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Lumine, from genshin impact, staring out at the landscape before her. she is on a overlook that shows mondstadt and dragonspine. Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

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Yes, Genshin Impact controls my life, but it’s consensual

The hit of a generation, two years later

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

Logging on to Genshin Impact, I immediately go to my fallback activity: picking flowers. To do that, I choose my anime-esque character with his black-and-teal-colored hair, and we fast-travel to the sheer, jutting peaks of the mystical region of Jueyun Karst. I jump from one slope to another, gliding along while the notes of a stringed instrument accompany my platforming. I pick a white flower called a Qingxin off the top of a neighboring cliff.

On screen, the moment is quiet and serene. But as I pick the flowers, my mind races. I know my total collection of Qingxin will hit 45 flowers that day, so I can level up my character. At that point, I should shift gears toward collecting an entirely different set of materials that can be used to level up specific attacks. At that point, I should check in and see if I’ll have enough money to actually use the materials. But then I notice a friend is online, so I should see if they can run the weekly boss that I’m not quite strong enough to beat yet. An otherwise beautiful moment becomes riddled with the anxiety of Genshin Impact’s never-ending to-do list.

Genshin Impact is not a flower picking simulator. It’s an open-world free-to-play game created by the Shanghai-based studio Hoyoverse (previously known as Mihoyo). Hoyoverse first released Genshin Impact two years ago, and while the core of the game remains the same — you explore, pursue quests, and collect materials to improve characters — it has received several additions of varying sizes. As of the 3.1 patch, the game has just about any sort of gameplay you can imagine: four giant regions to explore, an entire realm dedicated to decorating, a consistent churn of minigames, dozens of lengthy story quests, and an extensive character-building system. It is, both in scope and in the literal amount of storage it takes up on platforms, a huge game.

Lumine from Genshin Impact standing in front of some beautiful scenery. There’s a water fall, mushroom like cliffs jutting out from the cliffside, and giant human-sized flowers.
There are so many stunning nooks and crannies in Genshin Impact.
Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

Hoyoverse’s dedication to the game has transformed it into a global success, and a touchstone in a new generation of players. As of May 2022, the game surpassed $3 billion in revenue on mobile devices, making it the top-grossing mobile gacha game in the world. It also became the most talked-about game on Twitter in the first half of 2022. In September, developers announced that Genshin would even be getting an anime spinoff with Demon Slayer studio Ufotable. Considering all of this, I decided to rereview the game for its second anniversary.

Genshin Impact takes place in the sprawling fantasy world of Teyvat. Although you encounter dragons, magical knights, and elemental gods and goddesses, each region is loosely based on a real-world counterpart. The Traveler (the protagonist) and Paimon (the floating fairy mascot) are in search of the Traveler’s lost twin. As they journey far and wide, the two end up helping the people of each region navigate their own internal struggles. The stories follow political strife, dangerous ancient monsters, and diabolical plots from foreign enemies.

These stories have failed to grab me throughout the past two years. However, Genshin leans hard on its myriad characters, and it’s here where the narrative has reeled me in. Its cast of playable explorers exceeds 50 at this point, and you can find reasons to like every single one of them. Whether it’s the elegant sashes and pink hair of Yae Miko, or Arataki Itto’s rambunctious personality, the game features gorgeous aesthetic designs and lovable antics across the entire cast.

arataki itto smiling with his eyes closed in genshin impact Image: Hoyoverse

Which is all to say that, while Genshin does have a mainline quest, it’s on the periphery of the central narrative that it shines. You can focus on exploring. You can dedicate your sessions to making stronger characters. Or you can just spend all your time decorating and designing a region of your own. No matter what you do, it’s all set in one of the most scenically stunning games I’ve ever played. From the warm golden pools of Liyue to the towering trees of Sumeru to the crackling, electric lands of Inazuma, each region sparkles in its own way. What’s more, it all unfolds to one of the best video game scores that I have ever heard.

Genshin Impact as a hobby

With so much space to explore, so many recurring tasks to complete, and so many characters to collect and improve, Genshin Impact can be less of a game and more of a full-fledged hobby. Its combat and platforming are relatively simplistic on a mechanical level, but its systems and chores are as numerous as they are varied. Everything from leveling up characters to saving up enough currency to merely unlock said characters is rooted in a daily rhythm that requires ongoing investment.

Over time, there is a sort of snowball effect: The more you do, the easier the day-to-day tasks become. A boss fight that once took 15 minutes can now be completed at a much higher level in under a minute — and it will grant more rewards. But early on, it can often feel like a litany of completed tasks that each lead to five new ones. For example, once I finished leveling up the Pyro character Xiangling as well as her attacks and weapons, I still needed to to think about building three more characters to form a well-rounded team.

As I play Genshin, I can swap between four characters at will. I can swing my sword and poke at enemies, yes — but for the most part, the bulk of damage is going to come from special attacks called Elemental Skills and Elemental Bursts. Once I got to a point where I had a well-oiled team and I alchemized their individual elemental traits, fighting fell into a more enjoyable flow. Bursts charge up quickly, allowing me to unleash a nonstop chain of Elemental Skills and Bursts as I switch between characters.

