Spaces Left Blank #2: Yakuza 0, Heterogeneous Systems, and Derridean Ethics

You eatin' good?

Yakuza 0 is a video game about being a yakuza—kinda. The story opens with a fairly standard crime hook: Kazuma Kiryu, a low-ranking member of the Dojima family, is sent on a debt collection job and ends up framed for a salaryman's murder. Kiryu didn't kill the salaryman; he ‘only’ beat him to a pulp. Obviously, unsanctioned murder doesn't sit right with a criminal organization since it brings unwanted police attention. As a result, Kiryu is forced out of the family (kinda) and becomes an ex-yakuza (sorta). His goal, at first, entails finding out why he was framed and why the murder occurred at all. Things keep going sideways and, in a matter of hours, it becomes clear that powerful groups are fighting for control of two (fictional) Tokyo districts. Kiryu is caught in the middle of it all. Another playable character and kinda-sorta yakuza, Goro Majima, is swallowed up by this mess as well. The narrative is split into chapters, and players alternate between playing as Kiryu or Majima.

Yakuza 0 is a big dramatic piece with all the betrayals, plot twists, conflicts, heartbreaks, and hopeful moments the best dramas contain. The story is touching, infuriating, funny as hell, captivating—it’s good crime/noir shit rooted in pseudo-realism, and it’s hard to do it justice in a few lines. Summing up the game world is like trying to capture the complexities of a fantasy series with a plethora of moving parts. We’re talking about ~150 unique characters, one hundred side-quests (called "substories"), and dozens of different organizations/groups who all want something.

These elements aren’t just narratives/lore bits detached from gameplay. The possibility spaces of Yakuza 0 are made up of so many systems, mechanics, rule sets, themes, and tonal shifts—the specifics of which I’ll clarify below. This newsletter is about making sense of why the game works so well because of these diverse elements, rather than in spite of them.

Action-adventure, the genre to which Yakuza 0 supposedly belongs, is often a misnomer. It’s a fuzzy set that doesn't tell us much. Sure, as Kiryu or Majima, the player runs around a semi-open world map, gets into over-the-top fights inspired by martial arts flicks and Hollywood blockbusters, takes on a variety of missions, gets loot and money, becomes better at fighting/traversing conflict-filled spaces, and so on. Action-adventure fits, I guess.

But the game is also, in wildly different ways, resolutely not that. Players can fish; play shogi, poker, table tennis, mahjong, blackjack, pool, roulette, darts, and baccarat; they can sing karaoke; dance; practice their baseball skills at a batting center; take part in remote-controlled pocket car races; or use arcade cabinets to play classic Sega games such as Out Run and Space Harrier. There’s a ridiculous amount of collectibles, battle masters to practice with, real estate properties and cabarets to oversee (including managing employees and improving their stats), over a hundred different dishes and drinks to consume at restaurants and bars, there's a crafting system where you send agents on missions across the globe, underground fighting arenas, and I'm honestly going to stop here because that's enough.

These parts of the game aren't fluff. Pocket Circuit Racing, for example, includes several race tracks and challenges, as well as dozens of car parts to collect in order to fine-tune one's tiny speed demon. There's enough complexity there to keep you busy for several hours, maybe days. Not all minigames have the same depth, but many of them do. Plus, regardless of depth, karaoke is simply not the same as dancing—different inputs, different challenges, different ways of playing. If I spend three hours engrossed in a management sim, can I really say I spent three hours playing an action-adventure game?

Looping back to the game's setting and main narrative, how can such divergent elements work together? Before I answer that, let me complicate things further. Much like the mini-games, Yakuza 0's substories often aren't gritty or noir. For example, one of these side quests involves showing a dominatrix how to actually humiliate her clients. Another story is about helping a mushroom merchant sell his wares because, surprise, advertising The Goods in a back-alley screams drug dealer rather than fungiculture connoisseur. Another tale involves helping a dorky dude propose to his girlfriend by helping her complete a horribly-designed crossword puzzle. There's also an escort mission where Kiryu must help a character walk across a bridge because the guy keeps getting beaten up due to his flashy jacket. No, the character won't take off the jacket—even though the kanji characters on the back supposedly read, "BRING ON THE FIGHTS!”

There are hundreds (thousands?) of goofy, hilarious moments peppered all over the place. Here, rather than words, I'd like to show you what karaoke looks like:

And here's another shot of Kiryu and his sworn brother, as teenagers, getting a lesson from their adoptive father—himself a yakuza. This scene includes a tearful Kiryu who, under pouring rain, dramatically asks, "Do orphans not get to dream?"

