Since the dawn of video games, we have been teleported into one wonderful imaginary world after another. In worlds represented by role-playing games in fantasy contexts, i.e. fantasy RPGs, players can harness and wield powerful supernatural magic which are almost unachievable in real life. The magic generally involves magic powers (sorcery, wizardry, witchcraft, etc.) and various magical items. As Eddo Stern pointed out is his essay (Stern, 2002), these worlds in western fantasy RPGs are identically set in pseudo-historical magical medieval realms. In fact, their oriental counterparts, Chinese fantasy RPGs also have similar world settings of such fictional universes, but in culturally different contexts.
Compared to western fantasy RPGs, the Chinese ones have a much shorter history and smaller quantity. While western players were immersed in the three classics—Ultima (first title release in 1981), Wizardry and Might & Magic series, Chinese players were still awaiting the advent of probably the first Chinese RPG—Xuan-Yuan Sword (first title released in 1990). As the evolution of video games continues, many more finely crafted fantasy RPGs emerged. In the west, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) established a well-constructed and fully realised fictional universe (or multiverses) with a set of rich, strict and constantly evolving game rules and mechanics. Based on it, many of the fantasy RPGs such as Baldur’s Gate series, Planescape: Torment, Icewind Dale series and Neverwinter Nights series, helped bringing the world of sword and magic from pen and paper to the computer. Recent Dragon Age series succeed some of the best traits and elements from D&D and reinvented tactical role-playing games (TRPGs) and action role-playing games (ARPGs). Another series, The Elder Scrolls, defined the paradigm of open world RPGs in its vast world Tamriel, while alternatively, Diablo series innovated the gameplay form of “hack and slash” in ARPGs with its straightforward narrative and closed world settings. In China, by adopting the turn-based strategy combat form from Japanese RPGs such as Final Fantasy series, Xuan-Yuan Sword and The Legend of Sword and Fairy (Chinese Paladin) series continued to grow and became the most influential and well-received Chinese RPGs, mostly for their successful conveyance of traditional Chinese culture and impressive stories. Before the Chinese digital game market became dominated by online and freemium games, games such as Heroes of Jin Yong and Prince of Qin demonstrated that Chinese can make games of various genres and styles of cultural identity and high qualities. The hope of Chinese fantasy RPGs was relit by GuJian Qitan (Fantastic Tales of Ancient Swords), a brand-new fantasy RPG series that carries forward the Chinese cultural deposits.
Despite the differences in subgenres and gameplay forms and styles, these fantasy RPGs represent magic and its mechanics and uses in ways that are influenced and informed by culturally specific sources such as myth, religion, natural philosophy and fantasy literature. As is generally perceived, the western culture is inherently influenced by Greek and Norse methodologies, western legends and folklore, Christianity and Ancient Greek Philosophy, from which western high fantasy literature gains the foundation of birth and growth and keeps inspiring creation of fantasies of western identities in the form of video games. While on the other side, Chinese methodology, legends, folklore and hundred schools of thought of Ancient Chinese philosophy (including Confucianism and Taoism) give rise to the culturally unique historical fantasy literature genres—Shenmo (Gods and Evils methodology, 神魔) and Wuxia (martial hero, 武侠). And unsurprisingly, nearly all Chinese fantasy RPGs, whether partially or wholly, draw their sources from these forms of fantasy literature. Nevertheless, do these distinctions inform considerable differences in the representations of magic and its uses in western and Chinese fantasy RPGs even when this medium originated from the west and takes its shape totally from a western approach and perspective? The essay will select some notable culturally specific sources and look into this question from several aspects of the representations of magic in fantasy RPGs—its form, function, classification, uses and users. Continue reading