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    Four Games That Sum Up China’s 2023

    These four titles weren’t the biggest games released by Chinese developers this year, but they are some of the most memorable.
    Dec 29, 2023#gaming

    China’s video game industry had a somewhat quiet year in 2023. Although its mobile game developers continued to enjoy commercial and critical success — most notably with miHoYo’s Game Awards winner “Honkai: Star Rail” — the console and PC game industry has fallen dormant. Next year should bring “Black Myth: Wukong,” likely Chinese gaming fans’ best hope for a true AAA title in the near future, but for the most part, it’s fallen to indie developers to keep PC and console gaming development alive.

    Precisely because the production values of these games cannot match those of giant studios, developers rely on themes and narrative to win over gamers. Those details aren’t always easy to get right, but they offer us a glimpse into the subcultures and psyches of young Chinese.

    Here are four games worth remembering from 2023.

    “Summer in Northeast China” by Zhuang Bu Chun Studio (PC/Android/iOS)

    In 2018, a person going by the handle Knife Brother began uploading clips of staged fights and street life to short-video app Kuaishou. Eventually, a group of recurring including “Tiger Girl” and “Shamate Boss,” gradually cohered into the short drama series “Once Upon a Time in the Northeast.”

    The videos triggered powerful memories of decline in China’s northeastern rust belt. Although the series eventually ended, the street in the city of Shenyang where the videos were shot became a site of pilgrimage for fans of the crime genre.

    “Summer in Northeast China” is an authorized visual novel adaptation of “Once Upon a Time in the Northeast.” Released in a year when nostalgia for northeastern China’s heyday reached a high point, it sends players to Shenyang to meet Knife Brother and Tiger Girl; together they fight Shamate Boss while visiting locations from the series.

    “Summer in Northeast China” is a tribute to the Kuaishou video series, but also an elegy. Knife Brother and Tiger Girl are no longer popular, and the series’ coarse, earthy, and sometimes exaggerated visuals are lost in translation in the game’s more comic style. Most of the game’s core audience is likely too young to remember “Once Upon a Time in the Northeast,” but they are nevertheless nostalgic for an era when Shenyang was bursting with energy. But for audiences entranced by TV hits like “The Long Season,” it might feel like something is missing.

    “Sanfu” by Shiying Studio. Release date: July 28, 2023 (PC)

    Shiying Studio is a one-man operation run by Moonlight Mantis, a writer, painter, visual artist, and game designer who uses the simple RPG Maker program. In 2021, it scored a hit with the 2D puzzler “Firework.”

    That title’s mix of arresting art, interesting messaging, and horror conventions established Moonlight Mantis as one of the most interesting voices in China’s indie game scene — and made “Sanfu” one of the most anticipated titles of 2023.

    Like “Firework,” “Sanfu” is a 2D puzzler, but its style is more nuanced, features more powerful performances, and presents players with more challenging puzzles to solve. Combining Buddhist elements and mystic settings, it was another title that played on audiences’ interest in the chaotic but vibrant late 1990s.

    Unfortunately, while Moonlight Mantis’ production skills have matured, the writing hasn’t: The plotlines were stiff and unconvincing and the gameplay felt imbalanced, overshadowing other positives and limiting its appeal.

    The disappointment felt by some players toward “Sanfu” reaffirms the embarrassing situation of the single-player game market. The withdrawal of major studios has left fans of the genre more dependent on a handful of independent creators. But even someone as talented as Moonlight Mantis was unable to replicate the success of “Firework.”

    “Jianghu 11” by Wan Xiang Jie Chun Studios. Release date: Jan. 11, 2023 (PC/Switch)

    Despite the huge popularity of wuxia martial arts fantasy novels in China, the market for wuxia-themed games is smaller than you might think — especially after a run of particularly lazy adaptations. Unfortunately, “Jianghu 11” is unlikely to change the genre’s fortunes.

    The creators of “Jianghu 11” started with an ambitious plan: to do away with tired genre conventions and create a massive open-world RPG. They were not quite able to pull it off.

    The production team apparently underestimated the difficulty of building an open single-player world. The map is too large, gameplay is too slow, and the game’s upgrade system was quickly cracked by players. To make matters worse, the makers chose not to beta test and instead went straight to the official release, and so missed the opportunity to make adjustments based on player feedback.

    In the context of a shrinking single-player game market, developers’ pursuit of open worlds may not be the best course of action.

    “Love Is All Around” by INTINY. Release date: Oct. 18, 2023 (PC)

    At the beginning of the year, almost no one would have predicted the biggest single-player title of 2023 would be a dating sim featuring live actors. Thanks to “Love Is All Around,” however, industry insiders are left wondering why they hadn’t come up with the idea sooner. Were they underestimating the desire of male gamers? Or perhaps they were overestimating people’s tastes?

    Oddly, “Love is All Around” is not really a classic dating sim: The six dateable female characters in the game always like you and never expect you to put work into the relationship. All you have to do is pick one. The game is full of unabashed male fantasies like this, putting desires that players might be too ashamed to talk about unapologetically on display. Many players admit that the game is like a fantasy version of dating that satisfies their emotional need for intimacy.

    Behind this frank approach is anxiety about identity and confusion about how to identify one’s place in a culture where gender roles are constantly changing. If “Love Is All Around” hitting the top of Steam China’s charts came as a surprise, perhaps that’s because of how little we know about the internal lives of Chinese gamers.

    Translator: David Ball.

    (Header image: Visuals from Vink/IC and Steam, reedited by Sixth Tone)