Shenmue 3 returns, but has it already been left behind?
When the snow turns to rain.
So, it actually happened. Waking up Tuesday morning, still weary from the long, strange night of surprises that E3's first day of conferences conjured up, it was hard to tell if it had all been but a dream. The Last Guardian is real, and very much tangible - there was enough wonder in the extended gameplay presentation that kicked off Sony's show to keep us all going until its release sometime next year. Final Fantasy 7 was getting the remake so many had been clamouring for, but strangest of all was the news that Shenmue 3 is being ushered into life by Yu Suzuki and a handful of the original development team.
That last one was less of a surprise, even if I still struggle to believe that it's actually come to pass. Speaking to Yu Suzuki at GDC last year, he revealed that he'd been looking at Kickstarter in order to make Shenmue 3 a reality, and it was clear that he'd already been working on putting the pieces in place for quite some time. I wasn't able to divulge all of the details at the time, at his request, and I was left with a strange feeling of excitement and trepidation. Shenmue 3 was soon to be a reality, but I wasn't quite sure I really wanted to play it.
I was quick to reach into my wallet to back Shenmue 3, though I still remain cautious - look beyond the initial excitement and a lot of questions remain about the project. It was an odd announcement in itself, a Kickstarter being unveiled on a stage usually reserved for the front line warriors of a given platform, and you had to wonder how it came to be there. Sony got to bask in the reflected glory of the moment, and Suzuki had a moment of global attention, but the finer points of the deal weren't exactly clear. Exclusivity was out of the question - it's coming to both PC and PS4 - but how much of the funding was coming from Sony, and if it was at all invested, why had it not stumped up the entire amount to take ownership of this most eye-grabbing of announcements?
That $2 million target on the Kickstarter tells only a sliver of the story, of course, even as it's been rapidly met and Shenmue 3's on target to become one of crowdfunding's biggest success stories. It's a token amount, likely requested by investors before they unlock their own funds, and when it's all combined there's every likelihood that the infamous $70 million it took for Sega to bring the original game to market will be met. Factor in slimmer overheads and the fact that Suzuki's team will be able to lean on existing technology rather than having to create their own and the questions over budget fall by the wayside. Other questions, though, remain.
In all the excitement around Shenmue 3, it's often forgotten that Suzuki's been quietly toiling away at the series without much success in the years since the last widely played game, first with the failed Shenmue Online and then with Shenmue City, the mobile game that never made it out of Japan before it was shut down late in 2011. With the accountability concerns that come with crowdfunding, the more recent history of the series sets alarm bells ringing.
As does the fact that Suzuki and much of his team have been away from the frontline of big game development for a generation or more - the most high profile recent credits in the staff list come from such oddities as Left 4 Dead's arcade outing Survivors and the PlayStation Vita's Orgarhythm. Shenmue was special for many reasons, but chief among them was its grandeur: even the run-down back alleys of Dobuita were dripping in tangible, believable detail. For a team with little experience of big game development, updating that spectacle for contemporary expectations won't be light work.
At the centre of it all there's Suzuki himself, a man who - when I met him last year - seemed somewhat worn down by the years long pursuit of his white whale. Suzuki's earned himself a sizeable chapter in the history of video games, one of the medium's true geniuses as it formed around him, and as he's prodded it towards greater heights. At his peak he'd bring his artful simplicity and exquisite engineer's touch to game after game with endless energy. 14 years largely spent chasing the completion of a single game may have dissipated that. I couldn't help but conjure up the ghoulish image of fellow visionary Abel Gance, the director of the silent classic Napoleon - a project left incomplete after the sizeable amount of money thrown its way ran out - butchering his legacy in the process of returning to his grand venture in the twilight of his career.
More than that, though, I'm concerned for more selfish reasons. Shenmue's a great game, and one deserving of its heady cult status - it was an open world made before the term and the genre became commonplace, and in its handling of the everyday, in its period backdrop and in its slow, sullen story there are traits never bettered in the many years since. It's a classic, and I fear its reputation could be soiled by whatever trials lie ahead of Shenmue 3 before it finds its way to completion. But I've invested my money, and I watch on in hope. Yu Suzuki has a pedigree of excellence, and the reveal at Sony's conference was a jaw-dropping surprise - by fulfilling the heavy expectations of its many fans, maybe there's another, even bigger surprise awaiting in Shenmue 3's protracted tale.