A latest trailer for Cyberpunk 2077’ was upsetting to lots of people of coloration in my gaming circles. Most notably, my Asian diaspora buddies had been abuzz by the blatant orientalism in a section about an in-game gang referred to as the Tyger Claws.
The trailer’s first shot of the Tyger Claws was drenched in crimson, a coloration I affiliate extra intently with Chinese language visible tradition. The promo picture for the gang started with an English emblem that was partially composed of suspect katakana letters, and principally written in a “chopsticks font” that’s closely related to western caricatures of Chinese language individuals. Though the music within the background jogged my memory of Chinese language operatic ballads, with its distinct vibrato, none of my Chinese language or Japanese buddies may affirm the origin of the music. It was ethnically ambiguous, and I didn’t perceive why a beautiful ballad was taking part in over a video a couple of murderous gang. I noticed a bonsai tree, and one of many characters was wielding a katana. The cultural markers had been everywhere. Seems, the gang is Japanese.
Positive, confusion occurs. However the mix-up turns into an issue when video video games can current clear variations between Anglo tradition versus French tradition, after which we now have Asian characters who’re a mish-mash of Chinese language and Japanese. That is half of a bigger online game historical past of western designers not having the ability to differentiate between totally different Asian cultures, but selecting to exotify them for a non-Asian viewers. I do not know how the Tyger Claws had been profitable all these turf wars in the event that they saved bringing swords to a gunfight. But, they’re the one gang in that Cyberpunk trailer that’s swinging swords. The Asian character who wields a sword is a mainstay in western video video games.
Let’s discuss concerning the historical past of East Asians in western video games.
Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines was a 2004 laptop role-playing sport that featured a Chinatown vampire clan referred to as the Kuei-jin. Regardless of the Chinese language names of all the clan members, the clan identify is a portmanteau of badly romanized Mandarin and Japanese. After I kill the generic vampires in that sport’s Chinatown, I can loot katanas off their our bodies. No different enemies drop katanas. One of many white American vampires from Hollywood describes Chinatown as “a cheap replica of Asian architecture better off in a theme park.” Which may be true for the neighborhood that Vampire had constructed, however precise Chinatowns are actual locations with distinct native variations, communities, and histories.
May there be a Sino-Japanese neighborhood in Los Angeles? It’s not how Asian enclaves have traditionally fashioned in the USA, however let’s say “sure” for the sake of argument. My concern isn’t about accuracy. It’s about care. The unique tabletop sport upon which Bloodlines was based mostly didn’t display a lot care about the place these vampires got here from, and it created a cultural amalgamation out of a whole continent. As an alternative of omitting this piece of flawed lore or lampshading its inaccuracy, the online game doubled down and added katanas to the lore.
All the plot of Vampire revolves across the methods through which the vampires of Europe have efficiently tailored with the intention to mix in with a human society. Even in a sport about monstrous vampires who’ve efficiently tailored human personas, the East Asian characters can’t assimilate into American society. As an alternative, they select to deliver Japanese swords into gunfights. Their strangeness just isn’t a supply of empowerment. It’s a marker of distinction.
As I battled my manner by the Golden Temple in Chinatown, I grew steadily impatient on the energy fantasy of demonstrating fight prowess over mystical martial arts warriors. The sport didn’t care to inform me why they introduced Japanese swords from throughout the ocean. Why not use weapons and baseball bats like all the opposite gangs? As I dutifully looted one other sword off grunt quantity 5, I knew that no solutions could be forthcoming. And I used to be proper. This was not a sport that cared concerning the Kuei-jin’s story. There are human tales to be discovered within the ghoulish monsters of Vampire, however none to be present in racial caricatures.
Whether or not it’s Los Angeles in 2004 or the bigger galaxy in 2186, East Asians in western RPGs can by no means absolutely escape the specter of being compelled to battle with racialized weapons. Have a look at the cyber murderer Kai Leng from Mass Impact 3. Regardless of being of biracial Chinese language and Russian heritage, he fights the participant with a Japanese quick sword.
I’m so bored with these design selections. Western builders could also be extra conversant in Japanese tradition than that of different Asian nations, however there are lots of issues with utilizing Japanese swords as a shorthand for everything of Asia. Amongst them is the comparatively latest historical past of Japanese imperialism, when nationalists thought-about their tradition to be superior to these of their colonized topics. Emotions of racial supremacy over Chinese language and Korean individuals continues to be an enormous drawback in Japanese common tradition and politics. Erasing different Asian cultures for Japanese tradition solely serves to allow reactionary sentiment, even when it comes from a spot of western ignorance.
Kai Leng’s Japanese quick sword can also be an enormous gaffe for a setting that emphasizes people’ identities with their species, slightly than their ethnicity. Characters in Mass Impact are sometimes recognized by their beginning metropolis, slightly than nation or cultural group. The setting of Mass Impact is simply post-racial sufficient for the participant to ignore the opportunity of a human race warfare, however not put up racial sufficient to keep away from casting a Chinese language character as a Japanese ninja.
I had a greater expertise with the latest Spider-Man sport, which had Chinese language villains referred to as the Interior Demons. I used to be initially bothered by their use of swords (okay, possibly I nonetheless type of am), but it surely turned clear that the designers took significantly extra care portraying their villains as individuals. I’m not simply speaking concerning the chief, who will get loads of dialogue and characterization. We shouldn’t solely choose illustration by a gaggle’s most distinctive chief. I used to be extra impressed with the depiction of the villain’s unusual henchmen. They’ve so much to say, too, and are steadily bantering in traces which are absolutely voiced in Mandarin. I discovered this refreshing. As I performed the sport, I’d spend a ton of time perched above Interior Demons hideouts simply to take heed to their ambient arguments. They’d discuss They’d complain concerning the job, their coworkers, or evenly rib one another. I used to be used to listening to guards argue about petty drama in lots of stealth video games, however I wasn’t used to listening to them in my first language. Spider-Man demonstrated consciousness that humanity extends to all members of an Asian group, and never simply their most distinctive edge case.
Asian characters are poorly represented in western video games. The errors I’ve talked about above—the obsession with giving Asian individuals swords—should not innocuous if you take a look at them within the context of video games historical past. They’re half of a bigger western disregard for the historic dynamics of Asian individuals. When Asian individuals are given martial weapons in a setting the place everybody else is utilizing weapons, it racializes their bodily talents.
There’s no exhausting and quick rule the place illustration is worried, however I simply need western studios to display extra take care of Asian tales. If an Asian character will get a qiang (Chinese language polearm), then I feel it’s solely honest that a minimum of one European character will get a glaive. If carrying a medieval French weapon appears ridiculous in a severe fashionable setting, then katanas ought to appear equally ludicrous.
On the very least, it already appears ridiculous to a big section of the gaming viewers.
Sisi Jiang is a sport designer who prefers making video games over writing about them.