How Shenmue Paved the Way for Modern Gaming
The Sega Dreamcast was the company’s last grasp at the hardware market, and it demonstrated some of Sega’s best qualities. Although it certainly had its share of Madden NFL games and 3D platformers, it also hosted innovative and bizarre software like Seaman and Rez. These weren’t games designed to grab a mass market audience, but rather experiments in new kinds of interaction and design.
Sadly, they weren’t enough to keep the console afloat against Sony’s PS2 juggernaut, and the Dreamcast only lasted a few years. Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue was released in 1999, with the second coming installment in 2001 after hardware production had ceased. At the time, it was the most expensive video game ever made. With a remaster of the first two games hitting Steam and modern consoles this week, as well as the third game coming in August of 2019, we decided to look back on how this oddball adventure was ahead of its time and influenced tons of popular genres.
One of the biggest trends of the PS2 era was the rise of Grand Theft Auto and similar free-roaming adventure games. The idea that players could be given their own agency to move through a sandbox world, taking care of plot-centric missions as well as other activities, came directly from Shenmue. Even though protagonist Ryo Hazuki is supposed to be solving his father’s murder, he wasn’t forced into anything. You could spend time playing classic Sega arcade games like Out Run, buying capsule toys from vending machines, or just aimlessly walking around.
One of the most notable game series that capture that balance also comes from Sega – the cult hit Yakuza games. Those titles are very Shenmue-esque in their combination of street brawling and aimless wandering, with tons of side activities that are often more fun and memorable than the main plotline. Those games also treat their settings much like a character, with lots of attention paid to architecture and local flavor.
[embedded content]Walking Simulator
Although Shenmue has plenty of action – lead designer Yu Suzuki was the mastermind behind Sega’s Virtua Fighter series of fighting games – what most people remember about it was the experience of Ryo wandering around his Yokosuka neighborhood talking to people. Players weren’t “on rails,” being led from one plot beat to another. They had free reign to pet cats, play arcade games, or just kill time. Instead of players feeling always on edge, the experience was more restful. A lot of Suzuki’s work was making it feel like you were a real person in a real place – Ryo could open drawers and cupboards and walk down blind alleys and dead-ends, none of which yielded any gameplay benefit.
That kind of environmental storytelling would find roots in games like Gone Home and Dear Esther, where the combat has been completely removed in favor of exploration and discovery. Those titles hearken back to the earliest scenes of Shenmue, where you’re poking through Ryo’s house, opening drawers and looking at photographs to immerse yourself in his life. As games outgrew their arcade heritage, they stopped rushing players through and let them linger at leisure to appreciate the hard work designers and artists put into the product.
The limits of a video game controller definitely are tested when you’re creating a game like Shenmue, which required Ryo to do all kinds of actions throughout his quest, from driving forklifts to opening mail. One catch-all control system wouldn’t work for everything, so Suzuki pioneered “Quick Time Events,” where players had to input specific joystick motions and button presses in a limited window of time to successfully complete the task. Some of them could be failed without incident, while others would bring Ryo’s journey to a halt.
QTEs have become an integral part of many modern adventure and action games. The best example is probably David Cage’s titles like Detroit: Become Human and Heavy Rain, both of which owe a tremendous debt to Shenmue. Some titles use them to bridge cinematic sequences and player-controlled parts like Resident Evil, while others like God of War use QTEs to trigger brutal combat finishers. While Shenmue wasn’t the first game to use the system, it made QTEs a significant part of the experience.
Unlike most contemporary adventure games, non-player characters didn’t just stand around waiting for you to pump them for information. Everybody in Yokosuka had their own schedule to follow, and if Ryo wanted to meet up with them for a chat he had to figure out when they’d be home. A lot of the game’s most interesting content was locked to certain times of the day at certain locations, making it feel like a vibrant, living world. In addition, the “Magic Weather” system used actual weather patterns from Japan in the 1980s to model a random schedule of rain and clearing throughout the day.
This kind of attention to world detail would become more and more common in open-world RPGs throughout the next decade. Games like Bethesda’s Morrowind and Lionhead’s Fable would use those kind of schedules and individual NPC routines as a major selling point, and now it’s rare to find an adventure that doesn’t have AI pathing and timetables for its supporting characters. Realistic, changing weather is also part of the package, as designers have learned how it can enhance drama and change up the visual environment. This kind of stuff had been done before, but it took Shenmue to put it all into one package.
At this point, it’s not unusual for AAA games to run into the tens of millions of dollars, but back at the end of the 1990s it was a massive financial gamble for Sega to sink $70 million into Shenmue. The development process And, let’s be frank, it was a gamble they were guaranteed to lose – to make back the development cost, every single Dreamcast owner would have to buy two copies of the game.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. But instead of being an outlier, Shenmue was prophetic. Suzuki realized that video games were getting to the point where they had to compete with movies and TV in the market, and the way to do that was with fully voiced characters, engrossing storylines and rich environments. It wasn’t going to be good enough to coast on the storytelling methods that games used in the past – static screens, non-interactive cutscenes and limited agency over the world. As the medium grew, it had to also grow in ambition, and Shenmue was a huge step forward.
We’re very curious to see what Shenmue 3 will look like when it releases next year. Will it be as progressive as the first two installments, or will it further advance video game storytelling and design? Either way, we’ll be there on day one playing it to find out.
The Dreamcast is a beloved console for many at team Geek, but there are others that we equally adore. If you are looking for a great recommendation of QTEs see our hands-on of Detroit: Become Human. Our God of War playthrough might be the best example of the year though. If you are in need of further picks, watch all of Geek’s livestreams here.
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