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We’ve Talked to the Creator of Sanfu About This Sultry Indie Thriller That Should Not Be Missed

By Isabella Jiangcheng
Mar. 21, 2022 updated 08:00

When Sanfu, the much-anticipated indie thriller game, had its trailer first show up on Jan 27, it stirred up more confusion than praise. Although this video has received more than 400 thousand views on Weibo, people are still wrapping their heads around what is happening in this game.

In the 49 second video, a bunny demonstrates the magical power of "Genius No.1 Nutrition Formula". The drink promises "intelligence growth" while the bunny's head slowly splits in half. Then it further promises "potential development" as the ad displays a symbolic icon of an eye being inserted into the head of a young child wearing a cooking pot, resembling the imagery of a Qigong practitioner in early 80s China. At the end of the ad, the bunny holds a bloody knife and moves slowly towards the three mysterious names that appeared on the right side of the screen. Without any notice, the screen suddenly cuts to an official announcement page that says the TV signal has been hijacked with this weird ad. Although the reason is unclear, it is believed that the hijacking could have been done by the deceased three-eyed child prodigy, the brand ambassador of Genius No.1 Nutrition Formula.

Fig 1 The eerie ambience that the video gives has spooked a lot of the viewersThe eerie ambiance that the video gives has spooked a lot of the viewers

"Why is this creepy video in my feed before I go to bed?" one player wrote in the comment, "but oddly, I am looping it again…"

This video might be a bit unsettling and confusing to watch for those who are not aware of the new wave of so-called "Chinese Horror" games. But for fans of Moonroach, the developer behind Sanfu and the previously acclaimed horror game Firework, this promo video was the most exciting news coming out this year until Sanfu releases its demo on March 21.  

Fig 2 The promo poster is styled as an invitation for players to come and see the jaw-dropping performance of a psychic child prodigyThe promo poster is styled as an invitation for players to come and see the jaw-dropping performance of a psychic child prodigy

In Chinese, Sanfu means the hottest day of the year, the term often more associated with the dreadful, depressing heat than a joyful sizzling summer break. The game is loosely set in the time of the Qigong Fever, a social phenomenon in China in the 80s. During a period of economic boom and cultural shift, many people felt lost and tried to latch onto things they were familiar with to help themselves deal with the rapid societal changes.

 Fig 3  Members of Beijing Miaofeng Qigong Class were practicing telepathy in 1993. The cooking pot was used to enhance the “signals”.Members of Beijing Miaofeng Qigong Class were practicing telepathy in 1993. The cooking pot was used to enhance the "signals".

The widely accepted "Qigong" concept at the time was a confusing blend of practical martial arts, urban myths, and psychic powers. In the 80s, a lot of people believed training their Qi-energy was a great way to acquire physical and mental strength, wisdom, and longevity, even supernatural powers like reading books using ears instead of eyes. Thousands of "Qigong" organizations boomed during the years, many of them being no more than a cult scam. The fanatic craze and anti-intellectual aspect of this Qigong Fever inspired Moonroach to write the story of Sanfu that reflects the confusion, anxiety, fear, and greed of that chaotic period in Chinese history.

Fig 4 Tang Yu, the child who used ears to listen to books, was phraised as a Qigong master and a prodigy by the whole nation. Scientific journals used his image on their covers.Tang Yu, the child who used ears to listen to books, was praised as a Qigong master and a prodigy by the whole nation. Scientific journals used his image on their covers.

Moonroach's last creation was a heart-wrenching tragedy caused by the superstitious beliefs in rural China. Firework leads the player through tomb-robbing, human trafficking, and spiritualism in a village, resulting in the death of an entire family. It received an Overwhelmingly Positive rating, with only 2% negative reviews, causing it to win the Top Steam Releases of 2021. Its English version was released in December of last year.

Fig 5 Firework has become an iconic indie game for the Chinese horror genreFirework has become an iconic indie game for the Chinese horror genre

This self-made 28-year-old indie game developer is very vocal on social media about the idea behind his creations. He always shares Sanfu's latest development with his followers, engages in fanfiction works of his games, and clarifies misconceptions about him and his games directly via Weibo. Combining his passion for indie games and Firework's success, Moonroach has become an iconic figure in the Chinese indie community as the man who reflects the dark side of modern society with thrilling stories set in the shared memory of the 80s and the 90s.

