Legends of the Middle Kingdom
In China, video games give life to history and literature — but can these same titles succeed in the West?
For a few years, I lived close to an enormous park known as Xiaoyaojin. As with many Chinese parks, it is an odd, jarring blend of the old and new. One can buy milk tea in a pagoda, then observe the centuries-old bridges from atop a Ferris wheel, or even take a paddle boat to the burial site of legendary Cao Wei general Zhang Liao.
Xiaoyaojin happens to be the site of one of Zhang Liao’s greatest martial victories. Famously, Zhang Liao defeated a numerically superior Eastern Wu force using only a handful of horsemen, exploiting a weakness in the enemy formation. Lord Sun, who was commanding the troops, narrowly escaped with his life, and thereafter the area became a prize that the Wu forces could not claim.
Were I of a mind to do so, I could have left that park and replayed the battle any time I wanted. I could have gone to an internet cafe, found whichever version of Dynasty Warriors was installed on it (obligatory in any such establishment), and located the level. If this situation sounds at all familiar to you, it might be because you saw it in one of the games in Koei Tecmo’s long-running arcade-style action series, where it’s usually called the “Battle of Hefei,” after the fortress (and, later, city) where the battle was fought.
The Dynasty Warriors franchise has been an enormous worldwide hit for Koei Tecmo, with many spin-offs and even a recent film adaptation.
One wonders, though, if the developers ever expected its popularity. After all, the games are directly rooted in Chinese history and culture, with the story drawn from the Chinese historic epic Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The novel has been a major influence on both popular and high culture in East Asia, but it was little known in the West when the first game premiered in 1997.
It’s probably not too surprising that Dynasty Warriors is loved in China.
This is the kind of series that Chinese developers dream of creating — a group of popular mainstream titles that are distinctly, unmistakably Chinese. But they’re also a good jumping-off point for understanding what sells here. Chinese-developed video games have a distinctive feel that is easily missed by outside observers, and the roots of that go back hundreds of years.
When I first traveled to China in 2008, the game of the moment was Dungeon Fighter, a Korean-developed beat ’em up/RPG hybrid. It was the game of choice for many of my students and a common sight in internet cafes, rivaling mainstream titles such as Counter-Strike. It ended up becoming an unexpected hit, generating billions of dollars in revenue as it spread outside of East Asia.
Dungeon Fighter is unusual only in one sense: you may have heard of it. This was very much a game made with an Asian audience in mind, and such titles rarely make it to the West. The official North American release in 2010 was a sign that Dungeon Fighter had grown well beyond what the developers had imagined.
With the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region to the electronic game industry, it’s no surprise that development companies have popped up throughout Korea and China. These companies develop titles that specifically appeal to consumers in the region. However, while a few Korean games — such as Dungeon Fighter and MapleStory — have become worldwide breakout hits, Chinese titles seldom leave the region. Simply put, the Chinese consumer base is so vast that a company can make enormous sums of money without needing to sell its products abroad.
A commonly cited example is Fantasy Westward Journey, an MMORPG released by NetEase in 2001. NetEase has claimed some impressive stats for Fantasy Westward Journey — hundreds of millions of total users with a record of 1.5 million peak concurrent users, which if accurate would rival the likes of Dota2 and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. The game has also spun off a number of other media releases, the most recent being a rather odd live-action drama released earlier this year.
The success of Fantasy Westward Journey and other games proves that a Chinese developer need not look beyond the country’s borders to create something profitable. They only need to understand what Chinese audiences like. But what appeals to people in the Middle Kingdom?
Xiangqi is a classic Chinese board game, the local equivalent of chess. One familiar with Western chess can quickly pick up the rules to xiangqi, though there are many subtle differences between the two. Special waterproof xiangqi boards are a common sight in parks, and it’s not unusual to see groups of people playing outdoors on fair evenings, often well into the night.
But what if the weather isn’t so amenable, or one can’t easily get to a park for a game? It shouldn’t surprise you that electronic versions of xiangqi are widely available. Sneak a peek at the computer monitor in any convenience store, and there’s a good chance that you’ll see the proprietor playing a game against someone else in some other store down the road. One could also play against a computer opponent — but what fun would that be?
