In search of the line between artistic iteration and intellectual thievery.
When does a copycat game cease to get called out? How many clones are required to constitute a genre? Is it artistically valid to steal someone else’s work if you think you have something substantial to add to it?
There is a spectrum when creating something new but recognizable, particularly in video games. On one end of the spectrum is the unabashed ripoff, the kind of thing where the developers change one or two letters in a title, alter some assets, and pump it out in hopes of duping consumers who don’t pay close attention. On the other end are valid entries in an established type of game. In the dead center are the “-likes.” Rogue-likes. Souls-likes. Games that are aping another title or genre with specificity but which lack some robust originality.
Are we properly calibrated? Excellent. Now zoom in between the ripoffs and the -likes, and you will find the exit ramp that leads to a remarkable thing called Genshin Impact.
There’s some marketing rule out in the universe that states that the average person needs to encounter a brand’s messaging seven times before it clicks, and they take action. (Or maybe it’s seventeen. I’d google it but I have a truly inexplicable wordcount ahead of me, and time spent googling is time spent not playing the game about which I am now writing.)
In the spheres of discussion in which I spend entirely too much time — video game podcasts, video game Discord channels, video game Twitter — there is a parallel rule that states that I will investigate and potentially download a game after hearing n number of mentions at different times. Whatever constant the actual Flattener Legitimate Action Threshold may be, I crossed it at searing velocity with regards to Genshin Impact.
Although the game had been in some form of early access beginning earlier in the year, and was then “out” (whatever that actually means — indeed, some of us are unconvinced that it holds any material meaning whatsoever any longer) for some months before it hit the F.L.A.T. for me, it still seemed to come out of nowhere, and then dominate conversation so repletely that my interest was piqued.
For people who are unfamiliar with the “gacha” game genre (or, more accurately, monetization model), there are distinct stages in the discovery-to-download funnel. It happened to me, and I watched it subsequently happen to many of my digital peers. It goes like this: First the subject is like, “What is this? What are these words?” Next, the subject is all, “I’ve seen this a bunch of times but I don’t play gacha games. It’s so crazy that everyone is talking about it.” Then, the subject’s resistance begins to crack. “Oh no, you downloaded it too? Do I need to play this game?” Finally, more often than not, the subject posts a screenshot of their download progress or order summary. A bonus stage includes the subject fully evangelizing the new thing they have come around on. I have lots of acquaintances online who regularly post the progress of anime gacha games, and as the saying goes, I never thought it would happen to me.
Fine, so what is Genshin Impact? Excuse me while I fill my lungs: Genshin Impact is a free-to-play mobile-first fantasy anime waifu gacha game with an open world. It is in many very broad ways the World of WarCraft model of gameplay, if not monetization. You fight monsters and beasts in an open world. You gain experience and loot and other resources. You’ve heard this one before.
But, this core gameplay is, for once, the wrong place to start — because Genshin Impact is overtly, efficiently and beautifully ripping off another game.
You know how a certain demographic of social media accounts hate it when you triangulate what a game is based on its broad similarities to other games? You know how they writhe and rend their sackcloth when you say something is “Skyrim with guns” (translated: It has a big open world and immersive gameplay but in a non-fantasy setting) or “The Dark Souls of [whatever]” (translated: It’s highly challenging and intentionally uncommunicative and it engenders collaboration to figure out its opaque fiction and seemingly unfair encounters)?
Well, it would be dishonest to omit The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild from a discussion of Genshin Impact, which — and there is no other way to put this — yoinks shamelessly from the former. Shamelessly, but confidently. It’s fair game to make the comparison, because it is obvious that the on-paper intent, probably the pitch itself, referred back to Breath of the Wild. “It’s going to be Breath of the Wild, but with gacha elements.” There is legitimately no way that this was not an openly acknowledged focus of the design and development. Nobody who has played Breath of the Wild would push back on this sentiment. (Seriously.)
They re-created vast swaths of the experience. But why?
Developers miHoYo yoinked from every aspect of Breath of the Wild: the cell-shaded style of the landscape and monsters; the gleam of collectable items; the physics; the watchtowers of the goblin-like enemies’ camps; the patches of burnt grass left behind by fire; the stamina bar governing climbing, swimming and gliding; indeed, the soundbite of collecting something may be actually lifted from Breath of the Wild (and if not, then so close that it fools people who write indulgent 2500+ word game analyses). All undeniably yoinked.