Xinqiu from Genshin Impact fighting the Cryo Regisvine. There is an aura of maple leaves encircling the enemy, as well as flaming wheels, and watery swords hovering around him. All of it is doing damage to the boss laying in front of it. Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

Characters like Xiangling have Elemental Bursts that encircle them with searing flames. Others, like Xingqiu, unleash pinpoint water-like needles that tack on damage after a regular attack. My characters quickly become ornamented with animations that indicate their stat boosts, healing effects, or shield buffs. Visually it can be a bit crowded, but it’s relatively easy to stick to the right rotation of attacks, and it’s entrancing to see the damage numbers skyrocket.

Genshin’s character-building system is among my favorites in an RPG. But still, understanding where to go, and when, can take a significant amount of planning and admin work. It is deep, complicated, and scratches an itch that I haven’t really felt relieved since I was a young child who trained to get a level 100 Pokémon for the first time. Building one character that’s strong enough to defeat a boss is satisfying. Building an entire team of beefed-up fighters is downright exhilarating.

Of course, the ever-looming caveat of live-service games, and of Genshin Impact especially, is the fact that there’s always more content on the way. Try as I might to check every box on my to-do list, there is, more often than not, a new update or expansion around the corner. Keeping up with Genshin Impact can be fun, but it can also be mentally exhausting.

Although patches will vary in size and amount of content, they tend to bring new events that contain time-restricted minigames and miscellaneous quests. At points, I do wish I could spend more time running around, exploring certain regions and meeting new NPCs — but I so frequently feel beholden to interact with new content, whether it’s because people are talking about it online or I want a certain item as a reward. Sometimes, I’ll focus more on the podcast playing in my ear than on the actual plot unfolding in Genshin. It’s a shame, because there are some genuinely good character quests in here — they’re just so closely associated with draining busywork that they end up feeling like a burden.

Dealing with the content churn

With so many tasks and regular, polished updates, the question is not whether Genshin is a good game. (It is.) Rather, the question has become “Can I even keep up with it?” With so much game, it’s no wonder that the fandom constantly brings up the language of burnout when it comes to Genshin. It feels like I’m plugged into a never-ending cycle of content goals.

I think Genshin is most enjoyable when I give myself wiggle room to play at my own pace. In other words, I get the most out of it when I meet it on my own terms. If there is a new Archon quest, well, I might allow myself to skip dailies for a few days, or I will just choose to ignore the battle pass more or less for an entire patch. Maybe I’ll let myself watch TikToks during cutscenes. The moment I feel coerced into doing something is the moment the game stops feeling fun.

On the surface it sounds easy: Just only play the game when it’s fun and rewarding. But so much of Genshin feels like it’s designed to exploit my human tendencies. You know that itch that won’t go away when you see a red circle on the corner of a phone app? Genshin feels just like that — day after day after day.

Fully engaging with Genshin’s gacha mechanics means pursuing a currency called Primogems, a star-shaped crystal that buys another item called an Acquaint Fate, which can then be used to make “Wishes.” When you “Wish,” you gamble for a shot at getting a specific character or weapon, most of which are more powerful than free characters. Specific characters, like the once-much-desired bard Venti, will get boosted drop rates for scheduled periods of time. But then they’re wrenched away. The wishing system works just like a loot box; I’ve seen people develop what they have described as serious gambling addictions while playing Genshin.

If you want to gamble and you don’t have the money to, well, then you feel like you have to log on, every day, and do all the tasks and beat all the events. And while the better characters aren’t necessary to play the game, they are very, very nice — I can’t imagine a game in which I don’t get to play as Xiao. Some of them offer great utility to my roster, sure — but I’ve grown attached to others just through the sheer amount of time I’ve spent with them.

An image of the opening screen of Genshin Impact. It looks like an stone doorway in a celestial wonderland filled with other towering classic architecture set against a blue sky. Image: Hoyoverse via Polygon

It’s an open-world game, but it’s also a gacha game. The daily and weekly requirements, the currencies, and the luck of the draw all influence how and when I play. I can’t cram all my bosses or domains into one day of playing because of arbitrary caps the developers put in place. I can’t go pick all the flowers I want because some will only respawn every two days; like the inner machinations of its ever-looming systems, that serenity I found on the mountaintop is also dictated by the grind.

And so, while there are a lot of ways to play, the game isn’t truly open — I can’t always do what I want, when I want. I love the world, but I always feel like there’s a tension between loving the world and exploring it, but always feeling like there’s an invisible hand, which is not completely free of insidious intentions, guiding my habits.

And so I chip away and bristle against it where I can. I will allow myself to grind, but I will listen to a podcast during the most unbearable moments. I will not feel bad about getting every last Primogem. I will accept that my brain might feel an itch for a while, because I simply will not get to that “one world quest” for a week, and my log might be more clogged than I’d like it to be. Instead of worrying, I will simply close the game and try to forget about it for a few days. Then, on a fresh Saturday morning, I will return to its beautiful world, and find that my flowers have regrown.