unnatural%20selection%20shenmue.jpg[In the second of a series of articles for GameSetWatch examining overlooked and intriguing games and notable design aspects of them, UK writer Fraser McMillan discusses Yu Suzuki's much-maligned cult classic Dreamcast and Xbox Shenmue series.]

Shenmue is, at its heart, a perversely indulgent exploration of the mundane. Interestingly, it's the duology's detractors that are most likely to agree, and indeed its obsession with lower than low-level, non-essential interactions is probably the source of their ire. I'm not going to argue that Yu Suzuki's unfinished opus is perfect by any standard, but that it was and remains a quietly radical work deserving of all the recognition it gets for perhaps less-than-obvious reasons.

Shenmue was, almost ten years ago, a hideously flawed game. Today, it is a hideously flawed game with a thick coating of cheese and clunky to the point of inadequate controls. In the age of the space marine, though, its strengths shine brighter than ever, and its influence and significance can be seen to have cast a wide net.

The series seems to straddle cult popularity and animosity in near equal measure - what is the root cause of this divisiveness? Because it's boring.

A lot of people will hate that last sentence. Ironically most of them will be on my side of the fence; those in opposition should be inclined to nod in agreement. What is likely to further perplex is that it's perfectly content to be boring. The usual triple-A suspects are highly linear, tightly focussed, heavily scripted violence simulators. They're your out-of-the-park smashes, the ones that do fantastic numbers and absolutely nothing in the way of innovation because of their huge budgets.

It's a kind of sick irony, isn't it? The more money you put in, the less likely it is that the end result will be interesting or unique. Shenmue was very, very expensive to make, but remains nothing like these others and indeed something of an anomaly. Every penny of its budget went towards crafting an experience that would stand out from the crowd, and, if nothing else, that's exactly what it did.

Except not "nothing else". Whether the online gaming community realises it or not, Shenmue is a giant. Titles in the same spirit still exist in some form and two of them are inbound, but it's hard to envision either having the same impact or influence as Dreamcast's most fascinating bomb. Why? They're just far too dramatic and exciting.

I cared and still do care about Ryo, Nozomi and Master Chen. Shenmue is drowning in inane back and forth chit chat leading up to chunks of exposition, but this isn't, as many developers still seem to believe, the key to fostering some kind of bond between player and polygon. It should be noted, in fact, as one of the game's weaknesses for at least two reasons. The first is the aforementioned English dub; it's pretty lamentable, even if it served up some unintentionally hilarious gems. "Kiss off, twit!" Woeful dialogue and even worse delivery ensured that no exchange could be taken entirely seriously. This was thankfully fixed in Shenmue II with the inclusion of the original Japanese voice acting accompanied by subtitles.

The second is that it doesn't really achieve anything. The plot as such doesn't really occupy most of the time spent in Yokosuka, and to wrestle the twenty hour stream of fetch, find and fight quests into anything resembling what one could call a story would be both impossible and entirely redundant. I'd argue that the plot events at large do not begin until the very end of the game and are continued in the sequel at various intervals. Chasing down Lan Di is merely a premise; an excuse, if you will, to lose ourselves in this astonishing world. To ask Suzuki to get to the point would be to miss it altogether.

What's so captivating about Shenmue is the setting, then? Yes and no. The areas themselves - Yamanose and Sakuragaoka, Dobuita and Yokosuka Harbour - aren't particularly inspiring. Typically the locales that grab me are the epic, Cyrodiil or Hyrule-style landscapes, more well realised sci-fi universes or sprawling cities with jagged skylines. Small port towns in a Greater Tokyo Area prefecture are not my ideal hangout, to put it mildly. My first reaction? I can't be sure, that was a long while ago now, but it was most probably "what?"

Taking a fiction ostensibly concerning Japanese gangsters and setting it in a sleepy suburban town is confusing at best. Approaching Shenmue like other games, though, is to fail to grasp its fundamental nature. Those uninspiring and almost drab locales? Key to the experience. And that's what Shenmue is, an experience; one of a particular place at a particular time, distilled and burned to GD-ROM.