This time, we at Superpixel had an exclusive interview with Moonroach to talk about his upcoming game Sanfu, his views on Chinese indie games, how he sees the criticism and controversies towards him and his work, and some of his greater visions of telling an interactive story.

 

S: Superpixel

M: Moonroach

S: First, we have played Sanfu's demo, and it has made an impression on us. But we do see that Sanfu is a very different game from Firework in terms of both the art direction and the story's theme. Firework has become a hallmark for Chinese horror indie games. Why depart from that so quickly and do a completely different mystery game? 

M: After finishing Firework, I wanted my next game to be completely new. Many Chinese horror games have been on the market in recent years, so I thought Sanfu could pursue a different subject. So I started to explore the topic of urban legends, creepypasta, and weirdcore culture to find inspirations that can fit a contemporary taste. 

One significant departure from Firework is that Sanfu takes place in an urban setting, and this causes a fundamental difference between Firework and Sanfu's themes. In Firework, the game discussed a tragedy rooted in a traditional, close-knit Chinese village that was almost impossible to penetrate. The protagonist, Ling Lixun, can only observe the family's misfortune from afar. But Sanfu tells a story of an era that focuses on the relationship and interactions between characters set in a particularly turbulent time. So the game introduces more interactive mechanics. I think this is why players would immediately feel that Sanfu is very different from Firework.

 Fig 6 Sanfu introduces a lot more interactive elements, such as using monitors to communicate between charactersSanfu introduces a lot more interactive elements, such as using monitors to communicate between characters

Sanfu also uses some internationally recognized symbolism in the game, quite different from Firework, in that most of the in-game items are derived from domestic folklores. For example, the game uses rabbit dolls and mannequins to set the mood of suspense. These objects have been part of the western urban legends as well. 

Fig 7 Bunnies and mannequins are important symbols in SanfuBunnies and mannequins are important symbols in Sanfu

S: The game is set in the 90s when the 80s Qigong Fever's ghost still lingered in Chinese society. And the whole story seems to revolve around the collective false belief in parapsychology at that time. What inspired you to write a story about the era many people have forgotten? 

M: In the beginning, I wanted to write a story about China's education and training systems that focus on things like parenting and taking kids to after-school tutoring. I remembered in 2019; I read a couple of articles on debunking a popular course in Beijing that teaches kids to "quantum speedread", and last year, I also followed the scandal around a vocational school lecturer who wrote an academic paper on using parapsychology to unboil an egg. I thought to myself: who would still believe these ridiculous theories in this day and age?

Fig 8 In 2019, Chinese media revealed a series of after school tutoring institutions that offer ‘quantum speedreading’ training. The courses soon discontinued due to the heavy criticism.In 2019, Chinese media revealed a series of after-school tutoring institutions that offer 'quantum speedreading' training. The courses were soon discontinued due to heavy criticism.

Then I realized these things are precisely the variants of the Qigong Fever back then. Upon that realization, I recalled the numerous 90s Hong Kong films I watched also featured many superpower contents, such as Stephen Chow's All for the Winner. I started to investigate this Qigong Fever deeper, and, in the end, I think this can serve as the background of Sanfu. 

Fig 9 People practicing Qigong at Temple of Heaven, Beijing, in the 80sPeople practicing Qigong at Temple of Heaven, Beijing, in the 80s

S: Recently, there has been an influx of Chinese indie games that set their stories in the 90s, such as A Perfect Day and Mei Qi series. But we also noticed that most of the players were Gen Z who had never experienced the period. We are curious how you designed the game so that the younger audience could also feel the nostalgia?

M: I am a 90s kid myself. Therefore, I also explore the 80s and 90s through historical reading sources. I also refer to many video footage of the era to better get a sense of the art direction.  

I did add some fictional elements to the timeline of the story. For example, the peak of Qigong Fever was actually in the 80s, and by the early 90s, the craze was already subsided. But still set my story in 1995 because I feel this alteration could better serve my account. I would also emphasize the details of the setting in the game by adding some period props that young people can also relate to, such as video recorders, pagers, screening rooms, and so on through the accumulation of details to create a sense of nostalgia.

