It’s been a decade of creative ferment for video games in China.
At the start of the 2010s, China was the site of a wildly imaginative (and wildly cutthroat) mobile games market. A little farming simulator called Happy Farm had, in 2009, seeded the idea for Zynga’s Farmville, which spawned a multi-million dollar industry of “Facebook games.”
Since then, we’ve seen the lifting of a decades-long ban on console gaming, the subtle shift in Chinese game studios from pure “outsourcing” to a more engaged presence in game development, the dominance of China in esports, the import of the “culture wars” in gaming discourse online, censorship and moral panics, and between it all — some incredible games.
Below, we’ve picked out ten games that defined the 2010s in Chinese gaming. It’s a grab bag list chosen to give a sense of the diversity of games being produced in China today — some of these are works of sublime artistic merit, some are exploitative, free-to-play pyramid schemes, others are works of not-so-subtle propaganda.
If anything, the 2010s have proven one thing: the explosion of game making in China has produced a staggering variety of voices and styles, and not even the most heavy-handed attempts at license control and censorship has been able to tame that just yet.
We’re also seeing the emergence of what you might call a Chinese “style” of game making. Annual conventions like WePlay and ChinaJoy give Chinese indie video games a platform, and their quirks, tendencies and idiosyncrasies are a fascinating window into how this medium is both influencing, and being influenced by, society in China today.
1. 蜡烛人 Candleman: The Complete Journey
Candleman burns brightest in the pantheon of China-developed indie games, and is in many ways representative of the struggles and resilience of the country’s independent developers. It’s a smart, innovative 3D platformer where you play as a walking candle that can only burn for 10 seconds at a time. The game, which revolves around solving increasingly devious light-and-dark puzzles, had a protracted five-year development cycle, and was finally released to critical acclaim in 2017. The game’s journey is captured in a fascinating documentary called Indie Games in China, which offers a sobering look at the loneliness and frustrations of being a games developer in the country.
2. 王者荣耀 Arena of Valor / Honor of Kings
No other game in the last ten years has dominated Chinese pop culture as much as Tencent’s Arena of Valor (translated first as Honor of Kings). At one point in 2018, it was the world’s biggest mobile game. Built initially as a League of Legends knock off, it took on a popularity that the original would envy.
This was the title that helped make gaming such an inseparable part of daily life in China. McDonald’s had Arena of Valor-themed burgers. The actress Angelababy cosplayed as one of the game’s characters. There’s an entire coaching industry dedicated to helping folks get better at the game. It transcended being “just a game” to become an integral component of many a young person’s social fabric.
3. 刀塔自走棋 Auto Chess
Where Arena of Valor was a breakthrough hit inside China, Dota Auto Chess might just be the first Chinese game to break through globally. It’s hard to describe without descending into gaming buzzwords, but it’s broadly a combination of chess, mahjong, Dungeons & Dragons, and football team management.
To call it a sensation would be an understatement. Initially a mod (“modification”) for the popular online game Dota 2, it was released as a standalone playable title in early 2019. Within months, it had close to 10 million players, had spawned an entirely new genre (the “auto battler”), inspired clones developed by some heavyweights of the gaming world — Blizzard, Valve, Riot Games — and is on its way to becoming a new, competitive esport.
Auto Chess consolidates some of the best (and most inscrutable) characteristics of games developed in China — a combination of joyful, weird, and opaque. Auto Chess is inspired by mahjong, has a dizzying strategic depth where you have to keep track of thousands of variables, some form of “autopilot” mode where you set up initial conditions and then spectate, and a gleefully maximalist approach to UI where everything is on screen all the time.
4. 還願 Devotion
Not formally playable.
Devotion is widely considered to be one of the best horror games ever made, albeit one that no one can play now. Days after its heralded release earlier in 2019, players discovered an in-game poster that seemed to mock Chinese leader Xi Jinping, leading to a fierce backlash and furious uproar that took down the game, the studio, and their publisher, and generated another contentious front in gaming’s numerous online culture wars.
Its disappearance is a tragedy. Taipei studio Red Candle Games created a masterpiece here, a spectacularly observed slice of Taiwan society and history. Before it was scrubbed off the Chinese web, Devotion was hugely popular on sites like Bilibili, where it dominated livestreams and “Let’s Play” channels. This was a game that resonated deeply with Chinese gamers, that spoke to them, which perhaps explains why the discovery of the in-game meme hit so hard. It felt, to many, like their conversation with the game was being held in bad faith, that they’d been lured into the game’s world only to be insulted.
5. 阴阳师 Onmyoji
Playable on: iOS/Android
The early and mid-2010s saw a peculiar kind of gold rush in China — a drive to make the next big “microtransaction-based” mobile game. A game that people would play in every interstitial moment in their lives: on the subway, at work between breaks, at work during conference calls, at restaurants. Once it hooked you, a steady drip-feed of extras, premium items, subscriptions and special features would be offered for a (small) price, creating a lucrative cycle built on shallow bait-and-switch tactics and gameplay built to cause addiction.
