The Sense of Progression in Shenmue’s World
Nearly 20 years ago (damn, I got into this bandwagon late, huh?), Shenmue shocked the game industry with several mind-blowing game features and mechanics that have become commonplace among games even today. But Shenmue’s biggest charm is undoubtedly this — it’s world. At the time of it’s release, emulating real life areas in a game seemed like an unfeasible task, but the madmen at Sega done it — amazingly, even. The attention to detail given to this game helps create an extremely immersive atmosphere, one where you can sense the developers’ care, creativity and sincerity in every corner of the world.
Further than that though, it’s also the way Hazuki Ryo interacts with this world, and the sense of progression you get as you journeyed along Shenmue’s resident protagonist that becomes the main appeal of Shenmue’s world.
The game immediately started with Ryo’s father murdered by a master martial artist. Unable to do anything during the ordeal, Ryo decided to seek vengeance. The journey to find his father’s murderer would begin from his very own room, and from there the rural areas of Japan, and he would somehow made it all the way to Hong Kong later on. It’s not about the destination but the journey though, and it’s the “content” of this journey that makes this game so good.
Throughout his entire journey, Ryo can interact with anything. Talking to people will give you clues on what to do next or you can practice your martial arts moves. If you’re tired, you can take a break and buy a drink in the vending machine or even play some games in the arcade! During your trips, you will also gain valuable knowledge and insights from your closest associates — masters who will teach you martial arts techniques, allies who will help you with your quest and loved ones who will give you life advice.
Despite that, you can still sense the immaturity in Ryo at this point of the game, willing to rush headlong in his quest for vengeance without a second thought. This is why when Chai appeared, Ryo could barely even defend himself. There’s just something about Chai’s unpredictability — his wild acrobatics, unorthodox flying kicks seem like they are just mocking at your own martial arts you have been training from childhood.
But unpredictability doesn’t beat discipline, and by the end of the game, a slightly more trained, matured Ryo managed to beat his nemesis through the good ol’ elbow assault, knocking Chai into the sea. The very same technique taught by Ryo’s father, and the very same one Ryo has been honing over the years through repetition and practices. Throughout his journey and his involvement in the Chinese underworld, Ryo did not lose himself and managed to defeat his biggest adversary with a technique he learned since he was a kid, honed to perfection. Shenmue 1 ended with you full of confidence, as you see Ryo making his way to Hong Kong. You have become stronger, both as a person and as a martial artist, and it’s time to embark on a new part of your journey.
…Only to get your ass kicked by a random old man doing tai chi exercises in the park, an old woman living in an apartment, a foreigner who probably practices Chinese kung fu as a hobby and that clerk in the convenience store who probably knows Taekwondo or some shit. You know that Chinese meme “Everyone is a kung fu master”? — this is literally Shenmue 2’s world. It’s like you are a cub stepping into a lion’s den, and in retrospect, fighting Chai felt like child’s play in comparison. The world is a huge place and that sentiment couldn’t be more truer when you transitioned from Shenmue 1 to 2.
This “sense of progression” in my opinion is what makes Shenmue’s world so appealing. You started from the very humble beginnings of your own room — that’s literally the scope of your perspective at the time. But you widened that scope by stepping out of the room, talking to people in your neighborhood to learn new things. And then you went to Hong Kong, later on Kowloon and by the time you reached Guilin, you are already a seasoned journeyman who have seen much of the world, with the wisdom and erudition acquired from your interactions with countless people you met on your voyage.
What makes Shenmue’s world different from any other open-world games isn’t only it’s attention to detail, but it’s also it’s ever-shifting world. In a way, Shenmue is all about the adventure of combating unpredictability. The world keeps changing and you are never in the same spot, representing Ryo’s evolution as a character too — from someone who could barely handle the chaos of his life to someone who could fight unpredictability with cool, calmness and maturity.
In Guilin forest, Ryo’s ability to fight unpredictability is further showcased. There, he was in unfamiliar territory again, and he was guided along by Shenhua, a girl who has never seen the outside world. She was a dependable guide as long as nothing was wrong. But when unexpected occurrences and obstacles arose (i.e. their paths blocked by landslides), it’s actually Ryo who took the reins — as someone who has already seen much of the world, he’s used to the unpredictability.
The ability to stay calm and mature despite the setbacks in life is an important trait to have. It’s easy to deal with your problems by lashing out in anger and hatred, yet it’s hard to deal with them with poise and maturity — and I certainly don’t need to explain which one is ideal. The question remains though, will Ryo maintain his calmness and composure when at last, he (possibly) meets his father’s murderer in the upcoming Shenmue 3? Is there more to this story than meets the eye? It would certainly be fascinating to see where would Ryo go from here.
But I can say this — I’m looking forward to seek more secrets of the world, to learn more from the people, and to possibly discover a better me of tomorrow. Because the world is huge, ripe with beauty and mystique. I’m nothing if not the tiniest speck of ant compared to the glamour of the world, and I can’t wait to go on another adventure and explore this glamorous world once more in Shenmue 3.