By now, the relationship between reality and fantasy in blockbuster video games – their presentation as both a perfect simulation of reality and a perfect escape from it – is so obvious to everyone it might as well be a cliche. Yet in spite of how prevalent knowledge of this relationship is, the relationship itself is still worth exploring. Not only are games still transparently pursuing it, but they’re regularly successful in doing so. It seems that as capable and as willing as we are to critique this mode of presentation, we’re not quite at the point of acting on those critiques.
It’s in this light that Shenmue, despite being released nearly twenty years ago, still has something to offer. This game came into being just as that relationship between reality and fantasy was starting to take form, and its stance on this new development isn’t easy to summarize. On the one hand, it finds a lot there to admire, if the sentimental depiction of the world is anything to go by. But if the overarching story is anything to by, then the game is also aware of the dangers a pursuit of fantasy can bring if left unattended.
The irony, of course, is that Shenmue looks like a perfect example of the very thing it’s trying to critique. Until Grand Theft Auto IV was released nearly a decade later, Shenmue held the record for most expensive video game production. And like Grand Theft Auto IV, much of Shenmue’s budget went into creating a thoroughly convincing simulation of reality. It’s intent on capturing even the tiniest details behind life in 1986 Yokosuka, from the worn, almost tactile texture imbued in the trees and cement to the daily routines the townspeople live their lives by to the actual weather in 1986 Yokosuka.
However, this is where Shenmue breaks from Grand Theft Auto IV (and the much larger industry trends that game represents). The former shows a genuine (if highly romanticized) interest in its subject matter that the latter never does and is designed in such a way as to reflect that interest as best as it can. For example, the world and everything in it aren’t presented as dependent on the player for their meaning. To put that another way, Shenmue’s Yokosuka can’t be reduced to a series of opportunities explicitly designed for the player to act upon. Those opportunities may exist within the game (I can race forklifts at the docks or spend my nights at the slot machines), it’s made perfectly clear that the elements making up the world – the locations, the people, the activities for them – already have meaning independent of the player.
In fact, that’s precisely what makes those elements valuable in the first place. They have a richness all their own, and it’s a richness players can share in if they’re willing to seek it out. But of course, it’s still going to exist regardless of whether or not those players choose to seek it out at all. Incidentally, this is also why Yokosuka is presented to the player on such a small scale: to ensure this sort of player-independent existence is possible in the first place. Think of it like a diorama or a series of vignettes; small, intimate representation instead of a broad representation of everything the world has to offer.
This image isn’t completely positive, though; it has dangers of its own. Returning to the “series of opportunities” point I made earlier, if that kind of reality is depicted as empowering in other video games, then for Shenmue, reality is presented as a hindrance to those looking to exert their will over it. Granted, we don’t see this quality directly in the world itself, but we do see it in how it’s presented to us through the game’s protagonist, Ryo Hazuki. Even when we’re not looking directly through his eyes, the camera never pulls too far away from Ryo.
We’re bound to his perspective, and the way we access the world is going to reflect that. The control scheme is very subjective, very much grounded in his being. We don’t simply pick things up or dial a rotary phone; we do these activities with Ryo’s hands. We don’t have an independent conception of left and right; our understanding of them is bound up in Ryo’s perspective. And we certainly can’t have an independent perspective on Yokosuka, since we can only change our perspective of the world by changing his. (Contrast this with Super Mario 64, where our perspective of the world exists completely independent of Mario and behaves as such.)
A control scheme like this feels as limiting as you’d expect it to be. That could be because game developers still hadn’t completely solved the problem of navigating a virtual character through 3D space, but regardless of the cause, the problem still exists. I feel encumbered when playing Shenmue because I’m forced to act within the limits Ryo imposes upon me. Every action I take, no matter how minor, requires that I very purposefully will that action into being, like Ryo unconsciously resists my acting through him.
Moreover, none of this is because I’m forced to act through any one person; it’s all because I’m made to act through this particular person. By that I mean the more you play the game, the more you get the sense that the simple business of being human is completely alien to Ryo. The way he picks up objects demonstrates a strange lack of familiarity with them. Even if he’s seen the object before (a toy he’s won several times from a capsule machine), even if he should already know quite a bit about what he’s holding (a book of matches), Ryo is going to pick up the object like there’s some mystery behind it that he just has to figure out. And if his relationship with everyday items is this awkward, then his relationship with other people must be even more strained. Ryo can’t just converse with another person. He has to put significant effort into every sentence that comes out of his mouth. An awkward silence hangs in the air as he waits for the player to move the conversation forward with an A press; for himself to commit to what he’s about to say.
Why is Ryo like this? Shenmue the game isn’t prepared to answer that question. All it can do is show us that he is. Shenmue the narrative, on the other hand, expends a lot of energy showing us why it is Ryo is so alienated from the world around him. It is this exploration that serves as the all-too-vital backbone to the Shenmue story. Without it, the story would lose not only its thematic base, but also its pathos, its emotional weight, its nuance, etc.
