Shenmue is a beautiful sadness simulator

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Content alert for discussion of death and child loss.

In the 22 years since Shenmue’s debut, I have played the game 23 times. Twenty-three times I lived the life of protagonist Ryo Hazuki, watched his father die, and navigated his world and experiences. Each time I realized something new about the game, the people who made it, or something new about myself.

Playthrough 23 is the most intense of them all. I saw, observed and experienced things like nothing else, and it gave me a new appreciation for Yu Suzuki and Sega’s AM2 development team.

Above all, Shenmue is a video game about how a real person experiences the death of a loved one and the subsequent loneliness in a real world inhabited by other real people.

In the fall of 2020, my wife and I lost a baby. He was named Henry, and died before he took his first breath. It’s nobody’s fault; Just bad luck or some unidentified condition. Nobody knows. But my son is gone, and his death is devastating to my wife and me.

Dealing with the death of someone so young and innocent was shocking in ways I could never have imagined. I had lost something irreparable and was unprepared for what was next.

I thought about Henry and death every hour of every day. I lived on what I lost. I projected my worries onto the future and onto my two daughters, ages 4 and 6. An oily fist gripped my heart. What if there was another inexplicable twist of fate? What if something happens to my girls too? We were then in the midst of an epidemic and it was impossible to pass a day without thinking of death.

With bad sensitivity, sadness and anxiety formed into depression. A persistent sadness gripped me as I struggled to understand these new feelings and act despite them. For the first time in my life, I experienced a panic attack.

I hit rock bottom. I found a psychiatrist. Through months of work, I came to understand and break the cycle of catastrophizing, a destructive phenomenon in which those who have experienced trauma focus on their worst fears and believe that those fears will inevitably come true.

I turned out to be a better place. I’m healthy now, and while I still think about Henry every day, I no longer think about him ill or constantly fear the unthinkable.

I viewed my recent Shenmue playthrough through the lens of these experiences.

Shenmue opens with an arresting cinematic. Protagonist Ryo Hazuki watches helplessly as his father Iwao is killed by a mysterious man in a Chinese robe. Before dying in Ryo’s arms, Iwao gives his son one last piece of fatherly advice.

“Keep the friends, the ones you love close to you.”

Iwao dies, and Ryo is left in his misery.

From here, the player takes control. Shenmue is a sandbox game, an early open world life sim. Like all good life sims, the player chooses how to live. We can play the game and ignore the theme – unhandled grief eats away at us – or we can pay attention.

Early on, we meet a young woman named Megumi at a neighborhood shrine, carefully tending to an injured kitten. Like the kitten Ryo; The same men who killed Ryo’s father made him an orphan. Ryo was speeding from his house when his car hit him and killed the cat’s mother. The kitten is also a symbol of Ryo’s sadness.

The player can choose to nurse the kitten back to health or help the little girl. This decision and its consequences are never clearly presented. But if we can help it, we’ll be treated to some interesting character developments.

Ryo and Megumi form a friendship. The kitten gets stronger. Nozomi, Rio’s girlfriend, also appears and helps the kitten; In these moments, we learn more about Ryo’s relationship with Nozomi. If we continue to pay attention to the cat’s health, at the end of the game we will find that it is completely healed. In a happy twist, Megumi’s family adopts her. The kitten has found a new family and new happiness.

In the 22 years since Shenmue’s release, plenty of people have commented on the absurdity of Rio pausing even for a moment to pet a cat, buy capsule toys, or play video games at the local arcade in the middle of a quest for revenge. his father

But that is wrong.

Something happens when we drown in a sea of ​​sorrow. We are immersed in it. Our life is saturated with it, and nothing is touched by it. When I lost my son, I was grasping for something that would give me the slightest bit of buoyancy.

I planted a willow tree and my wife and daughters painted my lost son’s name on its trunk as we carved a rock. I gently rubbed the willow leaves between my finger and thumb. I ached to smell the flowers and think of my wife’s pain. Spent days tending the garden around. I sat there on the bench and watched for hours. I held the cold rock with Henry’s name on it and cried when no one was looking.

