The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 14th-century novel that paints a dashingly fantastical portrait of the wars that followed the collapse of China’s Han Empire in the 2nd century. It is hugely precious in China and influential across Asia more generally, in the same way that the stories of King Arthur and the plays of Shakespeare are to us in Britain and across the West.
Ripple effects from the clamour to access China’s huge games market are, finally, being felt in the West, from events like Overwatch’s Lunar New Year to more troubling cases of developers making unfortunate accommodations seemingly with China in mind – see Rainbow Six Siege’s acts of content censorship and Blizzard’s suspicious treatment of Blitzchung. It’s still rare, though, to see triple-A game developers looking to tell Chinese stories.
Expect this to change. The ability to sell in China is already a major consideration for the world’s biggest studios and it’s only logical that they would look to enhance it at fundamental levels, such as story and content, rather than just distribution. And China has plenty of exciting stories to tell and thousands of years of tumultuous history to draw upon.
But the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is among the most enduring of them all, and one of the few that already has a toehold in western culture thanks to the long-running Dynasty Warriors series and last year’s Total War: Three Kingdoms. With that game’s (excellent) Mandate of Heaven DLC having recently released and the fourteenth instalment in Japanese studio Koei Tecmo’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms launching on February 28, we were excited to catch up with the developers to talk about the depiction of one of China’s most important national stories in videogames, and their different approaches as western and eastern – but not Chinese – studios.
What, in its essence, is the story of the Three Kingdoms about? “Our general producer Kou Shibusawa himself has laid the cornerstone for the series, which is that Three Kingdoms is about people,” Koei Tecmo producer Kazuhiro Echigoya says. “It’s about illustrious characters and human drama. That has remained unchanged throughout the series. That’s where things take off.”
Total War developer Creative Assembly shared the same analysis. “I think ‘Game of Thrones in ancient China’ was a tagline we used,” Simon Mann, senior designer at Creative Assembly, says. “The comparison is a little bit generalist, but we definitely share these characters who are larger than life, and who are exciting and interesting in who they are and what they represent. It’s about the characters, not just as tools but as people, who have drives and desires. We definitely tried to bring that through in Total War: Three Kingdoms.”
It’s a nice tagline, but as Mann points out, a little reductive. Unlike in Game of Thrones – in which most characters are out for power for its own sake – there’s a philosophical component to the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. “The novel is a moral tale, at least to a certain extent,” Mann points out. “The people who die violently tend to be the ones who have some quite major character flaws. Yuan Shao, for instance, is very indecisive, and gets quite angry when people challenge his authority over that, and he dies in quite a nasty fashion.”
“There are no obviously good or bad guys,” Creative Assembly lead game designer Attila Mohácsi adds. “They’re all trying to do their best from their perspective. Even though we depict Dong Zhou as a tyrant, our internal discussions always acknowledged that he was witnessing the collapse of the Han Empire and trying to find solutions for it. The solutions were very brutal and direct, but he was ultimately trying to assure the empire’s survival.”
There are no obviously good or bad guys. They’re all trying to do their best
Unlike Creative Assembly, which was coming fresh to the source material, Koei Tecmo has been making strategy games about the Romance of the Three Kingdoms for no less than 35 years in a series of games that share the novel’s title. With the fourteenth in the series having been released in January 2020, it’s almost as prolific as Final Fantasy, yet lacks that series’ apparently endless narrative reinvention. How does a studio approach the same story, time after time, even within the same genre, and find something new to bring for the next instalment?
“The characters remain a constant in the formula,” Echigoya insists. “Each time we’re trying to provide different game systems that lead to a different play experience.” The shift from the sixth and seventh games provides a clear example of this approach, with the addition of character-driven role-playing mechanics.
“Up until the sixth instalment, the path of the series had been one of [linear] evolution, if you will – basically just upgrading the existing system,” Echigoya says. “Micromanagement had reached a point beyond which it simply wouldn’t be fun anymore. The number of characters had reached a certain level as well. In many senses the series needed a reboot.”
Having embraced RPG mechanics for its fantastical foray in Total War: Warhammer, Total War took a similar path in tackling the Three Kingdoms. I wonder if the idea for these RPG mechanics came from a frank discussion about what the Romance series needed next
“It actually [happened] the other way around!” Echigoya says. “We have a series called Taikō Risshiden about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a legendary figure from Japanese history who, despite being born a peasant, eventually became Chancellor, the most powerful man in Japan. It was a semi-RPG, semi-strategy game, and had already had a good level of success. We knew people liked it and we were confident the systems were fun, so basically for Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII we just implemented that core system. It proved to be a huge success, and fans welcomed the change.”
