Monday, March 23, 2020

Exploring Kowloon's "Magic Rooms" Part 1 | Guest Post

The depiction of Kowloon in Shenmue II is memorable for its sheer scale and size, with a number of high rise buildings soaring up to the sky. Even more remarkably, especially for the time the game was made, is that a great portion of the rabbit-warren of rooms inside the buildings are actually accessible to the player, even if visiting them is not required to advance the game's story.

With Yu Suzuki's typical attention to detail, these extra "filler" rooms were not simply left empty, but were filled with all kinds of dilapidated furniture and various small items that evoke a lived-in feeling.

Long-time Phantom River Stone patron Jcgamer has undertaken a room exploration marathon to screenshot and catalog the wide variety of objects to be found in these Kowloon rooms, and in today's post we present Part One of his findings, which will continue across a number of posts.

Browsing these is sure to give an appreciation for the effort the development team put into crafting realistic-looking rooms that many players may pass by perhaps without even realizing the possibility of glancing inside.

Magic Room System

Before the main post, it is worth mentioning a clever algorithmic method that Yu Suzuki devised to overcome the disc space limitations of the time. This method instantly generates the contents of each room at the point Ryo is about to enter the room, and Yu named this the "Magic Room" system.

In Yu Suzuki's talk at GDC 2014 (link to video), he explained that a set of rules was used to ensure that layout of furniture in a room would be natural, using the same kinds of concepts as a professional interior designer. The system also ensured that the player was able to move through the room unobstructed.

Magic Room slide from Yu Suzuki's GDC 2014 presentation.
 Yu also talked about the Magic Room system in a 2019 interview:
"There are a vast number of rooms, however due to technical limitations at the time, we couldn’t pre-save all the data into memory, otherwise just this data would take many discs to store. To solve this problem, we introduced the “auto self-generation” concept which using an AI system based on cutting-edge technology from the construction industry, and could create 1200 rooms in 0.4 milliseconds. Although each room’s materials, layout, wall design and lighting etc. are all generated in real-time, they need to follow common sense and logic, therefore we found help from many experts in the fields of architecture design and construction to create this system".

Note that, although the room contents are generated using an algorithm, the result is consistent meaning that the layout for each individual room is the same for all players.

As a side-note, procedural generation was also used to create the large area of Guilin forest at the end of Shenmue II; with the system in this case being named "Magic Maze".

The Buildings

Objects that can be found inside the rooms include items of furniture (desks, chairs, tables, wardrobes, sofas), decorative items (pictures, scrolls, plants), appliances such as old televisions, and many miscellaneous items including dolls, bottles and clothing.

The Kowloon "Magic Room" buildings are: 
  • Thousand White Bldg
  • Moon Child Bldg
  • Ghost Hall Bldg
  • Black Heaven Bldg
  • Golden Flower Bldg
  • Dim Sum Bldg
  • Tea Break Bldg
  • Three Birds Bldg
  • Dancing Dragon Bldg

Given the large number of rooms, in general the same object can be found in multiple rooms - although are also some unique items that can only be found in certain rooms.

Let's look at what can be found in the rooms.

Category: Furniture

Usually taking up the bulk of the space in a room are the pieces of furniture, hinting as to the room's purpose. As can be seen in the screenshot collection below, these can range from from a pair of old lobby-style couches arranged on either side of a coffee table, to a rickety-looking bunk bed.

Regardless of the furniture, however, there is no escaping the over-powering grime and dirt that covers the floor and walls of all the rooms.

Category: Sinks & Benches

Some rooms contain facilities for cooking and washing, and this category gathers together various sinks and benches.

Some of the techniques used by the developers to add extra variation in the rooms can be seen, for example objects which share the same model with different coloring, or features such as wooden panels or cooking elements added to a bench.

There are many more objects of interest to come.

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