Radically different tones, almost like these two screenshots could belong to separate games. You've got a big crime story, bizarre side stories, and a ton of fun mini-games. And yet this whole chaotic mess stays on track. Even better: it shines.

I think Yakuza 0 shines (and may be the best thing I've played in a while) because there's a clear, coherent design embedded into nearly every part of the game. I use design, but you can call it a theme, a motif, a logic, or a narratorial slant. A configurative strategy of sorts: writing and mechanics, regardless of their differences, are specifically deployed in relation to a shared network. It’s all nodes, regardless of what a node looks like. This heterogeneous unity—when executed successfully—cares little for genre, gameplay loops, or distinctions between game and mini-games, main quests and side quests, protagonists and secondary characters. Connective threads are there whether it’s a Big “Oh Shit” Noir Moment, or whether Kiryu gasps as his remote controlled car flies off the tracks because he failed to hit the brakes.

It's all about difference, recognition, Otherness and stakes.

Really, it's about eating well.

Before clarifying what that means, let's take another detour. Maybe keep eating well in the back of your mind.

Consider the series’ main protagonist. Kiryu isn't the friendliest guy around. His tank-like frame makes it hard to rock a suit, and his face, as his brother puts it, was"made for mugshots." The same is true of the other playable character, Majima, who lost an eye after being tortured and who rarely smiles unless he's about to crush someone. These characters were raised in brutal environments and their lives—as well as the lives of those they care about—are on the line. Billionaires and ancient crime syndicates are eager to see them dead. There's nothing more high stakes than dealing with that.

However, those stakes don't mean much to other people, and why should they? Most civilians have no idea what's going on. Even if they did, they're caught up in the drama of their own lives. So when two men notice Kiryu’s unique demeanor and ask him to fill in as movie producer for the day, it's easy to think, "Fuck off, I got killers after me."

That tension is there, for a moment, but it's soon replaced by the recognition that what's trivial to someone may be crucial to somebody else. Death may not be a concern for the film crew, but getting fired is. In late stage capitalism, that can be a form of death in itself. The same is true of the passive dominatrix: why would clients seek her out if she can't handle them as advertised? The mushroom dealer, too: the dude knows and loves his craft, but is he fated to getting beaten up (and perhaps killed) by the wrong customers? The crossword puzzle geek may not have thought his proposal through, but asking his partner to marry him is still one of the biggest days of his life. For the guy trying to cross the bridge, taking off his provocative jacket would mean compromising his identity. Kiryu and Majima have to repeatedly deal with situations that, to them, seem downright weird, unimportant, annoying, or ridiculous. And yet, they get involved.

I tend to dislike traditional hero figures—wrote a whole thesis about it and all—so believe me when I say the next sentence isn't an accident. What turns Yakuza 0's protagonists into (reluctant, grumpy) heroes is their ability to acknowledge the distress of others, even and especially when the protagonists can't relate to that distress at all. They're heroes because recognition is followed by doing something about it. It's not about morality—although Kiryu and Majima do have clear moral codes—but being there for someone who needs it. After helping, they may reflect on the deed or share a few words of wisdom with the person they helped. ‘This sure was weird and absurd and needless, but ultimately worth it’ encapsulates so many parts of the game. Empathy with a capital E, except it locks on to a broader sense of suffering rather than situated, relatable markers of suffering.

Pardon me for getting all Derridean on this shit, but it's precisely what Derrida explored when he dealt with the moral implications of eating well. Thanks for remembering, as Chekhov would say.

What does it mean, to eat well? Not only how to eat, or what to eat, but "how for goodness' sake should one eat well?" (Derrida, 283)

Derrida's playfulness gets lost in translation, as it should, but goodness and well are important words here. 'Eating well' is translated from the French 'bien manger'. Bien can also mean good or goodness, the opposite of evil. To do good, one would say 'faire le bien'. Remove 'le', and all you're saying 'well made', 'do well', or 'doing something well'. Wellness and goodness often haunt the same spaces; part of doing good can mean ensuring someone is well, or at least in a state of non-unwellness. While Derrida does wrestle with the "carnivorous" dynamics suggested by the topic’s formulation, his thoughts on eating well are quite clear:

