Anyone who comes away from Yakuza: Like a Dragon will have a strong impression of lead character Kasuga Ichiban. Love him or not, he drives the tone and perspective for an earnest story about living on the margins, loyalty to loved ones, and just being an adult trying to make something of themselves. He's quite a far cry from the stoic, but lovable Kazuma Kiryu who we grew to know and love through seven previous entries in the series--and I think that speaks to developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio's ability to create layered, expressive characters who drive its dramatic, hilarious, yet sobering stories.
Masayoshi Yokoyama, chief producer and writer, has been at the forefront of Yakuza's storytelling, and I was able to exchange with him via email through a translator to dissect what went into Yakuza: Like a Dragon in particular. As with any game, a slew of factors go into its creation, and he provided insight into the move to making an RPG, conveying new narrative themes, and what the future holds for the Yakuza franchise. (Hint: It may not come as much of a surprise, but there is another Yakuza game currently in development.)
The following interview was edited for clarity and readability--it also contains spoilers for Yakuza: Like a Dragon, so beware.
Tell me about writing a new story for a brand-new protagonist and following up to a legend like Kazuma Kiryu while managing expectations.
I didn't feel too much pressure since I already knew and was determined to create a new protagonist when we decided that Yakuza 6 would be the last chapter of Kiryu's story.
In the past, I have experience portraying other characters as protagonists, such as Shun Akiyama, Taiga Saejima and Masayoshi Tanimura for Yakuza 4, and Tatsuo Shinada and Haruka Sawamura for Yakuza 5, so I think that experience helped and the process came rather naturally.
The character Ichiban Kasuga was originally conceived as a protagonist for the Japan-only mobile game Ryu Ga Gotoku Online. At the time, we just ended the development for Yakuza 6, and needed to come up with a new face for the series. I really wanted to create a character that players felt compelled to help instead of a "flawless" character like Kiryu, so I went with creating a character that looks and acts completely the opposite of him. I then took the concept and presented it to executive director [Toshihiro] Nagoshi and the team, which led to talks of making the Ichiban character the protagonist of the console game as well. Thus began our challenge of using the same protagonist for two stories for two completely different games.
Unfortunately, Ryu Ga Gotoku Online is not available in the West, so you may not be familiar with the other "Ichiban Kasuga epic" but in Japan, the fans were given more than a year to become familiar with the character before the launch of Ryu Ga Gotoku 7 (Yakuza: Like a Dragon in the West). Since we had some good initial reactions from the fans through that, I wasn't too worried about Ichiban Kasuga.
On the other hand, if Ryu Ga Gotoku Online didn't exist, we may have faced more challenges in the development for the sudden change in protagonists.
All the side quests outside of the main story and vast amounts of dialogue in the game were written not only by the story writing team but also by many other game designers. I think it's because we already had experience with Ichiban Kasuga's story in Ryu Ga Gotoku Online, that the character remained consistent throughout with a great balance in seriousness and humor.
To complete the difficult mission of changing the main character in a long-running series, you could say that this type of game development process was necessary in addition to story writing techniques.
We would do anything to protect Ichiban, he's an inspiring character for many of us. What can you tell us about what went into creating him?
Our mission after Yakuza 6 was not to "create the next Yakuza title" but to "create the next protagonist."
What I tried to do with Ichiban Kasuga was to create a "life-sized hero." Kazuma Kiryu is a modern version of a typical Japanese hero. He has inherited the spirit of a samurai who lives by the way of the sword, and in embracing elements like that, a man should not talk too much, not act in groups, and above all, be strong. The main characters in traditional Japanese "Ninkyo" movies are usually like this.
Ichiban Kasuga, on the other hand, is not that strong. He's also not that mature and is, in a sense, a "normal guy." This is what I wanted to portray.
In reality, I'm pretty close to Kasuga's age, and not all that an adult either (laughs). This is why I wanted to create a hero that we, the creators of the game and the users, could sympathize with, instead of portraying an unrealistic hero from the perspective of an observer.
The world has changed quite rapidly since Yakuza was born in 2005, fifteen years ago. The means of playing and enjoying games have also shifted and become multifaceted, ranging from TVs to smartphones. YouTube is bigger than it was before.
