How a Crime Drama Videogame Became One of the Best Examples of Virtual Tourism

“Man, how cool would it be to actually be there!” – the thought has likely crossed your mind at some point as you binged on a TV-show, were engrossed in a book or played a video game. It may have been landscapes from Lord of The Rings (which was famously filmed in New Zealand) that brought this on, or even the unsettling Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s Shining inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. It’s no wonder places like these often become new tourism hot spots, as many wish to experience their favourite semi-fictional settings first-hand.

Hobbiton movie set, New Zealand 
Photo credit: Barbora Martinakova/Shutterstock.com

Interactive media are more likely than others to conjure up desire to travel, due to the sheer amount of involvement required from a user. However, it is no easy task to have someone experience complete immersion and become fully invested in a fictional world. And even if that happens, it is often simply impossible to actually visit those places due to the fantastical nature of many digital settings.

Of all the titles out there, the Japanese action-adventure series Yakuza is one of the few that managed to hit the nail right on the head, thanks to a couple of spectacularly accurate design choices.

Kabukicho, the red light district of Tokyo
Photo credit: Leng Cheng/Flickr.com

Good things come in small packages

While titles like The Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption 2 put players in huge maps, this series chose to scale things down. A large part of the game takes place in a single neighborhood, an almost one-to-one recreation of Tokyo’s red light district, Kabukicho (here called Kamurocho), which the player is able to fully explore between major story beats.

This propelled the development team to really focus on elements that make the setting feel as believable as possible. No street or alley is the same as another, just like the neon signs advertising the presence of multiple pubs, restaurants and such. Major attention was paid to sound, with crowded alleys filled with chatter and music jingles coming from nearby general stores like Don Quijote.

One of Golden Gai’s cramped alleyways
Photo credit: Big Ben in Japan/Flickr.com

For example, paying a visit to the Champion District (based on the very real Golden Gai area) will give you the opportunity to get inside one of the bars crammed in its narrow alleys. Bottles of all sorts line the shelves, and you can sit among other customers to ask the barman for a drink, which will then be served to you accompanied by bits of trivia related to your order.

Lots of other entertainment options are available to the player, like batting cages and golf centers. You can also try a traditional Japanese board game in a shogi parlor or spend time in a karaoke bar. But due to the small scale of the world, these places do not act as mere distractions: they also become stages for the many twists and turns of the main story. Their reuse doesn’t feel lazy; on the contrary, it helps them leave a lasting trace in your memory.

Can’t fight on an empty stomach

Many of the series’ entries center around the main character Kazuma Kiryu, former Yakuza member who wants to leave his criminal ties behind and move on with his adopted family. Unfortunately, he finds himself thrown back into the dark underbelly of Japan again and again, which results in fist-fighting his way through thugs, gangsters and the occasional tiger (yeah, this series can get weird).

In order to be well prepared, you’ll need to hit the streets. Eating meals will replenish health and grant your character points that will make him stronger, depending on the type of food consumed.

Plastic food displays outside a restaurant in Kaubukicho
Photo credit: shankar s./Flickr.com

This gives you an incentive to explore the town’s food culture. Beef bowl restaurant chains take inspiration from the real-life Matsuya, while Ikinari will be your choice for steak-based dishes. Cheap lunch boxes that you can carry while you go on your adventures are also available at convenience stores.

Real-life Japanese delights
Photo credit: hijodeponggol/Shutterstock.com

Whatever your choice, every item is accompanied by accurate images and descriptions. The whole thing is so true to life, so much so that even the prices closely reflect those actually charged for the meals.

Just your friendly neighborhood Kazuma Kiryu

The Yakuza series is sometimes described as “Japanese Grand Theft Auto”, but, in truth, there are probably more differences than similarities between the two. While you’re free to cause any kind of mayhem in the latter, the former restrains you by not allowing you to start conflicts. Combat is used exclusively for self-defense purposes.

This shifts the way you perceive the town, which isn’t the usual sandbox allowing total freedom. All you’re doing is walking in the shoes of one of its residents – Kazuma Kiryu (who is able to survive fatal bullet shots, but that’s a minor detail) – which goes a long way in simulating how it would feel and look to actually wander the city streets.

Japan cityscape over Kabukicho at dusk
Photo credit: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock.com

It also helps that Kiryu’s characterization makes it very easy for him to get up to all sorts of shenanigans. He’s not afraid to show off his moves at a club, triggering a side story where he competes for the crown of dancing king. He is eager to help when a sushi chef confesses to having business troubles to him, or his desire to wield the ultimate cooking knife. Finding all the potential adventures scattered around the district is one of the main highlights of the series.

As a result, once you’ve had your first taste it is hard to hold back. Not knowing what could lie just around the corner makes exploration of every nook and cranny of Kamurocho not only fun but exciting, much like it feels to actually travel.

So that’s how Yakuza manages to awaken your interest in its real-life counterpart, Tokyo’s Kabukicho. It is one of those rare pieces of media that makes travel to the location it is based on feel imperative, creating a desire to turn virtual experiences into real ones – this despite it being highly unlikely you’ll actually find yourself solving a murder mystery in a café.

Featured image credit: Basile Morin/www.commons.wikimedia.org