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Taipei Legend Studio: Travel through Time and Fantasy with Imagination

Taipei Legend Studio. © C-LAB, photo by Anpis WANG
paranormal literatureYao-Guaigame
And thus games of the future are built on the past stories collected. You all are walking in among tall tales and legends.

They are Taipei Legend Studio (TLS), a group of people who are passionately in love with games and fantasy literature and drawn to the history and culture, urban landscape, legends, folklore deities and fantastical creatures (Yao-Guai) of Taiwan. They thus married their passion and career and transformed from novel readers to novel writers, game players to game designers. TLS dedicates their efforts in excavating history and cultural materials and translating their findings into creative writings with the attempt to reconnect modern people to the lost local memories through entertaining stories.

How the Story Began

TLS started out as a fan society formed by members of student fantasy clubs from National Taiwan University and National Chengchi University in 2015. Members collaborated on fiction writing, independent publishing and game designing. Aiming to resurrect the spirit of a city, they issue fan fiction publications and design reality games. Knitting together fictional and factual elements, TLS aspires to evoke new meanings for the city and its communities through history and culture. Evolving around the world view of “legends of a parallel Taipei universe,” their recently published works include The Murders in MandalaThe Incubation of Stellar Spirits, a anthology of investigated stories Original Stories of Taiwanese Supernatural Monsters, the reality game The Return of Kimtshai, and the board game Legend Has It.

“Legends of a parallel Taipei” is an open world view built against the backdrop of the Japanese-rule era of Taiwan. Most of the stories take place between 1895 (when Taiwan is ceded to Japan by the Qing ruled China) and 1951 in a parallel universe as opposed to the real world where readers reside. This parallel world in many ways resembles the real world while it differs in many aspects. The reference of Taipei in the title indicates a spell-bound zone as a colonization device rather than an implication of where the stories take place. As a matter of fact, the stories in this series spread all around the island. While the theme of the stories seemingly presents the rivalry between the colonizers and the colonized, what precedes it is the dazzling and splendid beauty of diversified cultures. TLS strives to flip people’s existing perception of the folklore, history and culture of Taiwan by committing their efforts to the actual landscape.

One of the studio member, LO ­Chuan-Chiao, writes fantasy fiction under the pen name “Hsiao Hsiang Shen.” © C-LAB, photo by Anpis WANG

The imagination of human beings is so poor, but the past is a super rich treasure trove. All it takes is simply to go through that gate.

One of the studio member, LO ­Chuan-­Chiao, who writes fantasy fiction under the pen name “Hsiao Hsiang Shen,” has started reading fantasy fictions since high school. He became a fantasy fan and expanded his passion from novels to games then. It was around the same time that he was exposed to Tabletop Role Play Games (TPRG) and started his own blog ” Hsiao Hsiang Shen on TPRG” in college. His blog focused on the story design of TPRGs and analyzed the ethic theories and philosophical frameworks in TPRGs. LO later on got into the master’s degree program in oriental philosophy at National Taiwan University (NTU) and joined the NTU Fantasy Club, a student society with just a dozen members back then. Started out as a game player, LO advanced to be a game designer. He was also enthusiastic about the theory system underlying the game rules and this later influenced the focus of his creation.

TPRGs open up a whole new horizon to LO. In general, the scripts of computer role-playing games are fixed. While players are allowed to roam freely in the game world, most of the time they can only stay on the course developed by designers, and the options to trigger new possibilities are limited. For example, the conversations with characters are all prescribed. Players can only follow the setup rather than being autonomous. If the designer does not give the option of escaping through a window, players won’t be able to perform the act as they wish to, either. On the contrary, under the context of TPRG, players design and play their own roles when the game host informs them of the scenario in which players can act freely and decide their attitudes. For example, a player can decide to engage in an aggressive or peaceful conversation with other characters. Different choices lead to different results. Therefore, the strongest lure of TRPG is that players can be as free as their creativity by immersing themselves in the scenario.

The Live Action Role Playing (LARP) games TLS designed later are another type of game LO came to know. To LO, the biggest difference between TRPG and LARP lies in the narrative. The narrative of TRPG can be as grandiose as it gets whereas the timeline of events is beyond the real time. On the other hand, everything takes place in a LARP game in real time as if the players are performing a play with no scripts. Everyone plays his / her own role with individual narratives and objectives. They need to read other’s behavior through the course of interaction to make judgement on the correctness of the information they receive. In this way, TRPG and LARP are designed with totally different logics. TRPG focuses on facilitating make-believe scenarios for players and mobilize their emotions through the ups and downs of plots. The rest of the game experience is more like reading a fiction or watching a movie. Under a LARP scenario, as every player is autonomous, to avoid player feeling insignificant or idle, a designer has to exhaust all kinds of possibilities to rule out negative experiences and strike a balance as much as possible.

The working space of Taipei Legend Studio. © C-LAB, photo by Anpis WANG

In 2009, LO wanted to build a LARP world. He started out with a rough concept. In this world, humans can tame fantastical creatures and vice versa. Also, fantastical creatures can either fight or befriend humans. Later he watched Southward Expansion into Taiwan, a documentary film produced during the Japanese colonial period. He saw a woman in cheongsam under the veranda, a woman in kimono under an umbrella and a man in suit riding in a rickshaw at one downtown intersection in the film. All these figures assembling in the same frame is visually impressive. “It’s incredible that a diverse culture is epitomized around such a small street corner,” he exclaimed.

This is how TLS derived the vision to connect the present and the past. LO also became infatuated with the history of Japanese colonial period. Southward Expansion into Taiwan was entry which took him into the Japanese colonial past of Taiwan and sent him to explore the intriguing people, events and things of the period. He also started to collect historical materials of the Japanese ruling era. As he traced the past of Taiwan, LO found things beyond the imagination of modern people and lots of stories to be told. “The imagination of human beings is so poor, but the past is a super rich treasure trove. All it takes is simply to go through that gate,” he put it this way.

