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Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth gave me a new lease on life

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Sega

On January 4, I received an email I had both been anticipating and dreading for months. My copy of Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth, one of my most anticipated games of 2024, had dropped into my inbox. Usually, that moment would give me a jolt of energy. I love critiquing games that have real substance, and I was still chewing on 2020’s unforgettable Yakuza: Like a Dragon several years later. That RPG tells a thematically rich story about an unlikely hero finding his confidence amid a quest to take on Japan’s criminal underworld.

But the desire to dive into the new game would come with one major caveat: I needed to give up the next three weeks of my life for it.

The game’s developer, Ryu Ga Gotoku, suggested that it would take 80 to 100 hours just to zip through the main story without stopping to enjoy side content. The studio’s boss, Masayoshi Yokoyama, went one step further and claimed that it would make players “sick” if they tried to binge it all.

Unfortunately for me, I’d have 19 days if I wanted to have a review out when the January 23 review embargo lifted. With no way of knowing how long I’d be spending in the streets of Honolulu City, my anxiety kicked in as I entered the same marathon mindset that Yokoyama had advised against.

It’s easy to blame this crunch on untenable PR timelines; there’s a long history of press not getting enough time with massive RPGs like Baldur’s Gate 3. The reality here, though, is that my fate was somewhat self-imposed. I could have spaced out my play time more instead of settling in for long sessions and still finished with time to spare. I know that my bosses wouldn’t have cared if we had opted to skip a review entirely, as it’s not exactly a mainstream game. The only thing compelling me to push myself so hard was me.

It only took a few days of a lost week for me to reckon with an uncomfortable truth about myself: I’m a workaholic. The ultimate irony of that revelation? I wouldn’t recognize it until I saw myself in the Dragon of Dojima himself, Kazuma Kiryu.

Hello Work

Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth tells the tale of two heroes whose journeys contrast with one another. When the story begins, the bright-eyed Ichiban Kasuga is living his perfect life. Years removed from successfully dissolving two major Yakuza families, he’s found his true calling in a dream job at Hello Work. He’s dedicated his life to finding respectable jobs for reformed criminals impacted by the Great Dissolution. He’s a perfect employee, giving as much of himself to the gig as possible.

That quickly comes crashing down when his criminal past comes to light, and Hello Work unceremoniously lays him off without a second thought. A painful scene sees Kasuga bidding farewell to his beloved co-workers on his way out, only to be met with lukewarm goodbyes. Kasuga may be the most passionate person for the job, but it turns out he’s as expendable as anyone else in Kamurocho.

Kasuga rides a segway scooter in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth.
Sega

Real-life events make this strong opening perhaps even more timely than developer Ryu Ga Gotoku originally intended. Seemingly endless waves of layoffs have rocked tech companies over the past few years. The video game industry has been especially impacted, with studios big and small laying off thousands of workers in total.

Games media, my own industry, has not been spared by the wrath of big business. Over the past two years, I’ve watched countless peers and friends lose their jobs despite delivering top-tier work. Often, these moments would come in the form of scattershot layoffs. One day, you’d log online to discover a writer whose work you respect had lost their job. Other cases were more dire, like The Washington Post sunsetting its video game site Launcher entirely, leaving some of the best journalists working today out to dry. Whether or not the websites were successful didn’t seem to matter; when executives needed to find money, they were more than ready to loot it out of hardworking employees.

In this volatile state, working within games media feels like being trapped on a beach as the tide slowly rises. All you can do is survive as long as possible, but it feels inevitable that the ocean will swallow you eventually.

I’m no stranger to layoffs. I’ve seen countless “reorgs” even before I was working in games full-time, and I’ve been the victim of two layoffs (and a contract ending early) myself. One saw the entire quality-assurance department I was part of wiped away, right after we were asked to automate our own jobs by coding a website bug-testing script. Another was a marketing gig at a tumultuous tech startup where a new CEO took the reins from the company’s founder and began routinely stripping talent away. In the years leading up to my layoff, I watched too many friends pack their boxes — some forced out of their jobs by incompetent executives who later lied about the circumstances. Experiences like that have a way of putting one in survival mode.

Writing wasn’t just a job, but a lifeline.

