A Vivid Future, Rooted in Legend: Red Candle Games and the Making of Nine Sols

A Vivid Future, Rooted in Legend: Red Candle Games and the Making of Nine Sols
Photo Credit: Red Candle Games

What you need to know

A successful crowdfunding campaign has delivered ‘Nine Sols’, a new title from Taiwanese game developer Red Candle. Its Taoist-cyberpunk imagery and action gameplay is a major break from previous hits ‘Detention’ and ‘Devotion’.

The most anticipated Taiwanese video game of 2023, like Taiwan itself, is made up of many disparate, sometimes contradictory threads. Nine Sols promises to tell the story of Yi, a cat-like swordsman seeking to free his world from the rule of the tyrannical Nine Sols. To accomplish this, players will guide Yi through levels that blend traditional Taoist and futuristic cyberpunk imagery, and gameplay that fits both platformer and action-adventure genres. It’s already raised more than NT$13 million in player-backed funding.

Nine Sols is the third title from Taiwanese developers Red Candle Games. In 2017, Red Candle exploded onto the gaming scene with Detention, a horror video game set at a high school during the the White Terror. Made with a team of only nine people, the game was a breakout hit. On the ubiquitous gaming platform Steam, it reached the most popular slot in Taiwan and sixth globally by its third day after release. A film adaptation in 2019 received five Golden Horse awards and was one of the highest grossing Taiwanese films in the last decade. In 2020, a sequel to Detention’s plot was the basis for an eight-episode TV series, created collaboratively by Netflix and Taiwan PTS. Red Candle’s second game, Devotion, made headlines in 2019. The game, horror like Detention but more focused on religious elements than political, received rave reviews upon release, but then quickly became the focus of controversy: a wall decoration in the game featured an amulet referring to Xi Jinping as Winnie-the-Pooh. Afterwards, many online distributors refused to carry the game, and Devotion was flooded with negative reviews on the platforms where it remained. 

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Screenshot from ‘Nine Sols’

Nine Sols is a huge shift for Red Candle; the game moves away from the horror genre, and unlike the dark, shadowy aesthetic of Detention and Devotion, a style the developer referred to as “old photograph vibe,” the new game’s hand-drawn art is splashy with color and vibrantly alive. Red Candle is calling the game a “taopunk” adventure, due to its Taoist and cyberpunk influence. Asked about the roots of this idea, they said the seed of the world was to take the myth of Hou Yi, the legendary archer who shot nine suns out of the skies, and “turn it into science fiction.” They also mentioned Japanese animation from the ‘80s and ‘90s, titles like Ghost in the Shell and Akira, along with the Megami Tensei video games, as art that combined traditional Japanese culture and religion with futuristic settings. Once they got started, the team realized “those two elements might not be so contradictory.” 

While Devotion and Detention were focused on slow exploration of terrifying stories, Nine Sols’s gameplay will be centered more on combat. The developers reported feeling a little “burned out” on creating horror experiences, but also a responsibility to do something new in order to continue growing their audience. Nine Sols draws on reaction-based action games like Sekiro and fast-paced platformers like Hollow Knight and Katana Zero, unlike Detention and Devotion, which were influenced by horror games like Silent Hill and Lone Survivor.

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Screenshot from ‘Nine Sols’

To bring the new game to life, Red Candle’s team has grown, from nine people who worked on Detention to fifteen members now, and they cited their smaller size as an advantage, allowing them to be more versatile and experimental with what they choose to take on. They aimed at an overseas audience from the get go, noting that while Taiwanese audiences are very “friendly toward local game companies” and that Detention had a strong reception in Taiwan for an indie, locally-developed game, “It’s difficult for any Taiwanese game development to generate enough income and be sustainable from the Taiwanese indie market alone.”

Red Candle chose to raise additional cash by crowdfunding Nine Sols, seeking NT$3 million to continue the project after an initial two years of development. The campaign is run independently on their own site, which they set up in the wake of Devotion’s publishing problems, both to have greater control over the sale of their game while also being able to offer physical merchandise and the use of Taiwanese currency. On the crowdfunding campaign’s site, they laid out not only the vision for the game, but also their motivation behind the campaign and the potential downsides to such a funding avenue. They could have completed the game without this additional funding, but at the time they felt like they were “walking in the dark” and “in dire need of any form of feedback.” The crowdfunding effort served to provide additional funds, receive commentary, as well as assist with making decisions about just how big of an experience to pack into their newest game.

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Screenshot from ‘Nine Sols’

Leading up to the campaign, Red Candle created a community interactive experience to build interest. In a Discord chat, players solve puzzles related to a Nine Sols-related manga, the legend of Hou Yi, and recipes for zongzi. Red Candle is no stranger to this kind of community puzzles, usually referred to as ARG (alternate reality game). In the build up to Detention’s release, they created an ARG involving the game’s characters, with connections to 1984, a creepy phone number players could call, and culminating in a YouTube video that looked like it was pulled from a horror film.

Whether it was the vision for Nine Sols, the immersive marketing, or trust based on Red Candle’s previous performance, the audience has rewarded their efforts. In April, when the crowdfunding campaign ended, they raised NT$13.6 million from more than 8,900 people, more than 4.5 times their goal.

It appears Red Candle’s gambit in changing style, gameplay, and funding strategy has paid off. Nine Sols is set to be released in the second quarter of 2023. If you’d like a taste, the demo is available for download through Steam. Fair warning: even though it’s just a demo, the boss fight is deliciously, or anger-inducingly, difficult.

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TNL Editor: Bryan Chou, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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