I've often wondered what would happen the day it's finally announced. The day when some leaked developer schedules, a handful of rumours and a whole wave of speculation build to a climax, leading the world's press to a conference hall somewhere in downtown Los Angeles, perhaps, or maybe just to an office block in Washington State. The moment when Gabe Newell strolls out, a knowing smile on his face, before, on the screen behind him, an orange 'three' fades into life.
It'd be pandemonium, I'm sure: Newell would be well-advised not to wear his Sunday best, such would be the ferocity of joy and disbelief, and the screams that met the sword-wielding Miyamoto's arrival on-stage at E3 in 2004 would be but angel song compared to the hellish swell accompanying Half-Life 3's introduction to the world. I'd wager there'd be one or two spontaneous combustions to deal with too, a couple of Valve staff on-hand with dustpans and brushes to sweep up the inevitable ashes post-excitement.
A few weeks ago I got to witness one of those grand moments myself. It wasn't anyway near as dramatic, and I'm pleased to report not quite as messy. Tucked into a quiet meeting room in San Francisco's Moscone Centre, I was given a small private audience with Yu Suzuki, the visionary producer who made his name with arcade classics such as HangOn and OutRun before cementing his status with Dreamcast adventure Shenmue.
After chatting about his early days with Sega, the MotoGP rider Freddie Spencer and the long cross-European road-trip that would inform the blissful vistas of OutRun, talk inevitably turned to Shenmue, a series famously cut short. The conclusion to Ryo Hazuki's tale has been chased by fans in the 12 years since Shenmue 2's release, and by Suzuki himself, who's been vocal in his desire to see out his saga. Shenmue 3, like Half-Life 3 and The Last Guardian, has become another modern myth; another concluding chapter that refuses to be opened of another legendary trilogy that refuses to be closed.
It was a slightly odd sensation to learn, through Suzuki's comments, that Shenmue 3 is more than just a dream. Suzuki said more than I'm able to fully disclose, unfortunately, but it became clear it's as close to being announced as it has ever been over the past decade. So why wasn't I, someone who's a bigger fan of Shenmue than most, overjoyed at the realisation, and why did I walk away feeling dejected, and more than a little depressed?
In all the clamour around a new Shenmue, it's easy to forget how Suzuki has never really let go of his vision, holding on to it with the tenacity of a terrier with its favourite toy between its teeth. His attempts to kick-start the series have faltered, though - the MMO Shenmue Online never made it through development, while the Mafia Wars-inspired mobile game Shenmue City only survived a year before being shut down - leaving Kickstarter itself his current best bet.
Yet in all those intervening years Suzuki's output has slowed to a trickle as he's been consumed by his vision, his quiet departure from Sega making him a periphery character in the industry he helped shape. It's an industry that's evolved rapidly in the 12 years since Shenmue 2 as well, and you have to wonder how Suzuki - a man who happily admits he has little time for most modern games - would adapt if he found himself heading up production of a big-budget game after nearly a decade away. It all makes for a certain melancholy in his exile, spent chipping away at his own lost odyssey while the world he built moves on obliviously without him.
There are other examples of long gestating projects going on to bear fruit, some more palatable than others. It took over 16 years for My Bloody Valentine to deliver their third album, and the wait was worth it, while the tortured history of The Beach Boys' Smile didn't obscure the album's greatness in any way once it was finally granted an official release - of sorts - in 2011. Cinema's own long-running sagas make for less heartening case studies: John Carter, Watchmen and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull all made it through development hell, though you kind of wish they'd been burnt in the infernal flames before they ever made it to the big screen.
Games, meanwhile, have a track record with protracted development that is almost universally appalling. Ambitious projects such as Duke Nukem Forever and Too Human were victims of mismanagement, clashing egos and plain misfortune, yes, but what really did for them was the relentless, breathless evolution of games as a medium. Even taking into account the heritage, legacy and promise of Half-Life 3, The Last Guardian and Shenmue 3, I don't think they're impervious to the quickening march of time.
Shenmue's moment has passed, and as intoxicating as its grounded, gloriously detailed open worlds were at the turn of the century, it's hard to see one man isolated from the industry recapturing their grandeur for an audience spoiled by Skyrim and Los Santos, regardless of whatever budget comes his way. The Last Guardian, meanwhile, could suffer similarly: when Team Ico's last effort came out nearly a decade ago, it was a time when more esoteric, ethereal and overtly artful games were something of a rarity. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus helped in some way to usher in a golden age, where there's now no shortage of games looking to evoke more than just shock and awe - and after some seven years of troubled development, The Last Guardian could well struggle to live up to a legacy that's fast outgrown Team Ico's originals.
So many of those new, artful games are available on Steam, of course, a platform that serves as a constant reminder that, for all of Half-Life 2's great achievements, its most lasting has been acting as the Trojan Horse for Valve's delivery service. That's no insignificant legacy, of course, and you wonder how it could ever be matched by a new instalment in a series that's always pushed new boundaries: perhaps a new Half-Life would make the Steam Controller an essential piece of hardware, or perhaps it will head up Valve's entry into the virtual reality market. Yet either way, the world of games has become so broad, so varied and so dynamic in Half-Life's absence that the idea of a bespectacled scientist redefining that world all over again seems impossibly quaint - and it leads me to believe that, should that day ever arise, my response won't be an excited scream, but rather a resigned sigh.
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