The unwritten rule governing male protagonists in mainstream video games is that they should be strong and daring enough to kill other men, save girls and explore where others dare not go. But Yakuza 0, out today from Sega, doesn’t play by the rules.
From Marcus Fenix to Duke Nukem, Super Mario to Zelda’s Link, the vision of the all-powerful man, created to serve the power fantasies of his (primarily) male creators and the male audience, rings true. These characters have no internal flaws, not least because they have almost no internal workings. After all, power is more powerful when it’s not in doubt.
Make no mistake: Yakuza 0 overflows with violence, women in bikinis engaging in “cat fights,” video booths where you can essentially jerk off to skin flicks, girls that need protecting and are incapable of defending themselves, etc. But Goro Majima and Kazuma Kiryu, the game’s costars, are two individuals whose power and control over their macho ‘80s milieu is in constant doubt, not least due to their personal internal struggles. Both are recent evictees of their respective yakuza families, albeit for very different reasons. The subsequent isolation they experience forces an emotional vulnerability to the surface.
Neither one seems aware that he is in possession of such fragility until it is thrust upon him by circumstance, the result being that they struggle to figure out how to react to its appearance.
Part of the reason Kiryu leaves the yakuza, for instance, is because he is put off by the sadistic nature of some of those around him. But the actions that you undertake as Kiryu are just as horrific, if not more so, than those that he condemns. This creates an interesting dynamic: The player is asked to fight constantly, but the character of Kiryu himself struggles with the idea of violence for violence’s sake.
The player is asked to fight constantly, but the character struggles with the idea of violence for violence’s sake.
You can read this as Yakuza 0 asking us whether it’s a video game that promotes us to interact through violence, or if it’s the player that demands violence from the video game. Are games a case of art influencing the audience or the audience demanding a certain kind of art?
Majima differs from Kiryu in that he initially seems on board with the idea of violence until he’s shocked into seeing its negative impact due to a narrative-changing event involving an outburst of compassion that he didn’t know he had. Seeing his personality change from this point forward gives him a sense of life that is lacking in the vast majority of other male video game characters. Simply put, he allows himself to influenced by external events.
Where the most famous gaming heroes validate their power through stubbornness, Majima validates it through seeing the benefit for all concerned by knowing when to swallow his pride and alter his outlook.
The ambiguity that exists within both Majima and Kiryu would usually be considered a weakness in video game males, but Yakuza 0 does a great job in showing that empathetic personalities possess greater strength than sheer pig-headedness and distaste for acknowledging external forces. Mainstream gaming could learn a lot from the hearts of these two gangsters.