Kevin Chen is a game developer who ping-ponged three times between Taiwan and the United States as he was growing up. Now he’s Kickstarting his first visual novel, Four Horsemen, and he’s drawing on life experience to narrate a timeless – and timely – story of what it means to be an immigrant.
We sat down with Chen, founder of Nuclear Fishin’ Software, to discuss how his experiences have influenced the development of the game. First born in Taiwan, he spent his childhood in the U.S., moved back to Taiwan as a teenager, and finally settled in the States again as an adult. This unique background, split between two cultures, provides a fascinating cultural perspective.
We also touched on how the piece defies the visual novel genre, a primarily Japanese niche of the video game industry characterized by static graphics, anime-style art, text, and music.
Without further ado, here is the interview:
Ricky: What is Four Horsemen in one sentence?
Ricky: Going through the story and reading through the Kickstarter, there are elements of a dystopia here. You mention the “end of the world” at one point. So this title, Four Horsemen (a reference to the Book of Revelation)… Is it a coincidence that there also four characters in the game?
Kevin: As you’ve caught on, it’s very allegorical. I looked at that section in the Book of Revelation, and I realized that these four things – war, famine, pestilence, and death – they’re all deeply tied to the experience of human migration. So I was really fascinated, doing research on all of these human migrations, past and present, that these four factors always come along with it. Also, it really struck me how, in all the art, literature, and movies about the end of the world, everything that ends is stuff that goes away when you emigrate. So when people talk about the end of the world, they’re not thinking about the entire planet. What they really mean is saying goodbye to everything they once knew and loved. So I just thought that was a really interesting framing for this game.
And also, when immigrants come to a country, you listen to the xenophobic rhetoric, and it’s always the same. It’s not so much a fear of the outside people themselves – it’s this concern that having this new culture is going to put an end to [the natives’] way of life. So for them it’s also an end of the world. It’s an end on both sides. And I thought that was a really cool way to focus the story. And I figured that by making each of these characters’ central conflicts one of these four themes, I could explore this broad slice of what it means to emigrate.
Ricky: Great. So, really getting into things now… Your dual background is something that I find fascinating, and I was wondering if you could tell me a little more about those cultural experiences, and how they helped shape the development of the game.
Kevin: Sure, I guess a lot of the original feelings that started personalizing this game, came from this uncanny feeling I had when I came back to America after six years in Taiwan. I was really fascinated how so many of the things that I resented from being a teenager in Taiwan, things that people would shout at me on the bus or mutter under their breath, or the way I’d be treated in restaurants… Suddenly, people were saying those things about me again, but in English. And it was just so weird for me, as a Taiwanese person, to get so much flak in Taiwan for being American, and then come back to America and get so much flak for being Taiwanese.
What’s even more fascinating, is that I realized that what they were saying to me in America – a couple of racists, not everyone obviously – but the kind of things they said were exactly the same things people would say to me in Taiwan. I found out there’s actually this whole genre of YouTube videos of the same experience all over the world. It’s a foreigner or immigrant being yelled at on the subway, and if you read the subtitles, you’ll find that what the racist is saying is almost always the same, things like, ‘Hey you come here to take our jobs, you’re not sending your best, you’re here because you couldn’t make it in your home country. What business do you have have here?’ [The immigrants] couldn’t be more different – in their backgrounds, in their histories, but how they’re treated is the same. And that was what gave me the idea that I could make one game about just a few things and give people this relentless sense of deja vu.
Ricky: So you obviously have a games background; you’ve been working in the industry for years. I’m wondering if there are any other nontypical games in your portfolio. Is this the first strongly narrative game that you’re working on?
