Category Archives: Games

Yakuza 0 Is an Unrivaled Lesson in Character Development and Storytelling

When you think about videogames, most of the time character development and storytelling aren’t he first things that come to mind. That isn’t to say that videogames don’t focus on these things, because they do, but they tend to fail due to the compromises made for the medium.

Gamers like games to have a certain level of challenge to them, they like to accomplish something and advance not just a story or a character’s arc, but their own skill and in-game possessions. What this has led to is a rather stagnant world of games where “good guy with a gun” (yes, you can swap it out for good guy with a sword, etc.) is not only the norm, but the only standard to hold games to. If anything, it gets tired after a while.

Where Yakuza 0 varies from the formula might seem insignificant, yet while playing the game all I could think about was how refreshing it was. Sure, it’s from Sega and is essentially Shenmue with a bunch of yakuza tough guys over the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed naivety of Ryo Hazuki, but that doesn’t matter. Yu Suzuki wanted to tell the story of a young man’s coming of age story through a somewhat fantastical journey, while Yakuza doesn’t try to hide the frayed edges of its world.

In a lot of ways, both Kiryu Kazama and Goro Majima, the main protagonists, are kind of boring. Kiryu, especially, is devoid of much outside of his determination and fighting ability. There is more to Majima, but at the same time, they are both strong, talented and resilient fighters who are able to crush any-and-everyone who stands in their respective paths.

That, alongside the repetitive fighting system that provides thrills the first dozen times you perform a cool move, but wears off the next five dozen times, should be instant disqualifiers from this being a great game. Never mind the fact that it’s a barely upscaled PlayStation 3 game re-released on the PlayStation 4 with the main characters getting a texture upgrade. Yet, none of those things matter and it all rests solely on the shoulders of the wide array of side quests and the absolutely stunning writing.

So while Kiryu is your default young yakuza upstart and Majima is your fallen-from-grace yakuza, both have their own unique motivations that drive them forward and are shaped by the characters that they meet along the way.

There isn’t a single character that you encounter in either the game’s main story of the side quests that doesn’t deserve careful attention, which, in a way, is stunning. This game is dense and packed full of content, but nothing about it feels rushed or like there wasn’t careful thought put into it.

Most games and genre-content tend to fall into the same tropes when it comes to creating characters; some are good, some are bad and some are mysteriously in the middle, but not everyone will need to feel real. If a character isn’t pivotal to a plot thread or moving the main story along, who cares, right? Yakuza 0 laughs in the face of that and provides everyone with a compelling backstory, motivations and it makes the world and the inhabitants feel that much more important.

There was not a single enemy that Kiryu or Majima faced that after a knock down, drag out brawl left you walking away thinking that they were just a challenge to overcome. These were people and they were difficult not to feel for. Everyone in the game lives by a code of honor and ethics which can at times be at odds with their goals and aspirations. Those conflicts aren’t ignored, though, just to move the story along, instead they are fully explored and discussed to the point where an enemy can remain and enemy but you, the player, no longer want to see bad things happen to them.

kuze

There are characters like Kuze that seem like they are going to be run-of-the-mill yakuza movie tropes with their back tattoos, their cool shades and their raspy voices, but even the madman Kuze has a reason to do what he does. With every encounter you learn more and more about him, his struggles, why he became a yakuza and how he can desperately want revenge on a character, but if it would harm the family he wouldn’t dare do such a thing.

Everyone is both good and bad, while simultaneously being neither of those. There are a few characters who remain on a certain part of the spectrum, but even then, they are treated differently and almost with reverence for existing outside of this broken system of damaged boys playing like men.  One of my personal favorites would have to be one of the characters that perhaps had the biggest impact on Majima in Nishitani. Nishitani is a fucking madman who reminds me a lot of Tadanobu Asano’s Kakihara in Ichi the Killer, although I’d argue that there is a lot more of Nishitani to care about than there ever was for Kakihara.

nishitani

There are twists and turns throughout the story and yeah, you know that eventually Kiryu and Majima’s stories are going to intertwine with each other, but when they do it is masterful and not forced. Instead of the twists being eye-rolling, they were fun. The ones that you could see coming were usually ones that you didn’t want to believe and the ones that you couldn’t were your deepest fears. That is good storytelling.

