How Video Games Fueled the Rise of Chinese Fantasy

Thirty years ago, the martial arts epic was the country’s most popular genre. Today, fantasy dominates the entertainment industry, thanks in part to the success of an 18-year-old video game.

In 2003, Taiwan-based video game developer Softstar released two follow-ups to its 1995 hit The Legend of Sword and Fairy. Although the two sequels were released in a span of months, they bore little resemblance to each other. The two-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy II, produced by Softstar’s Taiwan office, stayed true to the first installment’s wuxia martial arts theme and aesthetic, while the three-dimensional Legend of Sword and Fairy III, produced by Softstar’s Shanghai subsidiary, had a dramatically different look based on xianxia, or “chivalric fantasy.”

Even at the time, Softstar’s decision to release drastically different sequels to an eight-year-old game in such quick succession was perplexing, but the market’s verdict was clear: Whereas the wuxia-themed second installment was met with a tepid popular and critical response, the high fantasy-inspired third installment proved wildly popular, selling hundreds of thousands more copies and scoring significantly higher on review aggregators like Douban.

The contrasting market performance of these two games proved to be a watershed moment in the development of the Chinese video game industry. In the two decades since, the center of the industry has migrated from Taiwan to the mainland, while xianxia fantasy themes have overtaken wuxia martial arts stories as the industry’s bread and butter. Just to give two examples, the wildly popular mobile games Honor of Kings and Onmyoji are both influenced heavily by xianxia. And while wuxia never fully disappeared — it’s particularly common in Western game studio portrayals of East Asia — xianxia dominates the Chinese market — not just in video games, but also in online literature, television, and film. Continue to read the full article here

– This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone.