It's tough making games in China. Not only do you have to fight against the stereotypes of Chinese culture surrounding Kung Fu, gang warfare and illegal street racing, you have to do so under the rule of one of the strictest governments in the world. All media consumed and produced within China's borders is vetted by the government, with books, movies and games carefully curated so as to control China's image.
Illustration: Sam Woolley
In China, games can get slapped with a sales ban forbidding distribution without so much as a warning. Perhaps the game cast doubt on the omniscience of the Chinese government, or perhaps it simply raised questions the government didn't want asked. Mobile games have it even worse, requiring government pre-approval in order to sell to the Chinese market. Coupled with the 14-year ban on video game consoles that was only lifted in 2015, China is a difficult place for people to make games.
As games set in modern-day China risk upsetting the government's carefully-curated image of the country, many developers use an ancient China setting instead. This has led to a wealth of games based on stories like Journey to the West tales from the Three Kingdoms period, and stories in the public domain. According to Thomas Wong of One Zero Digital Limited, a China-based company that brings Chinese-developed games to Western markets, titles based around these properties are simply the easiest to make.
"The thing about China is there are so many developers and so many games released every day," says Wong. In the mobile space alone, an average of 27 new games are released every day. "Just to stand out [...] either go to ancient China to get all this literature, or work with modern TV [shows], movies, comics, or anime."
Wong believes that the lacklustre representation of modern Chinese culture in games is largely due to the dominance of free-to-play and the mobile ecosystem caused by the government's ban on console gaming.
"China is very mobile-focused," he explains. "In Chinese culture, if you pay, you do so to be stronger, whereas pay-to-win is a big no-no in the West. It's at the cultural level, it's not even about games at that point. Chinese [gamers] are inherently very competitive."
These cultural differences have led to an industry founded on free-to-play, one that prefers the grind to the $80 pricing model. To succeed, then, developers make games that entice players into buying stat boosts and coin packs to give them an edge on the competition. This is not a design philosophy that lends itself well to culturally-rich, trope-breaking games.
"China is a bad place for indie," Wong said. "In China's game market, it's always money first, fun second."
Image credit: Newzoo
Wong points to Jenova Chen, designer of the award-winning Journey, who immigrated to the US from China because he couldn't make the games he wanted to in China's free-to-play market. Justin Ma, co-creator of Faster Than Light, left his job at 2K China for the same reason.
"The publishers [don't] want to risk it," says Wong. "It may break open the market, but it may also flop horribly, so most publishers try to stay safe and just stay with the Game of War clone because it's tried and true." From a financial perspective, innovation in Chinese games is simply bad business.
And yet, innovation within China is not dead. Thanks to the recent success of digital marketplaces like Steam and itch.io which sit outside the Chinese government's scrutiny, in combination with the increasing accessibility of game-making tools like Unity and RPG Maker, local developers are pushing back against the stereotypical depictions of China in video games. By telling personal, human stories, these developers want to show the world that Chinese culture is so much more than Kung Fu and red dragons.
When Michael Ren moved back to China after years spent living in America, he couldn't get one thing out of his mind, or his lungs: Air pollution. The atmosphere in Shanghai was thick with factory smoke and car exhaust, making the simple act of breathing a chore — it's why face masks are such a common sight throughout the city. While Ren had seen news reports on the pollution problem, they had always presented it as an abstract concept, a statistic divorced from the human cost of living in a perpetual fog. Seeing with his own eyes just how devastating the pollution was, Ren resolved to make a game. The result was Hazy Days, a "breathing simulator" depicting a young girl's struggle in surviving the toxic environment of Shanghai.
"I've always believed that games are a great outlet for social change," says Ren. "With Hazy Days, the goal was to humanize the issue of air pollution. I wanted to explore a real problem, through the eyes of a child who isn't necessarily responsible for this, but is still affected by it every day. Modern China is rapidly changing and adapting, and for me, creating this game has helped me document that perspective."
With both an insider's and outsider's perspective on Chinese culture, Ren is painfully aware of how little effort games put into doing his birthplace justice.
"There's not a lot of big-budget games set in China," he says. "And when they are, China and over a billion people who live here become cardboard cut-outs." Dragons, red lanterns and wooden street carts become the go-to props for evoking a "Chinese" atmosphere, despite being grossly outdated. Rarely do games depict the "leafy streets filled with electric scooters, disorganized flashing neon signs, or crowds of elderly dancing at the park" that Ren believes tell a more authentic tale of Chinese life.
By focusing the game on the daily woes of a young girl visiting her grandmother for the holidays, Ren hopes to break down the tropes of fantasy and mysticism that plague Chinese culture, highlighting the family values that truly define Chinese life.