So while it’s easy to get lost in the side quests, the cabaret or real estate minigames or a host of the other parts of Yakuza 0 that make it such a fantastic game, it’s the writing and depth that really takes it to the next level.

This game will frustrate you, make you laugh, make you cry and even make you proud at times — all of that because of the story and the characters. While there are many, many games that feature solid writing and storytelling, Yakuza 0 is perhaps one of the best examples of how not to compromise gameplay or storytelling to create a complete package.

The Princess in the Distant Castle

The aging plumber stood at a slouch, an artifact from the decades of mushroom-hopping, ingesting and turtle smashing in a bespoke suit. The subtle pinstripes of said suit were only visible to the discerning eye at extreme close range, watching as Timmy sat disinterested on an old, broken down couch. Their relationship had existed — much like many of his relationships — for dozens of years, dating back to their childhoods and extending deep into the throes of adulthood. Timmy, like many before, had changed. A lot had changed, including the Plumber himself.

“So,” Timmy said, breaking the silence.

“So?” The plumber sheepishly replied.

“You look good.”

“Oh,” he said, patting his white gloved hand on the breast of the suit. “Thank you.”

“Yeah.”

Timmy wasn’t a boy anymore, he was a man just barely into his thirties. His childlike, devil-may-care smile had been replaced by a frown and a five o’clock shadow that persisted throughout the days like a symbol of his disdain. The Plumber had changed since those early days as well, those times that they shared in the late 80’s. Everything was so fast and loose then, concerns weren’t of the narrative or existential kind, simply the shared thrill of the chase, the contentment in the princess being in another castle meaning more time together.

Things changed, though, for the both of them. The world lost its core innocence while they both grew, their once immeasurable bond slipped while the years of wear and tear battered at their hull like the unrelenting sea. The Plumber knew his role, but also knew that there was a world outside of Timmy and his like, even if it was difficult for him to fathom. This hurt Timmy, he could see it in his eyes, in the way that he glanced at the Plumber longingly before the look of betrayal sunk in. Sometimes that was what happens when two friends grew apart; their worlds once converged, but over time diverged and grew on their own, only for future meetings to become painful and strained.

“Hey,” Timmy said, “you think that we could break out a turtle, you know, for old time’s sake?”

“Oh wow,” the Plumber said. “I’d really like to, but I don’t do that anymore. My back, you know?”

“Right,” Timmy said, crestfallen. “I forgot about that.”

“I’m sorry, I know that we shared some good times, but a lot has changed since then. Look at yourself, Timmy, you’ve grown into a fine man. What about Patty?”

“She’s out of town and you know how she thinks that you are kind of, well… childish,” he said. “I just thought that we could get together again, old time’s sake?”

“I’ve just moved on is all. Patty is a smart girl, you know, she might be right. I’ve changed as well, Timmy.”

“I get it, I get it. Fine,” Timmy said.

“I’m getting older, the world is changing, this isn’t the mushroom-stomping 90’s anymore. We can’t delude ourselves. You are grown up now, Timmy. You’re starting a family. You two are trying, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, we are,” Timmy said. “And I know all of this, but I just… Remember the good times?”

“Of course I do, but I’m not that person anymore, neither are you.”

A tense silence fell between the two men, the Plumber burying his hands into his pockets and searching for something to say to lessen the blow of the inevitable. This was a terrible idea and he knew it going in, but still felt a sense of responsibility towards this kid, just like the rest of the kids, and it ate him alive knowing that he couldn’t be that avatar for their childhood anymore. The gravity of his influence hadn’t eluded him over the years, but instead weighed heavily around his neck like an albatross in the calm seas. Everyone wanted him to be something different; to freeze himself in time at whatever period they wished and to never change, but change was inevitable, and in a lot of cases, the Plumber was happy with his own evolution.

“Oh hey,” Timmy said. “How about this?”

He was trying, which the Plumber appreciated to some degree, but he did wish that he’d just let the Plumber move on, without these painful reprieves to delve into past history. With a sigh he lifted his gaze from his shoes only to see a turtle next to Timmy’s couch, crawling along the tile floor with its red shell glistening under the soft white overhead light. Red shell, fire, it all flooded back to him like a fever dream. It looked up at him with its cartoonish, bugged eyes that had no mal intent behind them. He couldn’t bear the thought of hurting such a creature again, especially after all of those years.

