It's an odd scene to be a part of. I was sitting on a couch in the penthouse of a Manhattan hotel, a guy who works for video game publisher Sega at my side. A bunch of other men stand near us.
Everyone is watching the TV, which runs a video game that is mostly, but not entirely, about beating up people in the Tokyo criminal underworld.
I've handed the controller off to the Sega guy because the part that we're playing, a sexual game of table tennis, is too difficult for me. I can't master the art of staring at my virtual female opponent's chest, an action for which there is quantifiable benefit.
This is a classic video game moment.
On the one hand, the "table tennis date" mode I saw in Yakuza 4 last week is just another video game perversion. The interactive arts are at the forefront of depicting actions on your TV that would make some people shield their monitors or draw their drapes. Games do extreme violence and, to a lesser extent, sexual weirdness, in a way that feels different than the way movies or TV do them. The main difference being that games are usually supposed to be fun. Got some sexual weirdness in your game. Rest assured, the better game designer will want to be sure you're having fun with it.
So you've got the ability to pay girls from Japanese hostess clubs to go on dates with your Yakuza 4 Japanese gangster self. The table tennis one is the second half of a night out that begins with some time in the hot tub. The girl talks about how she took baths with her dad as a kid. The interactive part - the presumably fun part - has the player mashing buttons on their controller in order to block out the girl's talk and conjure images of her face getting closer.
Then comes the table tennis. And this is where, fearful of all sorts of unintended double-entendres, it's time to remark about what's on the other hand about all of this.
Game designers make games out of things that have no apparent statistical benefit in real life. For example: they reward you for points, say, for shooting a guy and more points for shooting him a certain way. They give you incentives to run people over with a car but also quantifiable incentives to avoid doing so. (I guess the quantifiable incentive in real life, the thing that, morality aside, you can count, is the number of years of jail time you can avoid by obeying traffic laws).
For Yakuza 4, a game designer has figured out a system that rewards a player for staring at breasts and even codes in the risk factor for failing to do something more important while one is gawking. The set-up is that at one end of the table is your Japanese gangster guy. On the other end is your date, who is rapped, initially, in a well-tied robe. You can play this straight, using basic controls to volley the ball back and forth, hoping to score more points than the girl. You can, however, press a button that will zoom your view in so tightly that you can't see the ball anymore, only her bust. The longer you do this, the more special power you generate. Fill that power meter and you can unleash a powerful sure-point shot.
Forget about the breast-staring for a moment and I think just about anyone can appreciate the clever dynamic here as the player is rewarded a bonus for daring to take their eye off the ball. This would be like somehow, in real life, being a batter who can automatically hit a home run because you closed your eyes during the first two pitches. That doesn't happen, but what a cool world we would live in if it did. The fantasy is that you get definite reward if you can, for a sustained period of time, suffer definite risk.
As lovely as the pure risk-reward dynamic is in Yakuza 4's table tennis date, it's not remotely removed from its sexual weirdness. That sure-fire shot that the Japanese gangster can hit, should he stare at his date's breasts long enough? That shot hits the ping-pong ball in her chest, causes her to drop to her knees, hearts surrounding her to signal that she lovingly likes it. And then up she stands, robe tied less tightly.
Some people might look at this moment, captured in the video above from the Japanese demo of the game, and only see the outrageous subject matter with all of its issues of sexuality and male power fantasy over women. They'd say that many video games have some, well, interesting views of women (they wouldn't say it that nicely). Others might simply see the interesting gameplay dynamics underneath it all.
Both are there. That's what video games give us.
Yakuza 4, which is mostly not about sexual ping-pong, will be out in America for the PlayStation 3 on March 15.