Kevin: In terms of narrative specifically, this is my first visual novel, and this game is probably more story than any other game I’ve made… Actually, one of the reasons why I wanted to do the visual novel instead of something maybe more marketable [is] I’ve been doing deeply technical games for a long time. After a while, I just got so tired. I build stuff because I like what it does. I realized I could spend my whole career just building these enormous, complex, brilliant systems that I could brag about with other engineers at a bar. But the satisfaction I was getting out of that wasn’t right. I have all these experiences that I’m keeping in my head and, not being able to express them, it’s sort of like creative constipation. I just wanted for once to make a project where the programming was relatively light. And Ren’Py (a framework for making visual novels), the nice thing about it is that it does a lot of the boilerplate stuff. You really only need serious code if you want to get ambitious, [which means] I can just focus on the storytelling.
Ricky: Let’s talk profanity. You invested a lot of time into making sure that the profanity comes out correct. What are some of the challenges of translating meaning across cultural boundaries (there are ten different playable nationalities in the game), and why is it so important for you to get this right?
Kevin: Oh man. I’ll cover this in a backer update as well, because this is one of my favorite topics of the game.
You look at anything made for children in the 80s, especially in this country, and the child characters don’t come across as really human, because here’s this dilemma: We’re creating something for children that’s supposed to represent children, it has to be safe. But children by nature are unsafe… It’s hilarious for them [to curse] because it’s forbidden, so then you have this disconnect where you have media that’s made for children that doesn’t accurately represent them. And so, because so much of this game’s emotional impact depends on people being able to relate to these characters, I made a conscious decision to show children and teenagers as they are, and not as we tell them to be…
And I noticed also that, regionally, the way people swear is a strong identifier for the culture. Like for me especially, from a third culture background, where we would code switch a lot from English to Chinese, and [talking to] other third culture kids from different English-Chinese backgrounds, it fascinated me that the words they chose to switch were different. Kids will latch onto the first or most common usage of a word. Like, if they learn two words, they’ll think back to the one they have more experience with. And for profanity in particular, oh man, the swear words that got yelled at us most often were the ones said in Chinese; the ones that we said amongst ourselves were all in English, which makes perfect sense when you think about it.
So you learn a lot about who kids by how they choose to swear. Because it’s [away] from adults and because it’s forbidden, it also gives a window into what they’re not allowed to say, what they’re not allowed to do… Kids deliberately swear like sailors when they’re alone precisely because it’s a sign that they’re not being watched by authority. And it’s almost a sign of intimacy. And I actually make this totally explicit in Four Horsemen. When they’re around adults, they’re very polite and speak in proper English, or their proper native language, but when they’re around each other, it’s like, fuck it, man.
Ricky: Aside from from profanity, what are some of Four Horseman’s other innovations? You mention of course, emphasizing story over gameplay.
Kevin: The visual novel genre as established in Japan, as beloved by people who play visual novels… the conventions have solidified really rigidly. There’s no denying that most of the visual novels even that are coming out in English now are dating sims and otome games, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Well, there are some things that are socially problematic about dating sims, and they’re very much an artifact of Japanese culture, so when people make them in America, there’s always this awkwardness they have to navigate. By moving away from that, I feel like it opens the genre a little more.
I was really inspired by the work of Christine Love, and how she chose to do something that’s totally out of left field. I mean, ancient Koreans in space? That’s as far away from the genre conventions as you can get. But you also can’t do that without engaging with those conventions, because otherwise players will be disappointed and shocked. And then you have people asking questions like ‘Wait, how do I sleep with this girl?’ It’s like, you can’t – the game’s not about that. So Four Horsemen has to engage with that too…There’s an item shop, there’s a way to grind, there’s a way to get currency, but all these systems are rigged. They’re really, really rigged. I’m not even saying anything secret. The game tells you this outright. Without spoiling the actual formula for how the inflation works in the item shop, I think you probably know this when you play.
Ricky: I think it’s really cool that you’re exploring the visual novel space in this way. I looked into visual novels a bit a few years ago, and a lot of them were dating sims, and I always wondered what a Western iteration of the visual novel would look like. And I don’t know how many other projects out there are like this, but I think that this is really cool, the fact that we’re exploring that space.
