by Heather Alexandra
Shenmue has a way of sticking with you even if you’ve not spent years with it. It creates a compelling simulacrum and such a believable space that, love it or hate it, you’ll certainly remember it. Using “believable” to describe a video game comes with baggage but is essential to understanding the design philosophy behind Shenmue. Every decision by director Yu Suzuki is intimately concerned with making the world of Shenmue as extensive a simulation of reality as possible. All characters have daily schedules; all drawers in the Hazuki Family Dojo can be opened. Shenmue even has an option to reflect the actual recorded weather of 1986 and ’87 Yokosuka.
Suzuki’s design approach largely overshadows the story, a revenge plot kicked off by the death of protagonist Ryo Hazuki’s father at the hands of the mysterious criminal Lan Di. What follows is a tale of amateur sleuthing that draws Ryo deeper into the underworld of Yokosuka, setting him on a crash course with the deadly Mad Angels gang. All the while, an air of mysticism surrounds the two mirrors, Dragon and Phoenix, that Ryo’s father had been hiding from Lan Di. The revenge story receives more attention than the latter plot, and Shenmue is far better for it. The deeper foray into magical realism in Shenmue II creates a tonal inconsistency that its progenitor does not grapple with. Most of Shenmue’s action focuses on the Mad Angels’ grip on Yokosuka’s harbor. This localized conflict keeps the story approachable.
This is not to say Shenmue is without ambitions. With a $70 million budget, it spares no expense in establishing itself as the first part of a massive epic. The Shenmue saga, according to Suzuki, has sixteen chapters. Shenmue is only the first chapter, with the sequel leading the series to the fifth. The desired scope of the saga is present in Shenmue. It features an orchestrated score, and every character is fully voiced. Players take such things for granted now, but these audio embellishments were not an insignificant thing in 1999. Suzuki even went as far to suggest a new genre was being created by Shenmue: Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment.
So, what does Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment entail? Shenmue’s action falls into three general categories: exploration, quick time event (QTE) sequences, and martial arts combat. Exploration is the most compelling thanks to Suzuki’s intense detail. The aforementioned character schedules are fairly intricate, giving the world an illusion of life that hadn’t been captured in previous games. Certainly, video games have not been to strangers to day/night cycles affecting worlds and characters. Ultima 2 had such a thing in 1982, and Robot Tank for the Atari 2600 even had changing weather effects. Shenmue takes such concepts beyond game rules and offers unique behaviors for all nonplayable characters for the sake of the world itself. You can spend a day at the arcade playing Hang On or work an extra shift at the docks to raise money to fritter away on various collectables, but the vibrancy of Shenmue comes from its characters. As Christmas time approaches, Dobuita tosses up decorations and you’ll find a Santa Claus doppelgänger advertising for the local bar. Multiple conversations with the military surplus store owner will tell the story of his romantic troubles. Things shift over time, on the part of the world and the characters within it, to demand your attention.
Shenmue’s second pillar of play rests in the often maligned form of QTEs, a term that Suzuki’s game created. Although we might trace the origins of this type of interaction to laserdisc games like Dragon’s Lair or Road Blaster, the nature of Shenmue’s QTEs is fundamentally different. Whereas a game like Space Ace demands the player to provide input to continue an interactive movie, Shenmue uses QTEs as a metaphor for elegant, graceful movement. A successful QTE sequence in Shenmue is an expression of Ryo’s martial ability and reactivity more than a contrived way of progressing the story. Shenmue’s QTEs also have the benefit of feeling damn good when you pull them off. They’re not the mere button-pounding physical challenges we often encounter in modern games, such as the brutish mashing found in Gears of War 2 or the clumsy and perfunctory prompts of Telltale’s Game of Thrones. Here, they are a shorthand for the actor’s abilities, allowing the player to achieve the same ease of action that the avatar does by cutting down on unnecessary input. Shenmue’s handling of QTEs might seem arcane to modern sensibilities, but they are broken up by larger segments of the game so that they never feel intrusive.
The last hallmark is martial arts combat. Building off his work on the Virtua Fighter series, Suzuki gives Shenmue a robust combat system full of complex moves and a strong sense of spatial awareness in each encounter. Yet the game can’t quite achieve refined movement. A combination of odd controls and animations of varying quality makes combat rather disjointed. A one-on-one martial arts battle in Shenmue can reach a type of flow, but as the game would rather toss multiple opponents your way, you only get this feeling from time to time. This limitation is highlighted best in the game’s climax when Ryo and an ally face off against 70 members of the Mad Angels gang. The fight is fierce and chaotic, but you may find yourself relying on stilted tactics, using only a handful of powerful moves or even just sticking with a three-kick combo instead of doing anything particularly dynamic.
It’s painfully necessary to elaborate about the design of Shenmue in order to describe its effect, both on me and on video games as a whole. On an individual level, Shenmue has always enraptured me. It has a level-headed morality that is not found in the Yakuza series, often said to be the spiritual successor to Shenmue. Suzuki’s game is simple and human, as illustrated by Ryo’s father’s last words: “Keep friends … those you love … close to you.” Indeed, Ryo’s journey is punctuated by friends and allies: the flamboyant American Tom, the demure Nozomi Harasaki, the taciturn Chen Gui Zhang. These people weave in and out of Ryo’s story. Tom must head back to America, Nozomi fears that her parents might make her move back to Canada, Gui Zhang must remain in Yokosuka to recover from injury before following Ryo to China to aid in his search for Lan Di. These partings are bittersweet. Ryo is never allowed to enjoy the space around him as we enjoy it, as he is driven by blind anger, so the most human thing about Shenmue may be the message it imparts: people are to be treasured because our time with them is limited. We must take time to connect with them. There will always be partings, but unlike Ryo, we can step back and appreciate what we have. With Ryo’s thirst for revenge, Shenmue addresses the danger of driving people away and the pitfall of isolation, as juxtaposed against the lively world and characters that I can spend time with before Ryo leaves them behind.
As for the game’s larger impact, Shenmue is baked into the DNA of modern video games more than we realize, in a mutated form of what was. Game worlds grow fatter and fatter but lack intimacy, combat is smoother but is not reflected upon, and QTEs are a gimmick instead of an element with purpose. Shenmue doesn’t quite hold up after all these years; the cracks clearly show. Yet it is extant and true and has an ever important ingredient: heart.
Shenmue is a stillborn franchise and will likely always be. At times, I believe this is a good thing. Suzuki gave a postmortem at the 2014 Game Developers Conference and noted that he would like to make a third game if possible. I doubt it will ever happen, and if it did, I doubt the result would come close to the original. Too much time has passed since the last entry in 2001 — the truisms about gaming a decade ago have faded away. Perhaps it is best to leave the saga behind us, a strange curiosity of the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast. It’s a sad end to Suzuki’s grand experiment but possibly fitting. Partings, as noted, are seldom easy, but they must come. I’m content to have my time with Shenmue be what it has been: something to reminisce about as I move forward to unknown lands and experiences.