Persona, Yakuza and Authentic Video Game Tourism

Want to be in Japan? These games are the next best thing.

Japan is one of my favourite places to go on holiday. I’ve been twice and there’s just something magical about it that is hard to quantify. I’m not sure if it’s because so much of my childhood was defined by Japanese games and media or if it’s the culture shock of a country that’s so very very different to my home in Australia, but I spend most of my time in Japan walking around open-mouthed in awe.

On those trips I’ve stayed in both rural areas and Tokyo city. I’ve been to shrines, parks and shops, and experienced a mix of the very traditional and the very modern. There is no place quite like Japan; from the food to the people to its complicated cultural tapestry. Visits to Japan, however, are a rare treat, so I thought I’d share my recent experiences with Persona and Yakuza; two game series’ that have brought me closer to the feeling of being there than anything else I’ve ever done on Australian shores.

Why? Because both series are fundamentally grounded in Japanese culture and feature accurate depictions of real locations. Yakuza so much so that its fictional Kamurocho is directly lifted from Kabukicho – Tokyo’s red light district in Shinjuku, and you can see changes to the city mirrored as the series progresses through the years. Persona, on the other hand, provides compressed but surprisingly true-to-life versions of many of the notable hot spots around Tokyo.

Utterly believable.

Utterly believable.

I went into both Persona 5 and Yakuza 0 knowing this and expecting some level of joy from being able to revisit these places that hold a special place in my heart. What I didn’t expect was game design so intimately tied to Japanese culture, world design overflowing with small true-to-life details, and – most interestingly of all – everyday moments that felt strangely true to my travel experiences.

In Persona 5, walking through the protagonist’s new home of Yongenjaya – inspired by real-life suburb Sangenjaya – took me right back to that area of Tokyo. Sangenjaya is only a few stops from the dense and vibrant youth centre of Shibuya, and yet its small, tight alleys with shops positioned in garages couldn’t feel much more different. Persona 5 captures it perfectly.

Exploring Yongenjaya.

Exploring Yongenjaya.

Yakuza is similarly dotted with distractions away from the main streets. Areas that in many other games would almost certainly be window dressing may contain a new bar, character, or even mini-game and hunting them down is always a big part of the charm of the series.

Finding an interesting shop or secret hidden down an unassuming side street gives you a reason to explore and continues a grand game design tradition. Almost every JRPG, after all, hides a chest down a path you don’t actually need to go down, and that then inspires players to search for secrets. It didn’t occur to me until playing the Persona and Yakuza series’ that this was also how I learned to explore Japan, knowing that every side street could bring an awesome discovery.

Exit Theatre Mode

Both games capture other sensations intimately familiar to travellers. In its early stages, for instance, Persona 5 will send you off to navigate Japanese train stations, and this became one of the most true-to-life experiences I’ve ever had in a game.

Persona 5 will send you off to navigate Japanese train stations, and this became one of the most true-to-life experiences I’ve ever had in a game.

On my first trip to Japan I still vividly recall thinking that to get to a particular gate I’d have an easier time walking all the way around Shinjuku station on a hot summer’s day. Big mistake. Shinjuku station, you see, is the world’s busiest transport hub, with dozens of platforms and literally millions of people passing through it every day. It’s chaos. Even trying to work out what you’re looking for – with all the different above ground and underground lines (all owned and operated independently) – is confronting the first time. I found myself scanning the station around me for the sign pointing in the direction I needed to go but not being able to find one despite swearing I saw it seconds ago.

Repeating this action in game was when the strongest sense of familiarity hit me. The weird stress and frustration I felt trying to navigate this situation was so similar on my PlayStation as it had been back in Japan that I had to stop playing for a moment to process the sheer uncanny valley I was experiencing.

Yakuza 0 also presented me with small details which drew out similarly nostalgic sensations. Walking past the clubs and hearing the cheery-voiced girls spruiking each place or being handed packets of tissues on the street are likely familiar to anyone who has been to Japan’s big cities. Walking into a convenience store and seeing them laid out exactly as I remember left me craving Japanese treats so strongly I was almost mad. (Japanese convenience stores are actually fantastic – just an FYI.) Then I stepped into a Don Quijote store (which is a popular chain in Japan) and the shop’s theme music started playing over the systems, I once again put my controller down to appreciate this stolen moment from Japan.

You definitely can't do this in Australia.

You definitely can’t do this in Australia.

An added bonus of visiting Japan vicariously through these games is seeing a side of Japanese life that tourists aren’t often privy to. Hostess clubs are a common sight in places like Shinjuku and Shibuya, for instance, but they often aren’t welcoming for outsiders and so many layers of cultural nuance in how clients cultivate relationships with the girls inside are often missed.

Yakuza 0’s hostess club gameplay gives a look into this often misconstrued slice of Japanese nightlife, by being focused on the interactions with the girls. Talking and helping to train the girls will see you get to know them, as well as experience common dates in Japan like karaoke. Telekura or phone clubs offer a similar experience though have changed a bit since their popularisation in the early 90’s.

While it’s highly unlikely either are really true-to-life, both activities allow players to get a peek into the popular paid dating experiences otherwise known as enjo kosai which are fairly unique to Japan.

Welcome to the world of enjo kosai.

Welcome to the world of enjo kosai.

Even in Persona 5 where relationships are unpaid and more genuine, it’s still a matter of completing upgrades and objectives to gain the trust and affections of your desired companion. Specialised locations lifted from real life like theme parks and cinemas act as dating locations and Christmas day is even reserved for spending time with your special someone rather than family – as it is in Japan. The typical mechanics for romance are still there and you have to put in enough effort by giving gifts or responding correctly in conversations before you can gain the romantic prize. These actions are standard across most video games which include romance and are in their own way a form of enjo kosai.

Eating ramen in tiny Japanese restaurants, playing gashapon machines… or discovering something down a side street. All these experiences took me back to my time in Japan…

Another interesting – although unintentional – slice of Japanese culture in game design is the inability to say no. Think about it – in RPGs you generally accept every quest you’re offered, whether you’re going to tackle it now, later or not at all. So it is in these games too. Side quests pile up just from talking to NPCs, and by accepting them, you’re inadvertently being very Japanese. It’s not that Japanese people can’t refuse a request but culturally saying no to someone directly is typically avoided. Keeping a harmonic existence is of the utmost importance in Japanese culture so using terms like “it’s difficult” or implying some level of uncertainty is a more common method of turning people down. In games this level of non-commitment allows a player to come back and experience something at a later time rather than outright rejecting a request.

Both games explore Japanese culture in ways only video games can and opened my eyes to how these bleed into game design. Both are also brimming with small touches, and it was these – perhaps more than anything else – that really gave me that feeling of almost holidaying for free. Eating ramen in tiny Japanese restaurants, playing gashapon machines, shopping in a convenience store or discovering something down a side street. All these experiences took me back to my time in Japan without even having to get on a plane.

Have you had similar experiences playing video games? Tell me all about them in the comments.

Hope Corrigan is an Australian freelance writer who clearly has a soft spot for Japan. You can follow her on FacebookTwitter, and Twitch.

SOURCE: IGN.com

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