“I walk the streets of Japan ’til I get lost,” sang Audioslaves’s Chris Cornell, “because it doesn’t remind me of anything.”

Obviously, Cornell has never played Shenmue, because if he had, he would have been instantly reminded of quests for sailors and high-pitched little girls talking about their kitty.

When I first arrived in Japan several years ago, some things felt strangely familiar. The blinding white of the convenience store; the cozy, box-sized bars piping jazz played on a My First Casio keyboard; the curving streets that mixed concrete jungle with temples. It felt in some ways like I was revisiting an old haunt, but I had never been there – except in Shenmue.

Shenmue is a stunning testament to videogames’ power to draw players into their world. Eight years after its release, Shenmue remains the most ambitious game ever created. It recalls the greatest excesses of Hollywood, in its ludicrous ambition and budget, which is said to have run anything from $20 million to $70 million. It divided gamers and critics, sold poorly, and still has a rabid fan base calling for creator Yu Suzuki to finish the story.

Yet there are no signs that he will. Shenmue 3 languishes in pre-development, and six years on, Ryo and Shenhua are still stuck in that cave.

After Shenmue flopped so famously, it took a brave company to return to something so superficially similar. But in Yakuza (Ryu ga Gotoku in Japanese), Sega returned to the streets of Japan.

Where Shenmue painted a friendly world of kindly surrogate mothers and innocent schoolgirls, Yakuza showed a seedier side of Japan. Replacing arcades with porno stores and martial arts training with stabbing your opponent in the ribs with a broken bottle, Yakuza‘s Kamuro-cho was Yokosuka’s evil twin. Put together, the two games represent a greater push for immersion and authenticity than any other developer has attempted.

Yokusuka Blues
Shenmue is something you either love or hate. The haters have any number of reasons: Some deride its interminably slow pace, some its fetch-quest gameplay, others its substandard plot and voice acting.

But those who love it share one common passion: the way it sucked the player into its world and did not let him go. Like a hypnotist’s spell, it put you under, and just like hypnosis, it only seems to work for a certain percentage of the population.

In some ways, Shenmue is gaming’s Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s classic also featured wretched expositional dialogue, endless uneventful traveling and ambiguous homoerotic subtexts, but none of these could stop Tolkien’s world from seeping into your brain. Both sold poorly when first released, and like LOTR before Peter Jackson, Shenmue is a perennial fan favorite, but has little commercial appeal.

Tolkien captured the imaginations of millions because of his ability to submerge the player in his world. His anal attention to detail, millennia of created history, continents and languages, created something the reader had no choice but to believe in. This is also the key to Shenmue‘s success. Its plot was second-rate and the gameplay often dull, but those who were able to suspend their disbelief were taken to a new world.

Just as Shenmue‘s protagonist, Ryo Hazuki, is destined to journey to the new land of China, so too do we journey to a different world, a stunning recreation of 1980s Japan. A case example of Shenmue‘s self-indulgence is the new genre Suzuki declared for his game: FREE (Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment). Every character you saw could be talked to; almost every building could be entered, every floor of it explored: In Ryo’s home, you could open every drawer and closet, see what’s in the fridge.

Time passes and is more than a cosmetic change. Head out in the morning, and you’ll see smart-suited salary-men heading to work; walk around in the evening, and the same salary-men are stumbling home merrily from after-work drinking sessions. Play long enough, and you’ll start to see the same people walking around, just like in your own neighborhood.

Just like society, the game puts limits on you. Freedom, after all, is a concept that cannot be defined without limits. If you had an appointment for 2:00 p.m. tomorrow, you had no choice but to wait, a touch of realism that infuriated some players so much, Shenmue 2 allowed the player to skip ahead. But it was in that time spent waiting that Shenmue came alive: This was your world, and you had to fill your own time in it.

You found yourself rushing home late at night so as not to upset Ine-san, your kindly surrogate mother. You woke up in your bed in the morning and looked at your diary (helpfully starting with “I’ll get revenge for my father!” as if he was likely to forget) to decide what you were going to do that day.

