Around a month ago, in mid November 2020, the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S released, ushering in the new generation of console gaming. While both consoles lacked much in the way of first party new releases to play on launch day, we did see a lot of third party games with next gen upgrades released around the launch of the system. Of the new titles available at launch, one of the most interesting to me was Yakuza: Like a Dragon.
When it comes to heartfelt representations of minority groups in video games, I don’t know if I have ever played a game as all over the place as Yakuza: Like a Dragon. At times, Like a Dragon seems to genuinely understand the complex nuances of the struggles faced by minority groups, and then minutes later will turn around and use that same minority group as a stereotype laden punchline.
So, today on Access-Ability we’re going to talk a little about what Like a Dragon gets right about its representations of minority groups, what it gets wrong, and the tonal dissonance between the two halves of this weird and fascinating game.
The basic plot of Like a Dragon is that you play as Ichiban, a young man obsessed with Dragon Quest, who gets involved in the Yakuza after they save his life as a teenager. He does 20 years in jail for his boss, gets released, tries to go back to see his boss, only to get shot, and left for dead. He’s saved by a homeless ex nurse, and tries to build himself back up from there.
This is where we see the first example of Yakuza: Like a Dragon’s tonal dissonance at play. All of the story based cutscenes involving the protagonist Ichiban and the nurse Nanba are overwhelmingly sensitive to the reality of homelessness. Nanba is shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and a genuinely caring person to be around. He has a strong moral compass for what’s right and wrong, a desire to stand up against injustice, alongside a strong understanding of the world around him.
When Ichiban first wakes up in a homeless settlement, he has a lot of misconceptions about the realities of life as a homeless person, which Nanba is quick to correct. Ichiban at one point early in the game when he has been homeless for a grand total of 48 hours, gives an impassioned speech about how he thinks all the homeless people around him have just given up hope of making their lives better, and if they all just head over to the job centre, they can all get jobs and everything will be better in no time.
Nanba quickly points out how ignorant Ichiban is of the situation. None of these homeless people have a permanent address, which makes even applying for a job difficult. Upon going to the job centre, rather than being offered work, the job centre offers them computer education courses rather than helping them actually secure entry level work. Nanba makes it clear there are a thousand different reasons someone homeless might not easily be able to get into a job, and back into a home, and that Ichiban’s view that they’re simply not making an effort to find work is actively offensive.
Nanba also makes it clear that most of the people in their homeless camp did nothing wrong to lead them there. Some signed bad loans, some got laid off or had big bills at the wrong moment, most have no criminal record, and were just unlucky to be in the wrong place at the wrong time in their lives. Being homeless is not a moral failing, but a reality most people are a few bad months removed from.
Sounds great right? Yakuza: Like a Dragon has some really good honest and frank conversations about the difficulties escaping homelessness, and about how homelessness isn’t the result of laziness or moral failings. Well, as you might have guessed, we’re about to get into the ways that Yakuza: Like a Dragon kind of messes up this good representation, as well as those of other minority groups.
So, first, let’s talk about Nanba’s moveset. When outside of cutscenes, and playable as a party member, Nanba is a ranged fighter and a healer, but his initial moveset is built around a lot of homeless stereotypes played off as humour. Nanba launches fire attacks by swigging and spitting a flask of alcohol past a lighter, he throws bird seed at enemies to have them attacked by pigeons, and to heal himself he puts down some cardboard boxes and has a nap while scratching his backside. His moveset is based at its core around the idea that Nanba is an alcoholic who takes drunken naps in the street, and it feels weirdly in conflict with the way cutscenes in the game are written.
Additionally, and perhaps more upsettingly, several of the in game enemy types are homeless people with names played off as puns. It’s incredibly jarring to finish a cutscene about the plight of homeless people, only to enter a turn based battle against “hungry hungry homeless” and a “battle bum”.
This is, at its core, the aspect of Like a Dragon I struggle to come to terms with. You might one moment have a sincerely sweet cutscene about protecting sex workers from harassment at the hands of a fundamentalist group trying to shut them down in the name of “decency”, then walk around the corner to face an enemy whose whole joke is that they’re fat, and eat at all you can eat resteraunts, and are fat.
It feels like the story cutscenes in Yakuza: Like a Dragon were written in complete isolation from the game’s battle system and enemy designs, and the results are a game that simultaneously tries to provide respectful depictions of minority groups, while then turning around and making them a tasteless punchline moments later.
To be clear, overall, I have really enjoyed my time with Yakuza: Like a Dragon. The gameplay is rock solid, its silly and overly in depth side quests and minigames are great, and when it’s being sincere, it manages to do so wonderfully. I just keep finding myself needing to recommend it to people with serious caveats.
At the time of recording this video, I have not yet finished the game. Right now, the stereotypes and jokes I am being presented with in combat have not pushed me away, but I know that it’s very possible the wrong tasteless pun in battle might cause me to stop playing at some point.
The game’s attitude towards representing minority groups is all over the place, with it almost feeling like the game was developed by two separate teams who never spoke to each other. These moments of stereotype fuelled humour don’t add anything of value to the game, and just serve to weaken the impact of some of the game’s strongest scenes.
Yakuza: Like a Dragon demonstrates routinely that it understands the plight of minority groups, which makes it all the stranger when they’re used as a nameless enemy with a punchline for a name. It hasn’t yet been enough to stop me wanting to play, but it’s very much a blemish on a game I otherwise have nothing but praise for.