Grief and Loss in Yokahama: How Yakuza leads the light on mature games

I’m currently on the fifth chapter of Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s Yakuza: Like a Dragon, so I’m not really ready to provide a review just yet. However, I do want to talk about how it’s handling a very specific thing that’s genuinely made me emotional at times because I think it really needs to be applauded for this and I’ll come back to the rest of it in future pieces and indeed that review I need to do, and I’ll place a spoiler here right now, if you want to go in completely fresh, then stop reading as I’ll be discussing things that happen early in the game.

For the most part, Like a Dragon, follows a group of 40/50-something year olds, mostly men that are down on their luck. Lead character Ichiban Kasuga has been in prison for 18 years when he leaves, the world is a very different place to what he remembers and his old ties have been well and truly severed, he’s essentially completely isolated and alone. Through circumstance, he meets Yu Nanba, a former nurse who lost his license to practise and is now homeless, and Koichi Adachi, an ex-detective who had been placed on driving license duty but then, through helping Kasuga, loses his job altogether. This is all played out through the first couple of chapters of the game.

All three men have lost important things to them, but they’re not the only ones. Two of the games earliest sidequests involve older gentlemen who find themselves alone. First is Jinnai, who is homeless, his relationship with his family has fallen apart and he no longer speaks to his son. However, he’s begun talking to a boy who is the same age is son was when they last spoke. The boy happens to be an avid reader and it’s his birthday, so through Kusagi’s help, he builds him a bookshelf.

The other person I mention is Gomi, a man who owns the pawnshop. This one really got me, I must admit. The pawnshop is blocked off by mountains of litter and you learn that Gomi will take any old thing, but this has made his shop inaccessible because he won’t sell or throw anything away, he’s become a hoarder, which displeases the local authority and citizens of Yokahama. You learn that his wife had passed away and that this has caused him to hold on to everything, he tells you that she used to sort through things to put on display, but he can’t bring himself to do that. It’s all sorted out in typical Yakuza fashion (he gets angry, attacks you and once you win the fight he sees the error of his ways) and before long he’s cleared the place up, giving him a purpose in life again: namely selling you stuff or buying the stuff you don’t want.

Writing these down does seem like typical JRPG fair but they’re handled in a really mature way (well, except for the fighting to get your point across, though an argument could be made in favour of that too) and they also allowed me to reflect on the curve ball’s that life has thrown my family in recent years. Namely, the occasions where the mental health and physical health of both my partner and I has threatened to tear everything apart, and on one occasion it came very close to doing so, though I’m not ready to be public with that just yet. Other things its brought forward is the opening of the wound that is my partner’s breast cancer diagnosis back in 2018, the world literally felt like it had fallen out from under our feet just when we were building things back again and the various surgery’s she’s had to have and the effect its had on her immune system, leading to further hospital admissions, has really done a number and put the fear on my regarding the kids and I losing her.

We expect movies, TV shows and books to delve into topics such as loss, and sure, videogames often use loss and grief as a plot device, but very rarely is it with the maturity that has been shown here and I think a big part of that is Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio’s decision to focus on an older than normal group of protagonists.

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