Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 3 (March 2001)

Gaming gets real

Shenmue blurs the line between actual and virtual worlds

In Shenmue's dramatic opening scene, a young man named Ryo Hazuki witnesses the death of his father, a master in martial arts, after the elder refuses to divulge the location of the Phoenix mirror, a mysterious object from ancient China that holds great power (and becomes the key to solving the murder). Angry and confused, Ryo scours the depths of the city-from the seedy areas fraught with danger and crime to the high-rise office buildings brimming with power-while seeking clues and revenge. As the adventure unfolds into a vast international conspiracy, Ryo faces the wrath of the Chinese Mafia, deciphers a Chinese legend of Armageddon, and learns about his father's secret past.

In this drama-which takes place with in a virtual world intended to mimic the real world-the action is intense, the tale tantalizing, and the backgrounds, props, and costuming perfectly detailed. "My goal was to create a game that was intricate and lifelike by merging the cinematic qualities of movies and the interactivity of computer games," says Yu Suzuki, director of Sega's AM2 game division and producer/creator of the release.

Shenmue, like an epic created for the big screen, was an ambitious undertaking. More than 200 artists and programmers worked to complete the Sega Dreamcast title, which took more than five years to complete at a cost of $60 million, making it one of the most expensive computer games ever developed.
Sega's Yu Suzuki and his team created Shenmue, a highly interactive, cinematic-quality game that's meant to mimic reality. The characters are extremely detailed, including the spirited hero Ryo and his girlfriend (top and in profile below), as wel

The game, whose Japanese title is Shenmue Chapter 1 Yokosuka, is the first installment in a series envisioned by Suzuki. The drama begins in 1986 Yokosuka, Japan, as the player assumes the role of Ryo investigating his father's death. Unlike most computer games that focus on one genre-action/adventure, racing, role- playing, or fighting-Shenmue incorporates all of these within a fully interactive environment. Therefore, the players are not limited to following the game's story line, as they are for most titles.

"Shenmue offers players a wide range of choices. For example, they can go anywhere within the virtual environment or play with almost any object they find," says Suzuki. "Other general games have only the places and scenes needed for the main story. But when I created Shenmue, I created a virtual-reality world, which also contains places unconnected to the story that are fun for the player to explore." As a result, no two players have the same game experience.

In this virtual, living environment, a player can interact with more than 300 speaking characters-from children playing in the park to shopkeepers to delivery people-who exist on their own time schedules as they follow unique daily routines. "If I had created interactivity for only portions of the game, there would be a gap in context," explains Suzuki. "So I made all the characters have their own hourly life schedules that last for approximately one week's time."

During Ryo's investigation, the player chooses whom to question and when-for example, during the morning hours as a character hurries to work or in the evening as he or she dines at a corner café, where Ryo can even watch an appetizing meal being prepared. The characters also "hear" and react to sound. For example, if Ryo hears something and turns toward it, the sound will become louder.

This level of interactivity is not limited to just the characters. In the game, mirrors accurately reflect images, birds flee when they're approached, and shadows ac curately fall according to the time of day. Each scene offers a wide range of objects to manipulate-more than 1000 rooms to explore in which, for example, desk drawers can be opened, papers can be examined, and telephones can be used. In an arcade, Ryo can insert coins into a slot to play virtual representations of classic Sega arcade games.

"Interactive CG was a necessity based on the content of the game," Suzuki says. "Players have the freedom to walk anywhere [within the environment] and select what they want to do, and people and objects within the game will react to the players' actions."
To achieve realistic character movement, artists used a proprietary motion-capture system for simple actions such as walking, grasping, and driving, as well as for more complicated fighting moves.

While trying to solve the mystery, players encounter various "events," presented in the form of puzzles or mini movies. Players are also confronted with specific game-skill challenges, and their success will affect how the subsequent story line unfolds.

