After staying seemingly closed off for many years, 2020 is looking like the year Chinese games break out onto the global market. There's first-person shooter/slasher Bright Memory, which not only left early access earlier this year but is also being developed into a full-length game, while early footage of next-gen action game Black Myth: Wukong was enough to generate buzz around the world. The biggest success however belongs to Genshin Impact, already the biggest global launch for a Chinese game ever, with over $100 million revenue reported within two weeks of release. If these are signs of a trend, then Chinese developers are in for a bright new dawn of premium-quality games.
But when I think of Chinese games, I'm never just thinking of games made from China. As a Chinese person myself, I'm thinking of all the other cultural traditions and sensibilities that carry across a whole ethnic diaspora. For the longest time, Chinese characters or representations of Chinese culture have come from non-Chinese developers, Street Fighter's Chun Li or the Three Kingdoms-inspired Dynasty Warriors franchise arguably the longest running examples. That's not strictly a criticism, but after decades of seeing non-Chinese developers appropriating Chinese culture, I'm interested in seeing how Chinese developers handle their own representation. That is if they do at all.
For instance, China's biggest mobile game Honor of Kings is a MOBA whose roster comprises a who's who of Chinese folklore and mythology. Yet when the game received its international release, the majority of its Chinese elements were gutted and replaced with more western archetypes (and DC Comics), ending up with the generic-sounding Arena of Valor that did little to differentiate itself from DOTA or League of Legends.
Genshin Impact fares somewhat better, with its share of Chinese heroes in its large roster, while the beautiful region of Liyue is clearly inspired by Chinese traditions and architecture. Yet from its big-eyed waifu characters, you'd also be forgiven for thinking this was a Japanese game. In fact, what makes Genshin Impact most identifiable as a Chinese game might be its knack for self-censorship in the text chat.
Black Myth I've been wary of, not only because it's yet another attempt at a Soulslike, but because Journey to the West is just such a common cultural export - even Sun Wukong is one of the few original heroes to escape the cut in Arena of Valor. Yes, it's hugely popular in Chinese media as well with countless TV and film adaptations, but it's as synonymous as all the kung fu and wuxia films that makes up the bulk of what gets picked up for an international release, reinforcing the narrow Orientalist tropes that appeal to western tastes.
Interestingly, Journey to the West was also an unlikely inspiration for the narrative driving sim Road to Guangdong, as I found out from the game's writer and narrative designer Yen Ooi. "Alex [Darby, the game's co-creator] is obsessed with Journey to the West," she tells me. "So when we first met up for a coffee, he kept talking about it. 'Imagine a driving game like that with the monk and the monkey as the buddies!'"
In the hands of another developer, I could almost imagine that concept becoming the final product. Thankfully, the small team at Just Add Oil also didn't want to whitewash the premise and instead left Ooi to bring something both culturally authentic and grounded with a slice-of-life narrative exploring family bonds. Ironically, a game that originated with a couple of blokes from Leamington Spa is one of the most Chinese games I've ever played.
It's not necessarily the best Chinese game, the actual gameplay being at best minimal, whilst the driving and car maintenance side could be described as a poor man's Jalopy. Rather it's the writing and characterisation that keeps me going, especially as you endure your cantankerous Guu Ma constantly nagging you in the passenger seat.
Guu Ma is actually a caricature, albeit one less known to western audiences but one that Chinese audiences can instantly relate to. "I kept thinking about what would be the best kind of partnering for a younger person in a buddy game, who would be annoying but friendly," explains Ooi. "And I came back to all these tropes from the Chinese dramas that I grew up watching where there's always an annoying spinster aunt who just gets into everyone's business. But at the same time, I developed the character to have a more rounded history so that she wasn't just a caricature."
Incidentally, Guu Ma is just Chinese for referring to her position in the family hierarchy, in this case the protagonist father's eldest sister. This wonderfully confusing aspect of remembering the different titles of Chinese relatives has been part and parcel of my own upbringing, as it is for Ooi. "That's one of the big things I find in family reunions, every time you get together and there's someone who you've not seen for like five years, the first question is, 'What do I call you?' Then you start counting and positioning people, like where are you on this family tree?"
