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a still from a teaser video showing the 3.0 sumeru region in genshin impact.

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As it adds new regions, Genshin Impact’s politics only get messier

The game’s depictions of real-world locations and cultures are uneven

Image: Hoyoverse

Tantalizing food stalls selling bubbling, spicy hot pot adorn the streets of Genshin Impact’s Liyue Harbor. Colorful koi swim in tranquil lotus ponds on a terrace above the meticulously constructed city. Should the player wish, they may partake in Sichuanese-inspired water-boiled fish at a restaurant where player-character Xiangling cooks. As the sun sets over the mountain ranges that overlook the city, the slow duet of erhu and harp music enlivens the landscape. Through design and musical compositions, the developers at Hoyoverse paint a fantasized facsimile of Guangdong, Xiamen, or port cities of China’s southern provinces.

For all the effort that Chinese state propaganda puts into showcasing traditional Chinese landscapes, tourism agencies may have been outdone by a video game. Now entering its third year, the open-world adventure game’s attention to detail has drawn fans — and their wallets — into the gacha system. The world and its story remain free to explore, showcasing ambitious visual triumphs of landscapes inspired by locations in the real world. However, this attention to detail is not universal. Inazuma, a pseudo-Japanese shogunate, and Sumeru, which blends Middle Eastern and South Asian cultural references, art direction, and language allusions put the game in close proximity to tense real-world racial and political issues. As Hoyoverse’s directors and writers journey away from tried-and-true fantasy role-playing game environments inspired by Europe and East Asia, they expose storytelling limitations of stereotype over-reliance and callous usage of real-life history.

The blond haired main character called Traveler stands in the Genshin Impact city of Liyue Image: Hoyoverse via Rui Zhong

For each of the game’s major updates, Genshin’s developers take the wheel of key content preview streams. On these occasions, leadership at Hoyoverse borrow the mic from the game’s voice actors and announce update details between standard six-week patches. Key patch notifications such as region launches are emceed by Hoyoverse founder Liu Wei, who interviews various team leads under the pen name Da Wei. Liu’s cheery, infectiously enthusiastic interviews with his colleagues, conducted in elaborate sets based on in-game locations, offer detail about new game mechanics with the staffers that made such changes.

In introducing Sumeru in Genshin’s 3.0 update, Liu began with a chat with Genshin writing lead Xiao Luohao, asking questions as a collegial friend would over coffee, using the term “classmate” to refer to his subordinates. He then allowed on-screen time on the broadcast for developers who put together the nuts and bolts of the update. Combat designers discussed new enemy mechanics. Environmental team members explained puzzles and interactive elements, like grappling points accompanied by the sound of shooting vines. It’s an ingeniously down-to-earth, personable marketing approach. As a result, the studio’s relationship with players is far more informal compared to high-atop-a-stage announcements that AAA gaming companies typically use for previews.

When the Genshin Impact team discusses a Liyue-based character that they’ve put particular effort into, such as opera singer Yun Jin, they describe culturally specific research and writing that went into the development process. But when describing Sumeru’s respective in-game regions, comparisons to real-world similarities were absent from developer commentary. Sumeru characters’ designs have visual references to Amazigh, Nubian, and Persian textiles and accessories. But preview commentary largely did not address these cultural influences, instead relegating such character descriptions to in-game combat and story roles. Also opaque are the decision-making processes for inclusivity for regions other than Liyue.

Hoyoverse’s world-building for Genshin Impact, both in-game and in its growing metaverse business, has spared no expense in providing immersive experiences for fans across its Asia and global servers. The company rebranded its international branch from Mihoyo to Hoyoverse in February, and has since collaborated with brands ranging from fast food chains such as KFC China to Cadillac. An upcoming Ufotable anime collaboration is likely to attract even more fans to the game. And Genshin’s live concerts, another series of in-house, real-world projects, feature artists from real-life regions that inspired Yu-Peng Cheng’s tracks. Music videos feature the London Symphony Orchestra and folk musicians performing in a Sumeru-like forest. Similar musical collaborations laden with traditional-music artists were organized for the previous region, Japan-inspired Inazuma.

Unlike other metaverse projects that feature the dead-fish eyes of Meta Mark Zuckerberg, the bright color palette and anime designs found within Hoyoverse’s games allow fans to find favorite characters within a growing colorful cast. In Genshin in particular, player and non-player characters have clothing and facial features with detailed rendering, to say nothing of the lush landscapes that comprise the exploration segments of the games. Character work has also emphasized player favoritism and subsequent investment into the gacha system. The more enthusiasm and appeal a character inspires, the more rolls players are willing to spend.