That’s perhaps how I started to develop bad work habits when I finally broke into games media after over a decade of struggle. The climb felt like a Sisyphean task, and once I got in, I was terrified of watching that boulder roll down the hill again. In my early freelance days, I was sometimes putting in 12 hours a day as I juggled three part-time writing gigs at once. In my head, it felt like I was on a do-or-die timeline: I needed to establish myself before I was cast out into obscurity again. That’s how you end up obsessively playing 60 hours of Like a Dragon in a week.

That’s the simple explanation, at least. The more complicated layer is that my full pivot into games media just so happened to come at the tail-end of a five-year relationship and the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Suddenly locked in a one-bedroom apartment alone, work provided a convenient way to distract myself from my thoughts. The clacking of my mechanical keyboard filled the eerie silence of total isolation. Long days felt less lonely when I could convince myself that everything I wrote could be sparking a conversation with someone on the other side of my screen. Writing wasn’t just a job, but a lifeline.

Naturally, I saw myself in Ichiban Kasuga. Infinite Wealth’s opening is crushing for someone who has lost a job they care about. Kasuga, a hero who is incapable of insincerity, goes above and beyond in his job at Hello Work. In an early sequence, he helps a petty thief get on the straight and narrow by using his skills to put local business’ security systems to the test. The reformed criminal is filled with gratitude, and it’s clear that Kasuga takes it to heart. He’s built his self-worth around helping others. It all matters.

So it’s a familiar tragedy when all of that disappears and Kasuga is left directionless after being suddenly thrust into a midlife crisis. An ill-advised marriage proposal only further dashes his hope for a life outside of that job. In the low period that follows, Kasuga vows to connect with his loved ones, find his long-lost family, and define his purpose on his own terms rather than someone else’s. It’s an inspiring bit of character growth, but Kasuga doesn’t arrive at it by himself. Both he and I need to see what we’re in danger of becoming first.

Enter Kazuma Kiryu.

The bucket list

When we meet Kiryu, the Yakuza’s lovable himbo, he drops a bombshell on Kasuga: He’s been diagnosed with cancer and only has six months to live. It’s an especially shocking reveal in the context of a video game. Despite going through mortal danger on a regular basis, long-running game protagonists rarely kick the bucket. When a series becomes popular enough, an iconic hero turns into an eternal mascot who is too valuable to lay to rest. Maybe Kiryu would fade away when developer Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio decides to stop making Like a Dragon games, but in our minds, he’d always be prowling the streets of Japan looking for a fight.

Infinite Wealth breaks that safety net by putting a very human expiration date on Kiryu’s life. Whether it’s by the end of this game or in a sequel, Kazuma Kiryu is going to die. We, as players, only have a limited amount of time left with our old friend. We also learn that Kiryu isn’t helping his case, as the Dragon of Dojima is refusing treatment entirely. In fact, he’s seemingly accelerating his demise when he tells his concerned pals that he intends to keep working to disband the criminal underworld until he croaks. He pushes his body to the limits for the first half of the story until it collapses in on itself, forcing him to rest up in Japan as he grows weaker.

Kiryu Chats with his friends in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth.
Sega

While I initially related to Kasuga, with his bright-eyed optimism and eagerness to do right by his loved ones, I’d soon accept a sadder truth that I had more in common with Kiryu. For well over a decade now, I’ve been operating under the assumption that I will still be working on my deathbed. Long-term financial planning always felt like a lost cause, because I never intended to retire. On top of that, I’ve been brushing off underlying medical worries for years due to my busy work schedule. A family history with Factor V Leiden, a blood clot condition that can be fatal, looms over me as I keep kicking a formal diagnosis down the line.

I often find myself thinking about Muppet creator Jim Henson and his untimely death in 1990. Henson died of toxic shock syndrome brought on by a case of streptococcus pneumoniae that he refused to get checked out while suffering from fatigue and a sore throat. When he began coughing up blood one night in May 1990, he still didn’t want to interrupt his work with a hospital visit. He finally agreed to go a few hours later, but those lost moments would prove critical;. Going to the hospital a few hours earlier could have saved his life, according to New York Hospital ICU director David Gelmont.

It’s not that I romanticize Henson’s death — well, perhaps just a little in my younger days. It just always felt more like a sad reality I was getting dragged toward. No matter how much work I produced, I was rarely keeping up with the cost of living. And with such instability in the job market, it always felt like I needed a bigger cushion to fall back on when the inevitable ax dropped. The idea of buying a home is still a pipe dream in my mid-30s, and I still can’t imagine a world where I’d have both the time and money to raise children. I’ve often found myself frustrated by the capitalist spiral I’m stuck in. “Why do I have to work nonstop in order to live long enough to keep working?” I ask myself frequently.

