April 8, 2021, Daniel O Connor
Immortals Fenyx Rising is a game steeped in the myths and legends of Ancient Greece, inspired by the real stories passed down through Greek art and culture. With the launch of its second narrative DLC, Immortals Fenyx Rising – Myths of the Eastern Realms, the game introduces players to a world of Chinese mythology and a brand new player character, Ku, who is charged with aiding the gods in their quest to save the world from the brink of chaos and destruction.
The latest chapter builds upon the legends passed down through Chinese culture, and was conceived, written, and built by the team at Ubisoft Chengdu. To find out more about the Chinese tales that form the basis of the latest chapter, we sat down with Ubisoft Chengdu Production Manager and Associate Producer Robert Tsao, and Ubisoft Chengdu Associate Game Director Jiang An Qi, for a legendary chat about the myths and stories adapted for Immortals Fenyx Rising.
Can you give a brief overview of what the new chapter is about? Robert Tsao: The story that we feature in the DLC is actually one of the more well-known Chinese myths, called Nuwa Mends the Heavens, or Nuwa Patches the Skies. It’s essentially a myth that takes place close to the creation of the world according to the Chinese mythos, so it’s a tale from early in the timeline of the mythos. We saw it as a nice jumping-off point for players, not just chronologically speaking, but also a better jumping-off point for Chinese mythology in general. This is because there’s less back-story to tell, and we can really focus more on the human versus nature aspect of the myth.
Why was this particular story chosen to adapt for the game? RT: The entire concept actually came from Jiang. Prior to settling on this story as a narrative wrapper, one of the first directions we had was based on a story called the Investiture of the Gods, which I would say is kind of like a Chinese Lord of the Rings, for lack of a better comparison. When we started diving into this as a concept, we found that it was a very well-established story, with well-established characters, and we felt it was more difficult to tell that story in the way that we perhaps wanted to.
Later on, we moved to the story that we finally settled on, and although there were some challenges in finding some common canonical threads between all the different interpretations, it gave us more room to build up those relationships.
For example: were Gong Gong and Nuwa friends during the period where this story is set? Maybe, we don’t know, but it allowed us to explore that idea within the game. We saw them as gods who share a kinship, either with the mortal plain or with humans, and so that’s something that helped formed a bond that was special to them as opposed to the other gods, and it’s why we chose that as a direction.
Jiang An Qi: I have the feeling that the ancient gods of China are a mystery that haven’t been shared in videogames and other entertainment before now. As a Chinese person, I feel like it’s the first chance we have really had to bring these untold stories to audiences, bringing a fresh understanding to a more global audience, including the Chinese audience.
Are the gods featured in the game, Nuwa and Gong Gong, still quite well-known characters today? RT: Yes, they are, but maybe not in the incarnation we’ve used inside the game, and we did take some creative liberties. One of the creative opportunities we had was that these stories, especially the early Chinese tales from around the same time period that Nuwa Mends the Heavens takes place, don’t really have a canonical version, and there are multiple different interpretations.
For example, there are some versions which portray Gong Gong as more of a villainous character, almost like a demonic monster. Other versions of the story portray him as the equivalent of Poseidon, the god of the seas and water.
It actually gave us a lot of room to navigate, because Gong Gong and Nuwa – especially Nuwa – are actually quite well-known, and if you travel to different parts of China you’ll find that there are lots of sculptures and statues erected in honor of Nuwa patching the sky, always holding that very iconic pose where she is lifting up the five colored stones to patch up the hole. So, they are very well-known within China at least, and this is our opportunity to spread some awareness.
JAQ: The first time I heard this story was from my kindergarten teacher, using pictures and storyboards to explain the tale of how the Chinese gods created the world and humans. It’s a story you usually hear in childhood, but not as much when you reach junior or senior level in school.
It’s actually very interesting, because I tell my son my own version of the story of Nuwa and Gong Gong every night; he is very interested in Chinese mythology and has lots of questions about how the world was created, and if the characters in the stories are still around today.
For example, in our mythology there was a creature called a Pangu, which died and became the mountains and trees of the landscape, and my son asks me things like, “Why did the gods become mountains and trees?” I feel like this is a typical story within Chinese culture, and these myths allow us to share interesting stories with our children and answer some of their questions. I am definitely going to play the game with my son.
Creating Gong Gong
Was the main character, Ku, inspired by anyone from Chinese mythology? RT: We did take Ku’s name from one of the fabled rulers of China in a time before it became known as China, from a period known as the Three August Ones and the Five Emperors – sānhuáng wǔdì in Chinese. There is one ruler, named Dì Kù, who we took as inspiration. For some eagle-eyed players who are not just familiar with Chinese myth, but also with Chinese historiography, they may recognize some hints that we’ve peppered throughout the game as to Ku’s namesake and inspiration.
What were the inspirations behind some of the creatures in the game? RT: All of the monsters were based on creatures mentioned in a book called The Classic of Mountains and Seas. That book itself is really interesting, because it’s of undetermined origin, and we don’t know exactly who wrote it.
Scholars have since been able to draw some parallels between what the original author might have actually seen compared to what they wrote about, making connections between real-life animals in real places, and how they were interpreted by the author as monsters. But all of the monsters are based on creatures from that book.
Jiang An Qi
Do you think there are lessons to be learned from Chinese mythology? RT: I think that’s quite a universal concept of myths, that’s why they’re so resonant and why they stick with us generation after generation. From the oral tradition all the way up to now, they’re still celebrated and the stories are still told.
