Shenmue; Immersion

Shenmue was a remarkable feat in games design, given its historical context. It was the first time I had ever experienced a fully realised, open-world game that was utterly unique in its ability to immerse you in the environment. It was arguably a fundamental cornerstone in helping to define modern gaming as we know it today.

The generalised aspiration for modern, open-world games today, is to strive towards more large-scale environments—often sacrificing the level of detail for a sense of scale. Yu Suzuki painstakingly focuses on the smaller details of a confined area, in an attempt to immerse the player in an environment that is authentic to 1980s Japanese life. Focusing on these intricate details helps to bring this quintessential representation of residential Japan to life.

Although Shenmue may be environmentally small in scale, it is monumental in its presentation and delivery.

Shenmue – The main streets of Yamanose.

After the initial plot of the game begins to unfold, you gain control of Ryo Hazuki—the lead protagonist throughout the entirety of the series. The tale is about a son assiduous on avenging his father’s murder. Yet, the plot isn’t where Shenmue excels, it’s the immersive environment that the story exists within.

Each section is diligently constructed in order to offer a sense of realism as you progress throughout the game. The level at which a player would interact with their surroundings was unprecedented at the time. Due to the technological restraints from games that had come before it, it was presumed that certain areas or objects were inaccessible, whereas, in Shenmue, you were able to propose real-world logic in order to unearth clues related to the story progression. Although not every item possessed a diverse level of usability, each helped to construct believability in your surroundings.

We ordered layouts of rooms with help from professional interior decorators. We built a program that simulated the thought process of the interior designer. Using the data for chairs, beds, bookcases, kitchens and other items, the AI constructs a layout that matches the shape of the room. The system also ensures that the player can traverse the rooms properly in search for items and builds a collision database.

Yu Suzuki, Director/Producer
A quote from GDC 2014 Classic Postmortem: Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue.

The inclusion of You Arcade was another fascinating way to connect a fictitious world with its real-life counterpart. For the first time ever, I was not only playing a game within a game, but I was also beginning to discover elements of real Japanese culture: SEGA’s famous arcade heritage, the popularity of capsule toys—known as Gashapon (ガシャポン) or Gachapon (ガチャポン) in Japan, the cuisine, architecture and the extent in which vending machines exist on nearly every street corner.

This care and attention to detail left me inquisitive and curious enough to explore Japanese culture outside of video games. This immersive experience essentially influenced my future interests and fascination with Japan going forward.

Shenmue – The interior of You Arcade.

There is a big emphasis on the element of time in Shenmue, for many this is a negative attribute of the game, yet it allowed for a more believable world. Each NPC that you encountered not only had their own unique character model and personality but a daily structure to their lives.

An NPC throughout the day is controlled by a combination of script and AI. For example, an NPC may leave home at 7, walk to the bus stop, ride the bus, arrive at work and at lunch, go outside and eat. This kind of script creates differentiated characters rooted in real life.

Yu Suzuki, Director/Producer
A quote from GDC 2014 Classic Postmortem: Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue.

This structure also lends itself to the pace of the game. Certain shops don’t open until a specific time, people aren’t always available when you need them and with no option to skip time forward, Ryo is instead subjected to more subordinate tasks, propelled into a life that is representative of our own: Socialising with friends, shopping at the convenience store or spending time playing video games.

Shenmue – The busy streets of Dobuita.

This procrastination is where Shenmue excels. Rather than a string of action orientated set pieces, it puts emphasis on the mundane. This balance allows for a deeper belief in the environment. This sense of realism transcended anything I had ever experienced in video games at the time. The level of detail this world offers goes far beyond that of the players’ path too.

Whole areas are carved out to contain accurate reflections of day-to-day life. An example being a sushi chef that prepares food for his customers. You can play the entirety of Shenmue without ever setting foot in his restaurant. Yet the eatery is meticulously carved out, all the way down to the chef’s animations; each one replicating the moulding and shaping of nigiri preparation. This would be expected if you were at all required to venture into this establishment, yet it exists separate from the story. The environments in Shenmue never feel empty, nor does they feel as though they’re part of a set. There is a particular focus on elements you may not experience, in order to invoke genuine surprise when you do.

Everything down to the last detail is considered throughout Shenmue, even the weather. As you advance throughout the story the rain will eventually turn to snow as the winter months begin to creep in, which was actually based on real-world data.

The weather system allows programmatic control of the weather and time. Lighting changes properly with the time of day. Rain and snow are algorithmically generated, as a result, we have a very high rate of data compression on our weather representation. The story of Shenmue is set in Yokosuka in Japan in 1986. We actually used the historical weather data in Yokosuka for a three-year period starting in 1986 to create the in-game weather.

Yu Suzuki, Director/Producer
A quote from GDC 2014 Classic Postmortem: Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue.

Yu Suzuki was able to achieve an unrivalled level of immersion by building an environment that a story is able to exist within, as opposed to an environment that would exist around a story. It was incomparable to anything I had played before at the time. Although many of the areas, scheduled character patterns and various occurrences may not necessarily benefit plot development, they exist to immerse you in Yu Suzuki’s vision and are substantial in creating a world that feels as if it would exist without you.

Disclosure: SEGA Europe provided a review code for coverage purposes.

At the core, Hokinoto is about the analysis of specific aspects within video games, with a primary focus on those of a Japanese origin—whether it be in relation to a game, publisher, developer, company or less frequently, a Japanese connection or influence.