I’d given up hope that I’d ever see another Shenmue game; but then the Shenmue III Kickstarter happened, and here we are.

And, unsurprisingly but gratifyingly: Shenmue III is very much a Shenmue game. There are tweaks to the formula: martial arts practice is a little different, fighting is a little different, there’s an mild energy mechanic serving as a gentle money sink. But the core feel is very, very familiar. And also very, very unusual.


At its heart, Shenmue is a daily life simulator. A daily life simulator in the context of a martial artist who is trying to get revenge for the death of his father: but still, he has to do fill the hours of each day.

So Ryo gets up each morning. Is woken up by Shenhua, actually, the first half of the game takes place in the village at the end of Shenmue II. (For whatever reason, I found it amusing that, when Ryo returned to being woken up by the beep of your watch in the second half of the game, I discovered that Shenhua was waking Ryo up a little earlier than he’d normally set his watch for…) And then I’d have Ryo exchange pleasantries with Shenhua, and head out for his daily routines.

I’d start them by heading to the local dojo; Shenmue III added in some training minigames, Horse Stance and One-Inch Punch. So I’d do a round of each of those; and I felt surprisingly well represented by that, I actually try to spend 15–30 minutes a day standing in a slightly uncomfortable position (not as uncomfortable a position as Horse Stance, to be sure!), so yay to see that in games too. After that, I’d do some sparring to level up moves, and then have one real fight (to practice combat, and to increase my rank in the dojo), and I’d head into town.

In town, I’d usually put in an hour or so of work (chopping logs most of the time, a pleasant enough minigame, sometimes fishing but I didn’t like that minigame as much). I’d do a bit of shopping (food, mostly), maybe get some capsule toys to try to trade them for martial arts scrolls. And then I’d wander around, maybe chatting to people and maybe watching people practice Tai Chi (they modeled the first quarter or so of the main form I practice: again, representation!), and I’d try to make a bit of progress on the main plot every day. Which usually would take me through the afternoon; I’d probably chop some more wood on the way back home.

And then I’d head home to Shenhua, and talk to her. Evenings turned into basically a continuation of the walk at the end of Shenmue II: I’d ask her about some aspect of her life, she’d ask me about some aspect of my life.


And this is the most chill experience: but also an experience that’s very familiar from life but not from games, and a very human one. As I mentioned above, there are a couple of touch points that relate specifically to my life; but also, there’s an extremely familiar basic rhythm of getting up, doing some practicing, doing some work, trying to make progress on some bigger project, and having some real human contact mixed in.

Sure, I spend more time at work than Ryo does; sure, the bigger projects that I work on don’t have the drama of the project that he’s working on; and I’m nowhere near as serious a martial artist as he is. But, even with all of that, the contours are familiar, and familiar in ways that relate to how I find my life enriching.


The second part of the game is more of the same. You’re staying in a hotel, so you have to actually pay money for your room every day, but you’re quite used to making money by then. And everybody’s favorite part-time job, namely forklift racing, makes an appearance; yay.

You don’t have quite as many nice evenings with Shenhua; you get to talk to her sometimes, but not always. But the game makes up for that by letting you call your friends from previous games, to check in on how they’re doing. (And Ren shows up in person.) Which is super charming; my favorite is one of the conversations with Joy, where clearly neither of you is comfortable talking about yourself; adorable and familiar.

And you make friends in town, too; and this all comes together in a final sequence with your friends having your back as you storm a castle.


On the one hand, spending a noticeable amount of a game’s play time doing a minigame about standing in an uncomfortable position sounds ridiculous. But most video games, or at least most narrative action video games, have you spend much much more time doing things that don’t sound as ridiculous on the surface but actually are ridiculous. Fighting a standard enemy in an RPG or in Yakuza is only marginally more engaging (and actually may be less engaging than the “chopping wood” minigame in Shenmue III); the Shenmue series just forces you to confront that mindless behavior.

And I can imagine going multiple ways as you engage with that sort of question. Maybe keep games flooded with combat but make the combat interesting? Maybe get rid of the filler entirely, focusing on narrative highlights and focusing on combat to the extent that it supports that? Maybe say that one potential virtue of games is to give you a pleasant way to spend time without demanding too much of you, so a mixture of mindless combat and narrative bits is totally fine?

But I really like the answer that the Shenmue series gives, and that it’s, if anything, getting better at delivering. Our lives aren’t all a series of sparkling highlights, but that in no way means that our lives are bad: there’s real richness to be found in our lives nonetheless. Shenmue helps me see that: in the game, even in my non-game life.


Now to wait another couple of decades for Shenmue IV

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