That’s a slightly cynical description of Onmyoji, which was both brilliantly designed and brilliantly marketed to be addictive. Among its many innovations on this front, it gave gamers who attended ticketed real-world Onmyoji events (such as musicals) perks inside the game. This weaponized sociality gave the game a “stickiness” that’s rare for mobile-only titles. It still has a huge fanbase, nearly two years after its release.
6. 中国式家长 Chinese Parents
Playable on: PC/Mac
Chinese Parents found surprising viral fame on games platform Steam, which perhaps shouldn’t have been surprising at all. It hit a precise sweet spot in reflecting its demographic’s lives back at them, capturing middle-class anxieties with piercing wit and disarming humor.
Developed by Moyuwan Games, the Beijing-based duo of Liu Zhenhao and Yang Geyilang, and published by the Shanghai-based Coconut Island, Chinese Parents is a text-heavy simulation game. Starting as an infant, you make decisions around what to study, how to play, and how to lead your pre-university life. The game culminates in the gaokao test, where all the choices you make add up to determine your future profession and well-being.
Chinese Parents is an intriguing example of the power of video games as tools for expression in China. It’s a medium that can mask social and structural commentary under gameplay driven by personal decisions. We’re witnessing only the beginnings of how this might be used, and the next decade will be interesting indeed.
7. Alice: Madness Returns
Playable on: PC, Xbox 360, Playstation 3
China has long been an “outsourcing” hub for video game work, which means it had, by 2010, a giant pool of talented artists, coders and technicians who usually had very little creative control or opportunities to create their own IP and game ideas.
Shanghai-based Spicy Horse tried to change some of that, transitioning from “outsourcing” work to bona fide “Made in China” games intended for a Western audience. Co-founded by the designer American McGee, Spicy Horse’s best-known work is 2011’s Alice: Madness Returns, a cult classic with bonkers art direction set in the Alice in Wonderland universe.
Spicy Horse would soon be eclipsed within China’s indie scene, but it stands as an important early example of the transition from locally rooted video game grunt work to locally relevant video game design.
8. 恋与制作人 Mr. Love: Queen’s Choice, A Gay’s Life and the “visual novel” in China
Playable on: PC/Mac, Android/iOS
One of the most vibrant corners of the gaming scene in China is the “visual novel” — games based purely on text and static images that tell elaborate, branching stories. They usually require little to no coding, are hosted online in one of many hubs, and are adaptable to a wide variety of themes and ideas.
As a “scene,” visual novels can veer to both progressive and regressive extremes. There are plenty of creepy male-gaze examples, but then there are also games like A Gay’s Life, which thoughtfully (and sentimentally) takes players through the life of gay men in China, or Mr Love: Queen’s Choice, which flips the creepy visual novel on its head by being a dating simulator where you pursue relationships with a cast of anime boys.
An underground corollary of the visual novel is the “flash game” scene: often crude browser games that act as quick-hit pieces, playable editorial cartoons on the issues of the day. These can exist on both sides of any political divide. An infamous recent example let you “beat up” black-clad protestors in Hong Kong, even including figures like Joshua Wong. Others are more sophisticated, like this “Geng Shuang emulator” that can generate a hilarious Chinese Foreign Ministry-esque speech for any issue you’d like.
9. 蚂蚁庄园 Ant Manor a.k.a “That Chicken Game inside Alipay”
Playable on: The Alipay app
In 2019 China, game-like apps and mini-programs are everywhere, usually intended as a way to incentivize players to spend more on a particular promotion or campaign. It’s a common weapon in the marketing toolkit: WeChat quizzes to build “engagement,” a mini program that’s “shareable.” It’s games as window dressing for consumerism.
But Ant Manor is a bit different. It’s a little app integrated into Alibaba’s mobile payment system Alipay that uses games to incentivize philanthropy. In the game, you raise virtual pet chickens that you “feed” by using Alipay to pay for stuff. Feeding the chicken generates “hearts” that can be channeled to different charitable causes of your choice, such as poverty reduction or research into rare diseases.
A similar game within Alipay, Ant Forest, rewards users who reduce their carbon footprint by using public transportation or walking to work. Like in Ant Manor, generating “hearts” in Ant Forest has (reported) real-world charitable consequences, with a certain set of points leading to a tree being planted in Gansu province.
The bedrock of these games is, of course, still consumption. There are plenty of problems with the concept here, but even as a small daily reminder to be more socially conscious, the Ant Manor pet chicken can act as a significant tool to mobilize for a cause. And that’s powerful.
10. 斩妖行 Eastern Exorcist and 山海旅人 The Rewinder
We end this look back at the decade by focusing on what might come next. Two big winners at this year’s Indieplay Awards in China were these stunning games, which both feature a strong Chinese lineage in theme and setting, but are meant for a crossover audience.
The future perhaps lies here: in the freedom to make games for the world that still reflect local and regional concerns, but without the pressure to shoehorn “Chinese elements” into every work. Both Eastern Exorcist and The Rewinder will be out in 2020, and are the perfect games to take us into a bold new decade.
Cover image: Eastern Exorcist
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