Blazing through Yakuza 0, Yakuza Kiwami 1, and Yakuza Kiwami 2 in my endless quest to clear my backlog, I came across a kind of minor epiphany. Maybe video games are thinking about settings in the wrong way, at least as far as Western Triple A tent pole releases are concerned. You know the ones; Those games that surface every E3 with a bevy of industry buzzwords belaboring how “immersive”, “expansive” and “breathtaking” their open-worlds are. Games that treat the hours of content contained within their ever-larger worlds as a mark of achievement. Games with locales like Los Santos, Hyrule, Ancient Egypt, Gransys, and, perhaps the most eldritch of them all, San Francisco. The funny thing about these places, however, is that I can’t seem to remember a single thing about them. I really couldn’t even begin to describe what these worlds actually look like other than a set of vagaries like “grassy” or “grey”. I wondered what the whole point was: why are game worlds that were meticulously designed by legions of very creative, very talented people as easy to remember as last month’s lotto numbers?
The answer came to me while playing Yakuza Kiwami 2. I had just stepped out of a Club Sega after a round of Fighting Vipers, fought a gang of diaper-sporting goons, and attempted to wash the memory away at the nearest Gindaco Highball. What makes a game world memorable isn’t about the physical space itself, but about what you do in it. More importantly, it’s about how you interface with the environment, how you live it.
If I were to describe most open world settings, I would call them places where things happen. For example, Insomniac’s Spider-Man has a beautifully rendered New York City, which obviously carries great importance to the character and his mythos. However, once your hands are on the controller, does the city build upon this urban texture? Does the player’s interactions with the world present them with a degree of authenticity?
The city, despite looking alive and vibrant, is little more than a cluster of rectangles to swing from and criminals to beat up. The player never feels like they truly belong to the city, unable to meaningfully interact or interface with it. In this way, it is impossible to have any real intimacy with the setting or to emotionally respond to it in the same way we would our own spaces. When it comes down to it, New York is Spider-Man’s playground. And perhaps that’s what Insomniac wanted, sure. Nevertheless, this way of framing setting hurts any real attempts to breathe life into it. For all of Peter’s talk of love for the Big Apple, it falls flat when there is only the mechanical husk of a city there, with absolutely nothing beneath the surface.
Game worlds are truly made resonant by your activities and interactions with them, which is why something like Yakuza works while Spider-Man doesn’t. What Yakuza has that Spider-Man and other games of its ilk don’t is a definite sense of place. Kamurocho is a setting impossible to forget, begging you to memorize its neon-polluted streets, smoky back-alleys, and deserted parking lots. In many ways, the smaller scope of the setting contributes to a greater intimacy and familiarity than what would be possible zipping through the sky in Spider-Man or gunning through the streets of Los Santos. Player activities in Yakuza mirror what some rough and tumble punk would get up to in a city like Kamurocho: street fights where you beat the snot (and yen) out of gangs of delinquents, and excursions to bars, restaurants, and arcades where you spend that cash. You cannot attack civilians, steal cars, run people over, blow up buildings or anything that would deviate considerably from how a resident of Kamurocho would interact with the environment. In this sense, one gets the impression that they are truly a part of the setting instead of some omnipotent on-looker able to do whatever they wish. Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio demands respect for Kamurocho (and by extension its real world counterpart, Kabukicho) and you are made to live in it, just as the throngs of civilians surrounding you do. Kamurocho is no blank canvass or sandbox for the player. It refuses to be distorted or ignored as set dressing. Instead, here is a setting that exerts its influence and presence in every minute activity the player participates in. Your activities in Kamurocho are a direct reflection of the city itself, and your interactions with the world helps to give it life.
Meanwhile, Spider-Man’s secondary activities are so generalized that they could apply to just about every open world game out there, and in fact they do, seeing as how a lot of these concepts were ripped straight out of the Ubisoft handbook. This is what lies at the heart of what makes authentic settings in games so difficult. The current cut-and-paste, trend chasing mania afflicting game development lies at odds with the fact that every unique setting needs unique interactions with that setting that contextualize it as more than a place where things happen. Instead, the player needs to be sold on the fantasy that the things happening could only ever happen here.