One day I remembered the Game Boy games I loved as a child: Kirby’s Dream Land, Lynx Awakening, Donkey Kong Land, and many more. I bought them all on eBay. I amassed a collection of eye-catching trinkets – my own capsule toys.

I wrote essays. I learned how to solder and fixed my broken virtual boy. I am obsessed with making my lawn grass greener and healthier than the previous year. I discovered new hobbies and abandoned them after weeks in pursuit of others. I pretended everything was fine; From the outside, everything must have appeared that way.

But every morning, I fought back a panic attack, and every day I cried and told no one.

Shenmue’s many twists and turns do not undermine the importance of Ryo’s grief. Things that happen when one is lost in grief.

I believe the creators of Shenmue understood this. After all, Shenmue’s soundtrack includes songs titled “The Sadness I Carry on My Shoulders” and “Daily Suffering”.

Other remarks often poke fun at the stilted dialogue of the game’s NPCs. And while some of it is, yes, just plain bad acting, there’s also a beautiful realism in how many NPCs react to the deaths of Iwao and his living son.

During a missed scripted scene, two friends from school visit Ryo at home. They joke and laugh, but there is an unpleasant subtext. They want their friend back. They force Rio to go back to being a normal kid. He turns their kindness around and assures them that all is well. They leave Ryo’s house with some air.

Later in the game, Nozomi tries to get Ryo to share his feelings with her. She practically begs him to do so, gently suggesting that even the slightest influence would happily change the course of her life. She stays in Japan to help him, to be with him, rather than pursue her plan to attend college in Canada.

But he does not reach. His grief prevents it.

Shenmue’s NPCs act like real people. They are worried, sad and uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say, and they want everything to go back to normal. And Ryo acts like a real person. He is withdrawn and sad and lonely, even among friends. He struggles in silence, burdened and paralyzed with grief, watching his friends and the people he loves recede into the distance.

Iwao Hazuki died hoping that Ryo would keep his friends and those he loved close to him. Instead, because he can’t process his grief, Ryo spends the entire game unknowingly pushing everyone away.

All this happens in Shenmue just as it happens in life. It happened when my wife and I lost a baby.

When someone dies, people don’t know what to say. Some friends and acquaintances avoid the topic altogether. Some express their condolences and then urge to resume normal life as soon as possible. Some evoke charming dramatic sympathy, while others sincerely try to do anything they can to help.

Each of these well-meaning responses is equally abrasive. No matter what anyone says, nothing can be changed. There was no answer. Nothing could repair the loss. That is death. It is eternal. And those who suffer often do so, as we did, as Rio does, with a smile of hope.

What’s remarkable about Shenmue, especially when remembering that the game debuted in 2000, when very few games approach serious subject matter with care and attention, is how deftly the game handles it. There is a rare lightness of touch. So lightly, it seems possible to miss the message of the game for 22 playthroughs.

Rio is a child in pain. He has no real power. He can’t fix what happened, and he can’t achieve what he thought would heal him. He will never get better. No win. By the end of Shenmue, everything has gone wrong. Unbeknownst to him, Ryo’s grief destroyed the good in his life.

His plans to go to college are put aside to pursue an ill-conceived revenge. He has lost a girl who loves him completely. His friends have abandoned him. He said goodbye to the pain and went his own way. Although all these people care deeply about Rio, they have pushed him too far, which he is now out of reach. He ends the game completely alone.

This resolution is another tragic way that Shenmue reflects real life.

Shenmue’s plot continues in the game’s sequels, but the story is incomplete. I don’t know what will happen to Rio. I don’t know if he will realize his mistakes and listen to his father’s dying words or if he will fall deeper into the loneliness of his loss and grief.

But perhaps it’s fitting that the series isn’t over, the story isn’t over. There is no end to death and grief for those who have lost loved ones. There is no satisfactory conclusion. There is nothing but carrying sorrow in hand.

But if we’re wise, we’ll remember the most important lesson that Rio forgot: to keep the ones we love close to us.


This article was originally published Game Informer Episode 355.

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