From Folk Hero to Video Game Character: ‘The Legend of Tianding’

From Folk Hero to Video Game Character: ‘The Legend of Tianding’
Photo Credit: Creative Games & Computer Graphics

What you need to know

Based on a Taiwanese folk hero, ‘The Legend of Tianding’ is a game with stunning period aesthetics, engrossing action, and political relevance.

Taiwan’s history is full of larger than life characters, so it’s no surprise to find one at the center of a video game.

Enter Liao Tianding. Born in the late 19th century, Liao Tianding is one of Taiwan’s most famous and revolutionary folk heroes noted for his crimes targeting the rich and elite during Japan’s occupation of Taiwan. Often compared to England’s Robin Hood, his historical existence is not debated. Since his death, Liao’s story has grown to legendary proportions. He’s been the subject of multiple films, television programs, manga, a Cloud Gate dance performance, and his tomb is now also the site of a temple dedicated to him.

And since 2004, he’s been a video game character as well. At that time, Maso Lin was a student at National Taiwan University of Arts, completing his master’s degree in Multimedia and Animation Arts. He conceived of the idea to use Liao Tianding as the main character of a video game and created a Flash webgame using the character as his thesis. While that version of the game was considered to be just a prototype, it garnered a good amount of popularity. More than ten years later, Lin, along with his team at Taiwanese game developer Creative Games & Computer Graphics (CGCG), resurrected the idea of a game based on Liao. In 2021, they released The Legend of Tianding, an award-winning title available on both PC and the Nintendo Switch. The game was co-produced by PP Wang and Maso Lin. Like Lin, Wang’s experience is rooted in his time at university. In Wang’s case, he holds a BS and MS in Computer Science from National Taiwan University of Science and Technology. NTUST is featured in the credits of the video game due to their support, and other students at the university helped test the game. CGCG is an independent game developer, and including Lin and Wang, the team responsible for The Legend of Tianding included about ten people.

In terms of video game genres, The Legend of Tianding can be considered a two-dimensional side-scroller beat ‘em up with some platforming elements. The player controls Liao as he fights against thugs, corrupt police, and the Japanese military. There’s intrigue, hunts for hidden treasure, and a fight that takes place on top of a moving train. In an interview with Press Play Media, the creators draw connections to games such as Hollow Knight, Guacamelee, and Shank. There are secret doors and hard to execute jumps, difficult boss fights, and quests to help the denizens of Japanese colonial-era Taipei. 

But the standout feature of the game is its aesthetics. Historic Dihua street, where the action is centered, is fantastically realized in the background, rendered with small details that make each moment pop. Families and vendors are standing around chatting, people are queued to buy steamed buns, signs crowd your view down side streets. Wang told me that they used many books, photographs, and paintings to faithfully recreate Japanese colonial Taipei, including Kuo Hsueh-hu’s famous painting Festival on South Street. During development, the developers posted this comparison between the Mitsui Building and their in-game version. And while they portrayed a historically accurate setting, the art style was also influenced by Hong Kong manga and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The audio details are wonderfully rendered as well. Throughout the events of the game, you can hear the characters speak Taiwanese and Japanese as appropriate. The streets are alive not only with the sights of people but also the sounds of bustling conversation. Taipei-based Rising Sound studio provides background music as well as a theme song that compellingly mixes traditional and modern styles. Most arresting, though, is a moment in which Yang Hsiu-ching plays a moon lute and sings about Liao. I stopped playing and listened till completion; I wouldn’t be surprised if this scene had the same effect on other players.

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Photo Credit: Creative Games & Computer Graphics

The story’s chapters are punctuated by Hong Kong-style comics and radio reports about Liao Tianding’s doings voiced by Taiwanese-language television news anchor Kok-Cheng Go. These interludes echo the stories told of Liao by radio broadcaster Wu Letian during Taiwan’s martial law period as allegories for resistance. The homage is intentional, as Go was a student of Wu’s. and commentary on PTT has touched on the political relevance of Liao to Taiwan’s situation today. One user there called Liao “the godfather of Taiwanese independence.”

Beyond recreating the sights and sounds, The Legend of Tianding features a historically accurate minigame within: Four Color Cards. Players can control Liao as he gambles away their hard-earned digital yen and sen. The game is very loosely similar to rummy or mahjong, with players trying to get a certain combination of cards to win. Each card’s character is a piece from Chinese chess. (CGCG has a site with a standalone, free version of the game.)

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Photo Credit: Creative Games & Computer Graphics

Wang said that not only was NTUST key in providing assistance for the game, but other Taiwanese video game developers played a role as well. Independent developers like Red Candle (Detention), SIGONO (Opus: Echo of Starsong), Sunhead Games (Carto), 18Light (Behind the Screen) and others provided feedback and conversation during the development. Their collaboration, as well as the many upcoming games from Taiwanese developers, makes Wang feel optimistic about the state of game development in Taiwan. At the same time, he’s slightly pessimistic about the industry’s future domestically, because games for PC or console using new ideas have had a hard time making enough money to be sustainable. But there are signs of hope. Mobile gaming revenue in Taiwan is growing explosively, and Taiwan is near the top of the region when it comes to gaming time and use of the Nintendo Switch.

Liao Tianding’s legacy now spans more than a century. In this time, he’s been a versatile symbol of resistance and bravery. In the future, though, the digital version of the rebellious thief might also serve as a symbol of Taiwan’s budding video game industry. Bridging past and present has given The Legend of Tianding awards and fans, showing that translating Taiwan’s history into gameplay is a recipe for something unforgettable.

The author would like to thank PP Wang, Kori Chen, and Kelsey Chen for help with this article.


TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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