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2022-12-23 05:51:12 Voices

For the Chinese video game industry, 2022 was another disappointing year, at least commercially. The lack of any real game-changing titles frustrated Chinese players eager for the emergence of a domestic “AAA” title capable of competing with international heavyweights like “Elden Ring” or “God of War,” while the biggest developers were forced to reckon with a glacial regulatory approvals process that ate into their bottom lines.

There were bright spots, however. This is especially true for independent developers, who’ve taken advantage of international platforms like Steam to reach around the regulatory process. This year saw a wave of realist, borderline bleak games that reckon with major social issues facing young Chinese, including nostalgia for simpler times, the continued influence of patriarchal social norms, and the degradations of working-class life.

China’s Generation Z grew up in a prolonged economic boom. Now, many of them are worried about the inevitable bust. Below are four games — and one religious iconography simulator — from 2022 that spoke to players’ feelings of malaise.

A still from the game “A Perfect Day.” From @完美的一天官博 on Weibo

A still from the game “A Perfect Day.” From @完美的一天官博 on Weibo

“A Perfect Day” by Perfect Day Studio. Release date: Feb. 25, 2022 (PC)

The last day of the millennium is a classic setting for fictional tales about protagonists saving the world from existential threat. Rather than an epic hero, however, “A Perfect Day” puts players in the shoes of a sixth grader suddenly given the last day of 1999 off from school. Childhood joys, friends, family, young love, and irreparable regret color the world as players explore a labyrinth of possibilities in search of the key to unlocking the game’s conclusion — a perfect day.

The rose-colored portrayal of turn-of-the-millennium China in “A Perfect Day” evokes strong feelings of nostalgia among members of the millennial and post-Y2K generations. Many of the young players brought to tears by the story’s conclusion were not even alive on New Year’s Eve 1999, but as the globalized world they grew up in is called into question and peace can no longer be taken for granted, that day and the hope it symbolized have become a kind of therapeutic fairytale, one which can help them forget about the dark clouds looming above their heads, if only for a few hours.

A still from the game “Underdog Detective.” From @神都不良探 on Weibo

A still from the game “Underdog Detective.” From @神都不良探 on Weibo

“Underdog Detective” by Tianjin Yunyun Technology. Release date: April 28, 2022 (PC/Mobile)

Interactive games featuring full-motion video (FMV) clips first took off in the late 1980s and early 1990s before advances in technology caused the style to lose its appeal. That is, until recently, as the genre has enjoyed a stunning renaissance thanks to creative titles like “Immortality” and “The Centennial Case: A Shijima Story.”

FMV games’ newfound popularity hit China in 2019, after the runaway success of the secret agent puzzler “The Invisible Guardian.” This year’s “Underdog Detective” attempts to follow in the footsteps of “Guardian”: the game is themed around the classic costume drama “Detective Di,” itself inspired by legends dating to the Tang dynasty (618-907).

“Underdog” features sophisticated scene production, high-quality performances, and suspense-filled plotlines, all hallmarks of the FMV genre. The only problem is, in China, the resurgence of FMV is partly due to live-action films being cheaper to produce than developing 3D games, leaving titles like “Underdog Detective” occupying an awkward middle ground between indie game and web drama. As the latter, its production values aren’t up to par. Meanwhile, as a game, it’s not interactive enough: there are too few options for players, the sense of immersion is weak, and the gameplay drags. From a commercial point of view, titles like “Underdog” are highly speculative — low risk, potentially high reward — but they fail to push the format forward.

A promotional image for the game “Paper Bride 4.” From @纸嫁衣 on Weibo

A promotional image for the game “Paper Bride 4.” From @纸嫁衣 on Weibo

“Paper Bride 4” by HeartBeat Plus. Release date: July 29, 2022 (PC/Mobile)

The fourth installment in the “Paper Bride” series of Chinese horror games features the sophisticated plots, atmospheric gameplay, and clever use of folk culture that have long characterized the series. Drawing inspiration from early 21st century horror novels by writers like Cai Jun, the “Paper Bride” games are overrun with iconic visual motifs such as grim-looking Mazu statues, chopsticks stuck in rice, and eerie gong sound effects.

It’s not ghosts or demons we should fear, but corrupted humans.

The latest installment iterates on the formula with a plot centered on the practice of “ghost marriages,” in which families buy deceased women to “marry” to their dead sons or relatives. Ever since the classic 2019 Chinese-language horror game “Detention,” the horror genre in Chinese gaming has been dominated by psychological, rather than supernatural, threats. It’s not ghosts or demons we should fear, but corrupted humans. In “Paper Bride 4,” you battle not just a ghost, but also the whims of patriarchy — a rich subject, and in a year of headlines about rural women chained to their husband’s homes, one hardly confined to the recesses of China’s feudal past.

A whole school of “Wooden Fish” simulators (Mobile)

Near the end of 2022, an interactive simulator intentionally devoid of either compelling story or fancy audio-visual effects rocketed to the top China’s mobile app stores. Open the app and you’re confronted with a simple white representation of a “wooden fish” — a ceremonial instrument originally used in Buddhist temples to help monks focus on their recitations — overlaid on a black screen; tap it, and it makes a crisp wooden sound.

A GIF of a person tapping a digital wooden fish. From Bilibili

A GIF of a person tapping a digital wooden fish. From Bilibili

That’s all there is. Users don’t even need to go to the trouble of tapping the screen. After paying or watching an advertisement, they can put their cellphone to one side and let the game tap automatically while they acquire digital “merit” for their fake Buddhist devotion.

“Wooden Fish” apps reflect a growing demand for spiritual sustenance in turbulent times. It may not be a coincidence that the game’s viral success came as college campuses began to shut down again in October — a time when students were desperate for relief from lockdowns, even if that meant tapping virtual wooden fish or raising cardboard pets. Online, people joke about “knocking digital wooden fish, counting off digital prayer beads, acquiring cyber-merit and worshipping a mechanical Buddha.” One social media user even reworked Philip K. Dick’s famous short story title to ask, “Do religious androids dream of electric Buddhas?”

A screenshot from the game “Nobody.” From Zhihu user @无月白熊

A screenshot from the game “Nobody.” From Zhihu user @无月白熊

“Nobody” by Thermite Games. Release date: Nov. 17, 2022 (PC)

Dubbed the “working-class life simulator,” “Nobody: The Turnaround” has been a magnet for controversy ever since its beta launched in March. The full game hit Steam on Nov. 17, only to disappear from the platform under mysterious circumstances just one day later.

On the surface, “Nobody” resembles a typical simulator. In order to pay off his father’s gambling debts, the protagonist moves to a Shenzhen-like megacity to work. There, he takes odd jobs such as construction, handing out flyers, and working as a security guard, sleeps in cheap hostels, and keeps careful track of his daily expenses, all relatable tasks for Chinese gamers adjusting to the country’s economic slowdown.

The game’s Chinese title, which literally translates as “The Majority,” suggests a more ambitious goal, however. The developers set out to create a virtual world that reflects the true face of Chinese society and gives voice to the country’s “silent majority” of gig workers, rural dropouts, and urban strivers.

But it’s precisely the game’s assumptions about what that majority looks like that have made it so controversial. Is “Nobody” a faithful depiction of life on the lower rungs of society — or a condescending look at an imaginary “lower class” from the privileged viewpoint of white-collar tech workers? The real answer lies somewhere in between, but “Nobody” and the controversy surrounding it offer a helpful starting point for discussion about the long-downplayed issue of class in Chinese society.

Translator: David Ball; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: A promotional image for the game “A Perfect Day,” reedited by Sixth Tone. From @完美的一天官博 on Weibo)