Over the last 15 years, the Yakuza series has won over a passionate fanbase that eagerly await the maximalist spectacle that comes with each new release. In many ways, it’s not hard to see why the series has proven so popular. Brushing aside the entirely self-serious trappings of most crime epics, the Yakuza games offer a poignant combination of intrigue, comedy, and melodrama. While they deviate in tone from minute to minute, they are unified by a profoundly empathetic worldview that centers on notions of found family and redemption. And beyond their optimistic outlook, they have also always leaned into the absurdities of videogames as a medium, delivering delightful action sequences and (mostly) hilarious side quests where you meet a cadre of loveable oddballs.
The latest in the series, Yakuza: Like a Dragon, is defined by many of the same strengths as its predecessors. It follows Ichiban Kasuga, a low-level gangster in the Arakawa crime family under the Tojo Clan. Despite being involved in organized crime, Ichiban goes out of his way to help others living in Kamurocho, Tokyo. However, this all changes on New Year’s Day, 2001, when he voluntarily takes the blame for a murder committed by one of his superiors.
Upon his release from prison 18 years later, Ichiban is betrayed by his former mentor and finds himself without money or a home in the Isezaki Ijincho district of Yokohama. Luckily, he finds aid from a local community of people who are homeless, who dress his wounds and offer him a place to stay. From here, he becomes increasingly entangled in the area’s complex local politics, following a mystery that may explain what happened to his mentor and how it relates to odd happenings in Ijincho.
Even compared to previous entries in the series, the opening hours of Yakuza: Like a Dragon largely succeed at depicting marginalized people with care. As Ichiban finds himself reeling from personal betrayal, without any money or a place to return to, the homeless community of Ijincho greets him with open arms. These characters are portrayed as trustworthy and sympathetic, people with dignity worthy of respect. For instance, Nanba, who eventually joins Ichiban on his journey, saves the protagonist’s life by patching up his bullet wound. The chief of the homeless community is equally helpful, offering a place for Ichiban to stay. While not every unhoused person you meet treats you well, the story frequently pushes back on negative tropes that depict those struggling financially as dangerous or selfish.
In a particularly pointed scene, Ichiban attempts to give a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” speech to the community that took him in, claiming that if they apply themselves, they can get jobs and turn their lives around. However, Nanba cuts Ichiban’s rant short, passionately explaining how people end up homeless because of various complicated reasons frequently out of their control. Quite blatantly, he says, “You think they’re too lazy to work? They all want stable jobs, man. But wanting something doesn’t magically make it possible!” While the story stops short of fully diving into the myriad systemic causes of poverty, at the very least, it shuts down the common refrain that homelessness is primarily caused by character flaws or a lack of effort. The following scene doubles down on this, and Ichiban finds that even though he wants a job, he cannot find employment because he lacks a permanent address. He eventually gets around this barrier, but only because a higher-up at the employment center breaks the rules in his favor, giving him and Nanba a lucky break.
This focus on financial struggles feels baked into the setting, as nearly everyone you meet in Ijincho is barely getting by, whether they be journalists, small business owners, or office workers. Mirroring the real world, the gig economy is in full force, with several mechanical and narrative allusions to taking odd jobs over steady employment. The first three characters in your party are middle-aged men with no savings who must chase down dangerous odd jobs to get by. All this stands in striking contrast to something like Yakuza 0, the series prequel set during Japan’s booming “bubble economy” of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which sought to depict an era defined by unsustainable fiscal growth. In that game, punching gangsters resulted in literal explosions of money, and your bank account figure sat in the corner of the screen like a Devil May Cry score, skyrocketing as you dispatched each foe.
The early hours of Like a Dragon don’t just sell you on these harsh economic realities through storytelling; they also convey this through mechanics. When Ichiban is left for dead at the beginning of the game, your bank account is reset to 0 yen. From here, you have to search under vending machines for spare coins and cans to progress the plot. If you’re used to stocking up on Staminan, an essential healing item used to restore large chunks of health in previous games, you will instead find yourself buying convenience store sandwiches to keep yourself alive during fights because the latter is too expensive. During these early sections, the game’s economy reinforces the narrative’s focus on characters who are barely getting by. All of this isn’t to say that these mechanics fully capture the hardships of poverty in the real world or anything approaching that, but at the very least, these systems don’t undermine what the story is trying to convey.
However, while the narrative continues to focus on those suffering from economic conditions throughout, at a certain point, the gameplay almost entirely drops this pretense. In my first playthrough, the breaking point came in Chapter 5 (out of 15) when I was introduced to Eri and her struggling business, Ichiban Confections. After Ichiban learns that his recently murdered employer, Nonomiya, had planned to help take over Eri’s company, our protagonist decides to step in and run the business himself. From here, you can partake in a surprisingly in-depth management minigame where you can purchase properties, hire or fire employees, and prepare for shareholder meetings.
If this all sounds wildly incongruous with a story that had recently been about people who lacked basic shelter or income, that’s because it is. Although some degree of happenstance is involved in how this comes together, it still feels as though Ichiban suddenly becoming a successful CEO is something out of a different videogame. And in some ways, it is. To be more specific, the Business Management minigame bears a lot of resemblance to Yakuza 0’s Real Estate Royale, a similar side quest that allowed Kiryu to build up a business empire. The main difference is that Yakuza 0 is set in a period of booming economic growth and is about the reckless opulence of the bubble economy, while Like a Dragon is set amidst economic downturn.
