There is a special feeling when you are walking around a city you used to live in. It’s different from going to a new place for the first time and it’s different from walking around where you live now. There is a mixture of nostalgia and surprise as you wander through the old places you used to know and the new ones that have popped up since then. You may feel a little sad in places that no longer exist and with a sense of the passage of time.
There is actually one game series that is able to fully capture that feeling. The Kamurocho map in Yakuza has been a staple since the PS2 entries. With new console generations and new engines, this fantastical red-light district in the heart of Tokyo has received several face-lifts, but for those familiar with the series’ return, they always feel the same. Not at all in a bad way. It’s easy to imagine the outrage any other open-world series would experience if the developers announced that they would be reusing the map, but the Yakuza fan base welcomes that same decision. Much of it has to do with the care and attention that Studio Ryu Ga Gotoku puts into to make each visit a little different and time-appropriate.
Like many newcomers to the series, it started with Yakuza 0. The Kamurocho scene in the 1980s Japanese economic bubble. You see the delightful nuevo fortunes wearing a suit spend the money as soon as possible. Glowing neon signs bathe the streets in a crimson-golden glow. You can’t help but be amazed by it. Moving on, in Yakuza 1, during the turn of the millennium, this same place takes on a whole new character. A measure of humility prevailed to conceal the immorality that still flourished beneath the surface. Tokyo citizens still want to have fun but don’t want to imitate their parents. Moving on further, Yakuza 6 is set in 2016 after the internet and smartphones went viral. Kamurocho has taken on a new age feel by trimming some of its edges to appeal to a broader demographic. The creeping crises of capitalism are unfolding as new investment continues to flow.
With each iteration, Kamurocho keeps changing. There is a subtle core story being told here, mostly separate from the melodramatic soap operas that appear front and center. It is the story of the city itself that is told through the sights and sounds of the surroundings. I feel like this is where the developers are really honest, you notice every minute detail the world is filled with. These details may not be familiar to you, but you feel that they are deeply familiar with another person. With each new game, these fumes of nuance tell the story of a city in ever-changing.
The things that change are easily observable but the most interesting thing is the things that do not change. Generally agreed upon by any significant person, the hero area is the heart of Kamurocho and is the part that cannot be changed. The forces within the game and within the development team have kept it exactly the same since the first game. This dense set of bars intertwined by shoulder-length alleys is the quietest and least flashy part of town. Hidden from the eyes of hungry tourists and newcomers, this area is intended only for regulars. It’s the kind of place where your favorite drink is ready before you take your coat off. It may have been in a bar similar to the one in the Champion neighborhood where the idea for the game first appeared. I don’t know for sure, but I’d love to believe it just to find meaning why this part of Kamurocho never changes.
This is just one example of the many details in Kamurocho that change or remain the same that make you wonder. Trying to find the intention behind every detail in the city. Here’s the trick: it’s all in the details. Kamurocho’s repetition as well as its subtle changes give the place a certain heft, and permanence. On your first visit, you are like every tourist. Enjoy everything the place has to offer as you try to accommodate as much as possible. On a second trip, things are more familiar. The enthusiasm you had from the first visit was replaced by a relaxed feeling. And with each visit, the feeling grows until you begin to feel a sense of belonging. Kamurocho was no longer a stranger, he began to feel at home. With each game, over the years, even as certain things change and you yourself change, that feeling only grows.
It’s great and hard to find a place to belong. It is a place that accepts you for the way you are even if you have changed over time. Likewise, you accept it in the same way. It’s a place where leaving means you’ll be back soon, and goodbyes don’t last forever. Kamurocho is one of those places for me and many others in the Yakuza fan base. While there are many games that let us escape, the Yakuza series is one of the few that let us go back.