Slow Boat to China

Just recently I’ve been re-playing Jade Empire, which I think, short of Mass Effect 2, may be Bioware’s best game in terms of both story and gameplay. But for me it’s the setting that I find most compelling. The game borrows liberally from Chinese history and mythology, even if it does introduce such fanciful concepts as airships powered by gun powder (sorry ‘dragon powder’), and the result is wonderful. There’s even a supporting character who teaches you drunken master style kung fu! Considering how dearly Jade Empire is held by many fans it’s odd that it remains one of the few games in the company’s portfolio that hasn’t been graced with a sequel. But then that might not seem so strange when considered next to the near absence of any other successful China set games on the market.

Ornate armour, horse demons, curvy dragons and Kung Fu – it doesn't get any more Chinese than this.

A case in point: just recently Activision announced that they were scrapping the forthcoming True Crime: Hong Kong, which I’d been eagerly anticipating. Activision states it’s because it wasn’t shaping up to be a good quality game, but I suspect it just didn’t fit into their marketing strategy, as it neither featured a meat-head marine or a clichéd Tolkien knock-off. Aside from Jade Empire, the only other significant game set in China I can recall is Shenmue II, and we all know how notorious that is for not having been given a sequel. Meanwhile, less well known, but a personal favourite of mine, is the cult classic, Kung Fu Chaos; a delightful pastiche of the Hong Kong martial arts genre featuring Monkey, Chop & Styx and Shao Ting, a crazy director who seeks to make his comeback by filming you knocking the crap out of each other in retro side-scrolling stages ripped off from Jurassic Park, Titanic and Big Trouble in Little China. Perhaps the only game to buck the trend is Koei’s epic and long running turn based strategy series, Romance of the Three Kingdoms (now on its eleventh instalment), which is based on the Chinese epic of the same name, though that is little played outside of Japan.

The masterful Kung Fu Chaos. This level is 'Big Trouble on Little Iceberg'.

So why is it that so few games are set in China in spite of it being the largest and most populous nation in the world as well as an emerging super power to boot? Fair enough China hasn’t exactly been a key audience to cater to in the past. When videogames were being developed the nation was still reeling from the impact of the Cultural Revolution and slowly opening its borders to the rest of the world. Culturally and politically, China retains a high level of censorship and media control, in spite of its recent rapid commercialisation, particularly of foreign media. This is the key point, because in 2000 a law was passed banning all consoles for sale in China by foreign companies, and not even Microsoft’s negotiations have been able to make any inroads so far.

However, rumours persist that a mysterious Chinese games console will be released later this year called the eBox, developed by Beijing Eedoo Technology and featuring motion sensor technology. Who knows, perhaps the heavy level of protectionism will allow this product to flourish, growing a domestic scene around it, but in all likelihood the lack of competition will result in a lacklustre product. In the virtual absence of a console scene, China’s new middle class and leisure seeking youth have embraced PC gaming and the MMORPG genre. Indeed, perhaps the reason Activision really pulled the plug on True Crime was an effort not to upset the applecart, as its violent portrayal of Hong Kong was sure to piss off the Chinese government and block the company out of a very lucrative online market.

The mysterious new 'eBox', no one knows whether this will be a flawed knock-off or the start of something beautiful.

In this light, Kane & Lynch: Dog Days may not have been a masterpiece, but its gritty portrayal of the underbelly of modern Shanghai seems incredibly daring in comparison. Caucasian protagonists aside, Kane & Lynch was like inhabiting the glorious bullet strewn excess of a John Woo Heroic Bloodshed movie – a considerable breath of fresh air. But it’s not just China as a setting that it would be good to see more of, but China as a creative force in games design. There’s no doubt that the country is filled with insanely creative and driven people – a glance at the credits of most films and games indicate that they are already taking up a lot of the slack in post production or outsourced work and many studios, such as Ubisoft, already have a presence there. I can’t wait to see the day that the Chinese games scene inevitably explodes onto the world stage in its own right, in the same way that the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese cinema rocked the world in the ’80s. Then maybe we’ll get some fresh stories set in this fascinating country.

Horseback battles are one of the many highlights of Romance of the 3 Kingdoms XI






3 responses to “Slow Boat to China”

  1. Skill avatar

    Honourable mentions for Stanglehold (itself a sequel to John Woo’s mighty Hard Boiled), and maybe for Enslaved (and its re-imagining of Journey to the West).

    One of the issues China is having, is in its lack of creatives. As a society that for centuries promoted conformity, it’s now found itself in short supply of skilled artists who can create IP. The movie Kung-Fu Panda is a good example; Chinese artists, colourists and animators did 90% of the work on a film set in China and developed from Chinese legends and martial arts. But the writers, character designers, copyrights and almost all of the profits were American.
    It’s something China is working fast to catch up on, but (excepting Hong Kong) they’re starting from scratch and may need an entire generation to catch up with other nations.
    Until Chinese companies with Chinese producers are producing new artistic product for the world they’re always going to be under-represented. And on top of that, with little or no protection for IP within China, the incentives are hardly there for a future breed of Chinese developers, as anything developed internally will be ripped off, reproduced and sold almost immediately by competitors who spent nothing on a products design.

  2. Mark P avatar

    Jade Empire was one title that really took me by surprise. I have to say I found it pretty easy towards the end though.

  3. Dean avatar

    Hey there Skill, you make a lot of good points, esp regarding the copyright problems. Interestingly though that in film and the visual arts China has become a big player. Chinese art is highly sought after by collector and no sooner did the cultural revolution end in 1979 ish then the so called 5th generation of filmmakers graduated from the Beijing Film Academy and exploded onto the international stage in a sudden and vibrant burst of creativity (Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth and Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern). I find it hard to believe that the same cannot happen with games.

    I suppose the main factor is that, as you say, China had a rich history in the visual arts, literature and film before the cultural revolution repressed everyone’s creative freedom (in fact the Shanghai film industry of 1920s and 30s Shanghai was probably more advanced than Hollywood in the same period. But now an entire generation of intelligent young Chinese students are free to study abroad, picking up influences from western cultures and learning the skills required to make games. It’ll take a little while for this new talent to digest, but i think when it does the country can be a big player in this field and not just an outsource for cheap inbetween jobs.

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