The infinitely metonymical question on the sub­ject of "one must eat well" must be nourishing not only for me, for a "self," which would thus eat badly; it must be shared, as you might put it, and not only in language. "One must eat well" does not mean above all taking in and grasping in itself, but learning and giving to eat, learning-to-give-the-other-to-eat. One never eats en­tirely on one's own: this constitutes the rule underlying the state­ment, "One must eat well." It is a rule offering infinite hospitality. And in all differences, ruptures, and wars (one might even say wars of religion), "eating well" is at stake. (283)

I think learning and giving to eat is a heart-breakingly gorgeous way to deal with the illusory gaps between 'selfness' and 'Otherness'. That learning, that giving, is also baked into into Yakuza 0. Sticking with this symbolic network, how can Kiryu and Majima eat well when others can't? The heroes may not be into a particular dish, but they can see that it'll stop a stranger from being hungry. The heroes may be unwilling to help, even pissed off that they must, but there's a priority of need here. If I'm merely annoyed, but you're actually suffering, then I can and should make room for you. It's also not surprising that the most quote-unquote evil characters happen to be the most gluttonous. They'll stop at nothing to gorge on everything: people, dreams, money, material possessions, Tokyo's streets and businesses. Everything. If others end up starving? So be it.

Mechanically, players are continuously hailed by the ugliness of others feeding on others or depriving them of nourishment. Tokyo's neon-lit streets aren't kind. They teem with with yakuza, bikers, and other tough guys who will attack Kiryu/Majima as soon as they're spotted. Given how easy it is to defeat these enemies, fights quickly become repetitive. When all you want to do is get to the next mission, fights are annoying.

But the designers were clever. Tokyo’s districts are tightly-regulated spaces. Points of interests—areas where stuff happens—are placed across a variety of cramped and/or crowded streets. The environment tells stories and dictates movements—and yes, dictating movements is storytelling as well. But this spatial/narrative maze isn’t all about you, hero. Other fictional lives have their own dynamics.

Often, enemies aren't gunning for you because they're busy preying on someone else. As you dash past a cul-de-sac, you'll hear passersby beg for mercy. Maybe you were hoping to duck into a ramen shop, but right around the corner there’s a mugger demanding someone's wallet. These aren’t the vertical and/or outdoor spaces of Assassin’s Creed. You don’t get to fly by on horseback or climb rooftops. When the environment hails you, looking away quickly becomes a choice rather than what comes naturally. You can run past trouble, but you might hear what’s going on for a few seconds longer, or maybe your destination is next door to what’s happening. As you approach characters in need of help, a pop-up menu offers two choices: "Intervene" or "Walk away". This isn't neutral. You're already here, the game says. You can either put a stop to it, or pretend it's not happening, but it's not not happening. So, what's your input?

When civilians need help, I have to stop. To be clear, I often don’t want to. Like killing hordes of nameless, low-level NPCs in RPGs—it's just not for me. But every single time, I stop anyway. Actually, I stop because. Yakuza 0 turns anyways and despites and after alls into reasons to care and thus play in specific ways.

Yesterday, I stopped because some shitstain was telling a woman that his crew would have to “take a few pictures" before letting her go.

I picked "Intervene" fast enough to break the speed of light, and then I broke some bones.

The fight wasn't boring, or an annoyance, or a distraction. The mechanics morphed and took on a new meaning. My current mission could wait—it was half-forgotten anyway. The priority was making these particular fuckers pay. What was happening was as vital as the larger plot. So I went in.

I let the battle drag on, methodically switching between fighting styles as I thought about what making someone pay really entails. I took the time to smash one enemy's face into a concrete wall, dropped a bike on another dude's head, kicked a third near-unconscious one into the river, and finished the last guy with a jaw-pulverizing curb stomp. The woman thanked me, then wandered towards a more crowded, safer street. Out of sight, but not out of mind.

Yakuza 0, at times, leans heavily into JRPG conventions—primarily through its progression systems and dialogues. What stands out, however, are the moments when it just doesn’t. Shout out to Dia Lacina for these tweets about the newly-released Yakuza: Like a Dragon because I absolutely (dis)agree:

I know, theoretically, that the NPCs I helped along the way gave me armor pieces, consumables, crafting materials, or the occasional item I can sell for big bucks. Except: not once have I jumped into a fight in the hopes of stat-boosting rewards. The reward is doing what feels right. Sounds idealistic, simplistic, maybe naive? Yeah, no shit. But the RPG lanscape is filled with games that turn morals and ethics into metrics, relationships into cost-benefit analyses, ideologically-charged performances into machine-readable states.