If the player continues pursuing this management minigame, they will be rewarded with increasingly large payouts, eventually letting you earn about three million yen per shareholder cycle. Once your business has reached the number one spot in the rankings, repeating a shareholder cycle only takes about five or 10 minutes. In a game that begins with the player being forced to ration their meager savings, these massive paydays suddenly turn you into a free-spending business magnate. This rags-to-riches ascent isn’t mirrored by what occurs in the game’s plot and removes any connection between the in-game economy and the economy in the narrative.
This type of clash between mechanics and story can be described as a case of “ludonarrative dissonance,” an often-debated term coined by game developer Clint Hocking in a 2007 blog post about Bioshock. Hocking described ludonarrative dissonance as when a game’s themes directly conflict with the ideas promoted by its mechanics. Like a Dragon’s management minigame, which encourages players to fire unsatisfactory employees and ruthlessly monopolize the businesses of Ijincho, is an example of ludonarrative dissonance because it feels like it is communicating an entirely different message than the game’s main plot where Ichiban battles wealthy politician attempting to displace the marginalized people of Ijincho.
It is important to note that this kind of thematic disconnect is distinct from how the term ludonarrative dissonance has frequently come to be used. In the years since it was coined, the phrase has been most commonly used to describe when gameplay feels tonally disconnected from a story, such as how the charming treasure hunter Nathan Drake ends up mercilessly gunning down hundreds of pirates by the end of each Uncharted game. Using the term to describe this disconnect in Uncharted is technically a misnomer because although it is odd for these spelunking adventure stories to have such a high body count, these games are not trying to say anything about the nature of violence in the way that something like Spec Ops: The Line is.
This is all particularly relevant to the Yakuza games because, much like Uncharted, there is often a wide tonal gap between what happens in the cutscenes and outside them. The series is famous for how its main storylines will deliver serious crime mysteries that are juxtaposed against the wacky shenanigans of the side missions. In Yakuza 0, you can witness a beloved character meet a horrible, grisly end and then immediately hit up a karaoke bar where you belt out a bubbly pop song alongside a crew of synchronized backup dancers. That disconnect is generally one of the things that makes these games so deeply charming and weird, as the different parts of the game can sometimes feel like they’re drawing off entirely different genres of storytelling. However, the important thing is that both the main story and the sidequests usually stay true to the series’ empathetic pathos. In short, although there is a tonal gap between these modes, the side stories and gameplay are not saying fundamentally different things.
By contrast, Like a Dragon’s business management minigame and its in-game economy actively undermine its core themes about the unfairness of poverty by making it seem nearly effortless to go from someone who is homeless to a business magnate. The game even appears somewhat aware of how out of step this is with the rest of the story because it tries to frame Ichiban’s business venture as somehow setting up a “safety net” for the city, even though the minigame encourages you to callously fire underperforming employees and consolidate property. This all might have been less noticeable if the early hours weren’t dedicated to connecting the narrative’s ideas with its mechanics, but because that first section went out of its way to bridge the gap between the in-game economy and the circumstances of its characters, it became difficult for me to stop thinking about this abrupt shift.
In fairness to Like a Dragon, these kinds of meritocratic structures are the norm for videogames. The Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg conducted a study on 50 of the most popular videogames and found that they almost exclusively promoted meritocracy narratives where players could somewhat quickly gain power and fortune. While these titles frequently started the player off with very little in-game currency, they were usually structured to funnel the player towards riches and success, implying that it only takes hard work and effort to achieve wealth.
The reason why the games are designed this way is fairly obvious; it makes them more fun. As Michael Ahn, the author of the study, explained, “a game simulating the inherent unfairness of poverty would be frustrating to play.” To be clear, it is perfectly fine that many games function as power fantasies, giving players an outlet to achieve dreams and desires that may be unreachable in real life. However, game mechanics, like any storytelling device, can potentially challenge the way we view the world. By intentionally surfacing unfairness in design, it is possible to tell stories in a way that is only possible in videogames.
Luckily, games like Citizen Sleeper have subsequently proven it is possible to make games about financial hardship that don’t entirely suffer from these same thematic inconsistencies. While that title’s economy also eventually tips in your favor, this increased control over your financial situation primarily arises due to aid from your community. Here it isn’t rugged individualism that brings you towards a better life, but worker solidarity, keeping the game’s themes about collective action intact.
Even early on in Yakuza: Like a Dragon, I assumed it would eventually pivot into the typical structures of a big-budget title because it is incredibly hard to escape the gravity of how games usually work. However, the fact that this transition occurs through a relatively frictionless business management simulator that rapidly propels your character from rags to riches is so jarring that it has been stuck in my mind for the nearly two years since I first played the game. While Like a Dragon largely succeeds at humanizing its characters who are homeless or struggling, and its narrative does depict some of the structural barriers faced by those in difficult financial situations, it stops just short of being one of the first big-budget games to explore how gameplay and in-game economies could be used to portray the systemic nature of wealth inequality.