"I think it's easy to generalize when people don't have a personal or emotional connection to the topic," he says, "but it's our job as creators to show alternative perspectives that expand our audience's viewpoints rather than reinforce old ideas.
"I hope Hazy Days helps players think about the gap on how China is represented and the real people who are living here."
Ancient China, as mentioned earlier, serves as a popular backdrop for Chinese stories. By itself, this isn't a problem, but with so few modern-day settings to act as a counterpoint, all we see of China is war, violence and action, reinforcing the antiquated stereotype of Chinese evil propagated by the film industry. Games like Dynasty Warriors emphasise massive armies and bloody battles, sparing very few moments for the human cost of conflict. This one-sided narrative can make China seem like a decidedly hostile place.
Is ancient China a no-go, then, for a developer seeking to chip away at cultural stereotypes? Saltytata Studio thinks not. The small Chinese developer is taking a different approach to the historical setting, leveraging the studio's experience with visual novels to create Soulslayer, a mystery VN set in the Han Dynasty period of ancient China (206 BC to 220 AD). Unlike its historical contemporaries, however, Soulslayer is a game that eschews violence and warfare for a tale of family and love, of truth and betrayal.
"We want to give the players something different," says Tata, one half of Saltytata Studio. In Tata's mind, Chinese culture is very one-note in video games. "I think there are too many Kung Fu elements and people dressing in Qing Dynasty styles. These are typical cultural stereotypes."
In contrast, Soulslayer puts the player in the role of a noble lady murdered on the eve of her wedding. Trapped in a time loop, she must live through her death again and again, relying only on her wits to uncover the identity of her murderer. Players will puzzle their way through the game without once resorting to violence, a deliberate choice by Tata to show that "Chinese culture does not equal Kung Fu."
Soulslayer also aims to address a mistake Tata sees made far too often, even by Chinese gamers: The conflation of Chinese and Japanese culture. Despite their many differences, the two are frequently portrayed as interchangeable, with games like Mortal Kombat making Sub-Zero a Chinese ninja, even though ninja are part of Japanese culture. Soulslayer faces a particularly tough challenge in establishing its Chinese origins, as visual novels are most commonly associated with Japan. That's why Saltytata is taking great pains to authentically represent Han Dynasty China, researching the clothing, the furniture and the art of the time to help distinguish Soulslayer — and Chinese culture in general — as its own thing.
"I find the mixture of Chinese and Japanese cultures disappointing," says Tata. "I want to show the difference, with an art style that cannot be mistaken for a Japanese visual novel at all."
Even though Soulslayer was designed with a Chinese audience in mind, Tata hopes that the inclusion of English text will allow people of all nationalities to gain insight into Chinese culture. "We are not sure if games of this style [are] acceptable for English players, [but] we do hope our game can be loved by more players."
When Minh Ta was growing up in North America, he had very few Chinese role models to look up to. Rare exceptions like the tennis player Michael Chang became heroes to a young Ta, proof that people who looked like him could succeed in an Anglo-centric world. Video games, however, never had a Michael Chang. While Western audiences enjoyed icons like Lara Croft, Gordon Freeman and Leon Kennedy, Eastern gamers watched as their own industry produced characters like Mario, Dante from Devil May Cry and Solid Snake, proxies of a culture that wasn't their own.
Even today, Chinese gamers have precious few heroes flying their cultural flag. At best, there's Chun-Li from Street Fighter or Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs, though both characters lean heavily on Kung Fu stereotypes and play up the criminal underbelly of Chinese society. Ta, disappointed with the dearth of genuine, inspirational Chinese heroes, has decided to take matters into his own hands with his studio's latest game, Detective Di: The Silk Road Murders. A point-and-click adventure game, it is based on the tales of the real-life Di Renjie, a detective from China's Tang and Zhou Dynasties (approximately 618 to 907 AD). Di is often considered the Sherlock Holmes of ancient China, enjoying tremendous popularity in both the East and West thanks in large part to Robert van Gulik's Judge Dee novels. Ta is a big fan of Gulik, and he wants to channel the same unique sense of time and place evoked by the books into Detective Di.
"I have 12-year-old son," Ta says, "and my hope is that Detective Di will be just one of many Chinese characters that he — and hopefully others like him — will be able to cheer for."
Ta wants to show people that Chinese culture is just as rich and relatable as any other. "Tang Dynasty China was an awesome place full of beauty, crime, mystery, lust, violence, and heroism," he said. "I really hope that I can transport players into that world."
As much as Ta laments the current representation of Chinese culture in video games, he understands why mainstream titles so often fall back on simple stereotypes.
"The allure of mass appeal is unavoidable", he says. "You need a gateway food to get people in the door. Offer them Kung Pao Chicken and they may someday try Peking Duck. But I think it's time we expanded those horizons."