With Chinese mythology, there is a lot to explore, and another strong reason we picked this story is because of the selflessness of the tale. In the beginning, that was one of the key messages we were trying to convey, with the Chinese mindset of “What does it mean to sacrifice something? What does it mean to really give it your all to ensure a better future for the generations that come after?” I think those concepts are really universal, and for anyone who wants to dig into Chinese myths, I’m sure they will see those common threads through a lot of the stories.
JAQ: So, in this story, the character of Nuwa achieves many things on her way to the goal of mending the sky: killing the monsters that caused the chaos, gathering the materials to patch the sky. In the end, in the original version of the story, she sacrifices herself to form the material used to fix the heavens.
In Chinese culture, we believe that our ancient gods pass on their knowledge and spirit through these tales. How they treat people and how they help humanity is something we can learn from and aspire to. I think it’s a bit different to Greek mythology, which is more about heroes and fighting to become a hero. The ancient Chinese gods are more like guardians or leaders, they want to help people and create a beautiful world for them to live in. When monsters arrive, the gods act as those guardians and fight to protect people and the world. It’s a different type of message, and I think it shows some of the differences between the cultures. I hope the game helps players to better understand Chinese culture and stories.
What is it like to be able to bring these stories to a wider audience who may not be familiar with Chinese folklore? JAQ: It’s really a first chance to bring these stories out to the world. For a long time, the only stories that were shared on a more global scale were stories like Journey to the West, but I haven’t seen anybody exploring this story of the creation of the world from a Chinese perspective outside of China. I hope players can experience these new tales, compare them with the Greek myths of the main game, and get a deeper understanding and interest in Chinese culture. I want people, especially Chinese players, to remember these stories and rediscover why the ancient gods created the world, and why they wanted to help humans. I think the reason is pretty simple, they had this connection with humans that made them willing to sacrifice themselves, which is quite inspiring.
Were there any challenges in adapting the story for the game? JAQ: There were definitely some challenges: to bring these Chinese myths into the game, to create the new character and a new world. There aren’t many examples of other games with these themes that we could look at, and we needed to spend a lot of time researching, prototyping and tweaking features from the main game in order to introduce a Chinese flavor. It was challenging to create new puzzles and gameplay elements that matched a Chinese setting and story during development, but we’re very happy with the results.
RT: Once we had answered the question of what story we wanted to tell, one of the aspects of the challenge was the question of how we tell the story. As Jiang mentioned, there wasn’t too much aesthetic or stylistic inspiration that came before, so we had to find it with a lot of trial and error.
On the writing side, one of the challenges was trying to find a way to balance the humor of the game with the more somber tone of the story. It’s quite frequent within a lot of Chinese media to have a tone of stoicism or somberness, and we wanted to straddle the line between those two things. The script went through a few iterations before we felt that we had hit that mark.
There were some key points in which we worked with Romain Amiel and Jonathan Flieger at Ubisoft Quebec, the narrative director and writer on the DLCs, respectively, to help us find that middle-ground between Eastern and Western cultures. Aside from them being really experienced on building compelling narratives, they were also a great litmus test and gave great feedback in terms of how well we conveyed or universalized an idea for a Western audience. The collaboration went smoothly, in that the team in Quebec opted to give us room creatively but were always available to consult on topics and help out. We were aligned from the beginning that we wanted to tell a Chinese story, and the team in Quebec trusted us to deliver on that.
Are there any resources people can use to look up these stories if they want to learn more? JAQ: It’s quite difficult to find them in other languages, all I have on my table are books in Chinese. There may be English versions out there, and there are certainly English versions of Journey to the West, which I mentioned previously, but it’s hard to find material for these kinds of ancient stories outside of China. That’s why I see it as such a great opportunity to bring more of these stories into the entertainment industry. So, for now, people can play the new chapter to learn more!
Do you have any other favorite stories from Chinese culture that you can tell us about? RT: I loved exploring the different facets of Gong Gong, like his motivations for knocking down Mount Buzhou, which invariably leads to the catastrophe that opens up the story we tell in the game. There are multiple versions of this tale, like one that sees him rebelling against the emperor, which is the story we went with. But there is another version where he fails against the fire god Zhurong, there are so many different paths with Gong Gong that we could have taken, but it was really cool to explore more of his back story to see how he got to be who he is and what makes him tick.
JAQ: One of my favorite stories, besides the one we tell in the new chapter, is the tale of Hou Yi. There was a time when the world had ten suns, and each day one of them would arrive in the sky and provide heat and light. Then, one day, the suns decided to play a trick on humanity, and all ten appeared in the sky at once, which caused a great amount of heat which scorched the earth and threatened to destroy it.
The hero, Hou Yi, decided to climb up into the mountains with his bow, and he shot down nine of the suns to save the earth from dying. There’s a pretty simple reason I love this story, and it’s that my son loves this story – he asks me to tell him this tale every night too, and I think it’s a great tale.
Immortals Fenyx Rising and its second post-launch story, Immortals Fenyx Rising – Myths of the Eastern Realm, are available now on PlayStation 4 & PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X | S, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Epic Games Store, Ubisoft Connect, and Stadia. You can also try a free demo of Immortals Fenyx Rising on all platforms. Stay tuned to the Ubisoft News hub for more news and stories on all of Ubisoft’s titles.