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Shenmusings of Dobuita, Community, and the Friends We Stalked Along the Way

In better times, my neighborhood reminds me of Dobuita, the vibrant business district setting of Sega and AM2’s pedestrian stalking simulator, Shenmue. It bustles with life as people pack the restaurants, bars, shops, parks, arcades, and the streets in between. I can take a quick jaunt down the road and be surrounded by patrons, workers, shop owners, cooks, bartenders, barbers, and even sailors (well, commercial fishermen, actually). These folks are more than cursory non-player characters. They are my neighbors. They are my friends. They are the very fabric of my community.

But for now, they are gone.
These days, walking through my neighborhood feels like I’m in a typical late '90s video game town. Clusters of buildings line the street but the developers were unable to render more than a handful of NPCs to populate it.

Taking a step back: My heart goes out to everyone struggling through this uncertain and challenging time. If there’s a silver lining, it might be that we’re fortunate to have a hobby like video games to help bide our time as our non-virtual world lies in stasis.

It also helps that gaming is a uniquely personal medium. Through our interaction and immersion, games invite us to co-author a broad range of experiences which we can enjoy on a multitude of levels. Games can bring welcome moments of reprieve and distraction. We can find comfort in their escapism and nostalgia. Whether from across the couch or the internet, we can share experiences with old friends and make new friends of strangers. Beyond that, games can challenge us – and not only in terms of precision, reflexes, or strategy. They can push us to expand our understanding, grow our perspectives, and stretch our imaginations through memorable experiences that we carry with us long after we’ve put down the controller.
In its own way, this situation is a unique opportunity to slow down and consider what is most important to us, whether that's friends, family, community, altruism…and video games, of course. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on my time with gaming, what I appreciate most about the hobby, and what I really want out of it going forward. I’ve also thought about the games that significantly shaped how I engage with the medium. In that sense, I can’t help but keep coming back to the Dreamcast’s library.

Nostalgic attachment aside, Sega’s swansong console simultaneously defined and challenged my perceptions of video games. Although the Dreamcast initially drew me in on its promise of more-than-faithful arcade conversions and the triumphant return of a blue childhood icon, it ultimately forged its legacy by striving to redefine gaming’s future more than rehash its past. It showed me how games can be more unique, interesting, and meaningful experiences well beyond their fun factor and replay value. Through its culture of unbounded creativity, the Dreamcast was refreshingly unorthodox and innovative in ways the industry rarely allows.

In some ways, the Dreamcast was as much an art collective as it was a consumer product. Nowhere was this clearer than in the unchecked (and frankly, fiscally reckless) authority Sega gave its development studios and publishing partners to create whatever the hell they wanted for its wacky white box. In that spirit, this essay could've been about any one of the Dreamcast’s unabashedly inventive works: Rez, or Jet Set Radio, or L.O.L.: Lack of Love, or the VMU, or Illbleed, or Maken X, or Chu Chu Rocket, or D2, or Roommania #203, or Seaman, or Samba de Amigo’s maracas, or…you get the idea.

But this is about Shenmue, because of course it is.

Today, Yu Suzuki and AM2’s magnum opus remains a darling of the Sega fan community. Whenever the Dreamcast Junkyard runs a top 200 games community poll, or its recent World Cup tournament on Twitter, Shenmue does pretty darn well. It’s clearly an enduring hit for a spirited contingent of the Sega faithful, even if the game has always had its share of detractors. Unfortunately, beyond our devout niche, it's also had shit luck breaking through to broader audiences which remain largely apathetic to its existence.

Maybe that's not a surprise. Shenmue is practically a litmus test for what players expect – and are willing to tolerate  from a video game. It goes out of its way to subvert our traditional expectations for the medium. It is notoriously slow and plodding; "boring" is a word that gets thrown around a lot but sure, it fits. Shenmue hardly imposes a sense of urgency. It rarely tests our mettle. It's certainly not a power fantasy. It is immersive in ways that double down on our real-world mundanity; it almost taunts the very notion of escapism. It doesn’t care to be a particularly fun game, either. Hell, it hardly bothers to be a game at all. Shenmue gleefully disregards all the review criteria and scoring metrics anyone's ever tried to use to quantify a video game's significance.

In other words: for many people and for plenty of understandable reasons, Shenmue has little appeal. So what makes it such beloved experience for the rest of us?
I imagine Shenmue endears itself to each of us for countless different reasons. Even through a critical lens, we may be infinitely charmed by the game’s sheer awkwardness. We may revere Ryo: our kung fu-capable, sociopath protagonist and animatronic avatar (a.k.a. Ryobot). We may adore the mystery/revenge narrative that’s strung together by ten times as many clue-fetching plot points than if Ryo had just a modicum of competence or deductive reasoning skills. We may also relish in the delightfully banal dialogue and stilted delivery of the collective townsfolk.

Hell, I just get a kick out of how Ryo throws darts like he’s channeling spirits on a Ouija board.
For me, Shenmue is special because it went to absurd lengths to be anything other than a typical video game.

