Games That Celebrate Southeast Asian Culture
There’s a lot of games that celebrate Western history and culture, with everything from their pop culture and language to their history. But Asian culture kinda gets a bit of a careless hand in representation with much mixing of Japanese and Chinese culture to stand for Asia. But what about Southeast Asia? As a group of countries, we share a unique and diverse culture, rich in heritage, but not much of it has made its way to mainstream media, even less in gaming. So here we have a list of games that celebrate and feature aspects of quintessentially Southeast Asian life and traditions. Let’s get woke.
No Straight Roads by Metronomik (Malaysia)
No Straight Roads is an action-adventure music game that brings about the clash of two genres in an all-out battle of sound! In the game, you play as Mayday and Zuke a rock band duo that’s battling against the notorious EDM empire. Together they’re going to lead a musical revolution to show that rock ‘aint ever gonna die.
In your musical battles for rock supremacy, you’ll encounter DK West a shadow rhythm superstar who fights Mayday & Zuke in a traditional wayang kulit (shadow puppet play). Wayang kulit is used as a traditional form of storytelling in Malaysia and Indonesia. In a wayang kulit performance, puppet figures are rear-projected onto a screen using the puppet’s shadows to cast a scene. In the back, a shadow artist or dalang will manipulate the figures to tell a story. This storytelling is normally accompanied by live music. Fun fact: DK West’s first initials actually stand for dikir barat a North Malaysian (Kelantanese) way of “arguing”. So what’s the Western form of arguing? A rap battle with DK West!
Mamayani by Meam Genovaña & Crown Patalinghog (Philippines)
Mamayani is a role-playing game that features Filipina heroines during the American and Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Set in the early 1930s-40s, the game tells the heroic stories of lesser-known heroines. Allowing people to learn all about the ideals and their efforts during this time of war. The game will feature four heroines of Filipino history, the first is Concepcion Felix, the founder of Asosacion Feminista Filipina (AFF), the first women’s club in the Philippines. Salud Algabre, leader of Sakdal, a group of lower-class people fighting for independence. Lydia Gellidon, a 14-year old who assisted in guerilla operations. And Remedios Gomez-Paraiso, leader of Hukbalahap or Hukbong Laban sa Hapon a guerilla movement opposing Japanese rule.
While this may all sound like a history lesson, albeit a very interesting one, Mamayani actually has some solid gameplay involved. This full RPG involves gorgeous stage designs, turn-based combat, quests to complete as well as choice-based narrative. Mamayani is a beautiful and immersive tribute to the heroines of the Philippines.
Rokudo by Heaven Tales Entertainment (Malaysia)
Rokudo is a 2D action platformer set in the Japanese realms of the afterlife. It is an exploration and adventure game that will allow you to delve into the six different realms of the afterlife. I know what you’re thinking, Japanese? This is a Southeast Asian article dammit, well I’m getting to that. In these realms that you’ll be fighting your way through you’ll be meeting up with supernatural creatures from all over Asian lore for you to battle.
In the image above we have from the left we have Kasa Obake, yes this one is from Japan, but that’s the only one in this picture! Next to it is a Gong Goi from Thailand whose defining characteristic is that it has one backward leg. The Gong Goi is forced to traverse its paranormal world by hopping around on its one leg. Also, don’t Google that at night. The third one is a Pocong or a wrapped ghost that’s common in Indonesian and Malaysian ghost stories. The Pocong is said to be the soul of a dead person trapped in its shroud. Next to it is the Jiangshi from Chinese lore, which is a kind of reanimated corpse similar to a zombie, except that it hops. You can’t make this stuff up. And lastly, all the way on the right is the Southeast Asian Toyol, an undead infant used to do black magic. Urgh nightmares.
Rokudo is slated to be released in early 2020 on PC.
Chinatown Detective Agency by General Interactive Co. (Singapore)
It doesn’t get more Singaporean than Chinatown Detective Agency, well Singapore in a cyberpunk future anyway. The world is in chaos, the global economy is crashing, in all that you’re still going to get a feel of a game that celebrates what is very uniquely Singaporean. From the iconic city skylines, albeit with some future cyberpunk-type adjustments, to the hawker stalls and the fairly distinctive ‘Singlish’ accent (that’s English spoken with a Singaporean accent). Chinatown Detective Agency is quintessentially Singaporean and kudos to them for getting it right.
The game as you may have gleaned from the title is very detective noir. If you’ve ever played those old school Carmen Sandiego games in the late 80s and early 90s you’ll get a sense of how the gameplay here works. Cases will have you pointing and clicking to solve puzzles and answer questions all while hot-footing around the place. The cases you take in your detective agency will eventually have you unravelling a global conspiracy.
Chinatown Detective Agency will be launched in the winter of 2020, on the Steam, Humble Store and GOG.
