"He shall appear from a far Eastern land across the sea. A young man who has yet to know his potential. This potential is a power that can either destroy him, or realize his will. His courage shall determine his fate. The path he must traverse, fraught with adversity, I await whilst praying. For this destiny predetermined since ancient times... A pitch, black night unfolds with the morning star as its only light. And thus the saga, begins..."
This first chapter of Shenmue kicks off Yu Suzuki's cinematic Dreamcast tour-de-force, an exploration-heavy adventure that has players immerse themselves in Yokosuka, Japan. Players slip into the role of a young martial artist named Ryo Hazuki, who is on the trail of his father's killer. On the way, players must talk with hundreds of characters, engage in martial arts battles, and marvel at the realistic depiction of the Japanese coastal town.
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Intermittently torturous, always detached, and Shenmue only improves in this regard two decades on. It is often cited as the open world urtext, but where Shenmue works in alienation the games it influenced put the player-character at the centre of the universe. In the Grand Theft Auto series the player moves in a reckless, fluid way, in stark contrast to the rigid and wandering NPCs — every frame explodes into being through our freedom, of movement, of decision, of infinite variety and eternal recurrence, and yet we are never allowed access to the patterns or behaviours of those around us. The very absence of an 'talk' button along with the sheer number of people spawned across the game environment has us intuitively accept that the world is that which we do — we are its God, its conductor. With Shenmue however, Ryo's body moves in this blocky, unwieldy way, and must fit into the whims and schedules of those around him. The game's day-night cycle seems to actively close rather than open opportunities, such as in cases where we are tasked with waiting tens of hours to meet certain people at certain times of day, and all Ryo's options for time-killing actively feel like time-killing (in the sense of time we know we will never get back) — throwing darts, visiting noodle houses, patting cats, watching the trees. There is no way to accelerate time's passing, and the only way to endure it is to actively make the time to enjoy the small things, which is to say reframing the story as the distraction and not the other way around. Still, as Zen as this all sounds, however beautiful the sunsets and poignant the broken swing by the stairs, Shenmue makes it so the player never feels as though they belong in it.
Every day begins and ends at the Hazuki Residence, in a curious disciplinary move that has us clumsily navigate a house that never becomes a home, waiting as Ryo puts on or takes off his shoes, before venturing into a world that similarly never opens up to him. The anonymous faces in Grand Theft Auto are props until they're activated by player action, reflecting the scale of cause and effect, but in Shenmue we are always trying to act according to the dominating logic of the world, making the people in it both obstacles that are necessary to progress the game, and ever-present reminders of our not belonging. If we see an 'interact' prompt appear near a stranger, Ryo is just as likely to receive some valuable information as he is to be, in the most polite way possible, called a creep and asked to leave. He can't jump or skip or even run through a door. He checks over his shoulder to make sure he's alone before exercising in the park. When Ryo sees someone else is using the stairs, he will wait until they get to the top before he even begins is ascent, one gets the sense out of discomfort rather than politeness. They have their routines and we don't have ours. This doesn't make us free, it makes us perpetually alone. An old woman asks Ryo for directions and says she'll wait at the park to hear from him. If the player forgets, the old woman can never be found again. How long did she wait? Did she find the place on her own? Is she okay? It's always like this, he's impossible, nobody knows who he is and neither does he. Even those who know Ryo's name expect something of him that he's failing to embody, and this sense of quiet failure permeates Shenmue in both the way the world is painted and the way it plays.
Interactions with friends and family remain at the level of surface courtesies, veiling a great sadness and isolation that hints at impossible rifts between each and every person. Nobody knows Ryo — he's always falling just short of being what others think they know of him, and on an entirely different course from what's expected in the long run. And looking to him for answers leads to an even more penetrating sense of absence, a passive neglect of others and a dead eyed embrace of tangible actions and information pathways where the insignificant is given significance, and significant actions are always underpinned by the mundane. He confronts gang members like a kid buying a toy, and he buys toys like he's finally found meaning in this world. The central ambiguity in Shenmue, and what makes it so affecting, is whether this suffocating sense of loneliness is inherent to the world or just Ryo, who as the game's protagonist paints the way it appears to us. Is there a difference? When he is showed great generosity by Fuku-San, Ryo's unreadable face casts a cold negation of the gesture, making the other person seem comically, embarrassingly over-expressive. But it's Ryo who is embarrassing — his straightforward detective questioning, gullibility, and tonedeaf approach to human interaction make his journey less a myopic descent into obsession than a sort of hobby or project, a convenient opportunity for something to do. At one stage Nozomi asks Ryu about school, and we realise all this free time he has is the result of shirking a role that could give him some structure; some direction. In every sense he is out of sync: like Kyle MacLachlan's character in Blue Velvet no matter how successfully he works through the underbelly of his town he's only ever met with bemusement and confusion by the people he finds there. He can't be here, but he can't go back either. Once again the mechanic of Ryo's return to the Hazuki Residence reinforces every morning and every evening that there is no home for him. Shenmue is affecting because it forces us to play through, to physically enact this discomfort, while reading around Ryo that it is he who is the stranger.