Like the interactivity, the characters in Shenmue are extremely lifelike and precise-from the accurate reflections in the characters' eyes to minute motions such as finger twitches. Because the game's success hinges on the player assuming the role of Ryo, the development team decided not to give him a strong personality so that he would appeal to a wide range of players. However, creation of the other main characters such as Lan Di (the villain), Nozomi Harasaki (Ryo's girlfriend), and Iwao Hazuki (the father) was more akin to casting a movie, according to the team, so these "stars" were given distinct personalities.

To achieve the desired look for the lead characters, the artists first created clay sculptures and 2D sketches before modeling them in Softimage. Few details were spared: The elderly characters have age spots and wrinkles, while the younger characters have smooth faces with rosy cheeks and styled hair that gently blows in the wind. These texturing details were accomplished with Softimage and Alias|Wavefront's Maya.

The characters also move realistically, whether they're walking, running, or fighting. Using a customized motion-capture system, the group captured typical actions in addition to Ryo's complex fight movements, which were performed by professional martial artist Tetsuya Hattori. Before e barking on the motion-capture portion of the project, the group gathered opinions from experts in the film industry, to ensure that the highest degree of accuracy was achieved.

Animation, lip sync, physical simulations, rendering, compositing, and AI were also accomplished with customized systems and software.

As they did for the characters, the artists also created realistic, de tailed, diverse settings where the action occurs. The majority of the game takes place in Yokosuka, a small city re-created to look and sound as the actual city did during 1986, the timeframe of the story, by using actual geographical data, maps, photographs, and recordings. "I also investigated Yokosuka by asking people who live there about the town and what it was like 10 years ago," says Suzuki.

Within this virtual city are more than 50 buildings that players can explore. In some cases, the group used diagrams provided by architects to re-create the structures. The artists also consulted with renowned architects such as Manabu Takimoto on building design and how to best represent rooms and interiors that would accurately reflect Japanese culture. Inside the buildings, every object-from light switches to refrigerators-is interactive.

Technology created by Suzuki further links the virtual world with its organic twin. By incorporating Suzuki's Magic Weather system, weather conditions, climate, landscapes, and vegetation change according to the season. This technology enabled the animators to simulate realistic weather patterns that accurately reflect those that occurred in the actual city during 1986. Using the developer's Time Control system, days unfold naturally, beginning with a sunrise as characters awake from their sleep. At nightfall, characters will close up shop, for instance, and head for home.

According to Suzuki, creating the weather system was especially challenging since most systems that simulate specific weather patterns cannot do so in real time because rendering takes too long. "To make the system work in real time for games, it had to be 1000 times faster than [what we had been seeing]," he notes. Once the technology for the system was built, Suzuki developed new effects techniques to create the snow and rain. "I investigated and developed a real-time program and special effects that will allow a snowflake to look like a real, puffy particle." By using an online game component called Shenmue Passport, players can gain valuable tips and information to help them play the game, including real-time weather predictions that will affect game play.

With its unprecedented amount of realism, Shenmue is helping to raise the bar in computer gaming graphics. Even so, Suzuki is not resting on his laurels. The developer and his team are already hard at work on Shenmue II, which will take place in China, a country Suzuki describes as full of "historic dignity, exotic mood, and mystique" that will lend itself to an interesting story line and eye-popping graphics. While the original Shenmue comprises just one chapter of the epic, the next title will consist of Chapters 2 through 6. (According to Suzuki, there are 16 chapters in the entire saga.) "The turn of the story in Shenmue II is more rapid than Shenmue I, and the story line has more variations [resulting from the interactivity and freedom of play]," says Suzuki.

It's difficult to predict when players will be able to continue the saga, and whether or not the sequel will have the same impact on gaming graphics as the original title. In fact, it's unclear whether the subsequent release will ever make it to the Dreamcast platform, especially after Sega's announcement that it will concentrate its efforts on becoming a platform-agnostic third-party publisher. For now, though, Shenmue's intricate, lifelike graphics have established a new genre in computer gaming.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor at Computer Graphics World.