Fig 10 VCD player, a profound memory of Chinese households in the late 90sVCD player, a profound memory of Chinese households in the late 90s

A few players who follow me on Weibo have also given me their support. When I first announced the background of Sanfu, a player sent me an article predicting the plot of the game, focusing on the historical aspect of Qigong Fever. The information was even more detailed than what I had. So I went along with the help and dug more profound with the available materials.

S: We did find the graphics of Sanfu uniquely spooky. Can you share with us how you arrived at this particular art style? It brought back some of our chilling memories of watching a cult movie for the first time when we were kids. 

M: Haha, yes! One of the main inspirations is a movie called Crazy Rabbit. It was a 90s children's film about internet addiction, but somehow the contents went a bit too wild and became a famous "childhood nightmare" for many 90s kids. I have also watched a lot of retro infomercials and clips from the 80s and 90s Chinese New Year Gala to get a sense of the aesthetics of the past. Those videos were probably pretty standard at the time; however, the ones we could watch online now have suffered a severe quality loss. Eventually, they have induced a creepy vibe for today's audiences. If you have played Sanfu's demo, you probably noticed that the whole story has a greenish, damp hue. I used the color green to emulate that low-fi, electronic patina kind of feel that retro videos gave. This green-colored base is also an iconic feature for 90s Hong Kong thrillers.

Fig 11 A cinematic appraoch in the game's art directionA cinematic approach in the game's art direction

I have also added a bunch of posters and slogans to highlight the characteristics of the 90s. In Sanfu, I had hand-drawn all the fonts and posters in the game to resemble the atmosphere of a time when batch printing was still rare. So actually, Sanfu's workload is much heavier than Firework's.

Fig 12 Hand-drawn poster is a significant feature of the 90sThe hand-drawn poster is a significant feature of the 90s

Finally, Sanfu is based in Chongqing. It was June when I went to Chongqing for the site visit. The weather was often cloudy, and the whole city looked like it was covered with dark green moss.

S: Both Firework and Sanfu are set in Chongqing. Why do you think this city is the right place to tell your stories?

M: I first learned about Chongqing online, and I thought that the multi-layered geography of that city was perfect for works of horror and suspense. Over the past few years, there have been many crime thrillers set in Chongqing. When I later went on a site visit there, I found a strong sense of conflict between the architecture in Chongqing. I am from northern China, and the buildings in northern cities are not as compact, so the dichotomy between the reinforced concrete skyscrapers and the peeling residential buildings in Chongqing really struck me. 

Another thing that strikes me as quite unique about Chongqing is that Buddhist and Taoist temples often pop up between the gaps of the city, deepening the divide between tradition and modernity in the city. That's why I also included some religious aesthetics in Sanfu.

Fig 13 Chongqing is known as the city that have a magic realism layoutChongqing is known as the city that has a magic realism layout

S: In Firework and Sanfu, we've seen the slogan "believe in science, debunk the superstitions" throughout the game. But at the same time, the protagonists in both games are psychic detectives that try to reveal the truth through their supernatural powers. Some players criticize this setting as hypocritical. What do you think of this criticism? 

M: I think this is a misconception that many gamers have about games. I don't want to preach to people that we should all be "scientific" about things, but instead, I like the players to experience a story. Maybe it is a story that reflects the tragedy of superstition or a story about the complexity in human morale. Still, it is up to the players to interpret that for themselves. The game developer's responsibility is to use every game element to serve the "storytelling."

I believe that every detail in the scenes contributes to the plot. The slogan "believe in science, debunk the superstitions" is used to show the conflict of ideas between the characters in the context of the times. There is a similar scene in the Sanfu demo. We designed several posters that read "national rejuvenation through science" or "develop the scientific spirit" placed right above an electronic fortune-telling machine. The scene is a massive satire: let's just put "scientific" in front of "superstition" and call it a day. I want to emphasize this ironic contrast, but I don't want to use these posters to educate players on what kind of person they should be.