The strangest and most subtly moving decision made is that the game's final act begins with Ryo taking on a job at the dock, driving forklifts. Where Ryo's physically cumbersome body spent weeks running around Dobuita, mangling interactions and finding ways to kill time, Ryo's dock work finally gives him purpose, a routine, and targets to meet. Throughout the rest of the game it is impossible to know whether one is making progress or floundering, but the dock work gives instant feedback in the form of quotas and bonus cheques reflecting efforts made. The forklifts also control with a fluidity uncommon in the rest of the game and reach speeds he can't on foot. Lunch breaks begin at the same time every day with a shot of Ryo sitting with his colleagues and eating; he could almost belong here. And because we're not waiting for time to pass but rather trying to do things in time, the way the skies change during the afternoon shift can at the docks be appreciated for how beautiful they are. Time becomes valuable, and as it passes it fills the scene with warmth before it leaves. Despite the routinised action or perhaps because of it, it is clear there will never be another day exactly like this one. One afternoon Ryo sees Nozomi at the docks taking photos and there is this confronting atmosphere because Ryo for the first time sees himself in the face of someone who recognises what he's doing — not for what his family represents or what anyone thinks he should be doing, but for what he is doing as he works at the dock. This is followed by a strange and beautiful sequence where Ryo's and Nozomi's photograph is taken twice, and Ryo must pick one to take away. One makes it appear as though they are lovers, the other, total strangers, and clearly the truth is somewhere in between. This moment of self-presentation to someone who matters is immediately turned into a fiction, or perhaps memorialised as a future that can never be between two people, one who doesn't know who she is but knows what she wants, the other a blank surface reflecting back everything indeterminate, everything unsure, everything anxious about the one unfortunate enough to look. He is in short a negation.
As the year wraps up, the uncaring faces increase in volume, and many of the familiar ones say they're going away. Ryo's neighbourhood, already a quietly lonely place, comes to feel like a ghost town of dead end interactions and suspended time — a place simultaneously too big and too small to sustain life. Ryo's dispassionate movement through Yokosuka is curious, because he is not the one feeling these things. Everything to him is information, and if that information leads abroad, so be it. He doesn't care one way or another, but we do. That Yokosuka is framed as a place that is already dead and in the process of being remembered must then belong to somebody else, someone who is remembering the story as Ryo tells it. Indeed as others try to reach out for him it becomes clear that it is not the town that is the ghost, but Ryo, that figure once present and well liked but who died one day and now glides through with blank eyes, forever out of time and place.
Without the language of Chinese cinema the story is simplistic and weird, but its grandiose animated dreams and talks of fate cut an effective threshold between the exhaustingly quotidian world of Shenmue and its mythic aspirations. Its textures are uniformly dingy and wet looking but this adds to Ryo's sense of claustrophobia, and the alienating temporality of the game that insists we shouldn't be here. Indeed the construction of the New Yokosuka Movie Theatre that will never be finished, and dig site and Sakuragaoka suggest the world will keep moving once we leave but can't start until that happens. The ability to talk to people who will only offer 'Sorry I don't feel like talking' leads to disappointment before its themes of isolation become clear. The animations haven't aged well but the offbeat rhythms of the game work its visuals into an uncanny space both otherworldly and uncomfortably familiar. It's also occasionally gorgeous by any standards: in one scene on a motorbike Yu Suzuki manages an extended reference to Wong Kar-wai's Fallen Angels and, short a bloom effect to mimic that director's blurry expressionism, simply layers brake light colours across the screen. I'll admit I lost my breath for a full minute: the absence of a bleeding light for a strange, rigid, suspended rendering of abstract human emotion might be the game in a single wonderful image.
It's strange that the game that popularised the idea of the open city is so opposed to privileging the player as a free agent. Instead of wandering, we must obsessively micromanage time to fit in with the schedules of Yokosuka's inhabitants. To miss a meeting is to wait for the next day, and to feel every minute of the full duration. Ryo is too young to drink, and even if he wasn't he probably wouldn't drink any way. The setting sun does not herald adventure for us because Ryo has to be home for his mum so he can collect his allowance in the morning. He is strange, and his body moves in a blocky, strange way, which eventually comes to make its themes of alienation and obsession manifest in the way we play Shenmue. To adopt Ryo's body is to absorb his hangups, his estrangement into the process of what is already uncanny: reentering the relic world of Shenmue, and learning to read all of its ghosts.
Loved how immersive the gameplay was, with almost everything being interactive. It's deliberately slow-paced, but it also reminds you to manage your time. I couldn't get enough out of talking to people, going to the arcade, or collecting capsule toys. I also found the story to be engaging, and when it ended, I was definitely interested in seeing what comes next.
You can make fun of the English voice acting all you want. It's definitely cheesy, but I think it's also part of its charm. Some sentimental moments do feel genuine at times, so I can't... completely fault it.
The combat is clunky, but still doable. I'm not a fan of the QTE's. They break the pace a bit.