Where’s the Fantasy, Creativity and Imagination In China?

I have been spending a lot of time recently with game developers in China. Didn’t plan it this way, but it has been interesting.

Crazy Stone Movie

I have a few thoughts about the industry based on my observations. Most of them apply to both gaming and animation. So far, the biggest takeaway I have had so far is that the vast majority of companies, and certainly the Chinese government, have no understanding of human talent and the creative process. If they find it, they destroy it through sheer ignorance and bad policies. Why would a talented person want to work with any government anywhere? There is surprisingly little imagination for such a big country. And when someone does hit on a successful idea, it gets rehashed over and over and over again. Many Americans complain about how bad Hollywood is at coming out with new original ideas; it’s still better than China.

Give you an example. The Chinese government wants to create an animation industry, so what do they do? They ask American, Japanese and European companies to set up schools to train animators in huge numbers. They limit the hours of foreign-made animation which can be broadcast on Chinese TV.

There’s just one problem.

There aren’t any good Chinese story writers and artists. Or at least any that I know of.

So you have all these armies of animators who have nothing to do, so what do you do? Get them to do outsourcing for foreign animation companies who are looking for relatively cheap labor.

But then they want to build a Chinese animation industry, so what do they do? They try to partner with non-Chinese producers and writers to create stories. But then the stories aren’t Chinese, right? No, because they partner with a Chinese animation company, they can then get their production to be considered Chinese and maybe broadcast on Chinese television, where if they are smart, they can get a good deal.

It just underlines one thing. There is _no_ understanding of the creative process in China. It is all very top-down, and screwed-up.

To be creative, all you need is one person who is good at conceptualizing plausible worlds. They can use words or they can use illustrations. That is my definition of fantasy.

One of my pet peeves of the Chinese gaming industry is that everyone rehashes the same old genres for their titles. It is all Sanguo, the Monkey King or some other derivative from Chinese folk history. There is nothing new, nothing original. Once one title in a genre succeeds, everybody jumps on the bandwagon and works it to death, turning out a lot of garbage in the “me too” development process.

I find this very interesting. Why? Because all the talk is about China’s peaceful rise, its bright future, etc. etc. But when it comes to stories, it looks to the past. This doesn’t make sense to me. If a country and people are optimistic about the future, they look to the future and try to visualize it. If Chinese are indeed optimistic about the future, then why aren’t they writing and developing game titles which are about some future/near future China which captures all their hopes, aspirations and fears and is plausible to those of us living in the present?

OK, you’ve got a peaceful rise, tell me how it’s going to look.

The whole world wants to know. Sell me China’s version of the future. And don’t talk to me about the 2008 Beijing Olympics; that is only a sporting event.

What would that world be like? What would the technologies be? How would people interact with each other? What challenges would they face? Would the world be at peace or at war? Would people continue to fight with each other, or would they face challenges together? How would they resolve their differences? What international institutions would there be and how would they work? Would people interact with other intelligent civilizations? How would they do it? How would nations and ethnic groups interact with each other and solve their problems? How would they treat each other and would they overcome racism? How would they handle ideologies?

And could a Chinese writer and artist team create a plausible world which answers these questions? If it was TV, they could make a program out of it, and if it was a game, how would players interact in it? What would the rules be?

In a recent conversation with a production company owner, I asked him what differentiated his company. His answer: technology. Technology cannot sell a good story; a bad story is a bad story, even if you tie a red ribbon (technology) on it. On the other hand, a good story can hold people in captivation for a long time; technology is largely irrelevant.

Why is it that the Chinese government seems so intent on developing the part of the value chain which has the least value added, the junior animators, while the concept and idea people, artists like Ang Lee have to go the US to make it big on a global stage?

If China doesn’t answer these questions and answer them soon, it will be a big market but only a second-tier player.

The future is not entirely dark. There are movies like Crazy Stone which show the sparks of some original thought. But it’s entertainment, not fantasy, and it doesn’t show me a new plausibl world. I hope to see more. As far as I’m concerned, it can’t come soon enough. I am looking for new, creative products in the fields of animation, gaming and movies.

If you know of something interesting which has a fresh different angle and fits into the fields I have described, please post about it in comments.

I’ll follow up, and if it plays out, I’ll write about it in a following article.

And please, no Chinese penguins.

6 Responses to “Where’s the Fantasy, Creativity and Imagination In China?”

  1. Good Bye MS….hello yum yum games…

    There comes a time when you look at your world and you say, its time to move on. The memories are great…

  2. Ashley Liu says:

    Good insights into the industry. I would add that outsourcing doesn’t have to stay at the bottom of the value chain. If you make an effort to learn the discipline of conceptual design and story telling, there is a way out of this. The current industry in China isn’t creative because it doesn’t know how to be creative yet. There are a few bright spots where this is changing. And the unfortunate thing they have nothing to do with the Chinese government. Nothing for you to write about this year, maybe next.

  3. SD says:

    (New blog reader: You do a great job.)

    Your post reminded me of an acquaintance of mine who had discovered that China has no “Science Fiction” tradition. There are no Chinese Sci-Fi writers and no Chinese Sci-Fi books. He also noted that the “Fantasy” genre was limited to Monkey King or some other aspect of the 4 Great Books. I spent a long time looking myself and to no avail.

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