Fig 14 Slogans that emphases the moral and social values of the Chinese are often displayed in the gameSlogans that emphasize the moral and social values of the Chinese are often displayed in the game

But I understand that this kind of misunderstanding probably won't go away for a while either. All I can do is to design a better game so that people feel immersed in it, rather than having them jumping in and out of the game and thinking about what point the game is trying to convey.

S: From your first game, Tales of the Black Forrest to Sanfu, we see "time travel" is a significant mechanic in your game. Why did you come up with this design? 

M: Sanfu wants to tell a period story with an ensemble cast this time. The players need to span many different points in time to interact with other characters to see the whole picture of the story. Therefore, I needed to develop a clever mechanic to allow players to travel between times. I don't want the game to become a biography that drags on forever. Eventually, I decided to use a dual protagonist time jumping mechanic to add some interest to the exploration and directly show the story's time span.

Fig 15 There are a lot of periodic items to interact with. Some of them can take the player back to a specific time span.There are a lot of periodic items to interact with. Some of them can take the player back to a specific time span.

S: Firework has gained great success. How do you see this success? Do you think Sanfu will face a stronger challenge due to the previous success?

M: The pressure is massive. While it is great to be recognized by the players, this success comes with greater expectations and higher demands. At the end of last year, when I completely abandoned the concept of Chinese horror and focused on the idea of a thriller for Sanfu, the decision caused me a lot of anxiety.

Many players started Firework because they thought it was a Chinese horror game. But now that I've abandoned that concept and moved on to something new, I'm worried that people won't want to play my game. I'm concerned that my latest story is not mature enough and that people will start saying things like "Moonroach is losing his grip on game making", which is really pressuring me.

S: On your Weibo, you described Sanfu as a Chinese crime thriller game and emphasized it is not a Chinese horror. How would you describe these two genres? Why would you think that these two need to be distinguished?

M: First, I think the main focus is still on the differences between thriller and horror. For a horror game, I want the players to experience a chill that makes them want to step away from the game now and then. Designed lighting, special effects, or camera movement can induce this fear. And horror often allows a bit of fantasy that does not exist in reality. But a thriller focuses more on the story script. A key element is that the story should encourage the players to explore the plot. A thriller would create traps along the way, and these traps would ultimately lure the players into becoming ever more engaged with the game. In this way, I think these two genres are somehow on the opposite side of the spectrum. 

S: How about the Chinese part? Now people criticize that many games feature one or two Zhizha (paper-men) as game items and call themselves a Chinese horror. 

M: I think the core of a Chinese game is that it needs to have a localized text. This localized text should be embedded in the familial and clan relationships of the Chinese tradition. The logic behind each character's behavior and lines should all make it apparent that this is a story in a Chinese context. Only on top of this one should consider packaging some elements of horror or thriller into it. 

In fact, familial and clan relation is a long-standing proposition in the Chinese context. Beyond video games, many other genres of cultural products in China turn to focus on the logic of individuals through the lens of family and society. These products create tensions within their stories by portraying how different individuals make different choices under pressure from their families and society. The recent anime Turning Red was also praised for portraying Chinese family and culture, even though it was a Disney film.

I once received a comment about Firework from a foreign player. In the comment, the player asked why Fangfang didn't call the police on her family if she felt restricted. I think this comment particularly highlighted that Firework is essentially Chinese: under the traditional concept, Chinese families are more likely to maintain internal relationships than to call the police. 

Fig 16 Firework centered the story on the tragedy of a familyFirework centered the story on the tragedy of a family

There is this one game I want to recommend to everyone who wants to get a taste of a typical Chinese story: Bad Kids by WildMonkey. It is a concise game, but it perfectly demonstrated how a simple game could tell a Chinese story without a heavy amount of Chinese graphics. It is a pixel game, so it doesn't have the space to make the setting look elaborate in the first place. But the way the parents treat their kids and the rebelliousness of the kids themselves resonate with me strongly. I've heard that the developer is writing a new story, and I cannot wait for more of this kind of localized work to surface on the market.  