“Oh, wow,” the Plumber reacted. “Hi there, little fella.”

“Don’t you just wanna hop on his shell, for old time’s sake?”

A swell of emotions overtook him while staring down at the hapless turtle, conjured from the nether for nothing but simple amusement. What was that turtle but his sad reflection? It drove him crazy. Tears began to streak down his weathered cheeks, catching at his carefully manicured mustache while he turned his back to the boy that he once knew and the man that he couldn’t stomach and walked towards the door.

“Hey, wait,” Timmy said. “Where are you going?”

The Plumber paused briefly, considering the range of emotions tumbling through his consciousness and the many things that he wanted — no needed — to say, before realizing that none of it mattered anymore. He stepped through the door one last time, the stark realization that there would need to be another castle and another princess for both men.

Everyone Went to the Rapture. They’re Gone.

For about as long as videogames have been around there have been arguments about the artistic validity of them. Art is, by definition, the expression of human imagination and skill into a medium, which means that you could always make an argument for games being art. Of course, the issue is that most videogames don’t reach beyond the realm of the summer blockbuster and that most gamers consider games that don’t feature the player staring down the sights of a gun to be a “game.” It makes the whole argument of games and art tenuous at best, leaving it instead to the realm of simple entertainment that at times shows glimmers of exploring the human condition beyond explosions and shooting galleries.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is one of the most compelling experiences that I think I’ve ever had in the interactive realm. I’m going to get that out of the way as quickly as I can. I’d go as far as to say that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture has affected me in a deeply, profound way unlike any other videogame has ever been able to do. Everything about the game is finely crafted, well thought out and honed in to evoke an emotional response from the player. The game triggered anxiety in me while playing and the atmosphere and sense of dread were present almost entirely throughout the whole four to six hours that it lasted.

That’s amazing. This is a game where you can’t die, nothing attacks you, you aren’t tasked with saving the world or to grab a gun and shoot anything, yet it can still be “scary.” You control a character in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, a nameless, faceless, voiceless observer of a small, sleepy British town in the 80’s where something happened. That something unravels before your eyes and ears through stray telephones, radios, tape recorders and through witnessing memories. A ball of pulsating light is your guide to the Rapture, it is both menacing and playful as it zips around the town, guiding you towards “memories” that you can trigger by tilting your Dualshock controller in a direction to “unlock” said sequence.

The series of events unfold through individual chapters or stories, where you learn about the people of the town. Each chapter focuses on one person’s journey and experience. Their experiences are human, touching and at times heartwrenching. What’s evident is that while these people are living through what one would call the apocalypse (sort of), they are still living their own lives, dealing with their own issues and their relationships become even more important while everyone around them is affected by the mysterious “flu.”

These people are interesting, they are frustrating and they are incredibly flawed. Even in the face of the end they can be stubborn, and in retrospect foolish. I found myself muttering under my breath to these people in disbelief of how ridiculous they were people. Without a twinge of irony I was sitting on my couch at 3am saying “Stephen, what have you done?” That’s how immersive Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is. If you are willing to sit back and immerse yourself in the game you will be endlessly rewarded.

Not everyone is going to have that same reaction, though. The tremendous voice acting, the heartfelt stories and deliberate funeral dirge of a pace accentuated by Jessica Curry’s stunning soundtrack set an unmistakable tone, but there will be players who are simply averse to such charms. Without a gun, sword or magic rod and a feeling of “control” some players are going to look at Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and see it as a mockery of what they love. I’m not going to tell you that if you feel that way that you are wrong, just a fair warning that this is not for you.

Developer The Chinese Room paved the way for these sorts of games with 2012’s Dear Esther, which remains to this day one of my favorite games of all time. Dear Esther was a transformative experience. I’ll be honest that I was very concerned that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture would have difficulty living up to the high watermark set by Dear Esther, especially with it being a much longer game this time around. Death Esther can take anywhere from 80 to 100 minutes to get through while Rapture is a solid four to six hours. The way that they broke down the chapters and wove an intricate, but heartfelt tale was just masterful, though. It never dragged or felt like it needed to be cut down.

Throughout Rapture you explore these people’s lives and along the way you learn about their connections to one another. Some of these people are related, some are friends, some are lovers or even strangers, but everyone is connected. Some of these people feel alienated, some feel connected, others want to leave while some struggle with the desire to stay. Each character brings something different and compelling to the table and essentially watching the end of these lives play out can be a touching, even draining experience. The player gets a brief glimpse into their lives, but these moments that are captured are nearly perfect, leading to these overwhelming feelings when they meet their fate.

