One of my absolute favorite movies is the Jean-Claude Van Damme classic, BLOODSPORT. I’ve watched it more times than I can count, probably more times start-to-finish than any other movie out there.
I can’t get enough of it, despite the fact that BLOODSPORT is a pile of hot garbage. Which is half the appeal, though, isn’t it? I wouldn’t have it any other way because it’s okay to love something that’s terrible as long as you’re honest about it...which brings me to YAKUZA 0.
I should give the disclaimer up front that I really enjoyed playing YAKUZA 0. I can’t think of another game that made me laugh out loud and as often as this did and I lived through the Lucasarts hey day of DAY OF THE TENTACLE, FULL THROTTLE, GRIM FANDANGO and the MONKEY ISLANDS.
This game blows them all out of the water in terms of raw hilarity and it’s a pretty fun brawler to boot — but that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Many praised YAKUZA 0 for its strong writing, compelling characters, and masterful use of tone that could switch from silly to serious on a dime. Videogamedunkey, one of my favorites, goes so far as to state, “It masterfully crafts dark cinematic tension and memorable characters with commanding, emotive voice acting.”
I argue that, from a storytelling perspective and that’s the perspective I’ll almost always take, I felt these traits worked against YAKUZA 0 and prevented it from delivering the best story it could tell. Really, I’m surprised more critics haven’t picked up on this because we have to be specific when we praise a thing, right? When someone says YAKUZA 0 has an “excellent story” or “fantastic cut scenes,” is it because it’s true? Or because a plot and very well-produced cut scenes exist in a game we would have loved anyway? Because, really, I feel like I’m the only one who thought YAKUZA 0 doesn’t know how to tell an effective story at all.
As always, I can’t examine a game’s storytelling techniques without diving into the story itself, so SPOILERS for those who haven’t played.
Now, the plot of YAKUZA 0 isn’t bad. When a routine shake down results in murder, Kazuma Kiryu leaves the Yakuza to clear his name but also to protect his direct superior and father figure, Kazama, (because those two names together aren’t confusing) from paying for his mistake.
Meanwhile, series regular and fan favorite, Goro Majima, a disgraced former Yakuza desperately looking for his way back into the family, is given a chance at redemption when ordered to kill Mokoto Makimura. Unable to bring himself to kill a helpless, blind girl (pussy), Majima decides to go against orders to find out who wants her dead and why.
Pretty compelling stuff, right? But the plot isn’t the story and that’s what I feel a lot have a hard time separating. A story’s in the telling and unfortunately that’s where YAKUZA 0 starts to fall short. Let’s start with the protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, since all aspects of a story should stem from the main protagonist.
Early on in a script, a side character often spells out what the protagonist’s flaw is, something that stops them from being their best self and what they need to fix in order to achieve that best self. When they first meet, Nishki tells Kazuma, “Still all or nothing with you,” indicating that Kazuma either has to learn how to compromise or maybe just lighten up a little.
Yet Kazuma remains all or nothing for almost the entire plot, though maybe that’s what the zero in YAKUZA 0 really stands for: zero character development. Worse, Kazuma spends most of the story on the sidelines while other people talk, rather than take direct action himself. In the end, Kazuma realizes he can’t follow other people and has to forge his own path, but did we really have to wait forty hours for him to realize that? If a story should be driven by the choices the protagonist makes, then Kazuma makes very few, except when it’s time to kick some serious ass.
And that’s the problem with Kazuma and video game storytelling in general: it’s very hard to separate the main character of a narrative from the character the player controls. We grow attached to one because we spend so much time with the other, explaining why Link can consistently win best character contests when he literally never says anything.
Rather than try to merge the narrative character and the player character, SEGA seemingly went “Fuck it,” and made the Kazuma you watch in cut scenes so far removed from the Kazuma you control that they almost can’t even be called the same person.
Does this divide strengthen the overall narrative? Luke Plunkett of Kotaku wrote, “the beauty of YAKUZA 0... is that its disparate elements all come together. ...it’s just the right kind of stupid... and you’ll be 100% fine with the dichotomy, because that’s just how YAKUZA games are.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a serious work using absurdity to either lighten the mood or create memorable moments. Some, like THE SOPRANOS, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD, or THE WIRE, revel in it.
But those absurd moments are always deeply rooted in their characters. Because of the erratic nature of YAKUZA 0, Kazuma doesn’t have consistent enough of a character to have deep roots. How else do you explain a man showing less emotion when his best friend since childhood pulls a gun on him than he does at losing a toy car race?
Can one really be taken seriously while the other exists? Does this show a mastery of tone, like so many critics credit it for, or is the game just doing whatever the hell it wants and we’re meeting it halfway?
This wouldn’t have been as big an issue had SEGA taken more steps to marry the serious narrative and the batshit insanity of everything else. They even pull it off beautifully in Goro Majima’s introduction. Phil Fish, creator of Fez, went so far as to call it, “...probably the greatest introduction to a character anywhere, ever.”
Chris Schilling of Eurogamer wrote, “His introduction is a classic: an extended cutscene-cum-tutorial that distills the essence of Yakuza into a single, glorious set-piece.” And he’s right! But the reason Majima’s intro works so well is because it’s one of the few— if not the only— scenes from YAKUZA 0 that actually walks the line between the serious and the silly. Imagine if the entire narrative walked this same line! I really do believe it would have made it much, much stronger — because why else is it there?
But even Majima’s intro has big storytelling issues. Namely these two assholes:
This brings me to my last issue with YAKUZA 0: poor pacing. We spend ten whole minutes with these two as they talk about nothing to do with the story at hand before Majima even sets FOOT on stage.
Whether or not they become essential to the plot later (which I’m pretty sure they don’t) doesn’t matter because in this scene, they serve no purpose and should have been cut to save time. How can this be, as Phil Fish says, one of the greatest intros of all time, when we have to slog through one-tenth of most movies entire run times just to get to it?
Almost every one of YAKUZA 0's cut scenes overflow with verbal diarrhea, a problem many games with cut scenes have. After all the blood, sweat, tears and money necessary to make just one second of a cut scene work, it’s very hard for someone to go, “You know what, it’s not working. Cut it.”
But the story suffers as a result.
Most movies are only an hour and a half to two hours long because any longer than that and the audience will lose interest. Screenwriters try very hard to start each scene as late in the story as possible, so that each scene lasts only as long as it needs to and then on to the next one! Just because YAKUZA 0 has the ability to take its time (and it sure does take its sweet time), doesn’t necessarily mean it should. And sure, you could argue that this is a video game, not a movie, but when YAKUZA 0 tries so very hard to be cinematic, I have to judge it on the terms its begging to be judged by—
And it doesn’t measure up.
But here’s the thing: neither does BLOODSPORT. When judged against what makes most movies “good,” BLOODSPORT falls way below the mark. It’s barely even passable as a martial arts movie, for crying out loud. Yet there’s something in its sauce that makes it a classic...
There’s no doubt in my mind YAKUZA 0 is a classic game. I just don’t think it’s a classic story. I just wish more critics pointed out (or perhaps even understand?) the difference.