A summary of the inciting incident is in order: Ryo Hazuki has spent most of his life in a secluded suburb of Yokosuka, training under his father (Iwao Hazuki) at the Hazuki dojo. One day in late 1986, a mysterious figure named Lan Di disrupts Ryo’s way of life by breaking into the dojo, challenging the Hazuki patriarch to a fight, and demanding Iwao hand over an artifact called the Dragon Mirror. Iwao initially refuses, but after Lan Di threatens his son’s life, he relents. Dragon Mirror in hand, Lan Di kills Iwao so neither he nor his next of kin will interfere with his plans and leaves the Hazuki residence. Thus begins Ryo’s quest to track down Lan Di, both that he might avenge his father and that he might prevent Lan Di’s goals from being realized.
Yet neither motivation holds up to basic levels of scrutiny Ryo should have at his disposal. If it’s a sense of justice spurring Ryo into action, as the “avenging his father” aspect implies, then why does he need to track Lan Di down himself? He could call the police and tell them that his father was murdered by this Lan Di person. There’s ample evidence linking Lan Di to the crime (a body, several eye witnesses, travel records showing he was in this town at the time the murder happened), and if he calls the police soon enough, Ryo can prevent Lan Di from fleeing to Hong Kong, making the actual arrest that much easier.
It’s a course of action with a high chance of success, although it may not feel personal enough to satisfy Ryo. He may feel that it’s his duty, that he has to be the one to avenge his father. Unfortunately, all we’ve done is shifted the question, since we don’t understand where this sense of duty comes from. Saying that he feels responsible for his father’s death doesn’t answer the question, we never see anything that would suggest a sort of masculine bravado on Ryo’s part, and if all this is just part of Ryo’s grieving process, then it’s a process with roots in some previous desire of his.
Having exhausted our options with the first motivation, let’s turn our attention to the second motivation of stopping Lan Di’s plans. The problem with this is twofold: the story begins with Ryo not knowing what those plans are and why they should be stopped, and when he finally does get an answer, it’s so completely outlandish that Ryo should have no reason to take it seriously. Broadly speaking, that outlandishness is something of a recurring theme throughout the story. Where the world is subdued and down to earth, the story Ryo thrusts himself into is exaggerated and fantastic. It gleefully embraces every trope you’d find in a martial arts movie: rival dojos, ancient blood feuds, mystical artifacts, motion blur, smooth choreographed fights, stakes that shatter any notion of a purely personal conflict and grow to involve the entire world.
In fact, that’s exactly what’s going on with the Dragon Mirror and its accompanying Phoenix Mirror. There’s a legend in Shenmue that whoever holds the two mirrors will gain an otherworldly power, capable of (and limited to) destroying the world. How we’re expected to believe these mirrors are magical when nothing we see throughout the game even remotely suggests magic is never explained, and maybe doesn’t have to be. Perhaps Lan Di just wants to sell these ancient artifacts on the black market; a more reasonable course of action, but one that returns us to the earlier problem of how Ryo is going to stop him. But supposing the legend is true and Lan Di did steal the Dragon Mirror for that purpose, why he would even want something as ludicrous as complete destruction of the world is never touched upon.
But that’s just it: the game doesn’t have to touch upon this question. Lan Di isn’t a character in the story whose perspective needs to be understood; he’s a vague antagonistic force who works from afar, and who provides Ryo the motivation he’s looking for. Moreover, it’s the fantastic nature of this quest that Ryo feels attracted to in the first place. He’s the kind of person who will gleefully embrace the fantasy presented to him because it offers him something his boring reality never could. No longer does he have to fumble about the world for a meaning he’ll never find or he may not be satisfied with. With Lan Di’s intrusion, Ryo can commit himself to something which gives him a very clear purpose: track down the man who killed your father and get your vengeance. In addition, his heroic traits we see over the course of the game – his determination, his resolve, his laser-like focus, the martial arts skills his father taught him – can only be realized (or can only be fully realized) within this specific context.
At last we finally have a reason for why Ryo feels so awkward to handle. He’s a person who views the reality he inhabits and all that entails as a sort of impediment he has to overcome. “What does the real world have to offer me, anyway?”, he thinks to himself. “Look at what it offers my friends. The boring bourgeoisie dream of getting married, having a family, and leading a normal life. But there’s something else for me; something far better.” From our perspective, though, this internal narrative doesn’t hold. The life Ryo offers himself doesn’t look much better than what he’s distanced himself from. It’s just as shortsighted, just as lacking in individuality, and if we limit ourselves to the first Shenmue, Ryo doesn’t have anything to show for his efforts that he didn’t have at the beginning of the story. Because Ryo’s dream can only exist in contrast to others, it’s incapable of creating anything of its own.
This is one of the central ironies of Shenmue, and what makes the first game (I have no understanding of the series beyond it) a tragedy. Although Ryo’s quest exposes him to parts of the world he would never have seen otherwise, it also prevents him from actually engaging with those parts of the world in a meaningful manner. We see this in the two items Ryo uses the most over the course of the game: his watch and his notebook. The former ties into the game’s persistent schedule (think Majora’s Mask or Mizzurna Falls), and is there to remind him that he can’t afford to waste even a single second on his journey.