By pulling players into meaningful encounters detached from quantifiable profits, different motivations and reasons for diegetic doings emerge. Worth is often de-systematized—computationally, at least. See, I didn't want to get into this mess. Rephrased: I would rather live in a world where I didn't have to because none of this would exist. Except that's a fantasy and, in reality, I have to do the right thing, the good thing, the eating well thing. Fight scenes, through combo systems, flashy visuals, and visceral sound effects, can be cathartic—but that's the surface, a flavoring of sorts. Beneath that, what's at stake? I’m not in it for tangible rewards, so again: what is at stake? Why fight? Why play it this way? For me, the answers come as variations of the same impulse: there’s no point to my next mission and the promise of a full stomach if I let this stranger starve. I don’t like the idea of it, and cutscenes and dialogues have shown me that Kiryu and Majima wouldn’t like it either. Substories work like these random encounters. With extra weirdness peppered on top, yes, but urgency and seriousness inevitably creep in. What matters lies beyond what’s encoded, yet what matters shapes encodings: every thing has the potential to mean the world to someone, and you gotta make sure some predators don’t take it away from them.

What about the mini-games? We're still talking about a so-called action-adventure with heterogeneous forms of play. Eating well doesn't explain how systems within systems work in praxis. When it comes to mini-games, the answer's easy to experience and surely hellish to design: these are all well-made arrangements with clever, engaging mechanics. The more traditional ones (chess, poker, etc.) involve tried-and-tested rule sets and forms of play. Others (cabaret and real estate management) borrow from Gacha and mobile games. They become addictive through timers, stats, and myriad layers of customization and feedback, such as a restaurant leveling up after being well-managed. Here, the pushes and pulls of numerical rewards play a stronger part, but that’s not all there is to it. Most mini-games are familiar in one way or another yet aren’t lazy rehashes or diluted remediations. Fuck a genre. In a weird Moby Dick-like move, Yakuza 0 emulates and twists what comes before in order to grow into its own thing. What makes the mini-games truly unique is the playfulness that comes from playing within this space. Like random encounters, I’m not in it to win a cash prize—in fact, for most games, I’m not even sure there is one. Engaging with the game state and its conflicts, rather than focusing on what comes after the outcome, takes center stage.

And there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. Look at Kiryu's triumphant pose after winning a race. Notice the confetti, too:

Look at Majima smiling but, for once, not showing teeth:

The characters understand what’s going on all too well. Does Derrida have anything to say about that? Yeah, he does:

The Good can also be eaten. And it, the good, must be eaten and eaten well. (284)

Mini-games aren't mini-games—they're localized instantiations of the whole, the streets and neighborhoods that make up a city. Topologically, materially, thematically, narratively, these games are the game: an assemblage of playful things meticulously packed together. It is trite to say it, but it's too easy to forget: playing Out Run in Yakuza 0 is not the same as playing Out Run anywhere else. In these wavering spaces, side-dishes can't be disconnected from the dishes à venir—or from the restaurant itself. Everything has a taste, and that taste influences the rest of your meal. Beyond the thin walls of pool halls and karaoke bars and arcade venues, death, suffering, starving are all on the table. In here, Kiryu and Majima get the chance to play against and with the burden of it all rather than away from it. What's offered is a treat, a chance to eat well, without depriving others of anything. Stakes as steaks, or vice-versa. Who knows if there’ll be another opportunity to do that, ever? So characters cheer when they win, or feel crushed when they lose. If the stakes are high across the board, beyond labels and structures, it's because stakes are always a matter of play—and the matter of the Others who may be denied it. Nothing less than that; everything more undetermined.

More about Yakuza 0

The Transformative Violence of Yakuza 0 (Patrick Larose, Ploughshares)

The Empty Lot (Astrid Budgor, Heterotopias)

Money for Nothing (Ed Smith, Bullet Points Monthly)

Hall of Mirrors: Facing Patriarchy in the Media, Facing Ourselves (Carolyn Petit, Feminist Frequency)

References

Derrida, Jacques. ‘”Eating Well”, or the Calculation of the Subject: An interview with Jacques Derrida’. Who Comes after the Subject? ed. Cadava, Eduardo, et al., Routledge, 1991, 255-287. http://users.clas.ufl.edu/burt/Bibliomania!/eatingwell.pdf