It’s shaping up to be an interesting year for indie video games in China. The annual Indieplay awards, which concluded last month, cast a spotlight on the best and brightest in the business, and we’ve gotten the first glimpses into what we’ll be playing, and what will capture our imaginations, in the months to come.
Last year, we wrote that the most exciting shift in Chinese indie games was that local developers no longer needed to shoehorn “Chinese cultural elements” into their work — they’re just making exciting games for the whole world. We’re seeing the emergence of what you might call a Chinese “style” of game making: titles that offer distinct, idiosyncratic “takes” on popular genres or styles. 2020 is the year these two trends intertwine.
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In the coming months, we’ll be aiding restless spirits in their return to the world of the living, helping two cutesy robots bond with each other, and embarking on a disturbing journey into the self.
Here are eight titles we’re excited for in 2020:
The Rewinder is a point-and-click puzzle game with a gorgeous pixel art look, somehow splitting the artistic difference between 1990s adventure video games and traditional Chinese ink paintings. It looks stunning, and it sounds intriguing: you play some kind of cosmic “agent” who’s been sent to helps restless spirits achieve rebirth and return to the living world.
It’s due to be released in early 2020, and will be available on Steam.
This cutesy game about a pair of adorable robots has been making waves in the global indie circuit, winning an audience award at Indiecade last year. It’s a cooperative adventure with a unique control scheme: no buttons! Think the chaotic blooper-reel fun of games like QWOP or Gang Beasts, paired with a lovable aesthetic and innovative levels. Biped comes from solid pedigree — it’s the latest game from Next Studios, the Shanghai-based studio behind the excellent Unheard (where you solve murders by “listening” to audio captured from the crime scene).
Biped is coming soon to PC, PS4 and Nintendo Switch.
This curious little title won Best Narrative at Indieplay 2019, and bills itself as a Kafka-esque, text-based adventure game with dream-like logic and twisted puzzles. It’s best experienced without any prior knowledge, so all we can reveal is that it fiendishly blurs the boundaries between reality, dreams, truth, and memories, and your choices lead to a range of different endings. A smart, assuredly weird debut.
Self is out now on Steam.
A hilarious mashup of Plants vs Zombies and Warioware meets RADII’s Yin column. Cruel Bands has you playing a three-piece guitar band, using each member’s instrumental prowess to throw off and defeat waves of monsters. It’s got a striking black-and-white art style and a ridiculous premise and I can’t wait to play it.
It should be available by mid-2020 from publishers Indienova, on Steam.
This striking, Bilibili-published game won Best Art at Indieplay, and rightfully so. Every screenshot of this fast-paced action RPG could be a wallpaper, but in motion it transcends to sublime balletic brilliance.
It’s out March 2020 on Playstation 4 and Windows.
Rhythm Fighter combines a pumping dance soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a Beijing hair salon with beat-em-up gameplay and a bright comic-book art style. It won big at Indieplay, nabbing Best Game and scoring nominations in Design and Audio.
This new visual-novel-style game from the talented hands at Coconut Island Studios (responsible for the sensational success of Chinese Parents) is likewise primed for viral fame: it’s a nostalgic, hand-drawn look back at life in ’90s China through the eyes of a 12-year old. Coconut Island, previously in conversation with RADII, are interested in exploring the nuances of Chinese contemporary and pop culture through their games, and while not mechanically groundbreaking, they tend to be precisely observed and intricately crafted.
A Kickstarter success that is finally seeing the light of day, Luna is a jaw-droppingly pretty, old-school adventure game featuring fully hand-drawn animation and a wordless story. It’s been getting rave reviews across the board, and is a possible contender for best Chinese game in 2020.
Out February 13 on Steam.
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This is, of course, not an exclusive list. From goofball full-motion video detective games to a blocky post-apocalypse survival title, we could have easily featured 20+ games. For every polished indie project with breathtaking art, there are also 10 experimental, glitchy, joyously weird shorts waiting in the wings.
At an industry level, video games are facing uncertain times in China — a Nintendo Switch launch in November 2019 was mocked widely after just one game on the platform’s Chinese eshop could clear censorship in time. The fate of Steam, and what happens once the official Steam China platform launches, is unknown.
At the indie level, though, this uncertainty is being met with a newfound restlessness and burst of energy. Chinese indie titles are more frequently present in international game events, from PAX to Indiecade, and they’re exploring and riffing on well-worn, popular themes in the indie games circuit. These are games intended for a crossover audience, and this is a scene now fully plugged-in to a global game development network.
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A recent, controversial essay in Foreign Policy asked why China didn’t seem to have a “national sound” that is reflected in its musical exports. Indie game developers have evaded geopolitical notice, but China’s current crop have developed nothing less than a unique, locally rooted voice — a “contemporary Chinese” filter that absorbs global ideas and broadcasts back an idiosyncratic, fully-formed view of the world.
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