Minutes into Genshin Impact, after being dropped into the beautiful green plains beyond Mondstadt, you will find a group of masked figures camped off the main road, idling by a fireplace as they guard a treasure chest. Unlike the amorphous, colorful slimes introduced earlier that bob and lurch into battle, these humanoid adversaries, called Hilichurls, dress in wraps and furs that cover their dark moss skin, and brandish clubs, shields, and even bows as you approach. With a few well timed swings of your blade, they fall, leaving no body as they vanish with a puff of black smoke. Once you've defeated them all, you are free to loot their treasure – often a mix of weapons, food, and scrolls.
In videogames, the hero is a vessel by which a player resolves conflicts that enemies create. Through their dichotomy, we can experience the world's politics and acquire a sense of "right" and "wrong." While our decisions may flout these distinctions, and the borders between them ebb and flow as in many modern RPGs, the enemy exists as constant reinforcement that our actions are a means to some end. In other words, as long as we engage enemies, we are bringing our heroes a step closer to some ideal state.
In creating the enemy, the designer decides for us the kind of person or creature in this world that threatens, or is threatened by, the righteous order that the hero represents. Their design inevitably draws upon a shared vocabulary of what we can consider "other" enough to justify attacking, like the physically impossible shapes and sizes of the mythical creatures that riddle RPGs. When incorporating human characteristics, however, designers may inadvertently rely upon racist motifs, normalized throughout centuries of chauvinism, to inspire the player's antagonism.
Ideally, creating such influential and potentially controversial characters would include careful consultation, but as the Hilichurl shows us, we're still far from seeing such accountability during development. It's worth reaffirming that no individual who has grown up surrounded by popular media is immune to internalizing harmful stereotypes, which isn't to say that anyone who unknowingly weaponizes them is free of fault, but rather that they take time and critical self-reflection to unlearn. Naturally, we would expect much a higher standard from teams of dozens to hundreds tasked with producing these media, especially when they're given a $100 million budget. What we see instead is yet another egregious stereotype of Indigenous people cast as enemy mobs, whose only purpose in the game is to be slain and looted by white heroes.
As much as I would like to dwell on the shortcomings of the development process, it's worth noting how inured we are to such depictions in the first place. Before writing, I briefly checked whether anyone else had similar reactions to the Hilichurl and could only find the odd thread. In response to a flimsy theory as to why the Hilichurl are antagonized, one Redditor asks, "But why is it okay and even incentivized to kill them? I think that's just straight up genocidal," and wonders exactly what the game's writers and event planners were trying to say. In another thread, someone points out that the Hilichurls have language, poetry, and architecture. They joke, "How do I side with the Hilichurls and overthrow the colonialist Knights of Favonius, instead of doing a genocide whenever I go looking for puzzles?" While it was reassuring to see that I wasn't the only one disturbed, few people had engaged in either conversation, some only contributing something along the lines of, "It's the same as any other game."
Perhaps they meant to be dismissive, but they also raise a good point – Genshin is far from being the only game where the player slaughters whole populations, and may only stand out because of the dissonance between this senseless violence and its otherwise cutesy cast and setting. Consider the days of random encounters, when you would exterminate hordes of cave- and forest-dwellers before killing their leaders at the other end of a tunnel you won't traverse a second time. Or fetch quests in MMORPGs that require you to hunt creatures for rare drops when they would have otherwise left you alone. Almost all of the RPGs I've ever played have relied on this colonizer's impulse to invade, destroy, and conquer, all for some greater good – nothing's changed, so why only get upset about it now?
Put simply, I have changed, and in the process of learning and unlearning, I've challenged myself to extend my critiques of society's injustices into the worlds we explore through media – that was partially my motivation for starting this blog. But more recently, I've also revisited (for the nth time) my interests in game development, and am exploring the medium as a storytelling tool for minority experiences. Perhaps in unconscious pursuit of inspiration, I have instead picked up on the remarkable lack, thus sowing the seeds of disappointment.
Does that mean that I will stop playing RPGs, now recognizing them for the colonizer simulations they truly are? Probably not yet, just as I'm likely to continue watching Marvel gleefully place weapons of mass destruction in the hands of its white heroes. But as an aspiring creator, I can be critical of media that continues to recycle awful tropes of its heroes' victims, and pledge to do better myself.