Pop CultureJanuary 2, 2019

Summer Reissue: The curious case of the Three Kingdoms video games


Creative Assembly released another spinoff to the Total War series, this time based around the Three Kingdoms War in China. Sam Brooks investigates why this period is a bizarrely popular one for video games.

This post was first published January 12, 2018.

Dynasty Warriors. Dynasty Tactics. Dynasty Wars. Destiny of an Emperor. And now, Total War: Three Kingdoms. Some of these games are wildly successful (basically just Dynasty Warriors, which has spawned countless spinoffs) and some of them are… curios, to be kind. These are all video games based on the same strange source material – a 13th century Chinese novel called Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

A novel is not a natural source material for a game. In fact, video game adaptations of all kinds have been historically reviled. Games based on movies attract almost as much audience and critical disdain as movies based on games, and games adapted from novels tend to take the flesh and flavour of the material and ditch the bones. This makes sense! So what about this particular novel makes it catnip for adaptation?

To backtrack and explain a little: The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guangzhong, is considered one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature (say that ten times fast). It’s a romanticisation, hence the title, of a war in China that lasted a hundred years – and when I say romanticisation, it basically means that they’ve added a lot of folk tales and some editorialising to make what reads more or less like a particularly florid Wikipedia article into something resembling a modern novel.

This did not happen in history.

I got into this novel and its lore as a teenager, mostly because I got into these video games as an incredibly cool and hip teenager. This incredibly cool and hip teenager also nerded out and wanted to read the one hundred and twenty chapter, eight hundred thousand word novel based on a fairly obscure period in Chinese history. If you have a particular interest in 13th century Chinese literature, I’d say go ahead and read it – but also, I imagine that if you have any interest in that kind of literature then it’s probably the first book you read in that genre anyway. (The other one you may have read is Water Margin, which also has a game series I love based on it, because I remain incredibly cool and hip.)

The novel starts with the fall of the Han Empire, which was kind of like the National Party of 2nd century China (please do not read too deeply into these analogies – I actually know more about 3rd century China politics than I do about modern New Zealand politics). What followed was the Yellow Turban Rebellion, which took over the entire country. In the vacuum of this rebellion, a series of local warlords came to power and after about 20 years and lots of people dying came the formation of three clear and distinct kingdoms: Wei, Wu, and Shu. More war happened and the country was unified under Jin, a kingdom which arose after Wei collapsed under its own squabbling.

The novel takes a lot of liberties with history, to understate it. This is a novel where a warlord goes to visit a man, that man panics and cooks his wife into a stew because he’s run out of food, and the warlord is very thankful to him for it. It’s also a novel where a soldier saves that same warlord’s baby, and to thank the soldier, the warlord throws that same baby straight on the ground. These liberties give colour to history, much like what Philippa Gregory has done to hundreds of years of English queens – it makes history feel realer, more colourful and larger than life. 

The novel also gives detailed and structured narrative to history; even more importantly, it offers up a huge range of characters – literally hundreds – that readers can latch onto.

A screenshot from strategy game Romance of the Three Kingdoms 12.

When you’ve got that kind of pre-built narrative, you’ve got a set of beats and events that you can follow without having to do the basic building blocks of storytelling – it’s already done for you. And when you’ve got a huge number of characters – whether it be the wife-eating king of Shu Liu Bei, the designated villain king of Wei Cao Cao or the bland as hell king of Wu Sun Ce, or any of the other hundreds of characters provided by the novel – it means that companies don’t have to sit around workshopping ideas. The protagonists are set, the villains are there, they just need to be written into their roles.

It’s not just video games that reap the spoils of this prebuilt narrative and set of characters. There have been dozens of versions of this story across film, television, theatre, comics and manga – and the novel permeates into the wider culture too. If you’ve walked into a Chinese restaurant recently, chances are you’ve seen a statue or figurine of Guan Yu, labelled the ‘God of War’ and also noted for his very beautiful beard. To generalise for effect, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is to Chinese literature what Shakespeare is to English literature: it permeates everything.

Guan Yu – The God of War.

Until now, KOEI Tecmo has been the most famous and notable adapter of the novel into video games. They’re the ones who make the long-running hack-and-slash Dynasty Warriors series, the ludicrous fantasy soap opera Kessen and the much drier and strategy-driven Romance of the Three Kingdoms series. It’s hard to call these series ludicrously successful. The Warriors games in particular have a difficult time with reviewers – they tend to be enthusiastically reviewed by long-time fans, panned by those who have never played them before, or politely noticed by those who are aware that people like them, and don’t want to cause offence. But these games have a loyal fanbase, and not just in China.

For me, playing these games is what it must be like when someone who likes ‘Hallelujah’ a lot hears a new cover version. I know the lyrics, I know the beats, I know where the song is going to gut me, I know where I’m going to skip back a little to play it again. I know Romance of the Three Kingdoms better than I know many of my friends. I’ve played through at least ten renditions of the Battle of Chi Bi (famously depicted on the big screen in John Woo’s Red Cliff) – I’ve played it as historical firestarter Huang Gai, as anachronistically weaponised Sun Shang Xiang, and in one adaptation, watched as Zhuge Liang literally fought with God in order to win that battle.

There’s the comfort, but also a joy in seeing somebody take a new riff on something that I know so well. One of the most famous parts of the book is when Zhang Fei stands against an army of twenty thousand in Chang Ban and declares that nobody will cross it. His shout scares a named character (Xiahou Jie, didn’t have to Google it, no big deal) so much he falls off his horse and dies.

This moment in Dynasty Warriors 3, which I played way back in 2004, occurs when whatever officer you’re playing (and it can be literally anybody in that game, whether it’s blonde-for-some-reason Zhu Rong or bizarrely-coded-as-Muslim Zhang Jiao) stands on the bridge and shouts a declaration at whoever approaches. At the time, it felt epic and great, even though 14 years later, man, that voice acting does not hold up.

In Dynasty Warriors 7, released in 2011, you do this moment as Zhang Fei. He shouts the declaration and then you, the player, can slaughter thousands and thousands of soldiers. It’s a moment that brings the historical, the mythical and the visceral together: you play as a man who really existed, perform a famous deed in the novel, and you do something that only video games can let you do. The games are full of these marriages between fact, fiction and myth, and they’re unique because of them.

Neither of these things happened in the novel. Neither of these things happened in history. But the true joy in it – and it’s a similar joy that you get from playing RPGs – is taking a part in a novel that has been a part of your life or even your culture, for years.

Creative Assembly is one of the first Western developers taking a stab at this story. It’s not the first time this story will be adapted to fit a strategy framework – there have been 13 entries in the strategy series that takes its name straight from the novel – but it’s the first time it’ll be given this treatment by a Western company.

I’m really excited, like I am for any and every game based on this novel. I love it. It gives me comfort, it gives me joy, and it makes me wonder what other sources video games can draw from. Is there a game in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The Hours? August: Osage County? Probably not, but I would play those games.

But I’m also nervous. I know this lore so well. I’ve played countless games based on it. I’m the kind of guy who would write angry tweets about something minute they get wrong. Everybody has that one thing that they need to be done right. This is mine.

Keep going!