With each new iteration of the series, Koei Tecmo has the customary internal conversations. “Usually when you finish a game, there are always certain regrets and things that you wanted to implement,” Echigoya says. These cutting room-floor ideas are compounded with gamers’ feedback – an endless wishlist of ideas that people would like to see in future titles – to inspire a fresh approach.
There’s a lot of new media which looks at the story from different perspectives
And yet it speaks to the universality of Three Kingdoms’ themes, and to its continuing hold on imaginations across Asia and the world, that, Koei Tecmo can find yet more inspiration from external developments.
“It doesn’t always have to be an internal process – the outside world provides plenty of new angles,” he continues. “There’s a lot of new literature, manga, drama, which look at the story from different perspectives. There are new findings in the academic field – Cao Cao’s grave was supposedly unearthed a couple of years ago, for instance. These are all eye-opening or stimulating to us developers.”
I press for an example of such a finding that made its way directly into the game, and Echigoya names the relationship between the one-eyed champion Xiahou Dun, and his less-famous cousin, Xiahou Yuan. “In our earlier titles, Xiahou Dun was the more useful character, with the higher stats. But over the years, and through further learning, the team found his cousin Xiahou Yuan was leading most of the grand campaigns, and [may have been] more talented than his cousin, even though Xiahou Dun is older, more famous, and did become the grand general of the army. Still, in our game, we gradually revise character attributes as our perception and understanding of them changes.”
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On the face of it, the strategy genre is ideally suited for adapting the Three Kingdoms into videogame form. Koei Tecmo has it down to an art at this point, but I wonder what particular challenges Creative Assembly had in translating the Three Kingdoms to its own distinctive formula.
“I think the hardest thing was that we are a sandbox game [based on] a novel, or at least a series of very well-known events,” Mann explains. “So we just aren’t the kind of game that is able to follow that narrative precisely in that way. Rather, we try to give you a more freeform experience that’s authentic to how the novel would feel, and really steeps you in that world.”
“While the story is fascinating, the only way we can do it is to slice it up into smaller chapters: ‘this is what happened here, this is what happened there’,” says Mohácsi, giving the example of the timeline feature in the Mandate of Heaven DLC, which adds the option to start your campaign at different points in the Three Kingdoms conflict.
Some of the most popular mods coming out of China are for unique character art
“A lot of people comment that Liu Bei tends to die very early [when played by the AI],” Mann says. “The reason for that is because he’s in a poor position in those early campaigns. Historically he had stopped leading armies – he went off as an individual and wanted the world for a while, serving other lords. If he had kept fighting [in real life] and that had played out, maybe he would’ve eventually been destroyed historically as well.”
This is precisely the appeal of the sandbox genre, and indeed of an interactive medium like videogames more broadly. “It’s quite nice to have all those hypothetical situations occur in the sandbox,” Mohácsi muses. “Challenges like, what if my favorite character – and for me it was always Cao Cao – what if Cao Cao could conquer the entire world? What if he united China and became its sole emperor?”
“Because we are a sandbox, we’ve been able to surprise people, and have them say ‘I still feel like Cao Cao, even if I’m not strictly doing the things that he did’,” Mann says. “I think that’s something we got really on the mark, actually.”
This all makes sense – and indeed Mann states that “when we were first looking at what projects to do we thought ‘this is an almost perfect fit’,” but I can’t help but wonder if Creative Assembly ever wanted a more personal perspective than the strategy genre, which is played from a bird’s eye view, traditionally allows.
Total War: Three Kingdoms’ many hype trailers all take the kind of character-led approach that suits such a character-led story: Dong Zhou’s feared enforcer Lu Bu is shown barging his way through a line of infantry, while the cunning Cao Cao is shown smirking over a game of Go. Indeed, until Total War came along, the most successful Three Kingdoms adaptation in the west was probably the highly memeable hack-and-slash action game Dynasty Warriors, which took a closer, third-person look at characters and battles, and featured many narrative cutscenes with the icons of the Three Kingdoms chewing plenty of digital scenery.
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“I suppose that you can always argue that there’s more interesting things you can do,” Mann responds, when I put this to him. “You could add more narrative stuff, I guess, to develop certain characters more – certainly the more ancillary ones in the narrative. But I’d argue that would change the flow and the pacing of the game from where we would want it to be.”