Video games in China are multiplayer. It’s not that single-player games can’t be found here, or that even that Chinese developers don’t make them, but there is a presumption that electronic games are online and massive.
Perhaps it’s attributable to the group-oriented culture, or the long ban on consoles, or the rapid growth of the Chinese internet, but the multiplayer-dominated future long forecast by some commentators exists in a real way in the PRC.
China’s most popular games can be divided into perhaps three categories.
First are online versions of traditional games such as xiangqi, ma jiang and weiqi. Second are games commonly used in competitions — mostly MOBAs, though a few first-person shooters are common as well. Finally are MMORPGs and hybrids therein, which tend to be the largest and most profitable games for Chinese companies.
Dwelling on the genre might be missing the point, though, or at least only seeing half of it. More interesting to me are the thematic aspects of these games, which are distinctly Chinese. To many Westerners, talk of traditional Chinese themes might invoke images of the wuxia fantasy settings used in martial arts films. We can find such themes in Chinese developed games — such as the 2012 MMORPG Age of Wushu — but often, the inspiration goes in a more literary direction.
Fantasy Westward Journey is another game inspired by a classic novel — the religious satire Journey to the West. It’s a story that’s intimately familiar to audiences in China and in East Asia. Even a lout who’d never read the novel or seen its depiction in opera would still be familiar with the story via its many uses in popular culture — especially its most iconic character, the rebellious antihero Sun Wukong. I’ve personally seen him appear in everything from films to advertisements to impromptu street shows, and one can see him riding on the clouds in promotional materials for Fantasy Westward Journey.
Video games made in China for Chinese audiences tend to incorporate a lot of elements of traditional Chinese culture. It’s an obvious point to make, but one that’s often underappreciated. The Chinese do have a taste for the exotic when it comes to entertainment, but the most beloved stories are always familiar.
All of which returns me to Dynasty Warriors and its most notable character.
If Sun Wukong represents Journey to the West for most people, then it’s Guan Yu — general, folk hero, and beatified demigod — who represents Romance of the Three Kingdoms. With his towering stature, long beard, and red face, he is easily one of the most recognizable figures in Chinese iconography. Shrines to Guan Yu are a common sight in many cities, but it’s the more stylized, even campy depictions that stand out — such as the statue I saw at a local museum that cast him as an eight-foot-tall Transformer-like robot.
Those who have played Dynasty Warriors or any of the other Romance of the Three Kingdoms inspires games will likely be familiar with the more famous legends of Guan Yu — his clash with Lü Bu at Hulao Pass, the clearing of five gates single-handed, or his scheme to flood Fan Castle, to name a few. To many Chinese people, the fact that many Westerners know Guan Yu’s name, let alone any of the stories behind it, is remarkable. What’s more, they love it.
China’s relationship with the outside world is complex. It was sealed off to foreigners for long periods of time and still has, proportionately, one of the smallest foreign-born populations in the world. But it’s also a society that has long benefited from “sinicization,” the cultural conversion of non-Chinese people. It’s why the Chinese are often so amused when they see foreigners speaking their language or eating their food. It’s also why the cross-cultural breakout media hit is such a desirable prize.
Certainly, Chinese developers can make vast sums of money by staying within the national borders. Even so, the prospect of making inroads into Western markets may be too tempting to pass up, not merely for the sake of profit but for the sake of pride. And while the bigger companies are content to play it safe, China’s burgeoning indie game development sector is aiming for that international audience.
The race is on for the first developer to produce that big breakout hit. Game Science received some positive press for their upcoming game, Black Myth: Wukong, slated for a 2023 release. It’s an interesting synthesis. As the name suggests, it is another game based on Journey to the West, but as a single-player action title, it also speaks more to Western sensibilities.
Whether or not Wukong makes waves, it’s likely that we will see that first Chinese-made international hit within the next few years. It should be interesting to see what people have to say — both here and back home.
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