The Old Man and The Peach Tree: Shenmue / 3rd of July 2014
“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we eventually learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished,” said the famous German theologian, Karl Rahner, in a statement not entirely ill-suited to the great, unfinished work of art that lays amongst the legendary Yu Suzuki’s extensive oeuvre, Shenmue. For among the many technology pushing, ground-breaking, genre defining works, it is this particular, incomplete symphony that has become his defining moment, his masterpiece, and it has captured the imagination of a fervent audience who wait in hope that one day, this great composition may one day be complete.
Shenmue was simply an experience unlike any other; it was a moving, and thoroughly gripping revenge story bought to life with advanced visuals and game mechanics, though of almost equal importance was its real world locale. The first chapter of the saga is set entirely within a replica of a peaceful hamlet of Japan, Yokosuka, in the Kanagawa prefecture. It may not be entirely accurate in its recreation of the setting, but it does perfectly capture the tone of its time period with ease, resulting in a gloriously realised game world that simply begs to be explored, and every minute spent in it, savoured. Shenmue’s freeform, open world design even led the famous games designer to coin the phrase Full Reactive Eyes Entertainment (F.R.E.E.) to describe the level of freedom that the player was to experience within the game, which was to become so packed full of assets that, without new compression techniques, it would have required somewhere between fifty and sixty CD ROMs to fit it all in.
At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Yu Suzuki was in attendance to provide a post mortem on the creation of the first entry into the Shenmue saga, discussing some of the key problems that producing such a forward thinking video game forced them to confront at that time. The project ran up a development cost of some $47 million, which was to make it the most expensive video game ever made, a title that it would continue to hold for many years after its release. Partially, this astronomical cost was due to the sheer size of the team that created it, with roughly three hundred employees contributing to the project, the sheer scale of it was simply unfathomable at the time. Managers had no experience of dealing with such high volumes of people and “there were no project management tools such as Redmine, so instead, we just used a job order sheet simply in an Excel sheet,” Suzuki said during his presentation, before adding “At one point there were over 10,000 items in the database. It's frightening that we managed to make this game by basically pushing around pieces of paper”.
Suzuki revealed the rather humble beginnings of the game, which started off, not as Virtua Fighter RPG as many had suspected, but rather its gestation had begun some time even before this, when it existed only as the prototype, “The Old Man and the Peach Tree”. This early concept was set during 1950s China, where players would assume control of a man named Taro who is searching for a great martial arts master, Master Ryu. He would be tasked with retrieving a peach from an apparent beggar who promises to tell him where he might find the man that he seeks once his task is complete, though during the course of this section of the game, Taro would come to realise that the man for whom he fetches the peach is indeed Ryu himself. This simple section was to lay the foundations for the rest of Suzuki’s grand and ambitious venture.
And ambitious, it most certainly was. Inspired by a trip to China, Suzuki began working on a concept based around four movements, akin to a musical composition, starting with “Sadness” which would primarily deal with the loss of the character’s father, “Departure” wherein our intrepid hero would leave his homeland for China to pursue his enemy, “Fight” would detail the eventual confrontation between the two and finally, “Starting Afresh” where, after completing his mission, the protagonist would become lost, before embarking upon a new adventure. At this point, Suzuki brought in numerous screenwriters, directors and playwrights to expand upon the basic story, which was eventually fleshed out into an eleven chapter epic, with art work fashioned to portray the key themes housed within each. As development continued, Suzuki shifted the target platform from the Sega Saturn to the company’s new home console, the Dreamcast, in order to allow his vision to be realised, and drew up a list of features that were to be implemented, settling upon a target length for the game, a rather substantial 45 hours. As a result of this early work, it was determined that each chapter was now set to have its own outing, as Suzuki stated in his post-mortem, “the open world had turned out to be much more work, so I changed each of the eleven chapters into their own game. So what was Virtua Fighter: Akira’s Story became Shenmue Chapter 1: Yokosuka”.
This first entry into the Shenmue series was eventually released in December of 1999 in Japan, with US and European versions arriving in November of the following year to positive critical acclaim, seeing this now legendary masterpiece earn a respectable Metacritic score of 88%. The downside, sadly, was its underwhelming level of commercial success, though inevitably, this was due to the limited market penetration of the Dreamcast console itself, rather than the game, which was inevitably one of the machine’s most successful titles, as it should be. With its stunning open world environment, lifelike characters and complex AI routines, Shenmue was nothing short of being a revelation, though these key points themselves presented difficulties to Suzuki’s team. Programs were devised to work around memory limitations, creating trees and even designing rooms by simulating “the thought process of an interior designer,” he told his captive audience, whilst the AI routines resulted in both a rather interesting issue, and wonderfully simple solution. In the game’s harbour area, the NPCs would all purchase breakfast at the same store, and as a result, “The shop became too crowded and all the NPCs got stuck, because they couldn’t get out”. The brilliantly simple solution to this, Yu Suzuki explained, was simply that “We increased the size of the automatic door, and limited the occupancy”.
For the Shenmue fans most eager to finally have a third entry into the series, potentially the most interesting aspect of Suzuki’s dissection of the development cycle, was likely to be the very first and least unexpected question raised during the audience Q&A. At this point, Suzuki was asked whether he would like to make Shenmue 3, and equally so, his answer came as little surprise to anyone in attendance. “I sure want to make it,” he said, “of course I want to make it. If I get the right opportunity…”
Invariably then, with hope for a new game ever increasing, the monthly Shenmue tweetathons will continue unabated, hoping that one day, the opportunity that Yu Suzuki himself is waiting for will present itself to him, so that finally, the epic story of Ryo Hazuki can be brought to a close, fifteen years or more after it first began. Gita Bellin famously said that “A thing is complete when you can let it be”, so only then, when the loyal fan base of Yu Suzuki’s magnum opus no longer have to clamour to have their voices hear by publisher, Sega, will we know that the journey is complete, and that finally, we can all simply let Shenmue be. Until that day comes, however, may we all continue to strive towards that most noble of goals, so that one day, we may even get to #SaveShenmue.