[Note: This item comes from friend David Rosenthal. DLH]
How a mobile game is reopening a hidden chapter in Taiwan’s history
Unforgivable examines Taiwan’s White Terror through a ludonarrative lens.
By Brent Crane
Apr 13 2019
Thirty years ago, the grandfather of a Taiwanese-American NYPD detective named Danny Lin was thrown off a cliff in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. The killing took place during what is known today as the White Terror, a 40-year period of violent political suppression and martial law in Taiwan in the middle 20th century. The killer was never identified. Bent on solving his grandfather’s cold case and prompted by the admissions of a mysterious Japanese-Taiwanese woman in a Manhattan ramen restaurant, Lin travels to Taiwan. He knows little about the place, only that, somehow, he must find answers.
Until the last couple of decades, this kind of story, focused on Taiwan’s brutal authoritarianism under military rule, would have been a touchy topic in Taiwan. Today, though, Detective Lin’s saga is the fictional plot behind Unforgivable: Eliza, a popular augmented reality game played on a smartphone, similar to Pokemon Go. The game unfolds as a digitally enhanced tour of New York and then Taipei, with bright manga-esque presentation.
Unforgivable was penned by the Taiwanese-American crime novelist Ed Lin (Incensed, Ghost Month, One Red Bastard) and developed by Allen Yu, the 34-year-old Taiwanese founder of Flushing-based Toii Inc. For these game makers, Lin’s story has been a way to get a new generation to engage with the country’s past. Their efforts parallel a larger trend of younger Taiwanese people exploring their parents’ and grandparents’ lives under military rule.
“People know about this history in Taiwan but don’t really talk about it,” says Yu.
Play your history
In recent years, a number of popular books, films and games have focused on Taiwan’s military period. A whimsical YouTube animation about the 228 Incident, a defining event of the era, has more than two million views. Part of Yu’s own inspiration for Unforgivable comes from Detention, another video game set during the White Terror. Ranked as the second-best PC game of 2017 by Metacritic, Detention boasts more than 200,000 players, according to its developer Red Candle Games. By contrast, Unforgivable counts around 7,000 players between Taiwan, America, and China, says Yu. Rainy Port Keelung, a 2015 game set during the deadly government crackdown that began the White Terror (known as the 228 Incident), has also been commercially successful.
And earlier this year, a mystery title, Devotion, set in ’80s Taiwan, sparked a cross-strait controversy after a meme mocking Chinese President Xi Jinping was discovered hiding in the game. That game was eventually removed from the Steam platform with an apology issued by developer Red Candle Games.
But if Unforgivable is a vehicle through which to learn about past political horrors, it is also meant to encourage a distinct political identity in the present, one firmly grounded on Taiwanese terms. Fifty percent of the game’s funding—one million New Taiwan Dollars, or about $32,300—came from Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture. “We support the game because its story structure describes the background of Taiwan’s democratization,” says Olivia Su, an M.O.C. representative in New York.
Their support parallels larger Taiwanese efforts to strengthen ties between Taiwanese-Americans and Taiwan and to solidify a decidedly Taiwanese identity back home. That’s a political aim of the country’s current administration, headed by Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP). Her administration has taken a notably more anti-China posture than its predecessor, the Guomindang, or KMT, which, in its previous incarnation, oversaw Taiwan’s dictatorship.
“During KMT rule, we did not have democracy,” says Yu. “My parents would be told, ‘We are all Chinese, we speak Chinese, we are part of China.’ Even today we call ourselves R.O.C., the Republic of China. Everything is so Chinese. But since democracy, after martial law ended, people realized that we are different from China, that we have our own culture.”
Not so long ago, such a statement might have landed Yu in jail.
Growing up alone
Taiwan is an egg-shaped island off Southeast China, north of the Philippines and south of Japan, with a population of 23 million. Slightly bigger than Maryland, it is a rugged place, boasting the highest peaks east of Tibet, verdant and steaming hot. When Portuguese sailors came upon it in the 16th century, they called it Ilha Formosa: beautiful island.
Its modern development has been tumultuous. Beginning in the 17th century, increasingly large groups of Chinese began crossing the Taiwan Strait from Fujian Province. Small conflicts regularly erupted between the settlers and the island’s indigenous population, of which there are several Austronesian tribes. In 1683, the island came under administrative control of the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial regime.
The change brought little stability. Intermittent conflict continued amid plagues and occasional uprisings. In 1895, following Japan’s victory in the First Sino-Japanese War, a decade after Taiwan became an official province of the Qing, the emperor ceded Taiwan to Meiji Japan, where it remained a colony for fifty years. Despite the abuses Tokyo may have inflicted, the Japanese laid the commercial and infrastructural foundations for the economic prosperity that would remake the island in the ’80s and ’90s. The northern neighbor also left a significant cultural mark on Taiwan that is still noticeable today.
After the Japanese defeat in World War II, Taiwan came under the control of the KMT, who declared it part of the Republic of China (ROC). Since 1927, the KMT, led by a general from Zhejiang province named Chiang Kai-shek, had been in bitter conflict with Mao Zedong’s Communists. In 1949, when Mao defeated Chiang’s forces, the KMT fled the mainland to Taiwan. Vowing one day to retake China, Chiang instituted a strict military regime over Taiwan, transforming the island into a police state.
Taiwan was remade ever-ready for war, at the expense of the Taiwanese people. Military service became compulsory. Agricultural and industrial resources were exported to KMT troops across the strait. Civil rights were denied.