Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Character
StoryScan: Critical hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of a individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Yakuza: Like a Dragon(SEGA, 2020), the latest entry in the popular Yakuza series. This essay will cover content from the first three hours of the game. Players who have not completed the introductory missions may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers.
SEGA’s Yakuza franchise has long been a fan-favorite in the beat ’em up genre, boasting exciting storylines, complex worlds, and creative minigames that keep players returning to the series. With the most recent title, Yakuza: Like a Dragon (SEGA, 2020), developers eschewed the traditional brawler gameplay in favor of turn-based, role-playing combat. They also sidelined the series’s main protagonist, Kazuma Kiryu, in favor of Kasuga Ichiban, an up-and-coming member of the Arakawa crime family. Critics responded favorably to the change, saying: “[Although] Yakuza: Like a Dragon is a massive change from past games, [its] changes play into the series strengths, rather than detract from them.“1 Its story received exceptionally high marks, earning descriptions such as: “tantalizing,”2 “clever,”3 and “engrossing…quirky and downright bizarre.”4
Much of the success of Yakuza: Like a Dragon‘s storyline hinges on the strength of its characters. Although the story focuses primarily on Kasuga and his dream of becoming a hero, the villains and several side characters possess their own storylines that unfold during Kasuga’s journey. The strength of these characters is universally established in their introductions, where they’re made sympathetic in one of two ways: either by having them commit acts of compassion or by having acts of cruelty committed against them. The former shows that the characters are good people, while the latter shows that they’re vulnerable. Together, this combination makes audiences empathize with the characters, compelling them to continue the story.
Creating Sympathetic Characters
Acts of Compassion
Screenwriter Blake Snyder built a consulting career on the backs of sympathetic characters with his famous “Save the Cat” series, named for his method of eliciting audience sympathy through acts of compassion. In “Save the Cat,” Snyder describes the eponymous character-building moment as follows: “It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something — like saving a cat — that defines who he is and makes us, the audience, like him.“5 Here, the idea of saving a cat is used as shorthand for an act of compassion, something that shows the protagonist is willing to put the needs of others ahead of their own. Ideally, these acts of compassion will fit naturally into the story, as making them too obvious will alert the audience to the technique. A student biking to school is far more likely to encounter a stray cat than an astronaut on a space station, but the astronaut may have a crew in need of help. Even single-character stories can have these moments, so long as the characters can demonstrate empathy and kindness. A character stranded on an island can tend to the plants; a character stranded in space can write logs for future generations. So long as the character’s actions show their consideration for the world at large, audiences will connect with their stories.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon uses acts of compassion to establish the protagonist, Kasuga Ichiban, as a good man whose conviction is untainted by the criminal underworld. When players first gain control of Kasuga, he’s chasing a low-level street thug through a maze of alleyways. Once Ichiban catches his target, the motive behind the hunt comes out: the thug was swindling teenagers out of their money by selling them animal mating videos labeled ‘uncensored pornography.’ The thug pleads with Kasuga, insisting that the scam isn’t hurting the family’s bottom line, but Kasuga refuses to listen. Even though Kasuga needs that money to meet his collection quota, he won’t accept anything that tarnishes the Arakawa family name. In his eyes, that thug took advantage of people on Arasaka turf, so it’s their job to make things right. Through this scene, audiences learn that although Kasuga may be a member of the yakuza, he’s first and foremost a compassionate human being.