Freedom and a sense of influence over the course of unfolding events are merely components or even tools of the complex and involving whole. Despite technological limatations and certain design decisions' best efforts, it ultimately feels like a convincing world bursting with character because it is entirely bereft of that latter qualities. It's merely content to exist and be explored, and the workday details within that space are what inform and guide the player's emotional reaction to the almost incidental plot points.

Buying cans of fizzy orange from vending machines, playing Space Harrier in the You Arcade, dialling phone numbers, checking Ryo's diary, chatting to friends, shopping for groceries, feeding tuna to a kitten, throwing darts endlessly, collecting tapes and figurines and - who could forget - working as a forklift operator. All actively unexciting, but all just as integral to Shenmue's successes as any other element. I became deeply invested in the rhythm of Ryo's daily existence, and it's rather telling that the player must hold down a button to run. In some ways it's analogous to the title as a whole. At first, it will cause frustration and confusion, but by allowing it to become comfortable and adjusting to its idioscyncracies, it becomes obvious why the decision was made.

There are, of course, problems with Shenmue as a video game (though not a ludic one, for it barely is). Relation to Ryo, for example, can become messy. Am I me or him? Because of the length of time we spend with him, it can be hard to distinguish whether we're symbitotic or entirely separate entities. He's not just an avatar, but a fully fleshed out individual in his own right - hearing him ask someone the "wrong" question is beyond jarring. Again, the sequel adressed this to a degree. There's also the laterally enormous issue of Quick Time Events, seen for the first time here. Again, the game goes to a great deal of effort to break the illusion pretty routinely in many ways, a sensation almost unique to the medium.

As well as its weaknesses, though, Shenmue knows exactly where the form's strengths lie. As a film, it wouldn't work, as proven by the woeful Shenmue Movie bundled with the Xbox version of Shenmue II. Though an hour and a half long, it struggled to capture the essence of Shenmue, boiling it down to a stretch of muddled and stilted dialogue interspersed with brawls against bikers. It was boring, but not in the right way.

Shenmue works exclusively as a video game because no other medium has the same long-form potential or explorative capacity as this one. We can absorb Ryo's life, friends, family and hometown in a way that nothing else would allow, and we can do it on our own time and in our own way. Pieces of this lucid dream fall into place very slowly and subtley, building a universe almost on the fly. At first, we're unsure as to why we should give a shit about this kid and his old man but it gradually becomes clear. Empathy for a set of characters we've just met won't arrive immediately, and Shenmue is unique in that these feelings do eventually emerge; who didn't want to kick Lan Di's ass by the end of the game? It's via immersion in his surroundings - not some some miraculous narrative ace in the hole - that we come to care about Ryo and those around him.

Shenmue II was less effective in this area, but its predecessor had already done most of the legwork for it. Hong Kong was too big and Kowloon too short a stay, though maybe that was the point - I certainly felt lost in the former as Ryo would have, and the latter got its message across without the need for an extended stay. The sequel fixed numerous obvious problems on the technical side, introducing dialogue choices and analog movement alongside the Japanese voice track. However, QTEs and combat were made far more frequent in an attempt to up the excitement level, but only succeeded in indicating that AM2 had misunderstood their work as much as anyone else. Exemplifying this was the supposedly convenient time skip feature. A double edged sword at best, it cut down on frustrating waits but also discouraged exploration and a sense of common purpose with Ryo.

For the record, Shenmue II still a fantastic game, and I may actually secretly like it more.

So, how to conclude? A request for Shenmue III would perhaps be both the obvious answer and the one thing I shouldn't mention. So maybe I'm not asking for the same universe, or the same characters, or Sega or Suzuki - what I hope is that more in the mainstream of the industry will pay attention to what Shenmue achieved and how it got there. In a way, this ties into the "fun" debates of last year. Shenmue didn't need to be fun for most of its duration. Awkwardly running around after old Chinese barbers is not fun, but it doesn't have to be.

Maybe it's Shenmue's context within the wider industry that cements its appeal. It was too far ahead of its time and did things too differently, but a lot of people love it just as much as I do and for largely the same reasons, even if they can't pinpoint why. Shenmue exposes some of gaming's least exploited advantages as an art form, and that we're only just beginning to understand these is indicative of its troubled and unsure time in the spotlight.

Can we have Shenmue III now?