But aside from the environment, one of the reasons Shenmue is so immersive may not even have been intentional. Ryo is a poorly written character, but an excellent avatar. His relationships with the people around him are just vaguely defined enough to allow the player to assume them. He appears helpless at times, as in his ability to respond to his schoolmate Nozomi’s affections, but this allows us to overlay our own feelings on his actions. How much of this was intended by the game’s writers is questionable – the point is, it works.

Stiff Little Fingers
Or at least, it did for some. Shenmue was the Dreamcast’s flagship game, but it failed commercially, and in retrospect, it’s easy to see it has limited appeal and practically no cool factor whatsoever. Then came the second act. If Shenmue is Lord of the Rings, Yakuza is its Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a darker, meaner imitation.

Stephen King once wrote that all high fantasy writers like Terry Brooks and Robert Jordan were “trying to bring Frodo and Sam back from the Grey Havens because Tolkien is not longer around to do it for them.”

“A thousand pages of Hobbits hadn’t been enough for three generations of … fantasy fans,” said King, and 100 hours of Shenmue wasn’t enough either. In picking up Yakuza, many players were trying to bring Ryo back from China, because Yu Suzuki is taking too damn long to do it for us. Yet on first play, Yakuza is static and limited. Only selected buildings could be entered, and only selected characters could be talked to, and even then, it was text-only. For those who dig deeper, Shenmue‘s influence is apparent: Its mixture of about-town exploration with Virtua Fighter-inspired fighting, its optional extras like mini-games and collectibles to pass the time, its feeling of being caught up in a good murder mystery.

Yakuza‘s creation of Japan is just like its fights: based in realism but exaggerated enough to be fun. Just as the fights can cause the player to wince and laugh all at once, so too does Japan combine humor and realism. It is to the real Tokyo what the stories of Raymond Chandler were to LA. Yakuza is often compared to Grand Theft Auto, but the comparison flatters GTA‘s cartoonish world. Apart from the tendency to get attacked by thugs every four steps, walking down the streets of Kamuro-cho is like real life, or at least a movie: neon stores, word-perfect street signs, schoolgirls standing in front of convenience stores, chatting on their cell phones. Real-life stores like Don Quixote stand exactly where they would be in real life.

The game constantly plays with the seedy side of the real-life red-light district of Kabuki-cho it is based on, allowing you to chat up hostesses with some wonderfully cheesy dialogue or have a massage (quotation marks optional). Barmen tell you about the real-life spirits you can drink, and you can drink them ’til you were legitimately wasted.

Yakuza doesn’t suck the player in quite as Shenmue does; Ryo’s a blank slate, but Kiryu Kazuma is a well-constructed character. But the plot more than makes up for it; a plot that is more than a function to get the player from the graveyard level to the ship level, but a real story, with believable characters who face challenges and overcome them. Yakuza was written and acted by professionals, and in the Japanese version at least, it shows. Tellingly, the story is so strong, it is set to appear in movie form later this year, directed by Takashi Miike (the famed Japanese director who collaborated with Yakuza‘s author, Seishu Hase, in The City of Lost Souls).

The game’s sequel, released late last year in Japan, improves on almost all the flaws of the original, notably its irritating loading times. It also expands the amount of sub-quests and side-stories to ridiculous degrees, allowing Ryo to try his hand at being a host, or even run his own cabaret club.

Worlds Apart
Although coming out just a year after the first game, Yakuza 2 is not a cheap cash-in, but an expansion of the world that Kazuma lives in. Kazuma’s world expands to include Osaka, his relationships with characters from the first game continuing and changing, his past explored, his loyalties questioned.

The four games that make up these two series do exactly what games – no, what art – should do: push boundaries. Be it Shenmue‘s offering the player revolutionary levels of freedom and detail, or Yakuza‘s attention to detail in crafting an intricate plot and believable characters, Sega has done more to create convincing worlds than any physics improvements or higher resolution textures could hope to do.

Neither game is about the end of the world, that story crutch so many lesser games fall back on in an attempt to make their unconvincing worlds appear important; they are simple stories in a world in which the player has a true emotional investment, with characters that are to be cared about. When games finally stand as an art form the equal of movies or books, it is games like these that will deservedly be thought of as the milestones along that journey.

Gearoid Reidy walks the streets of Japan ’til he gets lost because he has no sense of direction. His website is www.gearoidreidy.com.

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