Roaming Yakuza 0's busy streets is wonderful. It’s full of neon lights and interesting characters. Open worlds can struggle to find the right balance of character and curiosity but Yakuza’s Kamurucho district has both. We take a closer look at how the setting grabs player interest in this critical video.
Crafting a game world that players care about is difficult. We’re used to rushing our way through digital spaces, leaping from ancient ruins to racetracks to the far flung future at a whim. Grounding a player in a space and making it feel real takes effort. It demands a subtlety that is often ignored. Yakuza 0 isn’t necessarily the most subtle game. It’s full of broken teeth and blazing karaoke tracks but it still manages to provide a real, charming setting for players to enjoy.
The majority of the Yakuza games take place in Kamurocho, a fictional take on Tokyo’s Kabukicho red light district. It’s a setting caught between two modes: a glitzy nightlife and a more subdued daytime. It’s full of potential and there’s just as much danger around each corner as fortune.
The Yakuza games often invite comparison to Yu Suzuki’s Dreamcast classic Shenmue. They also have a heavy focus on space. Ryo Hazuki wanders the streets of Dobuita in much the same way that Yakuza’s Kiryu might. But while Shenmue tries to achieve a sense of place by focusing on the space itself - allowing players to enter shops with no real function or open drawers with no goal other than verisimilitude - Yakuza tends to place an emphasis on the people you encounter. We’ll use early game examples to show how the game initially achieves this.
One technique that Yakuza uses is to populate Kamurocho with potential threats. Any time the player is walking through the streets, they risk running into hoodlums or other yakuza that will attempt to fight them. There’s two distinct benefits to this. The first is that it helps characterize Kamurocho. This is a dangerous and rough place. If you’re not careful, you’ll have to break some noses. The other benefit is that these threats encourage you to find alternate pathways through the city so you can avoid pesky ne’er-do-wells. Without these encounters, players would explore less of the city. With them, they start to learn all of the alleyways and back streets.
Additionally, the district has a fair share of NPCs with specific purposes. While the majority of individuals in the streets exists to give the appearance of a bustle city district, the incidental characters offer more use than characters in early immersive games like Shenmue. I completely stumbled upon the clown Bob Utsunomiya, a familiar face from previous games who can help you redeem pre-order or DLC content. I didn’t seek him out. I merely stumbled across him without planning it.
In function, he’s nothing more than a shop keeper but by populating Kamurocho with characters that facilitate meaningful systemic interactions, Yakuza 0 can provide characters who are not just memorable in their design but who create demonstrably positive and negative consequences for the player. For instance, a variation on the normal thugs called Mr. Shakedown provides a tougher fight and can also take your money from you if you lose. This will send you on a journey through the district to get your cash back.
Yakuza 0 also alters space based upon the characters that Kiryu interacts with. The opening of the game has Kiryu and Nishikiyama casually saunter through the vibrant city streets. The slower movement conveys familiarity and comfort with the space as well as with Nishiki. Entering into the karaoke establishment not only let’s the player experience one of the game’s various side activities but also indicates that the place is familiar and safe. This technique is actually used later in more specific contexts, including the time when Kiryu and Nishiki first enter Kiryu’s home.
In contrast, when the player engages in an extended action sequence, interior locations shift between considerable detail and a strange abstraction. They feel like sprawling dungeons and far less real than the world outside. This juxtaposition between the comfortable and the hostile helps characterize the district as a whole. Not only does it express the duality between the bright facade and the seedier qualities, it also helps indicate which areas are familiar and which are hostile. All of this is in the early game but the general techniques continue even as you shift to Majima in Sotenbori. An easy way to perceive this is to contrast the Grand cabaret with pretty much any other interior location.
A sense of place suffuses the narrative as well. Much of the machinations in Kamurocho center on a vacant lot of tremendous value to criminal lords and realtors. Backroom politicking and extended consideration are given to this tiny plot of land. It’s a mere slice of the setting but it is rife with import. Discussions about the development of this land feature looming shots of Kamurocho’s nightlife. In many ways, the district itself becomes an additional character, playing a central role in the plot and maintaining a heavy presence in cutscenes.
Yakuza 0 makes great effort to make its setting stand out. Various characters offer memorable interactions with perceivable consequences, interior locations shift to reflect the dynamics of given relationships, continued navigation and renegotiation of the space helps breed player familiarity, and its importance is baked directly into the narrative. The end result isn’t just a place that you come to know but a place that you genuinely care about.