One of the Big Important Things that the human brain does is link together scraps of data by constructing narratives. At least it might be - to be honest, I just made that up. But it sounds pretty convincing, so let's assume it's true.
We experience the world as an endless web of narratives. Whether you're talking about politics, religion, science, entertainment, or even recorded history, everything we claim to know about the world is an interpretation of reality, simplified to a point that we can make sense of it. We're incapable of anything else - intellectually, we're only a few steps above the dog who realises that the sound of a car pulling into the driveway outside means that someone is probably about to walk in through the front door. Our narratives provide us with tidy explanations of the world around us. They replace the terror of ignorance with the comforting illusion of understanding.
I think the (relative) peace and prosperity we've enjoyed in the last half-century has allowed developed nations to become pretty absorbed in their own narratives. In our post-industrial economies, we don't produce things like capital to any meaningful extent any more. Instead we produce and consume commodities to support our collective fantasies, simultaneously engaging in and contributing to the spectacle of modern life. We finance this lifestyle with credit rather than savings. Even in our personal lives, as social media encourages individuals to commoditise themselves for the benefit of tech companies who monetise the content created by our daily lives, we're growing used to communicating with representations of people rather than people themselves - content streams of happy, smiling people going on holiday, eating nice food and surrounded by cute pets. We're privileged to be able to build these ludicrous fantasy lives and blind ourselves to many of the fundamental challenges that many other people have to deal with.
It won't last.
Back in May, I went on holiday to Tokyo for a few days.
I'd never been before, but it all felt strangely familiar. Everywhere I went, I was reminded of scenes from Japanese videogames and anime - my knowledge of the unreal Tokyo was spilling over to fill the gaps in my knowledge of the real Tokyo. Even when I was there, I would find myself looking around certain locations and thinking “Hey, those artists really hit the nail on the head when they were drawing this place!"
Since coming back, I've paid particular attention to playing more games set in and around the city. Partly it's been a kind of virtual tourism, but I've also been reconsidering representations of Tokyo in light of my real-life experience of the real place, rather than the other way around.
This brings me to Yakuza 4.
The Yakuza games are mostly-gritty crime dramas about Japanese gangster dudes prowling around Kamuro-cho (a fictionalised representation of Kabuki-cho - Tokyo's real-world red light district) as they kill, extort and double-cross their way to the top. They also have a thick splattering of humour around the edges, and a load of decided non-gritty sidequests and minigames if you feel like taking a break from all the honourable bloodshed. You could think of them as a Japanese take on Grand Theft Auto, in the sense that they're much more linear and better written and actually nothing like Grand Theft Auto.
Funnily enough, I didn't visit Kabuki-cho during my holiday – I've never been very interested in boozing, gambling, or being strong-armed into an overpriced strip club and taken for all I'm worth – but I found the world of Yakuza close enough to my memories of Tokyo in general to give me a nice buzz. Everything looks just about right, everything sounds just about right (the Don Quijote store jingle triggering flashbacks to some irritating retail experiences), the people behave more or less as you would expect... except also, everything is totally wrong and weird at the same time.
You can't walk down the street in Kamuro-cho without getting into a bare knuckle fight, which usually end with you stamping on your attackers' faces or dropping them spine-first onto a metal railing. I'm sure this stuff does happen from time to time in Kabuki-cho, but not to the same person every 30 seconds or so, and not with the same casual atmosphere – people lining up around you to cheer the fight on, and then just walking off again peacefully once half a dozen goons have had their teeth smashed in. These unlikely elements seem ridiculous when set against such a believable backdrop, and kept dragging up the fact that I was walking around a silly game world designed for my amusement. But once I started to question the realism of the game, I was reminded of how 'unreal' the real Japan can be.
For example, Yakuza 4 features a meticulous recreation of Tokyo's hostess club culture. There are about half a dozen different hostess clubs in Kamuro-cho, each with their own unique roster of girls (who have been painstakingly modelled after real-life actresses). You can walk into a club, request some time with a particular girl, and then have some food and a few drinks and chat about stuff, just like real life! If the girl comes to like you enough, she might even let you take her out on 'dates' outside of the club, just like real life! And the whole concept is so alien to my small-town Northumbrian sensibilities that I almost didn't even realise it was there at all, just like real life!
Accepting that there's a lot I don't understand about hostess culture, it seems like a way of commoditising human interactions. A hostess is not your wife or your girlfriend, but their job is to recreate the experience of socialising with a wife or a girlfriend – to package up the enjoyable aspects of a relationship in a way that customers can (for a fee) slot into their busy lives like a session at the gym, or a trip to the cinema. I personally find the concept a little strange. I've come to see it as an expression of our post-industrial economy - the experience of having something is all that matters, rather than actually having it. Why go through the hassle of maintaining a healthy relationship when you can rent one when it suits you?
As self-indulgent as the world of Yakuza 4 can be, the only elements of it that aren't an accurate reflection of our self-indulgent society are things it's still aspiring to.
Aside from the level of realism within the game, I was also struck by the number of densely-woven stories running through it. Yakuza 4 is a game in five acts. Each of the first four are dedicated to a particular character, who fights their way through a story which sets up their personal connection to a gangland power-grab, a large pile of stolen money, and a mysterious woman. The final act brings all of these characters together for a whole lot of cutscenes and a series of traditional barechested punch-ups with their personal rivals.
Without giving anything specific away, everyone in this game is either the victim of or mastermind behind some elaborate deception or other to take control of the Kamuro-cho underworld. Everyone has a tragic backstory and dark secrets that change your understanding of their character; all except for series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu, who instead (perhaps because his life story has already been laid out across three previous games) settles for making a profound realisation in the final act which changes his understanding of his own character.
It's all very dramatic. The sheer number of plot twists actually started to spoil the game for me, until I had a look at my Facebook feed during the run-up to New Years Eve and immediately drowned in a deluge of self-mythologising personal narratives about how everyone had grown in the previous year, or what amazing stuff they were going to do in the next. If Yakuza 4 features a plethora of plot twists and story crossovers, I think we should acknowledge that this is the kind of narrative density that people seem to expect in their own lives.
I guess what I'm saying is that Yakuza 4 is a very modernist game. I can only guess at this, because I don't really understand what modernism entails.
More importantly, I really enjoyed it! I would easily call it one of the best games on the PS3. To really get the most out of it you need to be comfortable with complicated plots, extreme graphic violence, and whimsical aspects of Japanese culture, but my guess is that if you're still reading this then you're not completely against all that. I found the combat became a little repetitive towards the end, but there was a huge variety of weapons-based content that I just didn't bother to engage with – there is simply more stuff in this game than my brain could handle in one playthrough.
Also the graphics are dead good.