The Yakuza series is one that, despite having only recently discovered it, manages to charm me with its captivating universe that surrounds the main narrative. When the industry at large continually pushes for larger landscapes and more complex game spaces, prioritising exploration over engagement it’s refreshing that Sega has spent the best part of 13 years doubling down on two of Yakuza’s best features: its environment and the inhabitants within it.
Each iteration in the series takes place in Kamurocho, a fictional Tokyo district based on the real-life district of Kabukichō. What makes Kamurocho so interesting isn’t the seediness of the red light district, but the people that live within it. As the series’ main protagonist Kiryu goes about his business in the city, he runs in to a number of individuals in need of help. Plainly llabelled as sub-stories in-game, each one is individually written and offers a different view of the city through the people that we commonly ignore in many other video games.
My first real experience with the side-stories in the series came with one of the biggest additions to Yakuza Kiwami, revolving around series mainstay Majima-san. A close friend and rival of Kiyru, Majima is the head of his own family within the Yakuza and is prevalent throughout the entire series. After finding out Kiryu had lost his skill of fighting after spending ten years in prison, Majima takes it upon himself to continuously challenge Kiryu to fight. Adequately titled the Majima Everywhere sub-story, Kiryu must fight the eccentric gangster every time he bumps into him.
Some of these are quite obvious, with Majima walking down the street looking for Kiryu, while others can be more surprising and humorous. On one occasion Majima accosts Kiryu as a police officer, challenging him to a fight should he find any weapons in the player’s inventory. He can also be found hiding in a comically oversized traffic cone along one of the city’s main roads. It’s this quest that really introduced me to the depth, absurdity and comedy found in equal measure throughout the Yakuza series.
It’s something that’s grown through the series’ long run and Yakuza 6 doubles down on its sub-stories, adding a surprising amount of variety to the quests players can choose from. There are 51 plots overall spread across Yakuza 6’s two regions, which see Kiryu go fishing, dressing up as a company mascot and even meeting a girl that has supposedly leapt through time.
The optional nature of these quests and the way that players discover them is what makes the world of Kamurocho so believable. Where most open world games fill the player’s map with question marks or highlighted points of interest, Yakuza demands that players spend time exploring the world to uncover its secrets. Many of the sub-stories are presented in a way that makes it feel as though Kiryu has stumbled into the right place at the right time, instead of them being placed there by design.
One particular quest in Yakuza 6 really resonated with me on a personal level. Appropriately titled ‘Pocket Circuit Fighter Returns’, it involved Kiryu bumping into an old friend that players had previously met in the earliest Yakuza games. In Yakuza 0, Pocket Circuit Fighter was a young, passionate man famed for being an exceptionally talented Pocket Circuit racer. Decades later, Kiryu meets him once again in Yakuza Kiwami, where he is frantically searching for a successor in the Pocket Circuit racing field before he marries his partner.
Almost thirty years later, we meet Pocket Circuit Fighter once more while walking through the streets of Onomichi. Having clearly aged, he looks defeated and passionless after giving up his one true hobby to open a tofu store. Now a father and a husband, Pocket Circuit Fighter spends his time trying to run a business, while growing more and more distant from his son.
It’s this relationship that Kiryu can try to save, spending time with Sakito, Pocket Circuit Fighter’s son, away from his parents. Through Kiryu’s shared history, he’s able to teach Sakito about the fun, energetic man that his father used to be. The story culminates in Kiryu and Pocket Circuit Fighter saving Sakito from the Yakuza, but it is in this moment that the father and son realise they can bond over Pocket Circuit Racing.
It’s a decades long sub-story like this that is just one of the reasons why Kamurocho, and many of the other locations that Kiyru visits, feel real. Where many other titles focus far more on size and newness, the Yakuza series commits to its small location and continually evolves and grows it, using its characters to create believability.
One of Yakuza 6’s best side-activities, labelled Bar Friendships is a perfect example of how the smaller narratives of the game build the overall world. Taking place the the New Gaudi Bar, Bar Friendships task Kiryu with talking to – and drinking with – patrons at the bar. Each character in the bar has their story, but Kiryu must first get to know them by drinking with them. It’s a nice break from the usual in Yakuza, as most stories do tend to end in a fight of some kind.
Instead of throwing punches, Kiryu must carefully navigate conversations and build friendships with the bar’s patrons. As the friendships progress, Kiryu becomes a bigger part of the bar and joins the unusual – and somewhat dysfunctional – bar family. It’s a sidequest that really represents exactly why the Yakuza games manage to build worlds with such mastery. By elevating normal individuals across the city through unique, funny and often heartwarming exposition, Sega have built a series that stands head and shoulders above other open world games.
There’s a certain irony to be found in the labelling of these sidequests as sub-stories; it implies that they are simply there as a distraction from the main game, a way of adding some fluff between the important narrative beats. Their effect is quite the opposite though. Rather than offering a simple distraction, the sub-stories of Yakuza play their own part in creating one of the most engaging open world experiences found in gaming. The time spent between story missions is often the most forgettable portion in a lot of games, but the Yakuza series has carved itself as a series that’s unafraid to spend a little longer ensuring players experience and savour the smaller things.
This commitment to micro-narratives has not only helped establish Kamurocho as one of the most diverse, deep and engaging worlds in video games, but Sega have crafted a formula in which they can tell genuine stories with a real human element. The Yakuza series may seem silly at face value, but just like the well-written characters it portrays so well, there is always something more to be found beneath the surface.
Originally published on Thomas’ personal blog, ThomasWrites