Once more with feelings: How Yakuza: Like a Dragon reinvents middle-aged men in video games

It sounds like the set-up for a violent revenge movie. Low-ranking yakuza Ichiban Kasuga takes the blame for an inter-clan assassination and does 18 years in prison to protect the organisation’s patriarch. But, on his release, the gang disowns him and the boss, who he considers a father figure, shoots him and leaves him for dead. Kasuga wakes up days later, destitute and alone in another city. Surely, the stage is set for bloody retribution?

Well … not quite. Kasuga is not that kind of protagonist.

Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an open-world, role-playing adventure, part of a long-running, highly acclaimed series from Sega and legendary designer Toshihiro Nagoshi. The games have always followed gangsters and criminals in labyrinthine adventures through city backstreets, with multiple side-quests, from car races to karaoke sessions. The series, too, has consistently presented a nuanced portrait of masculinity, with its hero, Kazuma Kiryu, just as comfortable dancing or crying over childhood memories as he is bashing in his enemies. But, while Kiryu is styled as a rising star of the underworld, a successful and respected young warrior, Ichiban is in his 40s, his best behind him, his career curtailed. He is what characters such as Kiryu become when time and tide turns against them.

The thing is, he doesn’t head out from prison to seek vengeance as a bitter old man. The first thing he wants to do when he is released is get a cool haircut. It’s a disastrous misfire, but he shrugs and adopts it into his look. He rolls with it, because that’s how he reacts to everything. Orphaned as a young child and raised in a massage parlour by its kindly staff, Ichiban is motivated through his quest by a childlike desire for answers, and he is easily distracted by interesting acquaintances. Falling in with a group of homeless people living on a vacant lot, he protects them from local heavies. Dressed in his purple suit, now stained and tattered, he goes with them to find honest work, like the kindly king in an allegorical fairytale, cruelly deposed by a jealous rival.

A lot of Like a Dragon is spent watching cut-scenes of Ichiban’s life as he struggles to get back on his feet, and, as you watch, what hits you is his utter lack of cynicism. Throughout the game, he cares for others but he doesn’t seek to own them; he fights, but only when cornered. This is a very different take on the trope of the troubled middle-aged male protagonist. There is no twisted core, no dead girlfriend or daughter to justify homicidal excesses. This is not Michael or Trevor from GTA V, it’s not Max Payne, it’s not any of the other alcoholic sociopaths and bargain-basement Ian Rankin antiheroes who populate action games. This is not even Joel in The Last of Us whose love for Ellie is possessive and dysfunctional and in the end just another expression of his psychopathy. Ichiban is vulnerable and sensitive; he remains consistently moral whether the player is in control or not. If he sees poor people being victimised or sex workers being exploited, he steps in to protect them.

Indeed, the wonderful thing about this game is the way the story gently guides the player’s actions. It makes us behave like the Ichiban of the narrative: you take on sub-quests to aid other characters not because you get XP or cash (although you do) but because it fits the story and the character – you become a willing understudy to his likability and innocence. Left to die on the streets of Yokohama, he instead befriends a disgraced medic named Yu Nanba, who has been living rough for years. There is a beautiful scene where Ichiban manages to find the two of them an apartment to live in, and sitting alone in their bare room Nanba embraces Ichiban, tearful with gratitude. He asks Ichiban what he wanted to be when he was younger. “A hero,” is the simple answer.

It turns out, Ichiban spent his childhood playing the classic role-playing game Dragon Quest, and he idolised the game’s cast of brave, true warriors. Here, then, in a clever postmodern twist, is a video game character who aspires to be a video game character. But what he admires is the honour and decency of the protagonists, not their skill in combat. Violence is secondary, something he is good at but thoughtless of. Throughout the game you bring other characters into your party, making battles easier, but you also have to talk to them, bond with them, listen to them, in order to strengthen relationships. This is a game in which the links with party warriors are not just practical, they’re emotional. Mainstream video games tend to functionalise everything: you explore to find collectibles, you help people to earn XP, you fight to level up. Like a Dragon infuses all these interactions – and all these characters – with humanity. These are men who need each other.

There is a scene later in the game, where Ichiban passes a backstreet movie theatre and gets into a conversation with the owner. The old man begs him to come in and watch a classic film and Ichiban relents. The auditorium is warm and quiet and Ichiban is worried he’ll fall asleep, which will surely offend this old movie buff. But he doesn’t doze off. With the help of an amusing mini-game, he stays awake and enjoys the movie. When it finishes, he turns to find the cinema manager in the seat beside him, fast asleep. The guy just wanted company.

Yakuza is filled with men like this – alongside the stereotypical gangsters, who often end up humiliated by their own empty machismo, these are men who like to talk, to listen and to have human contact. Ichiban is always willing to provide it. This is such a refreshing depiction of middle-aged manhood, but also of the influence of video games. It is kind of beautiful that the lesson Ichiban took from Dragon Quest all those years ago wasn’t that heroes kill monsters. It was that heroes keep a band of close friends around them at all times. This, he understands, is the only way to live and win.