At GDC 2023, Brian Kwek, Owner of Ysbryd Games, a Singapore and UK-based publisher, gave a talk titled ‘The Trap of Marketing “Authentic” Games: Lessons from South-East Asia’. This premise intrigued me. Having a nuanced conversation about the region was a positive indication that Southeast Asian games are breaking beyond the ‘up-and-coming’ phase of adolescence. Are we finally past the fact that we’re making games at all, and now concerned about the how and why?
The question of ‘authenticity’ is one that has plagued Southeast Asia, from every angle. Whether it’s the prime adjective that sits before the noun, laksa, satay, or a guided tour to Malaysia’s Batu Caves, it feels as though the self-perceived ‘otherness’ of our heritage has the community more concerned about what is ‘correct’ rather than how the experience is actually delivered.
At his talk, Kwek shared that he has seen Southeast Asian game developers take exquisite pains to render an accurate portrayal of their culture, only for the market to respond poorly, with the result of low sales for the game.
‘[The message that their culture is not wanted at face value] is unlikely to be true – many times the root problem lies not in what we say, but in how we say it. I was hoping to start a conversation with the developers I care about in the SEA region, and have them examine their intentions about how they were trying to authentically depict their own cultural backgrounds in their games,’ says Kwek.
Another pitfall Kwek noted was a tendency to emulate what China and Japan are doing with their games. While culturally and geographically close to Southeast Asia, the global resonance of Japanese culture in a Yakuza game, versus Southeast Asian culture, are worlds apart.
‘Coming from a relatively younger scene compared to the global industry – [we] might be forgetting the big picture, like how long Japanese and Chinese iconography like yakuza, samurai, triads, and kung fu have been at play in the broader games audience. The zeitgeist has been gradually shaped to support those cultural motifs. Is it realistic for us to think we can harness those same factors when putting our own cultural labour of love into the market?’
These discussions are important. With a burgeoning local industry valued at over US $5 billion, while also playing host to a sizeable 270 million gamers, we might be newer to producing our own game titles, but we are not new to games. As the prevalence of Southeast Asian independent games and studios increases, charting our way forward to the global stage is crucial to the growth of the industry as a whole.
Southeast Asian games to watch in 2023
The following games are titles coming out of Southeast Asia. Some masterfully wear their culture on their sleeve, while others are simply great games made in this part of the world.
When The Past Was Around
Developed by Mojiken Studio
See When The Past Was Around on Steam
Critically acclaimed A Space For The Unbound was released in early 2023, and it subsequently rocked the world with its deep narrative that blended universal coming-of-age experiences with snippets of Indonesian life that tugged at heartstrings.
Those looking for games of a similar thread can check out the studio’s previous title, When The Past Was Around. Centred around 20-year-old Eda, the game explores the feeling of being lost, and the search for love, in a point-and-click style puzzle gameplay. As you gather more clues and unlock doors, Eda will find her way and unravel the secrets between her and a mysterious lover she used to know.
Developed by MassHive Media
See Potion Permit on Steam
Farming and life simulation games have continued to fascinate, with interest going well beyond the early pandemic Animal Crossing addiction. Potion Permit by MassHive Media (Indonesia) is one such game to add to the roster, and it’s heavily inspired by the likes of Stardew Valley and Moonlighter.
Players take on the role of a chemist in the town of Moonbury, where potions are key to curing the residents’ ailments. Of course, the game wouldn’t be complete without relationship building; players can also make friends in the town and fall in love with romanceable NPCs. All in a day’s work for the average chemist.
Developed by Persona Theory Games
Wishlist Kabaret on Steam
Dive right into the heart of Southeast Asian folklore with Kabaret, a visual novel with adventure elements and a striking art style that borrows ‘wayang kulit’ (shadow puppetry) motifs, a nod towards the studio’s Malaysian heritage.
The plot revolves around Jebat, a boy-turned-monster who is whisked away to the ‘Alam Bunian’, a mythical realm filled with supernatural characters. Trapped in this dark fantasy, Jebat must work under The Caretaker and perform tea ceremonies with other monsters, in the hopes of finding out how to break his curse. Kabaret features music with lyrics in Bahasa, creatures straight out of Southeast Asian folktales and mini-games such as Congkak, a traditional game of seeds played inside a wooden boat-shaped board. Kabaret comes out on Steam and the Epic Games Store on 5 April 2023.
Developed by Battle Brew Productions
Wishlist Cuisineer on Steam.
Just when we thought we’d seen it all with rogue-likes, Cuisineer skips into town with its adorable mascot, Pom. An adventurer at heart, she ends up utilising her battle skills to trawl dungeons for ingredients to help save the family restaurant she’s inherited from its crippling debt. This is a game that’s part-time dungeon crawling, part-time restaurant management, and full time cuteness overload with its colourful art style.
What sets Cuisineer apart from other games is the incorporation of food from around the world, particularly Asian cuisine. Recipes include everything from Roti Prata, to Ramen, to Chinese Braised Pork Belly.
Cuisineer is set to release in Summer 2023 [Northern Hemisphere] and has been picked up for publishing by Marvelous Europe and XSEED Games.
Developed by Anonymous Penguin Studio
Play Lovebirb for free on Steam
Turn dating app fatigue into freshly feathered feelings in Lovebirb, a rhythm dating game by the Philippines-based Anonymous Penguin Studio. Swipe left and right on ‘Bumbird’, match with hot and single birbies in the area, and meet them to see if the sparks will fly.
Utilise simple rhythm mechanics to dictate your responses, flex your dance and selfie-taking skills, and you’ll ultimately determine whether you fall foul or fowl for your date. If the cute art style hasn’t gotten to you yet, the eccentric characters that you meet in Bumbird will.
Developed by Gecco Games Studio
See Safehouse on Steam
Safehouse by Thai indie developer, Gecco Games Studio is a safe bet for those looking for an Among Us-like. Up to five players may roleplay as a group of criminals holding up together as they uncover the traitor amongst them in this game of social deduction.
As players form alliances and gather information on who the backstabber might be, the traitor can work the opposite path, by pretending to be loyal before whipping out the semi-automatic weapon from the safe to kill everyone (this is an actual strategy recommended by the developers).
The game offers a fair amount of customisation from character design (inspired by the style of Quentin Tarantino) to the safe house’s layout, which can add multipliers to your rewards. Safehouse is currently in Early Access on Steam, with plans for a full release at the end of 2023.