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Shanghai Indie Game Publisher Coconut Island Brings Chinese Culture to Steam

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When first released in late 2018, the videogame Chinese Parents was a sensation. It briefly topped the charts on Steam, the most popular PC gaming online store, and shifted over 500,000 copies in the first month. It was mentioned in China’s biggest newspaper, The People’s Daily, and dominated livestream feeds and Weibo conversations in the country.

It hit a precise sweet spot: capturing Chinese middle-class anxieties with both piercing wit and disarming humour.

Developed by Moyuwan Games, the Beijing-based duo of Liu Zhenhao and Yang Geyilang, and published by the Shanghai-based Coconut Island, Chinese Parents is a text-heavy simulation game. Starting as an infant, you make decisions around what to study, how to play, and how to lead your pre-university life. The game culminates in the gaokao test, where all the choices you make add up to determine your future profession and well-being.

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Last month, on June 20, Coconut Island released the game’s English version, a fairly monumental achievement given the game’s verbosity. For the publisher, it’s a fascinating experiment: how do you translate the many, many intricate nuances of Chinese parenting (and the culturally specific anxieties it channels) into another language?

For answers, we spoke to Wang Hanyi, product manager for Chinese Parents at Coconut Island Games. Her answers reveal a studio dedicated to preserving the complexities in theme and subject of the Chinese games they publish, rather than simplifying them into recognizable stereotypes.

chinese parents game english version steam

RADII: You recently launched the English version of Chinese Parents. How’s the response been?

Wang Hanyi: So far most of the players like the English edition! As of July 1, 93% of all recent reviews on Steam were positive. This was beyond our expectation, because we were worried people may be unable to understand what makes the game fun, due to cultural differences.

Were there any cultural nuances that were challenging to translate? Since this is aimed at a different audience, was there anything you tweaked or changed in translation?

We try to keep the original’s “Chinese-ness” as much as possible. However, we have to point out the hidden meaning behind some events in the English edition. For example, there’s a random event called “Let Me Wash Your Feet” where the game text says, “You see a woman washing her mom’s feet in an advertisement and your mom hints at the foot basin.”

The advertisement mentioned in this event is a well-known public service broadcast which has been on air for years [see above]. Nearly everyone who grew up in China knows it. So where the original didn’t need much explanation, we had to annotate and make it clearer in the English edition.

We also made some changes to the pictures describing in-game events. One of the “English language” course images, for example, was meant to show examples of Chinese English, but those examples weren’t fun for English speakers, so we replaced them with another one, “人山人海(People mountain people sea)” [an idiom used to describe a vast crowd] which is interesting for both Chinese and foreigners.

I’m also thinking about the “red packet” scenario in the game, which happens over Chinese New Year, where the mouse cursor has to stay in a “safe” range. Did that need additional context or explanation as well?

The red packet game wasn’t actually a big deal, since it is just a simple minigame, and not many people had questions on that. The concept of “face” was a bigger problem. Some Western players considered it the same as “reputation,” and suggested we change the translation to make it clear, but “face” and “reputation” are not the same. After some discussion, we figured it was easier to tell them that it was a mix of “pride” and “reputation.” People get “face” in the same way they get pride (e.g. showing off their strengths), and with enough face, people can influence others and ask them to do favors for them. But still, it doesn’t ring 100% true, and it is hard for people to understand if they are not immersed in such an environment.

Related:

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Can you tell me more about how this game was developed? At what stage did Moyuwan bring it to Coconut Island’s attention? What was that relationship like?

Zhenhao and Geyilang, the founders, were working in some big game companies before, and thought it was a good time to make something on their own. So they quit and set up Moyuwan Games as an indie studio.

They decided to make a game about education in China, because no game in China had ever dealt with it till then. Plus, they liked “simulator-style” games and the format is friendly for a startup company with limited resources.

Several months later, they sent us the demo of the game with the basic gameplay and mechanics. Though the gameplay was simple, we were obsessed with it.

They sent us the demo of the game with the basic gameplay and mechanics. Though the gameplay was simple, we were obsessed with it

The relationship between us is quite close. We gave lots of suggestions on the game both before and after release. We texted each other hundreds of times every day, discussing how to improve the game. For example, in February there was a “Daughter Update” which allows the players to play as a daughter instead of a son. However, the game designers were male and they don’t understand girls’ thoughts! So, we gave them lots of suggestions to help write better and more convincing stories, because Coconut Island Games has much better representation  of female staff members, haha.

More Chinese indie games:

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Can you tell us a bit more about how publishing games works in China? Specifically, how does Coconut Island find games to publish? Do you have a scouting process or a network that reaches out to developers?

Sometimes, the developers send us a demo and seek further cooperation. And sometimes, we find potential games on the game exhibitions. Also, Coconut Island Games held the first Global Game Jam in mainland China back in 2011, and we built the first — and now, the biggest — indie game developer community in mainland China. We have built our reputation and indie developers can always reach us easily.

What’s an ideal Coconut Island game? I feel like there’s a definite “style” to the games you put out — what do you look for in a game that you want to publish?

We prefer games that contain humanity, and can show Chinese culture if possible. So apart from publishing Chinese Parents, we have also developed some other games, like Shio, a PC platformer with unique “Eastern-style” game art, and Haywire Hospital, a mobile sim that reveals the reality of Chinese healthcare in an ironic, yet fun way.

Who’s your audience? What is the biggest group playing your games?

The biggest group is young women in big cities.

Tell us about your upcoming projects! What do you have coming up?

For Moyuwan Games, they will keep updating Chinese Parents and bring it to more platforms if possible. For Coconut Island Games, we are working on several projects now. I can’t tell you the details, but they are all closely related to Chinese culture.

Cover photo: Chinese Parents (Steam)

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Krish Raghav
Krish Raghav works for the Concrete & Grass Music Festival (concreteandgrass.cn) in Shanghai. He shares his hometown with Dhalsim from Street Fighter, but cannot shoot fireballs from his face.