I answer the questions dutifully — “Where are your parents from?” “My dad is from Bangladesh, my mum is from Bulgaria” — but growing up in predominantly white Long Island made me embarrassed that anyone ever had to ask. I’m pale. My hair is thin and bleached blonde, and I could never grow it out to lie strong and curled against my waist like all my cousins I’m jealous of.
I wanted to be a true Bengali like half of my family, but my dad always encouraged me to be more American. To me, that meant conforming to my whiteness and my neighbourhood’s, and though doing so cut off a part of me I had hoped to nourish, it just seemed easier at the time. When my wavering high school identity wobbled off and I felt more sure of myself as a human, though, I started to more wholeheartedly embrace the two cultures that created me.
So during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, which begins every year on May 1, I feel a particular duty to fellow Asians who were taught to separate their culture from themselves. Now, as a video game writer, I often think about how gaming has a somewhat fragile relationship with Asian and Pacific Islander culture. Though China and Japan dominate the global video game market, I worry that the similarly large U.S. market sometimes turns culture into caricature. It seems even after decades of Asian influence on gaming, the U.S. still doesn’t know not every Asian character needs to own a katana.
But the games in this list know that a person’s AAPI identity is worthy of respect and effort to understand. All of them emphasise history and heritage over tiresome, superficial aesthetics. Of course, “AAPI” is a giant umbrella and this list is only a tiny selection of the fantastic games out there that honour AAPI culture. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy them, and take this AAPI month as an opportunity to better understand yourself, your friends, and the many gorgeous cultures that make our little world shine.
Home Sweet Home
We’ll begin with something spooky, even though the spookiest thing of all is the U.S.’ history of colonisation and forced assimilation (!!!). In the stealth horror game Home Sweet Home, Thai ghost stories are realised in every gruesome detail. You play as Tim, a husband searching for his missing wife. But the dilapidated rooms you’re looking for her in, all full of references to Thai culture and spirituality, are utterly labyrinthine, and there’s another small problem: You’re being stalked by a bleeding ghost with a boxcutter and the fervent desire to cut you up.
Ghostlore, a self-described “Eastpunk” action role-playing game, is the game to play if you’ve ever wanted to sink a parang into Indonesia’s demon boar, the Babi Ngepet, a whole bunch of times. Fuck those guys! (I don’t even like regular boars that much.) Ghostlore is still in its early access phase, which its developers say will end in “less than a year,” so you can expect guaranteed changes to the game as time goes on. For now, if Diablo populated by Southeast Asian nightmares and food like pisang goreng sounds cool, Ghostlore aims to please.
The Bazaar of India
Did that mention of pisang goreng make you hungry? Follow your nose through street shops in India one morning in The Bazaar of India, a soundless “prototype” made by itch.io developer NewbyDev. The Bazaar is more like a vignette than a game — your only goal is to walk down a peach-coloured market street as people offer you carrot halwa and jalebi before the popular bazaar opens. But in presenting a a sliver of life as a brief but thoughtful game, The Bazaar seems to say that even an action as typical as walking through your city’s streets can be special.
Ba Ngoai is a free, text-based game about your bopping, cartoon Vietnamese grandma, who you note is “still very sharp for a senior lady.” You visit her house while she’s sick and walk through all the rooms, remembering from your childhood the way you used to sit on that couch, jump on that bed. You find a few things you want to ask Ba Ngoai about, like a picture on the wall and a vintage dress, and in doing so, learn more about your identity, your grandma’s past, and the way Vietnam ribbons through both.
Raji: An Ancient Epic
Action-adventure game Raji: An Ancient Epic “plays like an epic poem,” Ash Parrish wrote in a 2020 review for Kotaku. “Shadow puppet cutscenes help tell the story of main character Raji, and there are murals all over the world displaying stories from Hindu mythology.” Your main goal is to rescue your kidnapped brother as gods lend you their strength through shocking sparks of lightning, ice, or flame. The game is a resplendent ode to the force of core-rooted belief and family, and even combat is punctuated by the hollow pang of tabla drums — you’re completely surrounded by Indian culture.
A Short, Short Spiritual Dance
An emotional game about shifting community and identity, A Short, Short Spiritual Dance focuses primarily on the ceremonial Maori dance, the haka, which you must perform by pressing the correct number pattern on your keyboard. Your character, a faceless warrior, is painted in bright blue, then red, then yellow, then purple as you dance new patterns with sceptical tribes until, finally, you prove your ancestry and make it back home. It’s a sad process, to have to convince so many people what you already know to be true. But the power that haloes the haka in this game feels like a testament to the unbreakable tie of Maori history — it stays intact no matter how much land is taken, no matter how often angry outsiders say you don’t belong.
That’s it for my picks this year! I hope perhaps these games can help you see new aspects of cultures less often seen in video games and serve as comforting reminders of the world’s rich histories, which are worth honouring and protecting. Got any similar games you’d recommend?