Midautumn Is a Hades-esque Roguelike About Asian Diaspora | IGN

Late last year, when We Are the Caretakers designer Sherveen Uduwana approached LIONKILLER creator Sisi Jiang with a game idea, the concept for Midautumn was, in his own words, very vague: Asian diaspora, a midautumn festival, and…something about gentrification.

Fortunately, Jiang ran with the concept, teeing up the game’s transformation for its announcement today. With Jiang’s writing, Uduwana’s gameplay and leadership, and the talents of lead environment artist Kiana Mosser, lead character artist Mai Pham, and character portraits by Chi Ngo, the team is ready to show off their roguelike adventure set in a fictional Asian enclave in California, where the spirit world is beginning to encroach on the physical world in parallel with more grounded, real-world gentrification.

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Speaking to IGN, Uduwana describes Midautumn’s gameplay as similar to recent indie hit Hades, but with a very different premise. It takes place in the town of Nambo Quay, a fictional town founded by Chinese immigrants during the gold rush that is now reckoning with economic instability and frustration that will be familiar to most millennials and Gen Z-ers. The main character, Robin, discovers in the opening act that there’s a gate to the spirit world beneath their grandmother’s basement, and in exchange for rent, they must descend into its depths to keep the spirit world from wrecking the real one using their grandmother’s magic staff. Robin will fight through procedurally generated dungeons, avoiding traps and hazards, and discovering the town’s secrets by defeating spirit world denizens in top-down, action combat with a focus on magic.

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Their activities in the spirit world will ultimately have an impact on the denizens of Nambo Quay, as the creatures beyond the basement gate increasingly try to push their way into disrupting day-to-day life. And in between spirit world jaunts, Robin will explore Nambo Quay, getting to know their neighbors and their community’s frustrations, struggles, hopes, and desires.

Central to Midautumn is its portrayal of Asian diaspora, specifically surrounding the representation of a very specific type of Asian community that exists in America and which all the team members were familiar with: one where multiple different Asian groups come together, both melding and maintaining their disparate cultures. Jiang says much of their inspiration for the community of Nambo Quay came from visual novel game Butterfly Soup, a lesbian Asian diaspora visual novel about baseball.

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“[It’s] an Asian ethnoburb,” Jiang says, describing their first experience with Butterfly Soup in relation to Midautumn. “It’s like this place I’ve known my entire life, but is nowhere in the American cultural consciousness. These places exist! But you don’t know they exist unless you live in one.”

They add that while Midautumn starts out as a very personal, individual story, it later widens “to how different Asian groups interact and how it’s not one monolith and how there can be different strategies to combat the things that are happening with the town. It works really well when you have this cast of characters from different backgrounds, perspectives, and cultural touchstones.”

That said, Jiang didn’t want to make a game about the solutions to the problems these communities are facing, largely because they don’t have clear, concrete answers. Instead, Midautumn is “about people doing their best.”

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“I thought that the roguelike structure would be really interesting to do a narrative about — something where combating it takes repeated, almost unending work,” Jiang continues. “Gentrification was really interesting with that; you have to keep working against it.”

Uduwana says he wanted to create something specifically about Asian diaspora in part because of his own background: He’s Sri Lankan, but spent 13 years growing up in Vietnam, and also a portion of his life in Singapore.

“I have a weird mish-mash of different influences where I am almost incapable of telling a story that will read as authentic to any other Asian diaspora person if I were to write it,” he says.

“It’s difficult, when you’re making games that cater to marginalized audiences, you have to account for the fact that lots of people who play these games have a certain level of wariness in how they’re depicted,” he says. “So we’re trying really early to build up goodwill and trust. We’re doing our best to portray these characters, so hopefully people can kind of relax. When I play games, once I get to the point where I feel a certain level of trust with a developer, that’s really only when I can start to enjoy games where people like me are depicted.”

Pham tells me that it was this concept in Uduwana’s pitch that drew them to work on the game in the first place, referencing the frustration many Asian Americans have with a lack of Asian representation in video games, and the view of their very separate and unique cultures as a monolith.

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“There’s a lot of Asian representation [in games], but when it comes to different types of Asian people, or Vietnamese people like I am, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can see myself in this game.’ It was representation for who I am, and I think that’s really cool.”

Pham is clear that Asian representation isn’t the only kind of representation important to the team, though. They tell me about several characters who are diverse in their gender identities, including the game’s non-binary protagonist Robin. It’s been fun to design such a diverse and colorful cast, they say, and they’re trying to be attentive and sensitive to portrayals to ensure that players can see themselves in the game, first and foremost, as human beings.

“What really struck me when I was sent the character bios was that Sherveen had said to focus more on body diversity,” they add. “It’s been really fun tackling different body shapes and different types of people who have such different personalities.”

For Mosser’s part on the environments, she’s been making pixel art since she was young, but with Midautumn wanted to do something that both incorporated the themes and roots of the game while also looking very different from anything else that was out there.

“One problem I have with pixel art games is they can feel very samey a lot of the time, because they all draw from the same references,” she says. “It gets into this cycle of people referencing the same few games, like Earthbound or Pokemon or Final Fantasy. So you end up with styles that look very similar to each other.

MidautumnAnnouncement_Beach-Area-720x412 Midautumn Is a Hades-esque Roguelike About Asian Diaspora | IGN

“But when I came to work on this project, I told Sherveen I wanted to pull from real life. Pixel art is just a medium; we can depict whatever we want. So we took a look at a bunch of different locations across Asia, at a bunch of different art styles and painting techniques people use, and I wanted to take the essence of those and use them in the art style of the game. So in the wood biome, it’s a mash-up of three different styles: there’s the traditional ink painting you might be familiar with from Chinese landscape paintings. There’s a more messy style that’s inspired by palette knife paintings that you might see on the street…and then there’s a bit of influence of graffiti art as well in the foreground…I think it turned out really unique.”

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Midautumn is currently planned for release on PC with controller support. While Uduwana is open to console releases down the line, he’s not thinking about it for the time being while they focus on development. He’s not looking at a release date just yet, but is expecting late 2021 or early 2022 for an early access launch.

He says that whether or not Midautumn takes off, he hopes that people who find the game resonates with them are then in turn able to find one another and make connections through the shared story.

“Building communities has always been really important to me,” he says. “In your career as a game dev, you have a finite number of games you’re going to make. The kind of communities that coalesce around the games you make are defined by the values and morals you put into that. For me, especially in a time when I’m getting more disillusioned with a lot of things in the games industry, I become more and more impatient to see the kinds of things that represent me or people I know.”

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Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.
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