The Creators’ Path of Transforming Historical and Cultural Materials

The style of LARP games by TLS differ immensely from most of the combat style LARP games in which players fight with plastic weapons whereas TLS games focus on scripts and narratives. When LO and TLS members started their attempt to design LARP games, without prior experience, they had to slowly search for stepping stones through repeated tests and trials to gauge the balance of game rules. Gradually, they developed their own style. This is what makes TLS games stand out, because they started from zero rather than copying other people’s practice.

“I want to present not only a style of diverse cultures but also a style that approximates the limit of romantic beauty,” LO emphasized. In addition to game designing and fiction writing, TLS writers also have to develop their aesthetic taste through extensive intake of inspiration. They select authentic and explorable cultural and historical materials unfamiliar to our contemporaries, trying their best to showcase the most glamorous and grandiose aspects of selected past. Their first LARP game, The Incubation of Stellar Spirits, stirred up players’ interests in the Japanese colonial period and history of Taiwan. Some of them even became the host of the successive rounds and started to write stories within the system. Hence the story expands and grows indefinitely.

TLS is accustomed to the constant search for game elements through the transformation of historical and cultural materials. The transformation focuses not only on the quest for historical materials and spotting fun elements but also on reinterpretation of these materials while keeping the original context intact. This is also a part of the ethical principles that TLS upholds. They treat these fun materials responsibly. Especially as Japanese colonial period is quite recent, people who are involved in these events or their heirs may still be around now. It is important to show them respect, which is also a way to stay true to the spirit of the game.

These game designers are also concerned that it does no good once certain cultural elements become entertainment or commercialized products after they gain public attention. For example, if mong-shin, the mountain devilish spirit in Taiwanese folklore which lures people away, is only portrayed with an image without the context of its myth and explanation about how and where it haunts people, then mong-shin would become an empty shell, deprived of its symbolic meaning and cultural depth underlying the creature eventually. To avoid Taiwanese cultural materials being massively commercialized and decontextualized, LOo believes that we should first enrich our cultural imagination.

Taipei Legend Studio conducted its research on Yao-Guai of Taiwan. © C-LAB, photo by Anpis WANG
Taipei Legend Studio is accustomed to the constant search for game elements through the transformation of historical and cultural materials. © C-LAB, photo by Anpis WANG

Resurrecting a City by Revitalizing Its History

TLS proposes “resurrecting a city,” which means by grounding the game in a city, players can be emotionally connected to one place and be intrigued to learn more about the underlying history. The game evolves around the landscape as the sense of reality recedes to make space for fantastical and romantic aura, allowing players to relive the traces of time. This kind of fun “localization” shortens the distance between people and culture and energizes history by injecting imagination. Of course, game is not the only way to achieve this as fiction is another alternative. As a matter of fact, this model works for any kind of creative works for pleasure by assigning new meanings to historical sites, which would be much more fun than reading dry historical texts.

According to LO, members of TLS grow their enthusiasm for history by playing games. Upon hearing the term “resurrecting a city,” people generally may assume that this means the city is dead; otherwise there would be no resurrection. Actually, even if historical buildings and sites in a city are preserved, memories of the past are dead when residents of the city are not aware of the values of the cultural landscape. Especially for a city like Taipei, populated by people who move from somewhere else, when its citizens have no interest in the historical past, the preservation of hardware would be pointless. Through entertainment and creative works, TLS invokes the help of games to revitalize history and its values.

How does the invocation work then? First, massively applying historical materials to the background of the storyline, which is a reasonable format for works for pleasure. Usually, label reading is not a very attractive way to introduce a historical site to visitors. Instead, if a historical site can be transformed into the backdrop of a game and participants can experience themselves the historical events once took place on the site, then new meanings would be assigned to the venue. Also, participants would regret the disappearance of this site should it happen in the future.

Fantasy is a genre which focuses on the culture of memory. The proof is that those deities and monsters people allude to are mostly drawn from cultural database and cultural characteristics are often assigned to mythical creatures. Dragon as a kind of creature alone does not embody any cultural implication. However, as the West and the East perceive dragon differently, when an oriental dragon appears in a Western fantasy novel, readers would perceive this as exotic. A dragon comes to embody cultural implications when people assign religion, ethical and folk attributes to this creature.

While TLS conducted its research on Yao-Guai of Taiwan, they realized that these fantastical creatures demonstrate a strong hybrid attribute which is also present in Taiwanese culture. Paiwan people, one of the indigenous groups in Taiwan, possess a lot of legend elements resembling Han Chinese tales. The Han Chinese legend, The Snake Man, is similar to the Western tale Beauty and the Beast. LO pointed out that the more you know about your culture, the less you see culture as a monolithic thing. Instead, culture is fluid. The study of Yao-Guai enlightens us more broadly on Taiwanese culture and responds to the cultural anxiety resulted from the complex history of Taiwan so that we can learn about the diversified cultural traits more open-mindedly.

So far TLS focuses on three dimensions: fiction writing and game designing based on cultural and historical materials to connect modern people with memories of the past; studying and systemizing the Yao-Guai culture of Taiwan for the further exploration of the underlying social meanings; planning and publishing works on the subject matter to facilitate long term discussion. The works by TLS will become an alternative trove for memory culture in contemporary cities of Taiwan not just through the development and continuation of cultural legacy but also by inspiring new meanings and opening up room for interpretation with participants.

paranormal literatureYao-Guaigame
HO Bo-YenHO is a writer and film worker, studying for a master's degree of Department of Motion Picture at NTUA, and runs the Facebook fanpage "Finding Neverpath."
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