A player must wonder: Why did they do it? Is it pastiche? Homage? Parody? Base IP theft? Is it in service of the word of mouth it would generate? Or is it perhaps an expensive signpost to onboard the player and let them know precisely where they are?
After the yoink, there’s a plop. A second game is plopped on top of that copycat base, a game that is aesthetically lush, and hyper-dense with activities. The foundation is stolen, but it is a thing of beauty and executed expertly. And after a few gameplay hours, it ceased to be a distraction, and I found myself able to appreciate the depth and originality that is established on top of those ground-level strata.
The foundation is stolen, but it is a thing of beauty and executed expertly.
Once the player accepts that, yes, this is highway robbery of the best kind, then the fun can really begin.
Astoundingly, Genshin Impact begins to take shape not as a ripoff or an also-ran, but as the gacha that finally cracked the AAA code for western audiences. The world of Teyvat is filled with things to do across different axes: A traditional quest list, but also an Adventurer’s Guide that makes for a different kind of checklist to scale up the world around you. In Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal talks about MMORPGs as being a list of tasks for the player to accomplish (which are cleverly obscured within fiction). If we view game developers as the scientists of fun — which in many cases is very literally the case — then we see in Genshin Impact the result of years of trial and error, iteration and permutation, a thing keenly honed to slice through all your barriers to entry. It’s free to play, after all — but here that comes with few of the usual connotations. (Or at least, they are deftly hidden.) Without spelling it all out, which would be laborious, you’re leveling up the characters you unlock, the items they use, the weapons they wield, the spells they cast. The game trucks in the language of loot: Level, rarity, rank, star rating. Everything is a checklist and a progress bar, and all progress is gated to give you more things to do. Tasks lists are fractal, with start-to-finish gameplay loops at every scale, from fetch quests to achievement percentages. It is operating on a level that World of WarCraft could only dream of: Before long, you will be awash in inventory management… and you will be having too much fun to find it tedious.
Characters, too, are loot. If you do not know how gacha games work, there is usually an in-game currency or twelve, resources you spend to “pull” (in an extremely slot machine sense) and see what comes out. When you pull — in this case, spend a Wish — you get a weapon or a person. There are upwards of twenty playable characters at the time of this writing, with more on the way. I have nine or so: The main player character, the three that join your party as part of the story, and all the rest are from pulls.
Although this is a mixing of extrinsic and intrinsic rewards that I believe has a finite shelf-life, I am still in an extended honeymoon phase with it. All I want is to go on adventures with my crew of anime doll-people, cast elemental spells, collect Anemoculi (the fiction’s linguistic inspirations are intriguing and probably warrant another investigation when I’m further along in the game), climb up on top of something, soar away on my glider wings, and level up my Adventure Rank. Oh, and to pull that lever as many times as it takes to spit out Jean and Diluc and Venti, the game’s more interesting and powerful (five star, even) characters, and who have eluded me thus far to my consternation.
By general cultural osmosis (that is to say, a lack of actual research), I have been lead to believe that many games in the gacha model tend to push characters-as-loot using the quantity over quality approach. (You may @ me on this subject if that is not the case, and I will happily stand corrected.) But Genshin Impact’s characters tend to get screen time, and development, and — gasp! — genuine depth. Some are annoying, some are lovable, some are legitimately hilarious. Xiangling, for instance, is an obsessive and competitive celebrity chef who reveals the full agony and ecstasy of her pursuit as she creates a delicacy out of the last of an extinct species of boar for a cookoff competition sparked by her ego and passion, garnished with an unsubtle lesson about excess in overhunting and ethical farming. Much of her talent is the culinary art though, not the science, and inexplicable to the main character, to comedic results that will not be further spoiled here.
The music of Genshin Impact
The music of Genshin Impact comes out swinging on the introductory screen. As the game boots up, you are confronted with a dreamscape straight out of Escher and Magritte: obelisks and towers in the sky, a door in the clouds. Interesting enough on its own, but the clincher is the music, surrounding you with a siren lullaby that borders on hypnotic. Standing in front of that door is the ultimate rabbit hole. (“Just click it. It’s free,” whispers a medievally devil-horned nymph on my shoulder. Maybe that’s just my own interpretation.)
Each area opens with its own theme: A baroque flute melody flows across the windswept countryside, rich with collectable hoards of wheat and iron ore and made up fantasy berries; pensive piano keys punctuate moonlit journeys in the hills; livelier string instruments are strummed in the town, populated by barking store vendors and NPCs externalizing their own agendas.
