I didn't originally intend to play Genshin Impact. I was inundated with launch trailers while watching Twitch, and, while the commercials looked nice enough, it just wasn't on my radar; I didn't think it was anything I'd care about.
This impression was reinforced by some of the early commentaries on the game as it was blowing up after launch. Here are a few, in no particular order:
- Genshin is a Zelda clone
- It's highly monetized with a predatory, gambling-like scheme
- The game is primarily about stylized/sexualized collectible female characters
The combination of the above generated the entertaining moniker "Breath of the Waifu," playing off of Breath of the Wild being so clearly an inspiration for visuals and world exploration. ("Waifu," for those not in the know, refers to attractive female anime characters.)
So, yeah, I wasn't in a rush to play it rather than the many games in my backlog. My stance was softened a bit, though, when watching a streamer I know playing it during his birthday stream. On one hand, watching him drop $100 on the "free" game hurt on a deep level. On the other, the gameplay looked fun and fluid, exploration was free and logical, and combat seemed varied without requiring too much strategy to play casually.
I proceeded to watch a couple other streams in the following week, when I was gripped by the feature of the game that both made me play it and prompted this article: the music. The music was simple, memorable, and felt distinctly Chinese in a way that I struggle to describe. It was relaxed and beautiful, and it reminded me of something important, something of which I had lost sight on account of very real political struggles: the people of China are not my enemy.
The Chinese Communist Party Is an Enemy
Let me give a bit of background. China is run by a repressive communist regime that in very recent history weaponized forced abortions as part of its program to curtail population growth. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) persecutes Christians and other religious minorities; most notable is their current internment, enslavement, and "reeducation" of the country's Muslims, to say nothing of what they did to the Tibetan Buddhists. They use lies, propaganda, force, and murder to achieve their ends, such as crushing dissent en route to their functional annexation of Hong Kong. Intertwined with this, they also have terrible labor practices, and they coerce the rest of the world to kiss the ring or face financial consequences.
(On this last point, how embarrassing has it been to watch everyone in America trip over themselves apologizing to the CCP over the slightest offense? The NBA, helped along by shills such as LeBron James and James Harden, led the way, followed closely by Blizzard's repression of pro-Hong-Kong sentiment. But maybe the most awkward is John Cena—you know, the pro-wrestler who played in The Marine—issuing a scripted apology in Mandarin. Why are we apologizing to a regime that commits crimes against humanity on a routine basis?)
But it's important to note, one party system or not, that not every person in China is brought magically in line with CCP thinking. Chinese citizens are not cogs in a Marxist machine, however the party leadership may view them, but individual human beings with inherent value. Being citizens of an evil regime does not make them enemies, even if the regime is an enemy.
"Genshin Impact" and Non-CCP China
Back to Genshin. It's a game that engages with beauty and with history, and not merely the history of the fictitious realms within the storyline. The various countries in Teyvat, the game's world, are rooted in characterizations of real-world countries. Liyue, for example, the ancient realm of contracts, pays homage to China. (This famously got MiHoYo, the developer, in trouble with Chinese players when the character representing Liyue was significantly underpowered at launch.) The game also draws on multiple cultures and mythologies, notably gnostic demonology (but more on that in a future post, I hope).
A video game embracing history sounds like nothing new in a world with Call of Duty and Valkyria Chronicles. For communist China, though, it's a big deal. Part of the Cultural Revolution was the destruction of history and cultural memory; creating a game which engages with both real and fictional history actually works against Maoist philosophy, even if the creators are otherwise thoroughgoing communist party members.
China's government also has a very mixed relationship with video games (and tech companies, more broadly). After all, Chinese megacorp Tencent has its finger in more video games and companies than I can count, and China churns out professional gamers like League of Legends is what they do instead of PE class. But China also recently put drastic restrictions on video gaming for anyone under 18. China enjoys a lot of influence and power in the technological sphere, but the CCP still feels the need to crack down on any anti-authoritarian tendencies in its most famous entrepreneurs and wealthiest companies.
In this way, Genshin Impact serves as a reminder that there are individual people, not all of whom probably support everything that China does, who make up the country. The simple melodies force you to think about whether communism—or the government, in general—defines China's identity. And behind the game stands dozens of individual people who designed every aspect of the experience—the itemization, the fireworks, the sunsets, the villains, the snippets of lore in random books. Those people don't have to be my enemy, regardless of what their government or my government want to force on us.
That said, I'll leave you with perhaps the greatest trolling of the CCP I've ever seen: