As a developer, I’m fascinated with taking a minimalistic set of tools and getting the most out of them. This isn’t to create a cheap shoddy product. On the contrary, I’m fascinated with this idea because I know that creativity is often at its best when tools have concrete limitations. Being able to paint with broad strokes can lead to more experimentation, as less time is required to build something up to a playable state.
The open world genre requires large amounts of content. Unless the production is going to be extremely expensive, it only stands to reason that some of this content isn’t the gold stuff, with top-of-the-line production values. It doesn’t have to be simple or trite (“kill ten rats!”) but it has to be economical, else each mission or small story event becomes a huge burden to create.
One game series that has truly mastered this economy is Sega’s Yakuza series. These games feature a main story that is created with the utmost in modern production values: full motion captured performances, pitch-perfect voice acting, and cinematic direction. It’s great stuff, and captures the serious tone of these crime dramas.
The side missions, however, are completely different. They are brief, comical, and often bizarre! Since side missions (called “substories” in the game) comprise a huge amount of content, they understandably can’t receive the same treatment that the main storyline scenes do. They instead focus on a series of repeatable elements that paint with broad strokes, effectively conveying plot beats economically.
Here are the repeatable elements of Yakuza sub stories:
- Emotive grunts. Instead of full voice acting,* characters use small emotive grunts, accompanied by written dialog on-screen. Sometimes these are growls are something like “huh?” for anger and confusion. The most ubiquitous expression, however, is “nani,” a Japanese expression for “what,” “what the,” “please explain,” and so on.
- Expressive animations. Like the grunts, these serve to convey emotion in a scene. These are exaggerated, and seem to replace the emotional content that full voice acting might convey. Shock, for instance, is portrayed with a dramatic raise of the arms and bending away from the speaker. Disagreement is a strong head shake back and forth.
Often these ingredients are used in tandem, for extra effect. The most dramatic story beat in a substory might get a loud “nani,” with the character playing its shocked animation, throwing their arms up in the air! While something simpler at the beginning of the story may only receive the vocal gesture. Though limited, these tools can be combined in interesting ways to convey many different stories.
These tools also effect a vital component of the substory: the pacing. When production values are stripped down in this way, they tend to take less time. Realistic motion captured performances and full voice acting require more time than canned animations and simple emotive grunts. Fast pacing is important when you consider the gameplay of a Yakuza substory. The formula for most of these can be broken down in the following way, stripping away the story beats:
- Approach a character.
- After a brief conversation, you are asked to go to a location on the map.
- You go to that location and do something. It could be combat, or purchasing an item, etc.
- You return to the character in step 1.
A simple formula, which can get boring fast! But brisk pacing helps keep these feeling like meaningful gameplay (and skilled scripting and design of course!). To demonstrate this, let’s create a hypothetical substory (and how the limited set of tools can be used to convey them). I’ll attempt to convey what aspects a designer would call up to make these substory work. Assume that the designer has basic scripting logic available. For example, the designer can use scripting logic to track simple things such as what item is in their inventory, if they’ve talked to a particular person or not, etc.
Substory Title: Where’s the Beef?
Synopsis: Kazuma (the player) helps a convenience store clerk find beef for his store on short notice. Words in bold indicate repeated elements.
approach a character. It’s a convenience store shopkeeper.
“I am all out of meat for our beef bowls! I’m in big trouble.
Could you help?”
- On the shopkeeper: Play “Ah!” emote. Play “face in hands” animation.
“I don’t really have much time, sorry.”
- On the player: Play “iie” (no) emote. Play “head shake” animation.
“Please help me! Do you think you can go to the Korean BBQ
restaurant on Shichifuku Street and buy some beef from them? I’ll
pay you back and give you a little extra for your trouble!”
- On the shopkeeper: Play “onegai” (please) emote. Play “face in hands” animation.
“I can’t believe I’m going to do this. Fine. I’ll do it.”
- On the player: Play “ah” emote (This is something you might hear for “yes” or “fine.” Just generic acknowledgement.) On the shopkeeper: play “arigato!” emote (for thank you).
at the Korean Restaurant: “Can I buy some beef?”
- On the player: Play “oi!” emote (this is a sound used to get attention).
who owns the restaurant: “You’re the famous Kazuma. I’ll let
you have the beef… if you throw down with me.”
- On the gangster: Play “point at” animation, at the player.
fight, assuming the player wins, the player returns to the
shopkeeper. Player: “Here is the beef.”
- On the player: play “hand over” animation. Note that nothing needs to be shown in the hand.
“Thank you! You’ve saved my job! Here is something for your
- On the shopkeeper: Play “hand over” animation.
- Shopkeeper: “I am all out of meat for our beef bowls! I’m in big trouble. Could you help?”
Table of hypothetical gestures and vocal emotes**
You can see how these simple elements can be reused over and over to tell simple, short stories. Also note that in practice, Yakuza substories do not use animations and emotes for every plot beat. Sometimes it is simply a text box on the screen.
Great designers thrive on taking limited tools and finding every possible gameplay combination from them. In the above example, the player must go to an in-game restaurant, which helps them to explore a part of the city they may not have visited yet. Some other ideas that designer might implement that only use the above tools (no need to demand new features from the engineering staff!):
- Solving a mystery by talking to many NPCs all across the city. Eventually, it leads to, of course, a fight.
- Helping a tourist discover the best food by eating at a restaurant and coming back to “report” on it. No combat required!
- A recurring character as a grudge against the player and constantly challenges them to fight. There’s a short dialog, and the player can choose to fight or not.
All game projects need content. With careful planning, game content authoring doesn’t need complicated tools that expose every possible option to the designer. With just the right tools, designers can create countless hours of fun. The Yakuza series is one of the best examples in modern games of efficient game scripting being used in incredibly smart ways. Development studios around the world would do well to emulate their example.
*Note: Beginning with Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, all sub stories are fully voiced. It will remain to be seen if this trend continues with future Yakuza games. The other aspects of Yakuza substories remain, however.
**While some of these are present in the actual Yakuza games, this is a hypothetical list, and not literally that is used in all cases in the games.