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Showing posts with label Ryo. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ryo. 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.

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.