Replaying Shenmue

Yesterday I played Shenmue for the first time in eighteen years, and I still remembered where the Hazuki family keeps their flashlight.

My first couple of hours played out the same way as when I was a teenager: I meticulously examined each drawer and cabinet in Ryo’s house, and pulled all the paintings and hanging scrolls off the walls, and picked up every pot or fruit or tchotchke that the game would allow me to pick up. I rotated whatever I could rotate. I prayed at the altar and triggered a cutscene by looking at the food on the table. I gathered up all of the game’s lovingly rendered domestic mundanity and swam in it. Then I stumbled out of the house at half past five and wandered into town, refreshed, looking for more marginalia to investigate.

So far, it seems that Shenmue is deeper in my bones than I thought. I was a little worried that it wouldn’t have aged well; perhaps it actually hasn’t and my nostalgia is carrying me through, but I guess the distinction isn’t important. The upshot is that I can still be transported back to Yokosuka, and the muddy textures and antiquated control scheme barely register.

I feel like I can see a throughline between Shenmue and other “encyclopedic” media that I’ve enjoyed, from Animal Crossing to Moby Dick. There’s something satisfying about that gradual accretion of mundane information, even (or perhaps especially) if it’s not in service of some narrative beat. The information is an end, not a means.

I mentioned that I’ve been replaying Trails of Cold Steel II. The meat of the Trails series for me isn’t the combat or even the main story but the reams of NPC dialog, which is as necessary for enjoying those games as exploring Ryo’s desk drawers to find a cassette player is for enjoying Shenmue. Which is to say: entirely necessary.