Kevin: As far as I understand it, the modern [English language] visual novel community, which is very small, but very devoted, comes from what was originally a translation community, because people realize that visual novels in Japan are really hard to localize, and even hard to market. So all these fan groups started translating them on their own, and eventually this led to people being like, ‘Wait, why can’t we just write some ourselves? We already have the tools to do all of this.’ So one of the major figures in all of this, who I cannot thank enough, he goes by Ren’Py Tom. And he wrote this framework called Ren’Py, which allows people to write visual novels with relatively little code. And he set up this enormous community… Right now, it’s very much still in its infancy. Most of the other projects I see ape the Japanese style very closely, to the point that the characters all have Japanese names and stuff, and the characters are all samurais and ninjas. But there’s a lot of interest there, and I feel like the real goldmine is going to be when they reconnect with this even longer tradition of interactive fiction. Have you read Janet Murray and Hamlet on the Holodeck?
In the 90s, that community was so fixated on text adventure that, when that stopped being a thing, when point and click started to take over with Sierra and all of that, a lot of it just collapsed. And it’s a shame, because people were doing some really amazing, impressive textual exercises, some of which changed gaming forever in really subtle ways. The ways we think about choice and morality… A lot of systems that came out of these college projects in like ’93, you now see them in like Metal Gear Solid. So I feel like if those communities can reconnect again, all of these writers who are doing experimental stuff anyway… I think this is a fantastic medium for them to do this. For one, it’s one of the few genres in which people can expect and tolerate huge amounts of text. Like there’s this sort of trope in game development that gamers don’t like to read.
Ricky: Strongly disagree.
Kevin: As do I. And not only is it false, it’s always been false… Once people recognize that again, if you think about much of the original interactive fiction movement was about immersion, the whole like, you are in the story, and you can make decisions that are in the story, this whole fantasy of conflating make-believe with reading – I think that visual novels uniquely have a way to deliver that, because of this compromise between the art, the writing, and the sound. There’s still so much potential to be explored. And, everyone is playing it so conservatively right now, except for a few, which is really frustrating to me. I really hope it blows up, so people start taking bigger risks.
Ricky: Anything else you want people to know about Four Horsemen that we haven’t talked about?
Kevin: There’s tons and tons of it. A lot of it is going to end up in our book, which is I think our $50 tier on Kickstarter… So the sheer amount of thought and planning that went into this game, I hope from the game itself that is evident, but just everything in this game is so deliberate. There’s just been such a ridiculous amount of thought that’s gone into everything. And a big part of it recently, I guess, is worth sharing. So recently my uncle passed away. Last Saturday, actually.
Ricky: Condolences. Sorry to hear that.
Kevin: I mean, he was in his 80s. It was about time. But he was a first generation immigrant. He was a big inspiration for the stories in this game, honestly. When he came to California from Taiwan, he was the first American in our family, basically alone. He came, like many immigrants, before his wife and daughter did, because he wanted to make sure that he could have a future waiting for them there. And just looking at what he built, it started with just one guy, and now it’s three generations of Chens living in the States…
I do plan to dedicate the final game to him. And it’s not just to honor him – it’s to make sure that what I make is honest and honors his memory. Because I feel like so much of this game is this message. If I’m not telling the story of the message of this game straight from the heart, and if it’s not true to the people that it represents, then what really is the point? This isn’t like a fantasy novel. If it’s not grounded in at least the universal truths of reality, then I’ve completely missed the mark.
And, the biggest fear, the biggest challenge for me is not so much if the game is successful, because I can deal with that. But if this game doesn’t represent the truth, if it’s not sincere and honest in its depiction of the immigrant experience, then I’m going to feel like I’ve let all those people down. So that’s been a huge motivation for me and also a large source of anxiety, being really meticulous in my research.
Ricky: Thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it and absolutely best of luck with the game.
Kevin: Thank you so much for doing this interview.
*This interview has been edited for length*