Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Game About Nothing

I've been meaning to play Yakuza 2 ever since I heard Steve Gaynor enthuse about it on the Gamer's Confab in late December. Steve has this running theory about the nature of games as a medium: what they're best at, he says, is presenting the player with an immersive world-- creating a convincing and responsive environment in which the player can cultivate a sense of agency. He's much better at articulating this view than I am-- make sure to read his articles on the subject, as they're pellucid. What follows is clumsy abridgment slash application.

As I see it, there's two sides to this design philosophy. On one hand you have this imperative to make the narrative structure responsive to the player's choices-- the player should shape the plot and their character. It should matter whether I kill that special someone or let him live, because it's being able to make that choice that makes him my character. Having this choice is what separates an interactive medium from a didactic medium like film or literature.

Yakuza 2 is not that kind of game. Its plot is a linear narrative-- a Sonatine-cum-One Life to Live-style gangester melodrama-- told through cutscenes. So far as I can discern, nothing you do in the game makes any difference to the love and death that transpires in those scenes.

But there's another side to the immersion model of meaning. Immersion is also about conjuring up all the specificities of lived space. Gaynor sometimes says that a really good game can feel like visiting a foreign city, and this is where Yakuza really shines.

When it's not compelling you to pummel legions of suited gangsters and starving tigers, lets you loose to explore simulated versions of Tokyo and Osaka at your leisure. And this is the paradox: the game is most compelling when nothing is happening.

Yakuza 2 is all about the local color, the needless frittering-away of time, the pointless minigames. The random guy in front of the Club Sega who wants you to find his cat, and the random guy inside who asks you to fish a robot out of the crane machine. The guy at the bar has a spiel about every whisky you order. I just sat there drinking one after the other, just to hear the guy wax poetical over Ballantine's 17 years. You can while away precious minutes of your life at the batting cages, or chatting up the dames at the hostess bars. Men on the street will stop to discuss the virtues of Osakan cuisine or decry the drinking habits of the modern woman.

All this is just to say: the real story of Yakuza 2 lies in all these unnecessary sidepaths. The virtues of the game don't lie in its clumsy brawling, its clumsier camera or even its byzantine melodrama-- they lie in its offbeat brand of cultural immersion. It presents a field of inessential, supplementary, specific actions to the player. Games should do this more often.


Nels Anderson said...

This response to Yakuza 2 seems pretty much ubiquitous. Yet, I can't help but think that if a city with interesting people/things was the entirety of the game, it would somehow be less compelling.

A totally freeform structure like that seems problematic. There's no sense of ownership like there is with those games akin to Animal Crossing. Paralysis of choice and absence of feedback would probably turn a lot of people off.

We're still figuring out how best to use the "narrative spine" to enable and complement an open world, but I don't think we can toss it entirely. By necessity, I think games like this have to be vertebrates. There's still a lot of opportunity for evolution (alright, enough with the tortured metaphors) here though and it's exciting to be seeing the seeds of that.

Anonymous said...

Hey Nels, is there a source on the "narrative spine" terminology? I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately myself, and I'm looking for anything to help make a bit more sense of the disconnect between open-world mechanics and innovative narratives and designs. Great post Irquois... and welcome to Twitter.

Nels Anderson said...

Not that I can remember. I used the term when I wrote about pacing in immersive games here:

But I probably lifted it from Steve Gaynor ( at some point. Steve's got a lot of interesting thoughts about these things. If you haven't read his blog, I'd check it out.

I assume you're familiar with some of Iroquois's older posts on this subject, but if not, I'd find them too. It's good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Personally I found the actual storyline of Yakuza 2 to be fairly enjoyable, as gangster genre rehash goes. Being someone who believes mostly that the whole interactive-storyline-with-multiple-choices thing is really just so much mush, I thought that having all the wander around and stumble over stuff elements attached to a more traditional narrative was what really made this game work for me. Sure, that model's still a bit of an ugly hybrid and needs some refinement. But me, I'd rather have that then a bunch of possibilities that never collapse into a statisfying and singular whole.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@nels: that piece on pacing vs. immersion is really good, thanks for the reminder. I've been thinking about pacing in open-world games quite a bit.

@chris: believe me, I didn't mean to slight the main narrative for not being interactive. It's well done-- a bit overly theatrical, but well-directed and acted. Solid genre work, and that's a compliment for a game. Like you, I enjoyed the interplay of the two types of story.