One of China’s biggest epic myths is being adapted as a video game, allowing players to create their own stories as they go on legendary journeys and battle fantastic foes.
- Video games often trivialise anything non-Western, an expert says
- China’s gaming industry is distinguishing itself instead of simply contributing to projects led by Western studios
- Black Myth: Wukong is set for release in 2023
Black Myth: Wukong is far from the first attempt to recreate or interpret the adventures in Journey to the West; the cult 80s Japanese TV show Monkey and Dragon Ball are just two of the many versions audiences outside Asia might know.
But the upcoming game is being billed as one of the most high-profile and successful adaptations of the 16th-century classic.
The high-quality art, animation and audio displayed in test footage released by indie developers Game Science had already led to comparisons with AAA titles.
“It immediately jumps out as a high quality,” Steven Conway, course director for games and interactivity at Swinburne University of Technology, told the ABC.
AAA games refer to those with high budgets or quality, similar to a blockbuster movie.
But as well as offering players hours of fun, frustration and elation, importantly the game will help bring new ideas and diversity to the massive industry.
“Much like Hong Kong cinema, then Chinese cinema, and perhaps more lately South Korean cinema and television influenced their Western counterparts, I think we’re going to see a new generation of gamers and developers much more deeply influenced by diverse perspectives and mythologies outside of the Western canon,” Dr Conway said.
China’s game industry becoming its own creative force
Recently, the video games industry in China has been a destination for outsourcing aspects of Western projects, but it is now emerging with its own properties and creative leaders.
Dr Conway said the Chinese video game industry had started to distinguish itself as its own creative force.
“Too often in video games we see anything non-Western trivialised as some exotic other: alien, primitive, or worse simply an homogenous enemy to exterminate,” he said.
“Now, with voices actually from these cultures entering the industry, we’re seeing much-needed nuance and detail added to these depictions.”
Dr Conway said he expected to see “a lot more” major titles coming from creators in different countries.
“It is benefiting everyone, from the developer to the player,” he said.
“Richer narratives, deeper characters, interesting game mechanics stemming from playful activities, toys, and indeed value systems not native to Western society.
“All add value to the gaming ecosystem.”
Black Myth: Wukong is set for release in 2023, and will be one of the first to use the latest iteration of the Unreal gaming engine, which is said to be the world’s most advanced 3D computer graphics game engine.
‘The story will be a joy to dive into’
Gamer and aspiring developer Trent Euman said he was looking forward to the game, especially for its narrative, artistic style and aesthetics.
“Its focus on 16th-century Chinese folklore will be intriguing to explore, and the realistic graphics will stand out to many players wanting to immerse themselves in 16th-century China,” he said.
“From what’s been shown so far, the combat mechanics look fun to get into, its polish — special effects and visual audio feedback — look outstanding, the environments look fantastic, and the folklore embedded in the story will be a joy to dive into.”
Mr Euman said there had been growing interest in games built on different languages and cultures, thanks to franchises like Yakuza, Shin Megami Tensei, and Genshin Impact.
“Even triple AAA games are embracing this, with games like Ghost of Tsushima and Sekiro Shadows Die Twice allowing players to play the entire game in English or Japanese,” he said.
Different ways of playing
Globalisation and cheaper and easier access to creative tools like the Unreal engine will help to drive more “multicultural developments”, Dr Conway said.
“I think we’re not only going to see a shift in the mythologies and the folktales … we’re going to see a shift in the values we’re exposed to and the ways in which we think about society working, which is really exciting.”
Dr Conway has been working with members of the Indigenous community in Australia to design a game.
“We couldn’t make what I would just call a Western game for this demographic and to stay true to Indigenous culture,” he said.
From his work with the Indigenous community, he found it was critical to have a type of gameplay that would be far more cooperative than what’s found in the usually adversarial, competitive and combative mainstream Western games.
“We’ve seen this coming through in a lot of Chinese and South Korean developments where you see these projects with very different points of mechanics and value systems, because they’re not part of Western culture,” Dr Conway said.
While Black Myth: Wukong is still being created and its success is yet to be seen, there are some other titles from different parts of the world that have become popular far beyond their culture or country of origin.
Stories from around the world come to life
Last year, Indian developers released Raji: An Ancient Epic, which has gone on to win awards and is available on major gaming platforms and devices, in multiple languages.
It has the hallmarks of an adventure — a sister searching for her brother who was separated from her by attacking demonic hoards — and is set in ancient India.
“The entire game actively, creatively engages with Indian mythology,” Dr Conway said.
One of the more famous, successful recent games, Never Alone/Kisima Ingitchuna, was made in collaboration with the Iñupiat, an Indigenous people from Alaska.
“We paired world-class game makers with Alaska Native storytellers and elders to create a game which delves deeply into the traditional lore of the Iñupiat people to present an experience like no other,” the game’s developer said.
Characters and environments were inspired by traditional art and “honed through collaboration with Alaska Native elders and artists”.
“This ensures that the look and feel of the game stay faithful to the traditional styles and provide a unique and inspirational visual presentation,” the developers said.
Chernobylite is a survival horror game that uses recreations of the real world mixed with elements of local folklore.
In it, players take on the role of a former physicist at the Chernobyl power plant.
It features an intricate recreation of the area that was meticulously recreated by Polish developers.
“It engages with Eastern European and Russian folklore in all sorts of interesting ways,” Dr Conway said.
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