What resonated with me the most in Road to Guangdong however is that most of the Chinese terms are written in the Cantonese pronunciation, the official language in Hong Kong where my family is from, which of course originated from the province of Guangdong (or Canton as it used to be known) - even the studio's name Just Add Oil is a deliberate play on the Hong Kong expression 'gayau'.
I like that the game is peppered with other familiar Cantonese idioms, such as when Guu Ma reminisces about the family going on 'yau-che-ho' drives. The same applies to the recipes you're trying to get hold of from each of your extended relatives that can help save the family restaurant. The recipes you learn incidentally are just commonly found in dim sum but it made me realise that I had taken for granted dishes like 'lo bak go' and 'dan tat' that either my mum would make or we'd order at a restaurant - these aren't just Chinese but Cantonese dishes, just as dim sum also originated in Guangzhou (Canton).
While Ooi is actually half Hokkien and half Hakka (having grown up in Malaysia however, she says the best TV came from Hong Kong, which is how she learned Cantonese), there was a benefit to that in this case. "I guess because I didn't have Cantonese in my family, we were made more aware about Cantonese food because it'd be like 'this one's from Hong Kong', or 'this is from Guangzhou'. I actually wanted to use the more popular dishes so that non-Cantonese or non-East Asian people will go out and try them or think about how this is from that part of the world."
What's more important is that this is a game that focuses on Cantonese culture, which is itself in danger of being slowly eroded by the standardisation of Mandarin Chinese. Even in contemporary Guangdong, Cantonese is spoken less by younger generations while back in 2016 the Chinese standardisation of Pokémon names led to protests in Hong Kong, who viewed the name changes of almost all 151 first-generation Pokémon as erasing the collective memory of a generation.
Cantonese is just one facet of Chinese culture, and it's not one that's being preserved in China, least of all in the current political climate when you can't even type 'Hong Kong' in chat. To some extent, a game like Road to Guangdong could only come from outside of China, and not just because its exploration of family ties also touches upon the effects of the country's one-child policy - hardly a welcome topic in a censorious regime.
"One of the things that's really interesting that I found through my research is that because of China's economic, historical and political changes, the Chinese diaspora actually hold on to more cultural practices than mainland Chinese people do, so that whole question of authenticity becomes really muddled," Ooi explains. "It's also understanding that the people in China have also gone through colonialism, in that it's their government colonising them through language, which is still an issue today with the Mongols and the Uighurs."
I haven't even ventured into the much rockier debate of Taiwan, where 95 percent of the population are descended from Han Chinese, share a lot of traditional Chinese culture, but the majority do not identify themselves as Chinese. But it's worth bringing up Taiwanese horror game Devotion, which caused a controversy for hiding anti-Chinese sentiments in its art that brought the fury of the PRC and its supporters. Following the furore, its disappearance from Steam wasn't just losing a game with coded criticism but essentially the erasure of Taiwanese culture and folklore never previously represented in a game.
The problem with Chinese representation in games then is that it's difficult to entrust that representation to China if they're just as quick to hide their heritage in a bid for a quick buck or suppress other voices. But I'm equally unsatisfied that an underrepresented culture is then liberally appropriated and exoticised by someone else, when actually you could be collaborating with people across the Chinese diaspora. That's not an issue unique to games but in other media such as the total lack of Chinese people behind the camera of Disney's live-action remake of Mulan.
"I think now more than ever, the biggest problem is that there isn't a lack of writers, producers or designers who are from whatever culture you want to tell the story from, I think that the biggest takeaway is that if you want to create something authentic, getting the right people is actually very easy," says Ooi. "It's irresponsible for a company to not go and look for people who can write it authentically or say it needs to be produced by the right people, or directed by the right people, rather than trying to keep it for themselves."