Shenmue is an epic saga about a young man named Ryo Hazuki who sets out to avenge the murder of his father by a mysterious man named Lan Di. Along the way, Hazuki must discover the truth behind dark family secrets, realize that he is not quite the strong young fighter he believes himself to be, and maybe even write the end to an ancient story that has been unfolding for centuries.
Oh, and he also has to carry some crates, look for sailors, buy some milk, take care of his cat, spend time with his girlfriend, visit the arcade, collect some rare prizes from capsule machines, and, of course, talk to several dozen people with nothing of note to say.
One of the biggest reasons why Shenmue remains a controversial classic whose legacy is too often summarized by the word “failure” is because it is an unbelievably monotonous game. Actually, monotony itself isn’t exactly the problem with Shenmue. Monotony is one of those things you can endure and even enjoy if it’s something that occurs under the right circumstances. For instance, there’s a comfort to visiting the same bar with the same friends and ordering the same drinks.
Shenmue wasn’t billed as a night of comfort and familiarity, though. It was hyped as something that the gaming world had never seen before. Reportedly made for around $70 million, Shenmue was supposed to redefine the video game epic by not only delivering a grand story, an army of fully-voice acted characters, and real-time cutscenes, but a large world that players could explore at their leisure.
To be fair, Shenmue did deliver on many of those things. It’s often credited as the godfather of open-world games due to the way it allowed you to wander the streets of its fairly large environments without a particular goal driving you. It also happened to feature impressive new visual rendering techniques as well as voice acting for nearly every character in the game. Granted, many of the English voice actors sounded like they delivered their lines while staring at the sun, but there was voice acting nonetheless.
The problem is that Shenmue was, in the minds of many, a boring game. It hooks you with this grand tale of revenge, combat, and intrigue presented in the style of samurai and kung fu epics, then it pulls the rug out from under you by forcing you to endure what can most generously be described as filler.
If you’ve never played Shenmue, let me try to convey what a typical day in the game is like. You’ll start by waking up in your home and slowly making your way into town by the same roads and paths you walk every day. Along the way, you can expect to endure a host of loading screens that adhere to no real logic in terms of when they resolve.
Manage to finally make your way to your objective and you will likely need to start asking locals for directions through unbelievably stilted dialogue sequences. If you’re very lucky, you’ll only need to speak to three or four people (and check your map seven or eight times) before you arrive at your destination. If your luck holds, you will arrive at the right time of day and you’ll be able to progress. More often than not, though, you’ll need to kill time by playing local minigames or even go home, fall asleep, and wait for the next day.
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Mercifully, you’ll also enjoy occasional moments when you get to participate in real-time fights, thrilling quick-time events, or even watch the story amble towards one of its few significant plot points. For a game that starts off with a thrilling action sequence that promises a grand narrative adventure, Shenmue is remarkably light on action, narrative, and adventure.
Amusingly, there are some people who defend Shenmue‘s gameplay for being the kind of hardcore experience that didn’t cater to the impatient gaming masses. In reality, it’s much more likely that the Shenmue team at Sega simply wasn’t ready to deliver an experience of this scope and was forced to slow Shenmue‘s gameplay down to a crawl to ensure that players actually bothered to experience the open-world.
Yet, there is something beautiful about Shenmue’s repetitive and dry gameplay that perhaps even its developers didn’t fully understand. Through monotony, Shenmue not only perfectly captures the fallacy of revenge but shows how games can capture the essence of the human experience.
Think back on the best revenge films. John Wick, Kill Bill, Man on Fire, Oldboy, Straw Dogs, Death Wish…most of them utilize the very simple formula of taking away something incredibly important to the protagonist in order to grant them the excuse to embark upon a journey of bloody revenge that the audience can in no way fault them for. It’s a premise that has birthed some truly exceptional films, but few of those films answer the question, “What comes next?”
What comes after revenge? When the gun smoke has cleared and the last sword has been sheathed, what remains of the individual? Some revenge stories will throw their protagonist a bone at the last minute and give them something more to live for, but others choose to fade to black before we’re forced to see a broken warrior with no more wars left to fight.
Shenmue is different. Not long after swearing revenge, Ryo Hazuki and the player are struck with the realization that revenge as a driving force is useless if you don’t know where you are going. Rather than set off to beat up as many thugs as possible en route to the big bad, Hazuki’s cold dish of revenge is served with a side of humble pie. He’s not as great of a fighter as he thinks he is, he doesn’t know that much about his target, and he’s barely a fully-functioning adult.
Hazuki’s road to revenge forces players to escape the tunnel vision of vengeance. Want to kill the man who murdered your father? It’s not as simple as walking a straight line and throwing some punches along the way. You exist in this world. You are a human being. Not only do your actions have real consequences on those around you, but you need to eat, you need to sleep, and at some point, you’re going to have to find a way to make some money. More than an army of bad guys or a harrowing chase sequence, the real hurdles between you and revenge in Shenmue are the things that most of us deal with on a daily basis.
It’s not exactly romantic, but that’s the point. Shenmue dares to ask, “What if revenge isn’t this journey which defines an individual’s life, but the catalyst which forces them to endure the far greater challenge of living in this world with no clear goal in front of you?”
Even Shenmue’s action sequences take a kind of cynical approach to the idea of revenge romanticism. The game’s fighting system is a kind of modified take on the Virtua Fighter formula. In contrast to the open-world sections which afford you the luxury of choice and freedom, these sections reduce the game to a 3D fighter. Your stage is limited and your only option is violence. There’s a somewhat perverse joy to being able to break through all the monotony with good ole’ action, but these sequences highlight how limited your world view is when you reduce your ambitions to violence. The same is certainly true of the game’s QTE sections.
This is all in stark contrast to not only many revenge films but many video games released prior to Shenmue. Whereas many pieces of revenge entertainment and many older video games depend on the thrill of completing an objective based on some degree of violence, most of Shenmue’s objectives are about slowing things down in order to ensure you stop to question whether the life you take when you chase revenge is really your own.
Maybe that’s why so many of the people who played Shenmue fondly remember its more monotonous moments. Few other games have ever emphasized the little things quite like Shenmue. It’s things like capsule toys, errant soccer balls, and lost kittens that establish a feeling of belonging in the game’s world that is not based on a destiny or emotional purpose but rather the understanding and appreciation of this world’s quirks, faults, and how you fit into something that is ultimately greater than yourself.
Truth be told, those who look back on Shenmue as this perfect experience are simply wrong. Even those who believe that Shenmue was just too “hardcore” for its own good are failing to recognize the many poor design choices that greatly hindered much of Shenmue’s underlying brilliance. For one thing, we probably didn’t need that extended sequence of Ryo Hazuki creepily looking for sailors.
Still, there’s certainly something to be said of the way that Shenmue used a revenge story as this framing device for a much more fascinating and important narrative about how we as humans can benefit from taking a kind of comfort in the monotony of life rather than curse it when it interferes with a goal whose completion will ultimately bring us back to the path of daily existence.
To paraphrase a quote from The Wire, Shenmue is the game that shows us that life is the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come.