Fig 17 A typical dad that uses corporal punishment when he found a cigarette on his sonA typical dad uses corporal punishment when he found a cigarette on his son

S: Besides the Chinese aspect of the games, we also find a strong female presence in your games. Tales of Black Forest barely had male characters in the game. Firework itself is a story about the struggles and the sacrifice of a mother. Now in Sanfu's demo, we are seeing some strong female characters. How do you end up with such bold female images in the game? 

M: Interestingly, I won't say I am someone who's actively engaged in the gender discourse. But in today's climate, society is voicing out female concerns louder than ever. These are societal issues that I cannot look away from, and they did bring a lot of inspiration for my games. For example, Ms. Chen, Cheng Qingsui, in Firework is a typical female figure who believes strongly in the power of knowledge. She saw the rural kids' desire for knowledge, so she decided to stay in the village to become a local teacher. In reality, such influential female teachers, like Zhang Guimei, exist. And for Zhao Xiaojuan, she is bound and "kidnapped" by her marriage, and we see examples like this too often in reality. I always try to incorporate traits I learned from real people and events into my characters.

  

S: Lately, there is a heavy criticism of indie game developers using Chinese Horror as a buzzword to attract attention. Many players say that these Chinese Horror games are just the result of games copying each other. How do you view this kind of comment? 

M: First of all, I don't think we should limit our discussion of Chinese horror to games. It's a subject that's been developing for almost 30 or 40 years. King Hu started exploring Chinese horror themes in '71 by incorporating Qing Dynasty fantasy literature "Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio" into his award-winning film "A Touch of Zen."

Fig 18 A Touch of Zen was one of the earliest attempt of blending Wuxia with Chinese horrorA Touch of Zen was one of the earliest attempts of blending Wuxia with Chinese horror

In the 1980s, Mr. Vampire by Ricky Lau also led to the development of the Chinese zombie genre. And in the early 1990s alone, more than a hundred zombie films were produced by numerous studios. This enthusiasm for Chinese horror is also evident on the Internet. To this day, when you search for horror stories on Baidu, there are still heated discussions about the "Top Ten Spooky Posts on Tianya BBS" or the Douban's Psychic Community.

 Fig 19 Mr Vampire used Chinese horror elements as part of the comedyMr Vampire used Chinese horror elements as part of the comedy

Whether it's the zombie films of the time, the online posts, or the Chinese horror games of today, they are all just vessels that contain people's genuine desire for horror content. They exist because the market demands them. This demand will undoubtedly generate considerable traffic, giving people the impression that Chinese horror was a "viral formula."

Looking back at the development of Chinese indie games over the past few years, there have been many new titles in the Chinese horror genre and other categories such as Roguelike and Shooters. The misunderstanding of some game categories as a viral formula is a natural consequence of the industry's development. The demand of the market gives rise to these titles, rather than one or two games being prevalent that define the market's demand.

Of course, I hope to see more local Chinese titles that can shed the buzzword tag and allow more players to have faith in local creators' creativity. I also hope to challenge myself to tell a brand-new story in Sanfu; people will acknowledge that even if we get rid of the Chinese horror label, Chinese creators can still master the local context.

S: Could you share with our readers some of your favorite games or films that have inspired you in recent years?

M: Because I have been busy with Sanfu, I haven't played many games lately. So I will only recommend Bad Kids. In terms of films, I am fascinated by crime thrillers with in-depth plots, such as "Port of Call” by Philip Yung, 'The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful' by Yang Ya-Che, and 'The Great Buddha+' by Huang Hsin-Yao. I think these types of films reflect many social issues that inspire me regarding my own game-making. There is one scene in Sanfu where I tried to tell the story with a cinematic approach. In that scene, I tried to use a rat as a metaphor to insinuate a company layoff. The boss pretends to be kind and asks the manager to do the dirty work, but in fact, it is the boss who controls the life and death of the rats. 

 Fig 20 Poster of the Four Pests Campaign was a metaphor in the game to highlight the power hierarchy in the societyThe poster of the Four Pests Campaign was a metaphor in the game to highlight the power hierarchy in the society

 

Sanfu's Demo is available on Steam for free (Chinese Only) at Steam

Also check out Fireworks (English Version Available) at Steam