And so Shenmue's makeshift duology has its own abrupt ending. After following a trail of clues across Japan to Hong Kong to the Chinese city of Guilin, Ryu descends deep into an abandoned stone quarry, where he finds an ancient artifact. A mysterious prophecy is uttered, and an enormous carved disc on the cave wall begins to rotate, to reveal ... well, who knows? Hours and hours of gameplay, and the final leg of your journey arrives at a literal stone wall. The end, forever.
But if this type of sequential limbo is found throughout other media, what of this is unique to gaming? To begin with, there's the matter of scope and duration - approaching not one, but two sprawling multi-hour games with the knowledge that there's no closure in sight is a daunting sell, with no narrative carrot at the end of the stick. And also, more jarringly, is the way that this untimely terminus informs gameplay. Though the Shenmue project had decidedly mundane reasons for failure - an all too familiar tale of budget trouble, creative differences, and poor sales - to anyone aware of Shenmue's developmental woes, it is now difficult, if not impossible, to play the existing Shenmue titles without feeling that creeping sense of inertia all around you, as if the games themselves were dragging their feet.
As some of the first 3D sandbox cities, the wealth of options open to you are staggering - at times, even paralyzing. The game's level of detail, once touted as a groundbreaking next step in gaming, now seems to languor at every turn. If the Grand Theft Auto games have been vilified as crime simulators in which you can press a button to buy a hooker then run a hooker over with a car, Shenmue is a game where you can press a button to politely ask directions, then combo into cherishing your elders and always remembering to recycle. Instead of giving us a city to be tested and battered against in all directions, Shenmue builds you a world and asks you to follow the rules rather than break them.