In the face of such civic orderliness, it's no wonder the games descend so quickly to mundanity. Shenmue is a game that tasks you with discovering the ultimate secret behind your father's murder, and then recommends you check out the many vending machines in the city - because with each purchase, you get a neat little plastic toy! It is a game where you race to assemble a set of relics to save the world, but you aren't so pressed for time that you can't save some kitties while you're at it. It is a game that gives you an entire city as a playground, and then requires you to get a job driving forklifts at the wharf - not in some piddly minigame, but actual, grueling, repetitive labor. Shenmue, in its desire for breadth and verisimilitude, comes to combine the compulsiveness of Pokémon with the single-mindedness of Stacker Tuesday.
The debate on how games should be designed is one worth having, and certainly we haven't come to a consensus on the ways in which the infinite variety of a thriving city is best captured in a game. But from Shenmue's example, we can see one perspective, with its pros and cons, and find an argument and counterargument. In a recent essay, game designer Daniel Cook argued that the art of game design has more to do with procedural rather than handcrafted experiences, and that designers themselves "are closer to mathematicians exploring a new class of equations than we are authors banging out another variation of the Hero's Journey." It's a point worth making with regard to Shenmue, both as a work as authorial as they come, and one that sets out to tell a very old story in a very new medium. Ultimately, it may come down to what we expect from our games - inevitability versus probability, and the differences between the way we tell stories on the silver screen or on the table top. But there's no denying that, in lacking its ultimate chapter and resolution, there is something crucial missing from Shenmue's very spirit. What was meant to be a game of freedom and travel becomes one of cloister and apathy. And a story meant to be epic becomes, in its way, absurd. Call it "Waiting for Ryo: A Tragicomedy in Two Acts."
We won't be waiting forever, of course. Just as in the game's temporal mechanic, time will pass, and people will go on with their lives. None of this is to dub Shenmue a mistake, or a ruined game: We will always need designers brazen enough to dream of games bigger than anything ever before, to offer us cities and promise us worlds. Ultimately, the story beginning in the endless winding backstreets of Yokosuka would converge upon a road to nowhere. Shenmue was advertised as something more real than a game, and perhaps it is, because in reality, getting plunked down in the middle of a brand new city does not always end in excitement and adventure. Sometimes you take a wrong turn. And sometimes you get lost.
Brendan Main hails from the frosty reaches of Canada, where Yokohama's got nothing on Quebec City. He knows where he's goin', but he don't know where he's been.