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The Virtual Life – The Rare, Heartwarming Kindness Of Yakuza 0’s Men

by Javy Gwaltney on Feb 11, 2017 at 06:30 AM

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Yakuza 0 is among the weirdest, most fascinating games I’ve ever played. I’m still working my way through the open-world, crime-drama-driven brawler but unlike most games of its ilk, I’m not rushing through it. Instead, I’m taking my time because the game – split between two protagonists in two different cities – has countless side quests that are actually worth doing. Not because they necessarily mete out valuable rewards but instead because they have certain twists that make the kind of chores we’ve come to expect from RPGs interesting, and they also seem founded in genuine kindness, a rarity for games that take up the AAA space.

Okay, yes, Yakuza 0 is a crime drama starring two dudes, Kiryu and Majima, who work in the Japanese crime underworld. They’re not exactly model citizens, with Majima even mulling over killing an innocent woman at one point to get back into the Yakuza’s good graces again. However, there’s a general theme of empathy that runs across nearly all the side quests you can do in Osaka and Tokyo that reveals a different side of these men. They’re actually kind, sympathetic guys who live by a code of honor and seek to embrace it at all times, even if it puts them in a position that challenges stereotypical notions of masculinity.

It’s rare in video games for men to exist outside of conventional ideas of what a man should be, especially in action-focused games, where you have characters who often embody some variation of a gung-ho action hero (Uncharted, Gears of War, Call of Duty) or a brooding, stoic protagonist (The Last Of Us, Arkham Knight, Deus Ex).

There are exceptions of course. Geralt often finds himself reluctantly drawn into situations where he assists strangers, even if he’s slightly grumpy about it. Rhys and Vaughn’s friendship in Tales From The Borderlands is centered on slapstick humor and their geekiness. The New Order version of BJ Blazckowiz, a character who originally served as one of the prototypes for the generic first-person shooter hero, has anxieties that pour out of him, and he dreams of being with the people he cares about.

Yakuza’s take on masculinity is interesting because it’s a case where the game gets to have its cake and eat it, too. You have a pair of badass protagonists who beat the crap out of people and look cool doing it, but they also have feelings and are vulnerable and do nice things for people even if it makes them look kind of silly.

One of my favorite missions in the game so far involves Majima pretending to be a stranger’s boyfriend, to help her win the respect of her father. He does so, memorizing the story she’s created for him, and sits through a (hilarious) and awkward dinner. There are a lot of opportunities for this set-up to cross over into weird or gross territory but the scene is played pretty straight, with Majima either nailing the story or fumbling through it, depending on your choices. The sequence ends with the father revealing he knows it’s a sham but also expressing regret that his choices made his daughter feel she had to do that and he vows to be a better father. That’s just one act-of-kindness mission in a game filled with them.

One quest has you fetching a toy from a machine to make a little girl’s day more bearable. Another has you helping some guy try and get a rare necklace for the woman he loves.  There's one that has you helping a boy get his stolen game back while another quest has you guarding a man as he fulfills his ambition to cross a bridge (it’s weird and I don’t get it either, but it was still very sweet).

I love these missions because they add a dimension to these characters, making them feel more fleshed out than the otherwise generic action heroes we see working through the underworld as they pursue their respective goals. In spite of being characters in a decade old franchise, 0’s characterizations of these men make them feel bolder and frankly more interesting than most contemporary video game protagonists.

We need more protagonists in games like Kiryu and Majima who are allowed to be more than just a boilerplate assemblage of clichés and archetypes that exist mostly to carry a story wherever it needs to go. I hope Yakuza 0 serves as yet another blueprint for future games where characters can defy our expectations of what we’ve come to expect from storytelling in games.