Any time the name "Shenmue" is mentioned, fans pricks up their ears, like loyal dogs awaiting their master's call. Though they've heard news of Shenmue City, a social game along the lines of Mafia Wars, and tales of the development tribulations and ultimate cancellation of Shenmue Online, what they're really waiting to hear is something about Shenmue 3, the last piece of a story started more than a decade ago that languished along the way. Part of this is the simple desire for a new chapter in the story, and to find out what happens next. But ultimately, this is less about the new game and more about the old, because the absence of Shenmue 3 continues to affect its predecessors, changing them in a real and fundamental way.
At the time of its release on the Dreamcast in 1999, Shenmue was unlike anything else. Billed as a "FREE" game, for "Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment," it was touted as offering a level of player freedom unparalleled in the history of gaming. The game took place within the city of Yokosuka, giving you full reign to wander about, interviewing people and gathering clues regarding the mysterious man who killed your father. Pains were taken to give Yokosuka a vibrancy and depth - days would pass, and the weather would change based on actual meteorological data from the time period. Time would pass, and people would go on with their lives.
We are now familiar with gaming on this scope, and the conceits that seemed revolutionary in Shenmue are now known quantities. We've come to understand the macroscopic drama of Grand Theft Auto games in the way they offer labyrinthine urban spaces as both sandbox and stage. But Shenmue's aspirations stood even further than this tradition of big city stories - the game was to be the first in a trilogy, charting Ryo Hazuki's epic quest across years and continents, arriving at a breathtaking conclusion.
But while the second game in the series was made despite some trouble, charting Ryo's journey out from Yokosuka to the big streets of Hong Kong, players waited - and waited - for a final chapter that was not to come. They are waiting still.
Somewhere in this drizzle of vaporware there is a lesson about the inherent limitations of episodic content, and the mercurial process of game development. But at work, too, is the shifting way that sequels and adaptations affect our media, and our stories. It's a common case that our total experience with a story irrevocably shapes every aspect - think of the hordes of people for whom the entire Star Wars franchise was ruined by its prequels, sullied by the knowledge that somewhere, in the deepest pockets of space, Jar Jar Binks was flapping about with his ass stuck in a honey pot. But surely this canonical thinking works both ways and is shaped by absences as well as presences: Imagine, say, a "Star Wars Duology," in which Return of the Jedi was never filmed. Its story would end with failure and betrayal, a carbonite shower, amputation, defenestration, and Luke's blotchy face and tiny tears. The end, forever. The rise-fall-rise of conventional storytelling enters freefall. Pluck out a chapter, and everything changes.