depictions of violenceu2014all carried out with the same muted emotions that make the whole thing seem jarring. Now, given Takeshi’s background in comedy, this dissonance is often played for laughs, with 2005’s Takeshis’ taking this to surreal extremes for the express purposes of jet-black humour. However, for me, the way in which these conflicting themes were treated with equal importance was also a means of telling us that violence is as much a part of the human condition as the tender moments we share with others. Yakuza says much the same thing, just in a very different way. The melodrama here is as flashy and over the top as the violence the game has you partake in.

    It’s a way of showing you that yes, this game may be about the serious world of organised crime, but the more human stories outside of that are just as important, and just as fun to experience. It’s a game that doesn’t just want you focusing on organised crimeu2014as producer Masayoshi Yokoyama describes, the game is as much about contemporary Japan in general as it is about the titular Yakuza. And that’s the key to Yakuza 0’s masterful handling of toneu2014almost ironically, by presenting what feels like such a wildly distant version of humanity to what people experience, the team is able to tell decidedly more human stories. If there’s an emotion that drives the experience, it’s empathy.

    With any situation in the game, from aiding the dominatrix to talking tax policy with a worried politician to helping the production team, there’s always the underlying premise that “hey, it’s no weirder than anything else you’d see in this world.” It’s why the game works so wellu2014through the constant bombardment of oddities presented to you, you learn to internalise them as a key part of the world, so ironically, it’s no longer odd. Once you understand this, you notice that there’s an innocence to the game’s writing, a belief that people at their core are inherently worth helping regardless of who they are, that runs counter to the violence the player witnesses and dishes out in the game’s story. Through this dissonance, the game distances you from the situations these characters find themselves in so that you can strip that away and more easily see the human drama at the centreu2014and it’s for this reason that, as alienating the tone may seem to some people, I’d say now is as good a time as any to experience the district of Kamurocho, through the eyes of the hooligan with the heart of gold. So I hope you enjoyed my take on Yakuza 0u2014this game has me utterly engrossed and has reinvigorated my interest in the series, so I’d highly recommend checking it out.

    Also, I’d just like to sincerely thank my patrons who truly make this show possible. Your names should be on-screen now. If you’d like to see your name in these credits, or get access to various goodies, why not check out the Patreonu2014every pledge helps me more than you know. If you can’t or don’t want to, then I’m just happy you’re watching the videos. Also, be sure to check out the weekly podcast I do with my friend Nico on iTunes if you want more of my thoughts on this game. And with all of that said I’m Hamish Black and this has been Writing on Games. Thank you very much for watching and I’ll see you next time.. “}

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