Recently I watched this video discussing storytelling, with David Cage, Ryan Payton, and Yu Suzuki, and began reminiscing about “Shenmue” on the Dreamcast. Zoya Street, however, didn’t need such a video, instead he’s using his academic background in the History of Design to critically analyze the Dreamcast (and “Shenmue”) in the context of early 20th century French urbanism and architecture.
The book is “Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History,” and it’s due for a hardcover release on the 14 year anniversary of the Dreamcast, September 9.
“Dreamcast Worlds,” according to WIRED, is a book about “virtual architecture,” with Street analyzing three Sega Dreamcast games in particular – “Skies of Arcadia,” “Phantasy Star Online” and “Shenmue.” Each game represents a virtual space using the same technological constraints, but with vastly different designs and intentions.
“If you compare these games to some others that came out around the same time, they hold up pretty well,” said Street. “I don’t think that those early polygon spaces will be forgotten, because it’s actually really enjoyable to see how they deal creatively with their constraints.”
“Dreamcast Worlds” got its start on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site dedicated to raising money for indie projects, with Streets describing his book as a “new approach to video game history that begins within the games themselves.”
With “Shenmue,” Streets may anger some die-hard fans by comparing Yu Suzuki’s seminal work to the Swiss architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, otherwise known as Le Corbusier, shining light on the technology-infatuated culture of games. Speaking with WIRED, Street had this to say:
“It’s a real shame that games studios, publishers, and games education courses often treat their practice like this technical thing rather than something that is closely bound up in history and culture and craft. The idea that you can fix everything with technology is still very dominant, and Le Corbusier’s example teaches us that this is quite dangerous.”
WIRED published an excerpt of “Dreamcast Worlds” as it pertains to “Shenmue”:
Like the game developers at Sega in the late 1990s, Le Corbusier loved technology and science. In the 1920s, he imagined an urban future full of towering skyscrapers navigated by millions of motocars, a civilised world full of clean, minimalist apartments and enormous walls of glass, not because any of these things were necessary, but because they were technically possible. He foresaw that technology would create a more connected world, and sought to plan cities that were ready to facilitate those connections by devising rational transport systems and clean, organised residential blocks.
Le Corbusier’s influence can be seen in most major cities of the world in the form of concrete, glass high-rise apartment buildings, and colossal intercity freeways. In many ways, the future he imagined did become a reality. But his technocratic designs have contributed to urban isolation, the breakdown of local communities and the bulldozing and whitewashing of communities and cultures.
The problem was that networks often break some connections even as they facilitate others.
The freeways that Le Corbusier designed went over or underneath his high-rise tower blocks for the urban poor, without any entry or exit points on the way. In his scheme, the freeways were to allow the middle class suburban residents to commute into their city jobs. Separated from the bustling economic hubs to which those freeways led, unemployment grew in those high-rises.
Le Corbusier must have known that poor people had to get to work too, just as Yu Suzuki must have known that Shenmue had to make more money than it cost. But both designers were more focused on what the new technologies of their day allowed them to build than how they actually connected to other. Yu Suzuki wanted to build the technological marvel that the Dreamcast was capable of, not acknowledging that the Dreamcast didn’t connect his game to enough consumers for it to have any hope of making enough money to be commercially worthwhile.
Hopefully the book will mention the impact “Shenmue” went on to have, particularly in its pioneering of free-roaming games, storytelling in a massive world, and yes, even the dreaded Quick Time Event.
“Dreamcast Worlds: A Design History” is available in beta form right now, and will officially release on September 9, 2013.