Yakuza 3 – “Fine Sushi”
In these times of rampaging production costs and economic recession, videogames have become the unsavory product of a well-oiled factory. Somewhere in nameless tall towers, in cool air-conditioned rooms, power-point presentations show rows and rows of graphs with market tendencies, economic growth figures, investment costs, revenues and sales numbers, and it is in such places where game designers are told which market to pursue, which audience to cater and which genre and buzz words to incorporate in “their” game design. As any marketing director will tell you: marketing starts the day the product is idealized. Make no mistake, these games are prepared specifically for consumption of the world masses; they are media’s equivalent of McDonald’s hamburgers. All creative authorship is rebuked in favor of bland, shallow, sanitized pieces of fiction, lifeless products devised under the surgical helm of cold-hearted marketeers, created in such a way so as to appeal to the largest body of people, nevermind their culture, creed or nationality. Any underlying ideas, themes and narratives have to be consensual, harmless, easy to understand and still feel familiar to their recipients, so as not to risk being alienating, offensive, challenging or boring in the least.
Fortunately for us, there are exceptions, exceptions like the “Yakuza” series. In a rare struck of marketing irrationality, the third entry was actually brought by Sega to the west, hence becoming the first and only mainstream videogame from this generation that can be truly considered the product of a distinct cultural, sociological and historical view on reality… Japanese reality that is. This fact didn’t sprout as if by chance, Toshihiro Nagoshi (producer of the series) simply inherited his principles from his previous contribution with Yu Suzuki’s mandarin flavored masterpiece, “Shenmue”. From it, “Yakuza” retained the heartfelt desire to meticulously characterize space and time so as to convey a sense of being and belonging, transporting players to a different setting and period, indeed, to a different cultural reality.
Beneath Tokyo’s cacophonous neon-lights and stark skyscrapers, a hectic populace runs amok in search of new delights and pleasures in bubbly strip joints, kitsch-chic hostess bars, fine restaurants, seedy karaoke joints, bars and fast food joints. As Kazuma Kiryu, you’re invited to mingle with the bliss-seeking crowd, to pleasurably enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of this heavenly paradise. However, as you roam Tokyo’s corrupt babel, you’ll become aware of a predatory mass of hoodlums, loan sharks, con-men, hitmen, perverts and pimps, all nervously awaiting their next victim. In “Yakuza” you play the man who can set things right, and in a delicious treat of irony, he himself a former yakuza. However, unlike those petty criminals, Kazuma Kiryu is an old-school yakuza, a ronin with high morals and sense of responsibility. This portrayal of eastern society may seem naive, cherishing yakuzas as modern-day samurai-heroes who defend the helpless and punish the wicked, but that is but one of the many delightful corollaries to one of the best qualities of the “Yakuza” series: personality. “Yakuza” portrays the Japanese mafia as being an integral part of their social hierarchy, only because that is representative of how the game’s authors chose to understand their own society. Players are, in a rare move, invited to see, hear and interact with that specific cultural point of view of Japan.
Naturally, authors’ expressive desire would be meaningless if not for the superb technical prowess and meticulous perfectionism of the Sega team behind the series. And in this western age of bloody grays, “Yakuza 3” introduces a new standard in visual quality for videogames. From the mellow blue skies of a beach resort in the Osaka district, to the bright polychromatic contrast of the Kamurochean red-light district nightscape, every space, object, character, animation and interaction has been granted detail beyond imagination. The atmosphere is so vivid, palpable and lifelike, you’ll actually feel as if part of a tourism trip across Japan’s most idiosyncratic avenues. And if, like Kazuma, you forfeit the life of crime of a yakuza, and slowly explore the scenery, you’ll be rewarded by some of the most intricate and culturally rich vistas available in any videogame. Because it’s in the really small things that “Yakuza” shows its mastery: in the detailed description of spirits given by a bartender, in the plethora of restaurant menus covering everything from Corean, Italian to traditional Japanese cuisine, the many side-activities that confer the world liveliness and consistency, etc, etc, etc. “Yakuza 3” is, to put it bluntly, one of the most coherently naturalistic representations in the medium. Add a well penned storyline with characters (you know, real characters), real-time cutscenes that rival Kojima’s in technical proficiency (though much more down-to-earth, thank goodness) and you have a masterpiece that is unrivaled in the west.
If there is a flaw to be mentioned in the “Yakuza” series, it lies in compromises that have been made with western game design dogmas, by imposing too focused an experience to afford players the chance to breathe and fully explore the game-world’s details. Though the brutal arcade brawler combat and open roleplaying structure are rewarding for the ludus oriented, they oft overstep their boundaries, excessively narrowing the game into endless stretches of grinding combat and numbing side-questing. See, you can’t just famishly chow away Yakuza’s fine plate of delicacies as if it were a thick ‘ludus’ hamburger, you have to eat it as a fine plate of sushi, indulge in a paced ritual, contemplate each piece’s presentation, admire its lavish colors, thank the chef for his superb work and only then savor it, as meditatively, quietly and slowly as possible… actually eating it the least important part. And if you are able to do just that, you’ll surely find in “Yakuza 3” the finest videogame to come out in the west since… since, well, ever since the PS2 waned.