It’s an understandable view – beyond a certain point there’s not a lot that can or should be done about the inherent constraints of genre, and no one could say Creative Assembly haven’t done brilliantly to communicate personality while working within those constraints. Fans seem to have noticed. Three Kingdoms was the most pre-ordered game in Total War history ahead of its launch and the fastest-selling afterwards. This extends to Chinese fans: franchise director Rob Bartholomew has confirmed to GamesIndustry.biz that “China is absolutely the most major market” for the game.
For Creative Assembly, this is gratifying for reasons beyond those that obviously attend financial success. “I think my favourite comment that I’ve seen so far was ‘finally, a Western studio is doing an amazing Three Kingdoms game’,” Mann says. “Because one of the biggest concerns for me, as a western game developer making a game about China that’s being released in China, was whether we got the culture right. Have we westernised something that’s quite a precious historical artefact? Have we done the wrong thing with it, basically, and turned it into almost a melodrama that it didn’t really need to be?
“And it’s been really positive and great to hear that, actually, we have done a good job, and we have been very culturally sensitive with it, and beyond that, people are relishing the fact that we’ve given them this sandbox experience where they can play around with the characters they know and love.”
“The differences between East and West are interesting,” adds Mohácsi, suggesting some Eastern audiences relish the opportunities to play around with the setting that a sandbox game brings. “[They] look at the game a little bit like Pokemon, like, collect them all, these legendary characters. They’re posting pictures like, ‘look, all of my ministerial positions are filled by key characters out of the book’. And we weren’t sure about that – like, is this good, is it not good? But just seeing the reception is very humbling, I would say – how much people loved the game, and they still love it. I’m a historian as well, for me history is literally my life, so it’s hard to explain how it feels.”
Unsurprisingly, Chinese audiences have exacting expectations for the interpretation of their national story, and its narrative aspects in particular – a fact of which Koei Tecmo is well aware. “We feel that gamers in the East, due to their deep knowledge of the Romance of Three Kingdoms, tend to critique us more on characters, or on our interpretation of the story,” says Echigoya. “Whereas in the West, because people are less familiar with the time period or with the novel, they tend to view it as a pure strategy game, and their comments really reflect that.”
Again, Creative Assembly’s experience is similar. “Western players seem to be very focused on systems and gameplay,” Mohácsi says, “whereas Eastern audiences seem to be all in for narrative, story, and the characters. It’s a very clear split.”
“I think we did a good job with the 800 or so main characters we put in the game, but people want them to have unique artwork,” Mann adds. “Some of the most popular mods coming out of China are for unique character art, things like that. There’s this real desire for fullness in how the characters are shown. Everyone’s got their favourite character, but interestingly it’s very rarely the ones that you would expect. It’s like: ‘oh Pang Tong, he’s the best character in the whole thing!’ but he’s not even in it for that long! So yeah, it’s very passionate.”
“It’s internalised there,” Mohácsi agrees. “I had a chat with one of our colleagues and they were saying a certain character is still used, today, as the boogieman for children in China. So you’re like, ‘oh God, they grow up learning the name of this character!’ It’s amazing. It’s a whole different world.”
For Koei Tecmo to be tackling the national story of China, a near neighbour with which Japan has a long and complicated history, is a bit like a French studio taking on the stories of King Arthur, or a British studio making a game about Charlemagne and his paladins. I ask Echigoya how the Three Kingdoms is regarded in Japan, and where the fascination with the period – which must exist, to propel a 14-game series – comes from.
“One of the historical periods we’re most familiar with would be the Sengoku era – the tumultuous warring era that leaves a mark in people’s minds. The Japanese are naturally very, very knowledgeable about it, but they’re almost as fanatical about the Three Kingdoms period. And the reason for that is, I think for both periods, that they are times of romance as well as drama. To compare the two, the Three Kingdoms is a dozen centuries behind the Japanese Sengoku era, and where the sophistication of the military battles is less pronounced, personalities will stand out even more. This just adds to the romance of the story. That’s why the theme is so attractive to the Japanese populace.”
There’s nothing about this that should be confined to Japan, either. Creative Assembly shared this insight, and so we’re brought back to where we began: the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the most arresting stories that unites us as a /species/, because at its root it is about us. It’s the story of a war for the right to govern, in which competing visions of the good state ally with each other, betray each other, and compete for dominance. Such a cauldron is the ultimate distiller of our virtues and vices, and as China’s market tempts western developers to look more broadly for their stories, Three Kingdoms games are timely reminders that, in the end, such stories are relevant to all of us.