In a shorter story, a single scene demonstrating a character’s compassion would be enough to establish their nature, but Yakuza: Like a Dragon takes its time, requiring over forty hours to play to complete the story6. With this much space, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has room to reinforce the essential character details, which it does with a second intro scene showing Kasuga’s compassion. Directly after Kasuga handles the counterfeit video seller, he confronts a construction worker who owes money to the Arasaka family. According to the clan captain, Kasuga’s job is to take the man’s wallet as payment for the debts, but Kasuga chooses to interpret it literally. He empties the wallet, then hands the money back to the worker. When a fellow gang member asks Kasuga why he didn’t take the money, Kasuga replies: “You think he’s out here working his ass off, doing construction on New Year’s Eve, just for fun?…He probably wanted to buy his mom a nice meal, so he got some cash outta the bank, y’know?” He adds that he knows the mother from her old candy shop and reveals she had to close it after getting sick. In Kasuga’s eyes, the construction worker is just trying to help someone in need, and it would be wrong to deprive him of the opportunity. This reinforces Kasuga’s compassion in turn, securing his upstanding character in the audience’s heads. From here on out, they’re willing to follow Kasuga wherever he goes because they know he’s a decent man.
Acts of Cruelty
Writers looking to create sympathetic characters have another option outside of acts of compassion: acts of cruelty. By showing a character suffering from the cruelty of others, audiences will feel for the character in pain. Screenwriter Dan Harmon elaborates on this phenomenon, noting that when multiple characters are introduced, audiences can often pick out the protagonist by their sorry circumstances. “When in doubt, [audiences] follow their pity,” he says. “When you feel sorry for someone, you’re using the same part of your brain you use to identify with them.”7 In other words, audiences find it easy to connect with pitiable characters because they can imagine how difficult it would feel to be in that situation. Like Snyder’s ‘Save the Cat’ method, writers must use acts of cruelty carefully, or audiences will see through the technique and reject the character. A character who sometimes suffers is relatable; a character who always suffers is frustrating. Stories where the characters are constantly bombarded by tragedy leave little room for hope, and hope is essential for a good story. Audiences need to see a path towards a better future for a character at rock bottom. If they can’t find it, they won’t see the point in finishing the story.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon uses acts of cruelty to build sympathy for its antagonist, Masumi Arakawa. When the game begins, players witness the end of a theater production about a woman searching for vengeance. Once the play is over, the scene shifts to backstage, where a young Masumi Arakawa slowly removes the make-up he wore to play the leading lady. As he wipes the white covering off his face, his mother barges in and demands to know if he’s finished cutting the confetti for the next show. When he dares to put his hand on the money he earned from his performance, she snatches a pair of his scissors and menaces him with them, saying: “I ought to make the next cut even deeper, and this time not even your make-up will hide it!” Sure enough, when Masumi removes the rest of his make-up after she leaves, a jagged scar mars the length of his face. The player now knows the threat was not an idle one; Masumi has been hurt before and may soon be hurt again. This knowledge makes the player protective of him, and they want to see how he survives the situation. In just a few short minutes, they’re gotten invested in Masumi’s story, all because of an act of cruelty.
It’s no mistake that the characters from Yakuza: Like a Dragon have been well-received by fans. By mixing cruelty and compassion, the game makes the characters sympathetic from the start. Writers looking to utilize these techniques can look at the examples set in Yakuza: Like a Dragon and apply them to their own writing, where they are sure to generate sympathy from audiences.
1 Madsen, Hayes. “Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review – Like No Other.” ScreenRant, 2020.
2 Cryer, Hirun. “Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review: A Confident Step in a Different Direction.” GamesRadar, 2020.
3 Sagoo, Jaz. “Yakuza: Like a Dragon Review – Step Aside Kazuma.” Cog Connected, 2020.
4 Contreras, Paulmichael. “Yakuza Like a Dragon Review – Turn-Based Quirkiness (PS4).” Playstation Lifestyle, 2020.
5 Snyder, Blake. Save the Cat . Michael Wiese Productions. Kindle Edition.
6 “How Long is Yakuza: Like a Dragon?” HowLongtoBeat.com, Ziff Davis, LLC, 2020.
7 Harmon, Dan. “Story Structure 104: The Juicy Details.” Channel101, 2013.
* Reference Footage: Red Venom Corp. Yakuza: Like A Dragon (Xbox One X) Gameplay Walkthrough Part 1 – Chapter 1 [1080p 60fps]. YouTube, 2020.