Most other games rely on more marketable traits like stimulating gameplay, fantastical settings, and exaggerated action verbs to hold players' attention. And good for them.

Shenmue did the opposite. Defiantly, AM2 dedicated an astonishing amount of time and effort on superfluous wonky shit like complex pathfinding behavior for hundreds of NPCs, actual 1986 weather patterns as an unlockable extra feature, and hyper-detailed assets made solely to be hidden in drawers and capsule toy machines. That's to say nothing of the monumental task of developing an engine capable of supporting all of that ridiculous stuff. Through that excess – and more or less out of spite  Shenmue and its sequel became two of the most expensive games ever produced at the time. Shenmue went all in on its absurdity, even if that meant contributing to the financial ruin of a publicly-traded company. Shenmue was a bold game and I respect it.
At any rate, my point is: in a medium where everyone always sprints, sometimes it's nice to mosey.

More than anything, I appreciate how Shenmue envelopes me in its intricately-crafted world in ways that only video games can but seldom ever do. Dobuita feels like less of a space I play through and more of a place I inhabit. It exudes a keen sense of density, presence, and culture, and invites me to explore it at my leisure. As I mosey through its bustling streets, Dobuita welcomes me as neither its hero, nor its savior, nor its conqueror – but as a part of its community.
Dobuita might be one of gaming’s most ambitious locales by virtue of its coziness. Its intimate atmosphere and sheer attention to detail welcome us to both look and touch. Every door, drawer, and conversation beckons – and often rewards – our curiosity. Every unique shop and restaurant feels like some person's enterprising passion project. Every NPC has their own personal shit to deal with, both emotionally and obligatorily. They've got places to be, dammit. And if Ryo is feeling particularly stalkerish, he can even follow them there.*

*A quick sidebar: Ryo is a total creeper if you play him that way (and you probably do). If people weren't so sympathetic to Ryo's tragic situation (with his dad getting murdered and such) I bet more folks would call him out on his shit. At the very least, Dobuita's residents are remarkably patient as they turn a blind eye to Ryo's serial stalking and field his incessant requests for directions around the town where he also supposedly lives.
Translation: “Dude, I am trying to run errands. Back the fuck off, shitbag!”
Like my own neighborhood, Dobuita bustles with life as its residents, workers, and business owners inhabit it alongside me. These folks imbue the world with a tangible liveliness. For all I know, they might carry on with their daily business whether I'm there or not. I mean, I'm pretty sure my Dreamcast is off right now but who's to say Dobuita's Santa Claus isn't still pissed off his ass or hustling Hokuhoku lunch box sets as I write this? Maybe both. Now that's a weird Toy Story/Wreck-it-Ralph kind of scenario to think about.
For my part, I enjoy revisiting Dobuita just to check in with folks once in a while. It’s nice to drop by to say hi to Megumi and pet the kitten she diligently cares for. It’s great running into Naoyuki as he takes a break from his eternal motorcycle repairs to grab a late lunch at Funny Bear Burger. It’s always amusing to see Aoi-san sling produce by day and stumble home drunk from the karaoke bar at night. It’s also fun to chat with Dobuita’s myriad other residents, even when they’re too busy, tired, or creeped out by Ryo to humor him.
These days, Shenmue has taken on a renewed context for me. Growing up in a rural area – far from any bustling main street – inhabiting Dobuita inspired me to seek out and contribute to my own real-life community. More recently – amidst this pandemic – immersing myself in Shenmue’s community has helped remind me to appreciate the friends and neighbors I've taken for granted in my own.
Things will get better and I'm happy to contribute however I can: Supporting small businesses; Checking in on neighbors; Donating to non-profits; Calling my friends and relatives more often; And simply doing my part to flatten the curve by social distancing, staying home, and playing video games.

Of course, there are also the communities which exist outside of our physical neighborhoods. We can help strengthen those and all the communities that bind us, whether online, through shared hobbies/interests, and across geographic, social, and ideological divides.
Again, I believe this situation presents an opportunity to slow down and reassess what is most important to us in the world and how we want to engage with it. To me, Shenmue may well be the video game embodiment of that sentiment. In its own small way, revisiting Dobuita is a nice reminder of how much my community means to me. It helps renew my optimism that our neighborhoods and communities will soon thrive again. And together, we can make the new normal even better than the old one.
In the meantime, we can always heed Iwao Hazuki’s timeless advice:
(Emotionally, not physically, of course. No touching!)
Stay safe, Junkies!
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Thanks for reading. You can find me on Twitter (@VirtuaSchlub) where I’m always up for chatting with cool folks about video games. I’m also on the Saturn Junkyard’s TitanCast, where we shoot the shit about various Sega and Saturn-related things.

And here are a couple of other things I’ve written recently:
With that, I'll leave you with some more random pics I wanted to include but couldn't fit into this write up. Enjoy!

1 comment:

Tom Charnock said...

Brian, your articles are always a pleasure to read. This is no different.