Yakuza has also had to change with the times. I wanted to shift from the era of enjoying the stories of heroes like Kiryu in solitude to one where everyone can share and empathize with the emotions shown.
In essence, I wanted Ichiban Kasuga to be a catalyst for change in Yakuza. That's why I created him the way that he is, a character who laughs and cries with his friends and expresses his thoughts unabashedly.
Overturning worldly prejudices and fighting against invisible discrimination may be the greatest role of Ichiban Kasuga in this game.
Like A Dragon was great about humanizing groups of people that face a lot of prejudice and hate (sex workers, immigrants, homeless), and it was refreshing to see a fair representation of them. What was your approach in incorporating these elements in the story?
When writing Ichiban Kasuga's background, him being born and raised in a soapland was set from the start, so the rest was a rather natural progression.
One of the themes in this game was the struggles of those people who live in Japan's "grey zone," so we did portray these people's standpoint and their profession as they live in an area that isn't quite black or white.
To Ichiban Kasuga, who grew up right in the middle of this grey zone from the beginning, these people are not "something that shouldn't be," but are common everyday people. I always try to avoid portraying unconditional good and evil. There are evil people even among the elderly, and there are righteous people among those with criminal records. Overturning worldly prejudices and fighting against invisible discrimination may be the greatest role of Ichiban Kasuga in this game.
How do you keep yourself in check with all the twists and turns with the story? Do you ever have to reel yourself in?
In the story writing process, coming up with the overall setup is my first task. I make up the major events of the entire story, place the necessary characters, and create a bird's eye view of the entire story. I often create a character correlation diagram and then build the story from there.
After that, I write up the flow of each chapter, a technique called "box writing," and it's around this point that I start to change my original plan a few times over, which often results in some changes from the original plan. For instance, Bleach Japan was originally just an organization that caused trouble here and there, but a little twist was added later on that there was an unexpected mastermind boss controlling the organization, and then making them a party member, and so on.
I do often take a step back to think about things, but for me, it's important to add a climax to each chapter. I tend to prioritize that over making every little thing in the story make sense. I also adjust the story so that the boss fights are exciting for each chapter.
Consider a movie: Even if the first 60-90 minutes are a bit boring at times, the movie can be considered a masterpiece so long as the ending is superb. However, for games and especially for Yakuza, even if chapter 10 and 11 are very good story-wise, it won't work as a game if there are no battles. Many players would probably put their controllers down at that point.
As developers, one of our goals in game creation is to get the players to clear the game without quitting halfway through. For this reason, what is needed isn't so much consistency in the story, but rather a clear purpose for each chapter, and that each chapter is always exciting. This may be similar to how Japanese weekly serialized manga are set up.
How do you ride the line between absurdity and humor with the serious side of the story and balancing those two aspects?
I don't think we consciously try to balance it. I think this is because our team, consisting of narrative, game design, character design, animation, and sound creation staff all have a deep understanding of what the "core" of Yakuza is.
The reason for this isn't simply how long we've known each other, or how well we get along. I think that the biggest reason is that each and every staff member loves Yakuza. I personally am in charge of story writing and am also the chief producer, but I have a hand in ideating and executing on some marketing and PR initiatives as well. Every decision I make is based on how to reflect the content of the game in any kind of promotion or campaign, and how to make the game itself more interesting.
All staff members that are involved with the game, including those outside of core development such as sales, advertising, marketing, are working hard to increase the production value of the game, so everyone's accumulated effort is what culminates in this great balance.
In a past game, someone on the advertising team even wrote and implemented an original story scenario for a real company that appeared in Kamurocho (laughs), so as you can kind of see what kind of team Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio is.
How did the RPG direction influence the way you crafted the story? What kind of challenges did that create? Did it afford you opportunities you couldn't get otherwise?
The order is actually the other way around; We chose the RPG direction because of Ichiban Kasuga and this story. With our goal of creating a new relatable hero, we went with the game system that would make Ichiban Kasuga's story most interesting. We probably wouldn't have done the same for Kiryu, who fights alone.
One of my beliefs in creating games is to value the core of play. This involves deciding how the game is supposed to entertain, and then assigning the various components to the right places accordingly.
The story is the core element of the Yakuza series. This game was made to enjoy the story, and the other elements such as the city used as the setting, music, mini-games, and battle action are all there to elevate the story experience.
