I'm one of those rare people who would play a game for the story rather than the gameplay. Ideally, of course, you want both aspects of your game to be equally good. But if the story outshines the gameplay of a title, I won't knock the game too much for it. Recently, I played (and reviewed) the game Yakuza 0, a prequel to the seasoned yet underappreciated Japanese-underworld franchise. My biggest praise of the game was it's fantastic storytelling. Today, I want to go more into detail as to why I believe Yakuza 0 delivers one of the best stories a video game has told in recent years.
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
The plot of Yakuza 0 begins fairly simple and becomes more complex as you move through the story. Okay, we've seen this style of storytelling in films and different games before, right? But what's brilliant here is how the story is only complicated because you don't know all the facts yet. Once you beat the game and think back about what the plot actually is in Yakuza 0, you see how simple it truly is.
Some would say that having a simple plot is bad and/or boring, but here it actually works. The whole game is centered around this tiny lot of land that the Dojima Family wants so they can be in complete control of the Kamurocho Revitalization Project. This land is just a blank, nothing alley. To think that these yakuza go to the lengths they do just to get an alley really shows how cut-throat and dangerous the life of a yakuza is.
Having a simple overall story is beneficial because it amplifies the fact that these people are willing to do whatever it takes just to purchase an alleyway. It shows the depth of the yakuza life and how it affects everyone involved. Furthermore, the simple plot allows the writers to focus mainly on character development.
What makes the game's story truly compelling and heart wrenching (I got teary eyed twice) is the amazingly well-done characters; especially the main protagonists Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima.
Kiryu has always been the main character of the Yakuza games. There isn't much that can faze him at this point in the main line of games, but in Yakuza 0 we get to see what he was like as a greenhorn yakuza at only 20 years old. What's absolutely perfect about this is that it works for both long-time fans of the franchise who want to see how Kiryu grew to be the man he is now, as well as newcomers to the series who don't know how Kiryu's life and story change throughout the series.
Admittedly, Kiryu is a little one note in this title. Think of him as that classic badass movie character who is so sure of themselves that it somehow all works out for them in the end. But, Yakuza 0 shows how Kiryu has room to grow. That was the most important part to get right as this is a prequel to the five (now six in Japan) adventures Kiryu has ahead of him.
Goro Majima is one of the most important characters in the Yakuza franchise; that fact is indisputable. However, we never got to know the backstory behind this fan-favorite character until now. Majima is definitely the stronger of the two protagonists for many reasons. For one, he has not adopted his mad-dog personality that fans are used to seeing. This allows Majima to grow a lot throughout the game, and grow he does. I don't want to put any major spoilers in this article, but suffice is to say that several different events throughout the game's story help shape the Goro Majima that we all know and love, as well as provide a new depth to the character that wasn't possible before.
While Majima's role isn't as important as Kiryu's in the plot, he is the character that grows the most throughout the story. One could say that his "growth" is more of a "descent", but that's open to interpretation. While on the surface it looks like a descent, the underlying emotions, and motivations that he has shown that he has grown as a person.
The Supporting Cast
Any great story has a great villain, or in this case villains. It's incredibly easy to write a villain as a plain symbol for evil and wrongdoings. Very rarely is that enough to make them interesting (The Joker is an example of an exception to this rule). There is really no "main villain" in Yakuza 0, which works better than you may think. While the lieutenants of the Dojima Family are all following orders from Sohei Dojima, they each have their own inspirations for carrying out those orders, as well as their own character traits that come out when interacting with the protagonists.
For example, you will be fighting Daisaku Kuze a lot in Kiryu's story. Each time you fight him, you get this sense that it becomes less and less about wanting to stop Kiryu and more as an act of pride. Kuze cannot stand being bested by a greenhorn yakuza, so he continues to challenge you, again and again, to prove to himself that he is as strong as he thinks he is. This makes his character much more compelling as he stops feeling like the boss' soldier and more like a real person.
The antagonists aren't the only ones who get special treatment. The side characters in the main story are just as fleshed out as the main protagonists and antagonists. There are some characters that you'll know from the series, such as Akira Nishiki, but most of the side characters are brand new to the franchise. One of the standouts to me would have to be Homare Nishitani.
Nishitani is introduced as if he'll be a villain, but actually, begins this strange friendship with Majima. This bait and switch technique is a great way of showing how a person can have an "out-there" personality but still mean a lot to the characters and plot of the story. Nishitani's role is pretty minor in the grand scheme of things, but he is nonetheless memorable in Yakuza 0.
While all of the supporting cast is great, there are two characters that completely steal the show. I don't want to talk about one of them as the character in of themselves is a massive plot spoiler, but I think you'll know who I'm talking about if you play the game. But the other character that manages to steal the show is Tetsu Tachibana.
Tachibana is brilliant because he inadvertently keeps the audience guessing. Is he a good guy or bad guy? What does he REALLY want from Kiryu? Elevating this is how he never really does anything to keep you guessing, but rather the plot and subtle visual hints tell you more of his backstory and personality than anything else. Maybe that's more of a compliment to the direction of cutscenes, but Tachibana becomes one of your favorite characters in Yakuza 0 by the end.
I know what a lot of you are thinking: how does this show how video game stories are unique? So far I haven't been able to show how this is different than say a television show or movie. Yakuza 0 is a very serious, dark game with its story. But then you realize that there are side missions where you have to find a guy's pants or help a dominatrix become better at dominating her clients. It sounds like two entirely different games! And that's the brilliance of it.
For those who aren't well versed in writing, there's a very common (if not necessary) technique used in dramas called "comedic relief". When you have a story where there is a lot of serious shit going on, you need a laugh or light situation or two that'll relieve some tension. Instead of doing this in a lot of the game's cutscenes (although there is some humor here and there in them), they do it with the gameplay instead.
It creates this melding of mediums: movies with games. The techniques used in crafting Yakuza 0's story is very similar to that of a television drama, but we also have a lot of different things to do in the actual game itself. This allows you to choose whatever kind of pace you want in the game. Do you want non-stop drama and action? Skip the side missions. Do you need some comedic relief before diving back into the heart-wrenching plot? Play the side missions and mini games.
In case it wasn't already obvious, I love Yakuza 0. I know that it isn't everybody's cup of tea, but the storytelling in the game is so expertly done that it's honestly the best story in a game I've played in at least the last 2-3 years. I highly recommend you check it out if this story analysis interested you at all. You can check out my full review of Yakuza 0 here.