Flicker flames and haunted faces
Shuffling feet find empty spaces
Moving shadows, someone's hurting
Huddle closer, campfire burning.

Sunday 12 May 2013

Game Saved: Shenmue

The folly on the hilltop. The towering keep built so high stardust catches in its brickwork. God’s mighty finger, accusing the heavens of neglect and abandonment. The totem of a forgotten tribe, worn but still worshipped, casting shadows the length of midwinter’s night. Forever unfinished.


Its legacy is too large, its shadow too sprawling. Who can remember what games were like before Shenmue changed our world? No interactive cinematic experiences beyond FMV nightmares and the odd Cinemaware title. It is as important as Space Invaders in the development of our hobby, our culture, our way of life. Bigger, more expensive, and more pertinent to today’s games than Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy VII combined, Shenmue wasn’t just a game, not a disc pressed into a drive, not software, not . . . code.

It was another time, another place. Another me and you, elastoplast on our cheek, revenge in our soul.

When I think of Shenmue I don’t think of challenges, of levels. In truth, I barely remember the game.

But the world? The emotion it provoked within me?

From a distant land in the East it crossed seas, ended up on shelves, and was so heavily hyped it was a legend before completion. Not set in some steampunk fantasy nor science fiction apocalypse, it took place in the real world of yesteryear--and not in ancient history either, buoyed by ballistas and crossbows and chainmail, but the recent past, captured and digitised. Jet Cola replaced mana potions, and could be purchased from any vending machine. Magic precipitation followed weather patterns circa 1986, transforming Dobuita’s streets overnight. How many day/night cycles, blustering storms, blankets of crystal snow do you take for granted now they’re commonplace and everywhere? How many seamless transitions from area to area, hiking from high countryside through chicken-scratch villages into cities alight with streetlamps and fairy lights and neon? How many Grand Theft Autos and Calls of Duty have numbed your senses to the litter skittering at your feet, the pedestrians passing you by?

In 1999, this was new. So new that watching the original trailer was akin to living a dream. It promised a world that ‘transcended games’ How could we have known it wasn’t lying? So richly detailed, the leafy lanes and sooted docks, the kids in the park playing ball as dusk falls. It still seems unreal that such a game ever existed. The melancholic, majestic score tugging heartstrings as surely as a kitten playing with yarn. It was our first glimpse of an epic story that would pass into myth, the hero’s fate uncertain. It was as though we shared the same dream and started awake too soon.

For too short a time Ryo Hazuki’s life was my own. His furniture was mine--his drawers, his SEGA Saturn resting anachronistically atop his eighties television. The shishi-odoshi spilling water into the koi pond with a sound I’ll forever think of as intrinsically Shenmue.

And our job driving forklifts; Mimi, our kitten; our collection of capsule toys; our friends . . . their number thinning as the snows came and time moved on.


Our investigation to find the man who murdered our father. Our run-ins with his henchmen, our friends now in danger, our way of life under threat, and on the day our curfew--that we abided by for so long--evaporated like mist under morning’s sun I realised the situation had spiralled too far out of control. My days in Dobuita were numbered. My life there was coming to an end.

Shenmue encapsulates nostalgia as no game has attempted to before or since. It’s set on the border between new and old, where cliff lanes meet city streets, and rustic water features give way to industrial cranes. Even the arcade--and was ever a facsimile so redolent of pocket change and sticky carpets?--became neglected as soon as I bought games to play at home.

Nostalgia. The painful yearning to return to a place now passed. Carson McCullers once wrote “We are homesick most for the places we have never known.” I knew Dobuita, the largest pearl on a chain leading through the village of Sakuragaoka, up along Yamanose and at its crest, the Hazuki residence, my home for however many days and weeks. I knew it so well I sometimes see it behind closed eyes, coming to me as the dream it always was, and as homesick as I am for the many places I’ve lost, I find I’m homesick most for a place that never was.

Let us not remember Shenmue as the brightest star in Sega’s fallen sky, but instead as the one experience among many that lived up to gaming’s potential. It delivered. It’s as simple as that, and it delivered a world that, like the Dragon mirror, reflected our own, with all the magic and heartache that encompasses. It dared to be different. It dared to be grander. If there was ever a turning point in entertainment software, one not dictated by processing power, but by sheer artistry and immersion then Shenmue divides new from old.

From a distant land in the East it came, and it set gaming F.R.E.E.

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