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Showing posts with label Bailu Village. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bailu Village. Show all posts

Shenmusings of Ryobots, Niaowu, and Shenmue III's Uncertain Legacy

Ryo Hazuki is an android, right? I’ve suspected it for a while but after finishing Shenmue III recently, I'm going all in on the Ryobot theory. It explains too much not to be canon.

Ryo has always been a bizarrely stilted and stoic character, of course. That much isn’t news. Yet after accompanying him for every waking minute across three games – games which depict the painstaking minutiae of everything from longshore crate logistics to the mid-‘80s weather record of the Kanagawa Prefecture – Ryo still has not pooped.

In fairness, few protagonists in fiction are forthcoming about their physiological functions. But, unlike Ryo, they at least behave in ways that can be reasonably interpreted as human-like. Meanwhile, Ryo acts less like a person and more like an emotionally unavailable animatronic, programmed in the languages of kung fu and non sequiturs.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to knock him. The technology behind Ryobot was very impressive for 1987.

Oh, and did I mention the shared consciousness between Ryo and his friend, Shenhua? She is also an android, probably, in addition to being the unwitting mascot of a junk food brand for some reason.

OK. The point of this write up is not to espouse the incontrovertible theory that Ryo is a semi-sentient robot, even if it is also that. Back when it came out in November 2019, I had put about a dozen or so hours into Shenmue III before dropping off of it. After leaving him in stasis at Hotel Niaowu for a full calendar year, I recently (and finally!) caught up on Ryo’s journey to date. I also realized we hadn’t yet discussed the game in-depth on the Junkyard since its release. With all that, I’m really here to work out my thoughts on Shenmue III in hopes of making some sense of its place in the series’ legacy. But first let’s take a step back, and into the shoes it hoped to fill…

As for many fans, the first two Shenmue games were formative for my interest in gaming. For a medium where kinetic action and instant gratification shaped the bedrock of most gaming experiences, it was oddly refreshing – if jarring – to play something with such love for mundanity and contempt for players’ impatience. Ironically, it was my own impatience that led me to buy the Japanese version of the original Shenmue, several months before its western release. I couldn't say why; I didn't even speak Japanese. Hell, I was barely pulling a passing grade in English class.

Yet, even then, my 14-year-old mind was blown by Shenmue’s unabashed indulgence in the ordinary. I was taken aback by its audacity to let me knock on neighbors’ doors, chug orange Fanta*, and stalk an entire community of busy folks for no other reason than because I could. When the events of Shenmue II set Ryo loose to explore Hong Kong, seeing it all scale to a bustling, urban setting was revelatory all on its own. Shenmue I and II’s detailed and lively locales immersed me in their astonishing sense of place and community. They felt like genuinely bustling locations that could believably exist without me. They also challenged any assumptions that video games always had to be, well, game-like. Through its novel approach to worldbuilding and interactivity, Shenmue invited me to inhabit its worlds – not only as a player – but as a resident and visitor.



* Vending machines in the Japanese version of Shenmue were stocked with licensed Coca-Cola products rather than our beloved “Jet Cola” and “Frunda” off-brands (also, was Bell Wood a person, or...?)

Yu Suzuki and AM2’s magnum opuses offered a remarkably ambitious and unorthodox vision for what video games could be and how players could engage with their spaces. In bankrolling their vision, Sega rebuked all conventional wisdom that big budget games ought to be marketable and fiscally viable. Shenmue I and II were neither – or at least not either enough – and Sega paid a steep price. Beyond failing to recoup its massive development and marketing costs; beyond its eventual retreat from the hardware market; Sega presented a perennial Exhibit A for the downsides of risks to an increasingly risk-adverse games industry.

After that, it seemed unfathomable that we would ever return to Shenmue’s amazingly ambitious, immersive, and bustling world. Nearly two decades later, we still haven’t.