Come chat with us in IRC!

Come in and shoot the shit at #ReviveDC on!

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Thoughts About Shenmue III

I'll just say before I start this... this is my opinion, and my opinion alone. I didn't consult with anyone else in ReviveDC before I wrote this to get their thoughts, and if any of them think they have an interesting rebuttal, then they can feel free to write one up and post it too.

Video games were really very different in 1999 when Shenmue first came out in Japan. Think of other games that came out during that time. None of them were quite on the level of Shenmue. I've been playing the Nintendo 64 Castlevania (in addition to every other Castlevania game known to man), and it's not that bad (seriously). The controls are rough. The camera is confused. If you look back though, that's how most games were for this time period. I think a lot of people have created a video game utopia from the time of the NES until some time in the 2000s. Admittedly, it's an easy trap to fall into. There were new IPs and a lot of creative games that came out, which is something that the game industry has been lacking lately. But there was also shit. There always has been shit, but the first generation 3D games were a very special kind of shit.

Let me get to my point though. Sega games at this time had a very unique feel compared to other games, and they arguably always have. It's a strange feeling to describe. They are fun games, but they all are so simple, they almost feel like the game could just stop having any appeal at any second. It almost feels as though the game is on the brink of falling apart. I suppose that's what happens when your company is rooted in arcade games. It's the adrenaline rush you get from plunking in a quarter and fighting for your life, only there are no quarters, so the gameplay falls bare before you.

In a way, this feeling translates to Shenmue as well. It was a game ahead of its time in graphics and depth, but it still had that simple feel to it. It was approachable to anyone, though if you enjoyed having an in game job and all the minutiae of a virtual life was a bit of a different thing. The controls and gameplay were basic. The depth was in the world around you. The people you talked to had one thing to say, and so did you.

Games today are different. Look at Mass Effect. The people you talk to have many things to say, and you have many things to say to get that information out of them. The world is alive and busy, though its detail may not be as precise as Shenmue's. The action is almost dished out in the same amount as the story (depending on how you play), and the budget is huge.

That's the kicker, here. The budget. There was that rumor about Yu Suzuki using Kickstarter to secure Shenmue III funding, but how far would that really go? The Pebble watch is currently the highest funded project, raking in about $10.2 million. The highly superfluous (and apparently shoddy quality) Ouya made $8.5 million. The highest funded game made $4.1 million. That is a drop in the pot compared to Shenmue's cost, which Suzuki said was $47 million. Even if one was optimistic and guessed that the majority of Shenmue II is included in that and split it 50/50, that leaves each game at $23.5 million.

So, this makes Kickstarter funding seem pretty unrealistic, unless every single gamer with the slightest interest pitched in a fair amount. What if the world was perfect and a major publisher kicked Suzuki the money to go ahead and make Shenmue III?

It's a strange thing to imagine. Would it just be Shenmue I and II in play style with HD graphics? I doubt any publisher would let that fly. It would pale in comparison to major action adventure games, and could bellyflop harder than the first two games did. While us devoted fans would probably love it, that wouldn't justify the major spending to a publisher. In order for the game to be made, it would probably have to be up to modern action/adventure standards.

Since I mentioned Mass Effect earlier, and (to me) the level of detail and story is similar to what Shenmue did in 1999, what if it was like that? What if it did have a dialog system? It would break the character of Ryo to an extent. We've had dozens of hours with him acting as a prewritten character with defined personality traits. What would happen to the fighting system? It was cool at the time, but it's very simplistic now.

To me, I'd almost prefer that Shenmue III didn't exist in game form. Of course there would be low budget ways to make a sequel to it that could be Kickstarted. Maybe making a version of the game for 3DS or another handheld system. That would probably fall in a budget that Kickstarter could muster, but the immersion wouldn't be the same. One of those game cards probably couldn't handle the size of the game, full voice acting would be out. It would be a rather jarring shift from the first two games.

Tell us the rest of the story somehow, but don't make it a game. Write a manga. Retell the story of the first two games, and continue into the third. It is a compelling story with interesting characters, and their thoughts and actions could be fleshed out further in a written form. Better yet, novelize the third part. Translating a novel from English to Japanese wouldn't take nearly the money that a game would.

I guess my point is that games as a medium have changed dramatically in the past 14 years. You don't get a whole game anymore. You get a 10 hour experience, if you're lucky, that gets padded out by DLC, pre-order bonuses and bullshit. What we remember of Shenmue isn't the gameplay. It's the characters and the places, all of which were created with a keen eye.

If The Wire is considered a novel for TV, then Shenmue is a novel for video games. While this comparison is lost on some of you and The Wire fans are shouting blasphemy, then let me explain. TV is a medium with which we don't interact. The characters motivations have to be shown to us, and their environment has to be fleshed out enough that we understand it. A game has to go beyond to create such an atmosphere. The small details have to be accounted for, and they have been in Shenmue. The detail is incredible, and the characters appear to have their own lives. We know they are on a programmed path but we believe it, just as the best actors own a role.

This has been lost in recent video games, and I don't think Shenmue III is the game that can satisfactorily bring it back.