For Yakuza: Like a Dragon, the most optimal way for players to experience the story and show the battles of Ichiban Kasuga and his friends that he gathered, was the RPG style. So, after locking down the overall plot, we then decided on the RPG genre, and continued development from there. There were then a few questions that we had to address to fortify the game's setting, such as: "How will we make Kasuga relate to the Hero job class?" "How will you be able to change jobs?"
How did you feel about bringing back some of our old favorite characters?
When the main themes of the game were decided--dualities of the front-end and back-end, the hypocrisy and justice, the superficiality and the truth of Japanese society--I thought it was impossible not to have old characters appear as they relate to the criminal underworld. However, we purposefully avoided unnecessarily deep interactions.
This game is entirely seen from Ichiban Kasuga's perspective, so we omitted any information or connections that Kasuga wouldn't know on his own.
This is the beginning of the tale of Ichiban Kasuga, and not a continuation of the Kazuma Kiryu saga. We wanted players that started the series with Like a Dragon to have the same amount of knowledge and emotions as Kasuga when interacting with Majima and other characters from the past series.
You've been with the Yakuza franchise since the beginning. Do you ever feel like you're going back to the well too often?
I do think about wanting to work on other titles sometimes. Before the Yakuza series, I worked on the Jet Set Radio series, so perhaps continuous series are my calling.
With the first attempt at a full RPG and your first attempt at bringing Ichiban to life, what lessons have you learned after launch and seeing the reception?
This wasn't reflected as much in the West, but in Japan, fans were more skeptical about the change in genre more than the change in protagonist. However, as game developers, we knew that the shift to turn-based combat would serve to amplify the story, so in some ways we were confident that the game would be a success.
The Japanese market, especially those who are fans of any serialized content, tend to prefer conservative sequels over anything that's too big of a departure from the series. Knowing this, it was a huge undertaking for us to change Yakuza as a whole, which has been led by the strong characters. However, the character change, which was what we were most concerned with, didn't turn out to be a big deal because people had a stronger reaction to the genre change. This was actually quite surprising to me.
Once that became apparent to us, we pivoted our marketing approach and spent a lot of time to explain the game system. Every time we put out more information, the fans would have their own discussions speaking for or against it.
We wanted all fans to share the excitement of Like a Dragon and develop their own opinions of whether the RPG adaptation was right or wrong, so we didn't impose any streaming restrictions. As a result, the game greatly exceeded the initial evaluation it had received up until launch and is now one of the most highly rated games in the series.
Personally, I think the main reason for the success of the game wasn't the shift to RPG, but the fact that we were able to make Ichiban Kasuga a very appealing character. But I think it was through the game system that we could really convey the appeal.
I too believe that Ichiban Kasuga's journey is not over, and I'd love to write about what happened to him following the events of Like a Dragon in some form. Until then, please sit tight while imagining what kind of life he is leading now!
I came away from the game seeing themes of the power of friendship, standing up to injustice, but also seeing the good in people close to you. What are the game's biggest themes to you?
Hmm, I actually don't set a grandiose theme before thinking of the plot, so I never really thought about it. However, for this title, perhaps it's when the story reaches its climax when Ichiban Kasuga is talking to Masato Arakawa in front of the coin lockers.
"I refuse to just leave you!" This is the line that I wanted to make Ichiban say.
We all know people in our lives that tell us to just leave them alone, right? I feel like those are the types of people who don't say what they really mean, and sometimes can be a pain in the ass (laughs). But as humans, we can't leave them alone. Even if it means being overbearing, we still want to do what we can for them. I think that's how we connect as human beings.
It's these types of human connections that I like to portray. Blood relations, family, friends, lovers, even rivals. There may be relationships between people who are connected because of money. But that is all part of fate. In this title, I hoped to portray Kasuga's most important connections.
We're all convinced this isn't the last time we've seen Ichiban. What can we expect for the future of Yakuza?
We have started working on a new Yakuza title. I can't say if the story will feature Ichiban Kasuga or even a totally different protagonist, but I too believe that Ichiban Kasuga's journey is not over, and I'd love to write about what happened to him following the events of Like a Dragon in some form. Until then, please sit tight while imagining what kind of life he is leading now!