As this global audience grows, Hoyoverse and Genshin must face political questions in the world of their game and beyond. Upon the release of Sumeru, fans criticized colorism in character designs, particularly when 3.0 characters were leaked. In addition to skin tone, the female character designs of Sumeru player-characters favor bare midriffs and belly-dance costume inspiration. Candace, Dehya, and Nilou all wear harem costumes — and these are all characters that Genshin players have referred to as collectable “waifus.” The regional god, the petite and pale-skinned Kusanali, also bears little resemblance to the people of South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures that her land references in detail.

When street stalls of the region sell panipuri and tandoori chicken, and meticulously composed sitar music pipes through cities and jungles, such character design and stereotypical writing of minority groups feels even more conspicuous. Nilou and Kusanali reside in a city of refined scholars, whereas Candace and Dehya come from tribes of desert nomads who double as mob enemies. To some of the people of Sumeru’s capital city, they are described as “true soldiers of fortune who will do anything for money.”

Genshin Impact 3.0 key art, featuring Kusanali surrounded by powerful characters like Dehya and Nilou
Key art featuring Genshin Impact’s Sumeru region characters.
Image: Hoyoverse

Sumeru exemplifies the problems of billing a game about traveling the world as politically neutral, and the risks developers take when venturing further afield from what’s familiar to them. The team’s uneven attention to detail becomes more apparent when reviewing Hoyoverse’s earlier behind-the-scenes videos shared on YouTube. When working with the Han Chinese culture, which the developers share, everything from the architectural details to in-team debates over the movements of a Peking opera-inspired character are planned down to the last pixel. Fantastic the game may be, but when developers wish to, they can carbon copy the cultural inspirations they want to get right.

The increase in studio-side cultural sensitivity and inclusivity in gaming comes at a time when the business of electronic entertainment is going through challenging growth overall. In the West, large corporations such as Ubisoft, Activision Blizzard, and Wizards of the Coast are publicly facing employee and fan backlash over cases of crunch, workplace harassment, and racist character writing, respectively. Dungeons & Dragons in particular is attempting to move away from “good” and “evil” archetypes for its various races, most recently removing racist descriptions of the primatelike Hadozee. Meanwhile, the past Genshin controversy over basing monster movements on Indigenous people was largely chalked up to fan drama. However, developers have remained silent on the design problems of the game’s characters and monsters, while continuing to pair photorealistic food with costuming choices that mix South Asian and Middle Eastern culture without rhyme or reason. Fans have pointed out that the movements of dancer Nilou were meticulously researched, but that her belly dance costume is a mismatch for her Persian-style performances.

Issues of race and the game’s real-life inspirations remain unaddressed within the continent of Teyvat, even as the game references politics in its writing elsewhere. While Genshin flourishes on cultural depictions of Han Chinese culture within its Liyue region, it’s the Electric-element region that comes closest to real-life political history. On the Japan-inspired archipelago of Inazuma where outside travel is forbidden by their shogun ruler, individuals with emblems from gods are hunted down and stripped of their ambition. The military-led inquisitions and war with the Ryukyu-like Watatsumi Island are parallels to still-present divisions in Okinawa. Further south in the ocean is Tsurumi Island, barren and shadowed in fog, but with ghosts and locations bearing names in the Ainu language. Within these details, Genshin’s developers and writers have straddled the line between inspiration and direct references to real-life ethnic tensions, political strife, and historical wounds. It’s ground that any developer, much less one that raked in $3.7 billion in iOS and Google revenue, should tread carefully on.

Inazuma’s live-wire politics and the introduction of Sumeru indicate a turning point for the game’s protagonist, the Traveler. But through Paimon, the floating companion who’s followed them since the beginning, Genshin Impact gives the player permission to shrug away the weight of the stories it is currently telling. As she follows the player through Sumeru, Paimon complains about the hard-to-pronounce names and vegetarian diets of the new land. These notions of “strange” customs by nations outside of Genshin’s Asian and European regions exotifies other cultures and centers ethnic-majority perspectives of not just the player, but also the developers. While the game is meant to be immersive, the question of which gamers are immersed and which are alienated will likely be one that minority gamers continue to ask.

Travel and travel narratives are not and cannot be politically neutral, particularly in pop cultural products that have power fantasies ingrained into their design and writing. In the context of Genshin Impact’s first two years, the protagonist has served as a sword-wielding knight errant who has saved the people of three of Teyvat’s seven regions. What might save Genshin’s future and provide for a more inclusive community may not rely on their hero’s swordsmanship, but on inclusive engagement and a more honest rapport with critical fans.

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