That’s a fairly detail-free way to convey it, but when Game of the Year time rolls around, this soundtrack by composer Yu-peng Chen is going to still be stuck in my head. The music evokes the childlike discovery and exploration of unknown landscapes with every bit of the gumption of Breath of the Wild’s, which has a not-insignificant advantage of decades of tradition and themes to draw upon. Genshin Impact’s musical score effects the same feeling, as though this were entry number seventeen in an established franchise. It is the music of REM free association, of exploring the not-entirely-earthly, of wistfulness and nostalgia fabricated, poof, out of thin air.
There are some references to the Breath of the Wild soundtrack, particularly in the piano riffs of certain combat encounters, communicating that yes, you are in mortal danger, but it’s kind of whimsical, right? But to my ear, melodies are never reused from anything else, or, God forbid, just referential enough to feel like parody.
(Absolute sidebar: There is, however, a climbing-and-falling harp melody in a couple of places which is curiously reminiscent of the main theme used many times in the course of a long running Japanese fantasy RPG which shall remain nameless, and I’m going to rely on those more informed on the subject to weigh in on whether this is coincidence, tongue-in-cheek referential, or straight yoinked.)
We have to talk about Paimon
The main character’s sprite assistant, or whatever she is, is a floating gnomic being named Paimon who speaks in third person. Paimon exists as an exposition device, so that the main character has someone to bounce the story back and forth with. She also annoys a lot of players and drives some away early on. As a person with limited tolerance for saccharine cutesiness and high-pitched voice affectation (with apologies, I worry this may be fractionally xenophobic), I actually found Paimon to be pretty damn funny. Paimon is presumptuous but considerate, materialistic but moral, simplistic but caring. At only a dozen hours in or so, I am even seeing a glimmer of repartee between Paimon and the main character. Writing wise, Paimon is a joke that doesn’t always land, but I’m having it even if others are not.
Let’s put it this way: Paimon at least has the good sense not to screech “Hey! Listen!” and jerk the game camera out of your control every few minutes. I’m willing to wager that the Zelda fandom would agree with me on this.
Some classic elements are better left unstolen.
Even Zelda games are stealing from Breath of the Wild
…is an absurd statement, but still: Breath of the Wild will become one of the handful of Zelda games with a direct sequel at some point. Hell, it’s even being adapted for an entry in the Hyrule Warriors series to tell the story of the events before Link’s memory erasure. Let that sink in: Breath of the Wild is getting a musou prequel. Obviously these are not theft in any traditional sense, but Nintendo it seems as though miHoYo recognized the potential of reducing, reusing and recycling Breath of the Wild-isms before Nintendo even did. Nintendo is not being precious about the setting. If Link’s design in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate has any takeaways, it’s that this version has gained some considerable canonicity for representing the series.
Although the similarities between Genshin Impact and Breath of the Wild are more than superficial, there is a design philosophy beneath each that is at odds with the other. Ultimately, Breath of the Wild wants you to think it is complex, scaring some players off with elements like weapon durability and cooking recipes. Genshin Impact removes any visible barrier to entry — it’s technically free, after all — with very few attacks to learn, easy treasure chests heaped upon the player at every turn… and then, gradually but inexorably, builds up and up until it is mechanically very complex in the interest of maintaining, well, interest. Once the loot machine begins churning, menus absolutely sprawl. The tasks are easy, but the map and menus are neutron-star-dense with things to do, and things you think you know how to do will be interrupted at regular intervals with further sub-things-to-do: acquiring and spending resources to upgrade people, weapons and artifacts. This is where the mobile-ness of the game is cleverly embedded.
This is my first foray into the gacha world, and I’m sure it is an exceptional one. It has me on its hook, mechanically and aesthetically, and my poor simple brain wants to take time off of work and engage with every hook, do all the things.
miHoYo has discovered a really compelling formula in Genshin Impact, one which is not necessarily groundbreaking, but which is making a lot of people ask what the hell a gacha is. But the throne is never safe, and one has to wonder: who will yoink the yoinkmen? Wait — that didn’t come out right, but I expect we’re all interested to see who takes a page from Genshin Impact’s ruthless playbook.
Thanks to @Alfff for the research assistance regarding the composer of Genshin Impact’s musical score.