Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Asian-inspired Media and Gaming

posted by Al-X

During an idle chat with friends, the topic came around Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. My two friends, one a wargamer and the other a roleplayer, showed their disgust for the movie, citing how unrealistic they thought it was, and how ridiculous the action sequences were. Being a fan of wuxia, I countered, asking how walking on walls was less realistic than pointy-eared pretty blondes hitting little green men between the eyes at half a mile of distance. In the dark.

This got me thinking into how different the accepted tropes of Occidental and Oriental fantasy are. The same people willing to believe that a One Ring was capable of bringing doom to all existence were not willing to accept that a martial arts manual contained the secrets of invincibility.

Extending the comparison to other Asian fantasy media, we see that there is a difference between its accepted fundaments and those of Western fantasy. Aside from the fact that they arise from very different mythological and religious environment, one of the things that struck me most is the source of power. In the West, power comes from outside; it is a Holy Grail, an Excalibur, a Stormbringer or a One Ring. In Asian fantasy, power comes from within, it is the Shaolin teachings, the control of inner force, the purity of one’s heart and purpose. In the West, magic is the province of wizards and is generally a forbidden (or forbidding) field of study; in the East, magic is accessible to anyone, as exemplified by the accountant in A Chinese Ghost Story who is taught a simple Sanskrit incantation and is able to clumsily defend himself against the supernatural.

A hero in the West is usually someone appointed by destiny or outside circumstance, or is ‘special’ in a certain way (Frodo gains the Ring, Merlin foresees the coming of Arthur, Achilles is the child of Tethis, Anakin Skywalker has bunches of midiclorians in his blood, etc.), while a hero in the East works hard for his role (Sun Wokung is born as a particularly bright monkey, but still must train for years to become the Monkey King, Tsao Tsao grows slowly towards being a great general, Ogami Itto is a kickass swordsman but little else, etc.)

The distinctions are not die-hard and I’m sure I’m missing examples that could counter these initial observations, but I think they stand as a general trend.

Now, how does this apply to gaming?

Asian pop-culture is currently embarking on a direct assault on Western media, and such media also includes role-playing games. It would be tempting to say that Oriental Adventures is the leader of this influence, but it’s not; OA is merely D&D with samurais and ninjas, and the monk core class is just a guy who fights well unarmed.

The true influence can be seen in games like Feng Shui and Big Eyes, Small Mouth which directly uses the elements of Chinese cinema and Japanese anime to create a game, and Exalted which appropriates distinctly Asian tropes in its own setup, such as gigantic swords, spectacular displays of power and, of course, giant robots. And now we’re looking forward to Weapons of the Gods, adapted from the comic of the same name by Tony Wong.

What Feng Shui, BESM and Exalted did that OA did not was just not take the dressing of Asian media/culture, but go straight into the underlying elements and use them, either directly or making them part of the greater whole. The rules and systems reflect the difference of focus between Western and Eastern fantasy: what do the characters gain versus what can the characters do. While magic items exist in both fantasy paradigms, they play a lesser role in Asian fantasy (Weapons of the Gods excepted somewhat), and the variety and strength of the powers that Asian heroes gain put the powers of Western characters to shame; Sneak Attack simply cannot hold a candle to Light-Foot Kungfu, and Elric may lose Stormbringer, while Wong Fei Hung cannot lose his devastating No-Shadow Kick.

To make a game with a truly Asian flavor, the rules must reflect this; the characters must be able to do impressive things, but learning such techniques costs them greatly in terms of either effort or sacrifice. Once this can be captured, the rest of the genre trappings can be added at will, from mystic martial arts to angsty cyborg maidens.