At first it wouldn’t be crazy to see the memories that play out and think that they are kind of ridiculous. Of course, the early memories in the game don’t tell much, nor does anyone truly understand that is happening. Over time it becomes a much more fascinating method of storytelling and the power of the voice acting really comes through. The simple gestures that are made by the figures composed entirely of orbs of light convey so much emotion, hugely in part to the performances themselves, that when you see a character’s orbs of lights dissipate for that last time it’s nothing short of crushing.

This game is deep, insightful and makes no qualms about what it’s doing; it’s tugging on your heartstrings and making you piece together the puzzle. Of course, does the puzzle matter? I’ve seen people complain about a definitive ending, but the nature of this game itself is not about definitive endings and solid answers. Instead it is about you, the player and how you react. What was this event? What was the true end result? What is human existence and do our relationships truly matter? These are all questions that will hang in your head after finishing this game. What you take away from this game depends on your own experiences and emotions.

I can’t recommend this game enough.

Finally, Bannerlord

Gaming is something that I’ve been doing since I was a kid, it comes natural to me. My dad played games and we always had consoles at home, it was kind of his way of winding down after work. I used to get excited about the “TV games” that he’d bring home and eventually when I was old enough we’d play them together. I have these great memories of playing games like Legend of Zelda with him as a kid, each one of us taking turns at difficult bosses or figuring out puzzles.

So needless to say I never stopped playing them. It takes a lot to get me into a game nowadays, with my most anticipated games being a mixed bag of weird genres and styles of games. Right now I’m most looking forward to Shenmue III, Mass Effect Andromeda, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. Most of these games are easy to understand, but Mount & Blade is kind of my go-to when it comes to multiplayer time killing.

When I’m writing I tend to open up Mount & Blade: Warband and play a bit, die a bit, minimize and continue working for a while before tabbing back into playing some more. It’s a great way to work through some frustrations and to keep my mind sharp. Needless to say there is a lot of anxiety behind Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. Why? Because there hasn’t been a blog entry in about a year now from Taleworlds and while Warband is still great, the community is starting to wind down and only attracts new players during Steam sales and most of those players are trolls looking to be a dick in their new $2 game.

But finally the faithful were rewarded today at gamescom with a slew of new videos. Sure, they aren’t the best, but they sure as hell give me a lot of hope.

First up we have the trailer that they played at gamescom today. It doesn’t give away a ton but noticeable is that the graphics are improved by a lot. I’ve seen some slagging the graphics and while this is no AAA title by any stretch of the imagination, the Mount & Blade series has always been about epic gameplay. My first time in a 100+ person multiplayer siege was what hooked me. I couldn’t believe that I was involved in something as big as that and how the game was playing so smoothly.

There is just so much in this video, from the siege weaponry (which you have limited access to in Warband with mods, such as the NeoGK mod) to the scope of these battles. Then, of course, they focus on the minigames with a look at what looks like a version of checkers. I dunno, it’s no Gwent but single player isn’t my big focus right now, although I’m hoping for it to be as addictive as Mount & Blade’s has always been.

Perhaps the most exciting part of today’s news was in the B-roll footage that they sent to journalists.

It shows more of the character creation, which was fun in Warband but a bit limited. They cycle through some familiar faces from the world of entertainment today to show just how powerful their creation suite can be.

What’s most exciting for fans of the single player is watching what comes next of the player running through a populated city street into a tavern. Then more of a populated city, some dialogue options with a merchant and things leading to blows. Don’t they always? At 2:11 starts the actual combat and if you were concerned about Bannerlord varying much from the previous games never fear, it is still Mount & Blade at its core.

The swordplay looks very similar to what Warband looks like, but just a little tweaked. The animations seem smooth in comparison  and it looks like it won’t be a vastly different game. This is a good thing since the Warband engine is beloved by so many with the right balance between technical gameplay and crazed melee fun.

The video ends with a look at the overworld map from single player which isn’t vastly different and then some music.

Still no release date and still no in depth look at the gameplay just yet, but I must say that any fears that I had were washed away with these videos. I’d love to get my hands on this in the near future.