Monday, September 9, 2019

[IGN Japan] Yu Suzuki on How Shenmue Differs from an Open World | Translation

This is a translation of an article recently published by IGN Japan's Esra Krabbe, who spoke with Yu Suzuki at Gamescom 2019.

Yu Suzuki on How Shenmue Differs from an Open World

"It's just a train, but it's bigger than an open world!"
When I entered Yu Suzuki's room in the business area at the Gamescom games event held in Cologne, Germany, he greeted me with a slight nod, an amiable expression creasing his eyes.

On telling him how excited I was after seeing the newly-released Shenmue III trailer, he smiled with a touch of pleasure.

"If I do say so myself, Shenmue is quite fun."

These words carry a great deal of weight, as it must be because Shenmue III has ended up as a title Suzuki can promote with confidence that he was able to make such a declaration.

It will be precisely 20 years on from Shenmue I (whose Japan release was 29 December 1999). Games have since evolved tremendously, and the open world genre that Shenmue is said to have established is one that sees groundbreaking games appearing year after year as a mainstream genre. Shenmue may have been the first, but will Shenmue III, appearing after a long absence, be able to stand up against cutting-edge open-world games the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 or Watch Dogs: Legion?

If that's what you may be thinking, then consider Suzuki's words again:

"Shenmue is quite fun."

While these words carry the meaning that Shenmue 3 itself is a well-made game, they likely also contain the nuance that - to take Shenmue as a genre, and one that's different from other games - Shenmue is fun as a genre.

Shenmue only came to be called the origin of open-world games later on, but at the time it was launched as a new genre: "FREE". While their maps are much more expansive than Shenmue III and populated with more activities, games like Cyberpunk 2017 or Watch Dogs: Legion are open-world and not something else. It's because there are no games to be found that can be called successors of FREE that Shenmue fans have held out so tenaciously for a sequel.

Suzuki tells me that, among the many interviews he gives. he is frequently asked about Shenmue III's open world: questions like how many kilometers the playfield is, or how many towns there are. However, Suzuki doesn't think that things like the playfield area or the number of areas are important.

"I'd like to show a game that takes place only inside a train that is more expansive than your average open-world game," he says.

"With other open worlds, when you travel from one town, there's another huge town several kilometers ahead, right? If you're making a game set on a steam train, you start from the dining car; moving from there you have a sleeping car and so on, each carriage having different people and luggage and such. And if the train enters a tunnel, smoke comes in the windows... I'd like to make a game to say, 'It's just a train, but it's bigger than an open world!'"

Putting aside the question of whether Suzuki will actually make a game that's set on a train or not, in this case he's likely using it as a metaphor for the importance of density over size. And undoubtedly, that's where the biggest difference between FREE and open worlds lies. Shenmue I didn't have an expansive playfield of the likes of Grand Theft Auto III, but you could open cupboards and chests of drawers, and have fully-voiced conversations with every NPC. At the time, that density was something only to be found in Shenmue.

20 years have since passed, and the density of FREE has been incorporated more into adventure games such as Gone Home, Life is Strange and Detroit: Become Human than into open world games. You could say that Shenmue was also a forerunner even to these.

According to Suzuki, there are 481 NPCs in Shenmue III, and each one is of course unique. There are more than 140 shops, and these too each have their own original items on display. It's an almost-excessive amount, and fans wanting to relish to their heart's content the plentiful investigation and interactions - one of the real pleasures of the series - will probably be satisfied with this alone. However, what makes me most happy is that this Shenmue-esque - uniquely FREE, as it were - density has seemingly legitimately evolved.

The presence of a cute mascot character called "Choubu-chan" in Shenmue III's second area of Niaowu is something that I had heard previously from Suzuki. Its image can be found also on the telephone card of the Niaowu Tourist Association, but I hadn't thought about it too deeply until now. However, Suzuki says that Choubu-chan will be hiding in all of the shops in Niaowu. You will of course be able to look around the finely-crafted shop interiors just like the past games, but this time around you'll naturally be looking for Choubu-chan while browsing.

The part-time forklift job has similarly evolved, and it's no longer simply transporting crates. Items that are delivered by boat to the Niaowu port are of various shapes and sizes, and if you carry these to the warehouse the next day the town will show a change in appearance. For example, if you carry an arcade cabinet then the following day it will be up and running at the arcade; or at the Save Shenmue hall that commemorates Shenmue's history and backers, the number of exhibits will grow.

Sidequests, with no direct link to the main story, will also be even more fully-fledged. If you meet a certain person under specific conditions, you can start a quest using a different button from the usual "Speak to" one. The way that quests are not put into a list and marked with an icon on a map like open-world games, but rather occur naturally through conversations with people, is typically Shenmue. Through the 20+ optional sidequests, characters' backstories will surely be revealed to a greater extent than the previous games.

As you walk through the town, you may notice hidden capsule toy machines and fishing spots that will make you wonder, "There's something over there, but how do I get to it?". Suzuki says that finding the way to get to them will itself be half the fun. It can be seen that, rather than scale, the town-building has had the most focus placed on a detailed and thoughtful design.

Once you have explored everything from the narrow alleyways to the goods on the shelves of a book shop, players will surely understand the true meaning of the train metaphor. This is what gives Shenmue's towns a unique sense of reality that sets it apart from other open worlds.

At the end of Shenmue II, Ryo and Shenhua spent two days walking along a mountain trail. This experience is not an open world at all. However, the options given when talking with Shenhua do again have the density of Suzuki's "train". Suzuki says that in Shenmue III, conversations with Shenhua have been enhanced even further, with more branches. At night, when your exploration is over for the day, you meet up at Shenhua's house or the accommodation in Niaowu and talk over the day's events with her. Through Shenhua's feedback, exploration grows to be an even richer experience.

Shenmue has two main areas, Bailu village and Niaowu, and through its portrayal of a quiet country village and a vibrant tourist spot respectively, Suzuki will once again show the contrast at which he excels.

"After you've gained some familiarity at Bailu village, you'll then enjoy Niaowu, so Bailu village is almost like a tutorial, you see... although it's about 15 hours long [laughs]"

Regarding the gameplay, Suzuki says that he would like to portray a contrast between "open" and "closed". If Shenmue's Hong Kong was a free open world, then Guilin's mountain track was a game that progresses along rails. In the same way, while there is Bailu village and Niaowu on the one hand, on the other an unexpected adventure surely lies in store in the "fortified castle area" you'll visit in the later stages of the game. Unlike an open world whose chained map spreads out endlessly, FREE fits the story's circumstances, and has the flexibility to freely change that form.

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  1. That's a badass comment: "I'd like to show a game that takes place only inside a train that is more expansive than your average open-world game," --- Yu Suzuki

    1. Would love to see him create one. It reminds me of Jordan Mechner's Last Express which had a heavy focus on interactions and exploration, and was set entirely on a train.