Shenmue and the success of ‘playing life’

As human beings with busy lives, errands, obligations, and chores, there is something enthralling about sitting down and playing a game that features errands, obligations, and chores. That was Shenmue.

For those too young to remember SEGA’s hit open-world action-adventure video game for Dreamcast in 1999, Shenmue featured a young hero (you) by the name of Ryo Hazuki, who traversed 1980s Japan and China in search of his father’s killer. The game reflected social life with interactions and chores mimicking reality – and a healthy dose of street fighting. Ryo was a martial artist after all.

If you still can’t picture Shenmue, think of Animal Crossing, Harvest Moon, or The Sims merged with Mortal Kombat or Dragonball Z. Think of the complexities of playing Pokémon and having certain places inaccessible at certain times of the day. With a world of gameplay available to us – and even universes we couldn’t dream up – there still remains a deep love of ‘playing life’.

This obsession with playing life has transcended all platforms. From Nintendo’s Harvest Moon’s popularity through the years to Facebook’s Farmville, which found huge success in 2009 (having waned slightly since) both reflecting everyday life on the farm, it’s clear that we enjoy playing what we could be doing in real life. More niche genres of online gaming reflect this trend as well. For instance, take a look here at a video slot game that’s themed after farm life, complete with eggs, chickens and cattle. It’s abundant that the closer to home and to reality that we are locked in, the more enjoyable we feel a game is.

Shenmue was an answer to a question posed by its creator, Yu Suzuki, who – while happy with the success of arcade games – wanted a gameplay experience that lasted longer. By having gamers focus on the everyday life of the character alongside the fantastical quest, he ensured that Shenmue remains popular. Notice the use of present tense there to describe Shenmue. That’s because its popularity – and the popularity of playing life – continues.           

Shenmue recently topped a 2014 poll run by XboxOne Magazine asking fans which old game they wanted featuring in the new release, with an astounding 47%. Fans never gave up demanding a third release (Shenmue II was released in 2001)  – and thanks to a Guinness World Record-breaking Kickstarter campaign, the #SaveShenmue team were awarded over $6million to create a third instalment of the game. Shenmue III will hit the PlayStation 4 and PC in December 2017.       

Early details remain hidden, but the likelihood of Shenmue reflecting everyday life is high – after all, that’s what attracted fans to it. It’s abundantly clear in the rest of gaming how success and popularity for a game can come from everyday life. Perhaps it is the task-based way humans like to process their environment. Or, perhaps it’s the sympathy we develop for our characters at having to undertake certain tasks. Whatever the reason for our love of playing someone else’s life while escaping our own, it is almost as sure as night follows day – as it does on the game – that our love will continue throughout each generation of console.

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