One can read the title Infinite Wealth as a nod to that cycle: To survive in today’s world is to be locked in a loop. You need to work to make money to live so you can work to make money … so on and so on forever. Kiryu and Kasuga are even subtle victims of that in the game’s box art, where they stand back to back, trapped inside a golden infinity sign.

Finite time

Midway through playing Infinite Wealth, all of this self-reflection starts to flood in. The irony isn’t lost on me. I’m bingeing a game that I’m assigned to review for work, a game that’s begging me to slow down, but that is filled with dozens of hours of side content it’s encouraging me to play. It’s my own personal infinity loop.

Despite having a blast with Infinite Wealth itself, I start to feel exhausted after a few days. One long session leaves me dizzy when I finally decide to take a break. I’m notably irritable by the end of my first week with it, becoming unreasonably frustrated over an Amazon shipping snafu. My body becomes sensitive from the underlying stress of it all; a supportive hug from my girlfriend elicits an instinctive twitch in my shoulders, like a bucking bronco protecting itself from outsiders. The longer I stare at Kiryu’s face, the more I see myself staring back.

When would I stop writing down ideas on a bucket list and actually start checking them off?

The last days of my playthrough aren’t nearly as long or arduous, but that’s perhaps because I’m spending those days pacing back-and-forth so much. Both Kasuga and Kiryu’s stories resonate with me the more I play, inviting me to see two separate sides of myself. On one side, there’s the overeager busybody who can’t help but overburden himself because he believes that work defines him. The other side is a career loner who just wants to be left alone while he keeps his head down in an endless mission. It’s only through working with one another that both men realize that there’s more they want from life, whether that be love, friendship, or forgiveness.

I’ve been working through the same epiphany for the past month. While I was visiting family in Massachusetts over Christmas break, my mother took me to visit my grandmother. It had been at least a year since I’d seen her last, and my mother warned me that a lot had changed in that time. She’s 99 years old and living with a case of dementia that’s destroyed her memory. Her kids finally moved her into a memory care unit weeks before Christmas after accepting the severity of her condition, an inevitability they’d put off for years.

I thought I’d be prepared to see her. The last time I did, she spoke gibberish for an hour, frequently stopping to tell me how nice it is that the prison I was in let me out for a day (I was not, and have never been, incarcerated). This visit was entirely different. She didn’t know who my mother or I were, and hardly registered that we were there at all. She mostly stared off into the distance, occasionally mumbling out a non sequitur. I sat with her patiently, both glad that she was finally getting the care she needed and quietly terrified. My mother’s memory and focus had begun to slip too. Judging by family history, mine would too someday.

Kiryu and Kasuga grasp hands in Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth.
Sega

I wasn’t directly facing death like Kiryu, but I became self-aware that there would come a day where I’d simply run out of time to get everything I want out of this life. Though I hope to have some good decades before then, time no longer felt infinite, as it had for so much of my life. I wouldn’t always have these healthy days that I so often take for granted, just as I won’t always have another Like a Dragon adventure starring Kiryu. Why spend so much time giving to work that can only give so much back to me? When would I stop writing down ideas on a bucket list and actually start checking them off?

Let it snow

There’s a specific moment where Like a Dragon: Infinite Wealth that would push me to make a change, setting me down a healthier path. In a substory titled Let it Snow, Kiryu encounters an eccentric man who is running around Honolulu City buying snow cones and tossing them into the air. It’s played for laughs at first, but it quickly turns tragic. The man’s wife is on her deathbed and he’s determined to let her see a snowfall one last time despite being in Hawaii. Kasuga, with the help of some adult babies (don’t ask), is able to simulate a snowy night from the roof of her apartment. As flakes drift in through the window, the husband breaks down. He apologizes for not giving her this moment sooner. He’d spent so much of their lives working, not accepting that this day would come eventually.

She comforts him from her bed, telling him that all that matters is that they’re here together now. She asks him for one last thing as she begins to fade into her last slumber: She’d just like to see her prince smile one more time before she falls asleep. He chokes tears back to deliver that final request as her eyes close and her hand falls limp from his.

I don’t want to be the man throwing shaved ice into the air; I want to watch the real snow fall with my loved ones while we’re still here.

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