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Foreign pixels: Can an Asian hero star in a Western video game?

Is a game featuring a mostly cerebral detective plucked from the foreign lands of Tang Dynasty China doomed to fail? A developer reflects on his journey to crowdfund a Western indie game starring an Asian hero.

My name is Minh Ta and I'm an indie developer based in Montreal, Canada. I am also half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese. Just recently, I launched my first Kickstarter game project (now entering its last week) starring a Chinese historical figure, a renowned detective from 7th century China. As I hit the "launch" button, I felt a distinct up swell of anxiety that went beyond thoughts of success or failure; I was worried about how my Chinese hero would be received.

My game, Detective Di: The Silk Rose Murders, is a point-and-click adventure game that stars Di Renjie, a historical and literary figure of legendary status in China. Both in Asia and elsewhere, numerous books, movies and TV shows have depicted him as a peerless detective capable of solving the unsolvable. But just as importantly, Di has always been portrayed as someone with the courage and conviction to stand up for what he believes in; a man brimming with an incorruptible spirit, willing to die to save queen and country (empress and country didn't have the same ring to it). Pitching him as the "Sherlock Holmes of ancient China", as he's been called many times, would be selling him short.

So I ask myself, if such a formidable Asian character were to star in his own Western video game, by which I mean a game made in America or Europe, aimed predominantly at a Western audience, how well could it perform?

Let's face it, even when including Asian-made titles, many of the popular Asian characters we've come to know and love, like Chun Li and Liu Kang (of Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat fame, respectively), are limited to the fighting game genre and are often part of a much larger cast. What's more, they are often caricatures picked from the DNA of the most internationally known Asian star of them all, Bruce Lee. Simply put, Asian heroes of any descent are few and far between in Western games. And when they are present, their appeal is often only skin deep (ironic, I know).


Asian heroes in Western games... are rare gems.

Don't get me wrong, there have been a few memorable new Asian leads in Western video games in the last 10 years, characters like Faith from Mirror's Edge and Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs. And there's also been... um... wait, the girl from Portal was Asian right? The point is, these games are rare, and often don't perform as well as their publishers would have hoped. Sales for Sleeping Dogs were decent, but not great. And despite a strong following, Mirror's Edge has yet to see a sequel 7 years later (although a sequel was announced just recently).

So, does all this mean that my small indie game, featuring a mostly cerebral detective plucked from the foreign lands of Tang Dynasty China, is doomed to fail? Actually, I don't think so.

You see, one factor that I have yet to mention, which I believe to be a game-changer, is the rapidly changing landscape of the indie gaming space. More specifically, that elusive slice of space occupied by true inspiration, that beautiful space that feeds off dreams, that narrow yet growing space now inhabited by developers and gamers, of all backgrounds, willing to challenge conventions and stereotypes to create and participate in inherently personal, and therefore inclusive experiences.

Think about it, when is an experience more inclusive than when we really share something personal about ourselves? I believe this space will continue to grow and grow.

In the end, my belief in this space is what gave me the strength to press that "launch" button. I'm sure many crowd-funding veterans can attest to this, but when you open yourself up in an attempt to do something truly personal and meaningful, it's a huge leap.

As I write this, my Kickstarter campaign has one week left to go, and I'm happy to report that the response I've received has been overwhelmingly positive. And frankly, while I'm still naturally nervous about the outcome of the campaign, I no longer worry about the future of my game's Asian hero, and that's simply because I know that I am willing to tell that story. And that's really all it takes in the end. The rest, as they say, will take care of itself. Look up, the future of video games looks bright and multi-colored.

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