It was a wet winter morning when Ryo Hazuki’s father was murdered. In cold blood, a man in a Chinese suit used martial prowess to kill Ryo’s father and claimed a mysterious artifact called the Dragon Mirror in the process. The man fled from the scene in a black towncar. For Ryo, this was a sudden and debilitating event that shattered his life, leaving behind a scar that would never heal. For me, this was an introductory cutscene. Ryo’s life was irreparably changed in that moment, as he moved to hunt the ominous man by the name of Lan Di. As a player, it was my first step in a new world to explore.
After a night of shaky rest, Ryo wakes and sets out, intent to find Lan Di, and avenge his father’s murder. Instead, I wandered around lost, having guided Ryo into dead ends, dark alleys, empty parks, noisy arcades, a restaurant or two, and a few bars he was too young to drink in, all because he apparently had no idea where anything was in the town despite living there his entire life.
This wasn’t a conscious choice on Ryo’s part, nor did it make sense for him to be so utterly lost. It was my choice. I chose to wander around lost early in the game so I wouldn’t be left floundering when it came time to do something time sensitive or important. So while Ryo would have likely spent time chasing down likely contacts, I went to the corner store and looked at the capsule toy machines with unbridled curiosity. While not uncommon in Japan, I don’t really see them much in America. When I do, they’re filled with inexpensive, active toys that have some advertised feature. Temporary tattoos, sticky hands of semi-elastic gel, candies to consume on the spot, but never display pieces. No bobble-heads or action figures or dashboard knickknacks.
So I put in a hundred yen expecting to get a piece of gum that would later turn into a tool, in the way a point-and-click adventure might have of me. Instead, Ryo eyed a small plastic forklift, and pocketed his prize. For both of us, this was a novelty I doubted saw much indulgence. Time went on, and I found myself continually enamored with the bizarre things this world could offer me. Although Ryo’s allowance allowed for very little luxury spending, I still endeavored to feed a nearby stray kitten, drink canned soda or coffee whenever I passed a particularly fancy vending machine, and occasionally pick up a new capsule toy to round out my collection.
From the narrative perspective, Ryo had turned into a lunatic. He suddenly found himself trashing around his hometown as though it had turned into Disneyland overnight, touching every button he could, putting money into random machines to see what would turn out, and talking to old friends and acquaintances like they were strangers until he suddenly recognizes them. He stays out too late playing video games at the local arcade, bumbles around the kitchen despite being unable to interact with anything there, and rifles through his own room like he has no idea what he’ll find inside. My choices make Ryo a terrible protagonist, because instead of pursuing his father tooth and nail like his words and beliefs seem to suggest he should, instead he spends hours in a noodle shop contemplating the prices of various noodle dishes before abruptly asking the shopkeeper about “The Three Blades,” as though that particular philosophy should make sense to the teenager behind the counter who’s just waiting for his shift to end. Neither of us are doing what we’re supposed to, and we’re both getting in each other’s way doing it.
When I finally settle down and begin to explore the game’s narrative, I find there’s a rich opportunity for me to choose different ways to get to the same outcome. Tom, the upbeat hotdog vendor is happy to talk about anything Ryo wants to, but doesn’t always have the best intel despite how much time he has to observe the goings-on around the city from his outdoor cart. Other shopkeepers often have to push Ryo into the mindset of a customer rather than a detective, for which I often relinquish and buy a packet of dried fish for my little kitten. Ryo probably wouldn’t have, though he likely would have known who to ask about finding sailors.
I couldn’t help but wonder, were he a fully sentient AI, if Ryo would disapprove of my methods. I often played favorites in asking the townspeople for information. The chance of Tom understanding the intricacies of Chinese immigrant life were slim to none, but I asked him anyway. When it came time to talk about softer details, I would go to a grizzled mechanic who I liked to talk to from time to time. When Ryo’s childhood friend, Nozomi, asked him to calm down and consider what life he was leaving behind by charging so heedlessly into the future, I wanted to agree. Ryo refused to relent, and pressed on regardless. As Ryo built up money for a boat trip, I spent furiously on capsule toys, soda, and prize-based foods at the Tomato Mart hoping to earn another Sega Saturn game to play in the living room on Saturdays. While Ryo was hard at work, I was soft at play. We were often at odds, but somehow I always managed to feel a little guilty when I would waste Ryo’s time. His father had been killed, and instead of seeking vengeance, I made him play darts.
However, as we both grew as companions and martial artists, I found myself often wanting the same things he did. The game had made us partners of sorts, making me choose things the way Ryo might have. As I started making these choices, the game seemed to make more sense. When asking about a Chinese profession, I thought to ask one of Ryo’s friends, who was a Chinese food deliveryman. We both finished that particular line of inquiry quickly, and we were rewarded with several new mysteries that day which we both solved. As time went on, I found I would sometimes return to the game arcade or the console in the living room, giving Ryo a break from getting into fights or chasing down leads. It seemed to make sense to choose these things from time to time, and my occasional meanderings between inquiries would net us both new martial arts moves, or help us stumble on some piece of information we probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. In the end, Ryo Hazuki boarded the boat to China and sailed for unknown futures, and I mused over the various lunacies I had put him through to get him there.
The more choice the game gave me, the more I pushed at the boundaries. However unorthodox, though, I don’t think the game ever made my choices “wrong,” per se. They never did more than waste a few minutes or yen, for the most part, and sometimes managed to help Ryo’s quest along. When I was spending downtime, Ryo never complained or grumbled, as if the various things he could do with his day were as natural as breathing or eating. I can’t imagine he would have wanted to go into a disused storage room to look around for curiosities, but he did it more than once. I don’t think he would ever spend hours in a Tomato Mart, buying potato chips on the off-chance one would help him win a copy of Space Harrier II on the Sega Saturn. But he did eventually manage to win, and he even seemed to consider it an accomplishment. Twelve days of pointless spending apparently well spent.
Whenever the tensions burst, Ryo and I both made extensive use of the martial arts we had discovered, unlocked, and abused over the course of the game. The combat was fluid and playful, and the techniques I had picked up, inadvertently or otherwise, had benefited Ryo immensely. Whenever I felt like joking around and asking an old florist if she knew where any sailors would hang out, she would have a solid tip that lead to a billards-laden bar just up the road.
In retrospect, I can think of very few times Shenmue didn’t reward my curiosity somehow. Reading nameplates gave me early knowledge about where people lived when Ryo had to look for them. Exploring the town taught me faster ways to go from point A to point B, often helping me bluster into a shop minutes before closing time to ask a hurried question. Much of it wouldn’t have ended catastrophically had I not gotten in before curfew, but a lot of it still managed to reward the bizarro way I made Ryo behave by allowing me to be me. All of my choices were as much a part of the game as anyone else’s, and most tellingly, I suspect the game would treat other players the same way, even if they chose to explore completely different modes of thought than I did.
It speaks to how powerful choices are in games, when frantically strange behaviors players make in games can actually result in tangible, interesting benefits, and do so seamlessly within the narrative. I chose to be a wandering lunatic in Japan, and for some odd reason, Shenmue let me.
And I wouldn’t choose it any other way.