Fires at Midnight by Persona Theory Games (Malaysia)
One of the nominees of this year’s SEA Game Awards, Fires At Midnight is set in a world where sex without love will send you to hell. Literally. Play as a couple that’s struggling to make it through life, without you know exploding. It’s an interesting story that’s beautifully told through the eyes of both people, set in the backdrop of Malaysia in the 90s. If that television set is anything to go by. In the window, you can see the iconic twin towers and the familiar city skyline of the country’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur.
If that’s not enough of a shoutout to the Malaysian culture then don’t worry because the game also features a bunch of other scenes depicting a traditional house growing up. But most importantly of all the game includes local food which is extremely definitive of Malaysian culture. In the image below we have nasi lemak, which is a dish of coconut milk rice that’s eaten with spicy chilli paste or sambal (to my local readers) and fried anchovies. Traditionally it’s wrapped in banana leaf and newspaper when sold. It’s delicious and looking at it right now is making me kinda hungry.
Fires at Midnight was made by local artists in Malaysia, from the scriptwriting, directing and even music. If you’re a fan of the indie music scene do check out mutesite and Golden Mammoth, featured in the game. Right now Fires at Midnight has no launch date but is being developed for the PC and Mac market.
She And The Light Bearer by Mojiken Studio (Indonesia)
She and the Light Bearer is a beautiful fairy tale that’s also a point and click adventure game. The game centres on the traditions and mythology from Indonesia of Ibu Pertiwi translated as Mother of Nature. No spoilers here but the tale is a lesson about respecting the environment and the power of nature. Heavily inspired by the forests of Indonesia, the characters in the game are depictions of the local fauna in the region. Such as the Rafflesia flower or the pohon trinil (weeping tree). The music as well is a celebration of traditional Indonesian music, mixed with more modern elements. A song by Indonesian pop star Christabel Annora is also featured in this game.
Bayani by Ranida Games (Philippines)
Another game celebrating Philippine’s national heroes, culture and mythology. But instead of a cute RPG story, you’re getting a fast-paced 1 on 1 2D fighting game. The fighters featured in Bayani are alternate timeline versions of national heroes. For example, there is a character Jose Maria H. Rizal, named after Dr Jose P. Rizal. He was responsible for leading the revolution against the Spanish in the Philippines. And even Leon D. Aguinaldo, named after Philippine’s first president Emilio Aguinaldo. There’s a whole roster of characters with more to be added in updates and DLCs.
Bayani is the Filipino term for Hero. It is also related to the Filipino word, Bayanihan, which is the Filipino spirit for camaraderie and community spirit. The title Bayani is given to notable individuals who are willing to suffer and sacrifice themselves for the good of their country. Bayani doesn’t have a release date as of yet but it’s targeted as a PC game. With plans for mobile and console.
Chandu VR: Tribute to the Malay Regiment by Virtual Reality FCM MMU (Malaysia)
It’s not just the Philippines that have national heroes, Malaysia has a number as well. Chandu VR follows the story of Leftenan Adnan who fought Japanese Occupation during World War II in 1942. He led 42 platoons of the Malay Regiment to defend what’s known as Singapore now from the rapid advance of Japanese soldiers at the beginning of World War II. This was known as the Battle of Bukit Candu. Is this the best VR game ever made? No. But it is a student project and the source material is definitely making the Malaysian in me very proud. There’s no word whether they’re planning to expand this game or work on it further, but I think they should.
Ano: Journeys Through Tattoos by CtrlD (Malaysia)
An AR mobile game based on the art form and culture of Sarawak’s traditional hand-tapped tattoos. It’s a beautiful little game that highlights the importance of tattoos to the Iban culture of East Malaysia, Sarawak. The Ibans believe that their tattoos have protective powers in the form of charms that are given by antu (spirits) through dreams when one is asleep. Ibans without tattoos are said to be virtually invisible to gods, as the spirits attached to these tattoos allow the men to be seen by their gods. Ano is a beautifully designed game that helps to celebrate and educate about this dying art form, its history and significance to the Iban people.
Home Sweet Home: Episode 2 by Yggdrazil Group (Thailand)
No one does horror like Southeast Asian horror and this game is inspired by Thai culture, myths and folklore. You play as Tim, a man searching for his wife. One day you wake in a mysterious forest only to be chased by some villagers and the seemingly invisible Thai dancer. This horror is inspired by the world of Thai theatre, which has a long-standing tradition of dance and spiritualism intersecting.
In Thai history, dancers were held to a strict code of symmetry. This meant that if their arms were too long, they’d be expected to contort them into the right position, or if their palms didn’t curve enough then they would need to forcibly bend them on a regular basis until they became more supple. Meeting these exacting standards was obvious very tough and there’s no denying that the performers suffered for their art. Home Sweet Home: Episode 2 seems to have latched onto this idea, as the backstory for the Dancer is clearly linked to the harsh tutelage she endured as a child. A lot more stories about dance in Thai culture has been included but I’m too chicken to play the game so someone tell me okay.