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How 'Yakuza' Taught me to be a Man: Why Being Good is Good

Feature; Aug. 17, 2011; Channels: Video Games; By Tyrone M. Cato
Subtypes: Opinion
Games provide more freedom than ever, but that freedom tends to involve kill/destroy who/what you want. What about the people who want to help old ladies cross the street?

I'm in the process of playing through the Ryu ga Gotoku series (Yakuza in the u.S.). I started earlier this year, tracking down each title. In it, the player controls Kiryu Kazuma, a member of the Dojima yakuza family who takes the fall for the murder of his boss (which is just the start of an exceptionally involved, complicated, multi-tiered storyline of intrigue spanning all four main titles). 

When Kiryu Kazuma's full-back tattoo is visible, it means he has taken his shirt off, which in turn means that shit just got real.When Kiryu Kazuma's full-back tattoo is visible, it means he has taken his shirt off, which in turn means that shit just got real.

A few months ago, I drove out to the mall to purchase the second Yakuza game. I pulled into an entrance of the shopping center's parking area to find a truck sitting in the middle of the small, two-way road that wraps around the place. Its emergency lights were blinking.

People were passing the truck by, and I couldn't blame them; it wasn't like the driver was in any immediate danger, and if I had been doing something important/time-sensitive, I may not have stopped either. I did, though, and I told the guy to shift into neutral so I could use my car to push his out of the way. 

It wasn't that big of a help, in all honesty. All I did was push him into the actual parking area and check to see if he had someone he could call to help further. 

But I felt awesome afterward. I felt like The Man With No Name from the Dollars trilogy, wandering into town to clear out bandits, or Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap, setting right what once went wrong. There was something about the situation that resonated with me more than any fantastical princess-rescuing in any game I've played (besides the whole "one is real life" thing).

If you look past the huge plot holes, this show is awesome.If you look past the huge plot holes, this show is awesome.

The x-factor is that I was in an environment I'm familiar with. Just like seeing a shooting on the news that took place where you live might have more of an impact on you than seeing one that took place elsewhere.

There are two things to be taken from this: the fact that helping someone is such a special occasion for me means I need to get out more; and there's an appeal to being good that doesn't get the attention it deserves when it comes to video games. 

We already have plenty of games in which you play the role of a hero, yet there's a lack of intimacy with the "good" acts you perform. Mario's a hero because he's saving Princess Peach, yet looking at Super Mario Bros. on a moment-to-moment level reveals that all he's doing is killing everything in his path with that unsympathetic, pixelated expression of his. 

Then there's the Zeldas and the uncharteds in which you're supposed to be an adventurer or some form of savior, yet you, as the player, never do anything heroic or adventure-y, outside of cutscenes. Game play only involves shooting and hardly any of the player input has anything to do with the good deeds the hero is supposedly known for.

Real life yakuza, at best, act outside of the law. At worst, they get involved in extortion, murder, and human trafficking. So, it's odd that I'd find the most heartwarming experiences and best examples of a good leading character in all of gaming in a series titled Yakuza.

Playing this series is the best preparation for a trip to Japan. Not really.Playing this series is the best preparation for a trip to Japan. Not really.

The games involve running around a district in Tokyo, doing what you can to solve whatever problem threatens the Tojo Clan (the yakuza organization your character is a part of). It plays a lot like Shenmue for the Dreamcast (naturally, as they're both Sega games).

The star Kiryu Kazuma is real man. Yes, he's a high ranking member of what is essentially a crime syndicate, yet he's not above stopping street punks from throwing rocks at a puppy, or taking a sick child to a doctor, or even carrying two six-scoop cones of ice cream for a man trying to give his family a nice last day of their vacation in Okinawa. The extensive list of side missions is soaked in melodrama with some corniness on the side, yet the sense of accomplishment gained from the few lines of dialogue given after a helping someone is genuine (the sincerity with which the stories in the game are told/acted certainly helps, too).

Keep in mind, the Yakuza series has some of the most brutal and cringe-worthy controllable violence I've seen in gaming. Maybe it's just because of the real-world setting (I've seen bloodier and more ridiculous violence in God of War or Mortal Kombat), but the contextual "heat moves" at your disposal range from harsh to "dear God, that man will never walk again" (pliers can be used for "dental work" in battle, for example). Considering this stuff is in the game, still being able to call it heart-warming is saying something.

Screenshot form the most heartwarming game I've played.
Screenshot form the most heartwarming game I've played.

A lot of the time, you'll come across some truly despicable street thugs and other, less reputable yakuza ruining innocent people's lives by swindling them out of their cash or threatening their livelihoods in some way. Those brutal combat moves suddenly seem appropriate when you're tasked with beating up the the ones responsible for bulldozing an orphanage while the orphans were forced to watch. The Yakuza series manages to provide circumstances that make smashing a man's chest in with a sledgehammer justified.

I just finished Yakuza 3's main campaign (after spending almost 70 hours on it with less than 60 percent completion), and in it, when you walk with Kiryu's unofficially adopted daughter Haruka, she holds his hand. If you run, she'll cry out for you to slow down.

It sounds like a pain (and it can be), yet taking Haruka out to sing karaoke or go bowling, and seeing her reach out to hold her surrogate father's hand puts every other part of the game into perspective. I get why Kiryu goes to such ridiculous ("fighting two tigers with one's bare-hands") lengths to help Haruka, his allies, and random innocents befallen by tragedy. 

Red Dead Redemption put you in the shoes of a good person. Of course, there's still lots of violence, but, like Yakuza, how you direct that violence makes a difference, whether you're shooting a group of bandits about to execute a traveler or killing a gang terrorizing a town. 

There's no shame in being emotionally invested in a game enough to not want to be a complete sociopath and kill things just to blow off steam (which is perfectly justifiable, and there are games for that). Even still, it wouldn't hurt to have some more games that not only put the focus on being truly good, but make you want to be good as well. In the meantime, I'll keep walking slow so Haruka can catch up.

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