However, I want to put that aside for now and look at the notebook. Whenever Ryo gains a new lead on the Lan Di case, he writes that lead down in his notebook. It’s a straightforward-yet-clever way of ensuring the player never gets lost in the story for too long, but for Ryo, the notebook represents two things. First, it reflects just how much he lets this quest dominate his judgment. He can never let himself forget about what Lan Di did to his father; he can’t rest until he’s exacted his revenge. So he carries the notebook around as a constant reminder of the only thing he should be doing out in the world. This brings me to the second function the notebook serves: because the only things that get written down in it are directly relevant to his quest, we see Ryo instrumentalize the world around him. It’s a stark contrast to the rest of Shenmue. Where the game expresses a genuine interest in all that Yokosuka and its people have to offer, Ryo is only interested in those parts that further his goal.
Combine these two elements, and you end up with ridiculous events like the protagonist wasting an entire day because he failed to sneak into a warehouse. A whole day’s worth of opportunities permanently lost because Ryo can’t think of anything else but Lan Di and his father. We know that day is lost because rather than make you wait for the next night, the game drops you off directly at it. Ryo couldn’t have gone to school in the intervening time because why would he start now? He effectively drops out of school to pursue the villain who killed his father, and judging by the conversations he has with his former classmates, he hasn’t bothered thinking about his future after this incident is resolved. (He says he’s thinking about going to a college with a martial arts program, but he never researches it. We don’t even know if such a school exists.)
Alternatively, consider what happens when the story provides our hero with an unavoidable moment of rest. The game provides plenty of opportunities to open one’s self up to the world, but these are opportunities for the player to act upon. Left to his own devices (as we’ve just seen), Ryo probably wouldn’t know to buy cat food for Tama or that he can play Space Harrier at the local arcade. Then there are basic actions Ryo will never act upon, no matter how much you the player prod him to. He can’t sit down to enjoy a meal at any of Yokosuka’s restaurants. He can’t buy gifts for other people (or appreciate the gifts he can buy for himself). He can’t even hold a decent conversation with other people. Ryo’s lack of creativity, born of his unwillingness to step outside the fantastic boundaries he’s set for himself, has distanced him from the eudaimonia he seeks and would otherwise be perfectly capable of grasping.
Maybe the most tragic thing about all this is how it affects (limits) his interpersonal relationships. That instrumentalizing attitude I’d mentioned earlier applies just as well to the conversations as it does to the notebook. He can only treat other people only (or at least primarily) as potential sources of information regarding his father’s murder. He’ll only enter conversations – he rarely lets other people come to him with a topic they want to discuss – and he’ll only enter those conversations to pump whatever information he can out of the other person, leaving once he’s extracted what he needs.
(Curiously, the inverse seems to apply, too. Because other people’s activities aren’t of much concern to Ryo, he doesn’t perceive other characters as actually performing those activities. So it might appear that two characters are having a conversation, but with Ryo not perceiving any such conversation, we don’t get to see them as having one.)
Needless to say, this is a grossly insensitive approach to social situations. While Shenmue never explicitly discusses this aspect of Ryo’s character, other characters are eventually willing to return the favor. There are some characters (mostly sailors and random townspeople) he can’t initiate conversation with period. They’ll respond with hostility or make some excuse about why they don’t want to speak with him. Over time, you get the feeling they can sense why he’s approaching them and are reacting accordingly.
This, however, is just one particular case. What about the characters he’s on better terms with, like his friends and family? Ryo is surprisingly stiff in his interactions with them. He puts his mother at a distance by referring to her as Ine-san, and despite the hints of romantic interest between him and Nozomi (interest that she reciprocates), he can never quite relax around her. We can’t blame the relationships themselves, since in both instances, the two sides know they like each other.
We can, however, blame that hero role Ryo has imposed on himself from the beginning. Remember: the notebook and the watch will not allow him to put aside that role even for a second. Every moment of his life, Ryo can only ever think of himself as the hero who will take down Lan Di; as the person who’s fated for great things and must therefore abandon what he has now realize them. Because Ryo is incapable of stepping outside this fantasy he’s created for himself, and because that fantasy is mutually exclusive with the reality he’s currently living, he can’t imagine himself as a person with human relationships in his life. The other people in his life see where this will end up and try to warn him about it, but by the time he realizes the loneliness he’s creating for himself, it’s too little too late.
Do Ryo’s actions make the world a better place? Arguably not. In fact, it’s hard to see what impact his actions have left on the larger world. Does Ryo find a place for himself in the world or widen his perspective as a result of his adventures? Again, no. He ends the story as he began it: the naive idiot who will spend all his life savings (and his close friend’s) for a ticket to Hong Kong, only to hand that money over to an obvious scam artist.
Ultimately, Shenmue holds no promise of a happy resolution for its protagonist. Instead, Ryo’s story must exist as a sort of challenge to the player. At a time when games were beginning to present convincing images of reality but only ever in service of some fantasy, the game uses Ryo to explore the consequences of that philosophy. It outlines the potential costs of ignoring a reality in front of you to pursue a fantasy of your own choosing. Are these risks worth it? Is this the only way to pursue a fantasy of one’s own invention? These are the questions the game wants us to mull over.