Why you should now play the 2018 Steam hit Chinese Parents

Chinese Parents, a life sim about growing up in a Chinese household, tries better than so many of its contemporaries to capture the depth of the experience.

It’s a welcome response to the typical depiction of Chinese parents. The anecdotes and myths surrounding the authoritarian parenting style of Asian families have taken on an occasionally harsh, but also almost comical presence on the internet.

Consider the popular “High Expectations Asian Father” meme, which features a father figure with preposterously high academic standards. Or look at the many stereotypes about overbearing Chinese parents in pop culture, like Constance Wu’s character as Jessica Huang, the no-nonsense mother to her three sons, in the sitcom series Fresh Off The Boat, or the parenting memoir of writer Amy Chua, who wrote about her strict parenting tactics she used on her daughters which eventually provoked an uproar: She doesn’t allow them to attend a sleepover or get any grade lower than an “A,” while forcing them to pick up the piano or violin.

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As the child to strict Chinese parents, I can attest to these tales’ veracity to some degree, but like so many stereotypes, they lack the detail and complexity of real life. They don’t capture the lighthearted tales about growing up, like sneaking off to the playground with your grandparents when your parents aren’t around, or the embarrassment of having to lug around textbooks covered in crappy, discarded newspapers as book covers.

Yes, the game features the immense pressure of academic stress; getting merely average grades — like a “B” grade for your mock tests — will only leave your parents frowning in disapproval. But it also highlights warmer, funnier, and more unexpected details, too.

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Originally released in September 2018, the game first garnered attention for rapidly scaling the Steam charts as a Chinese language-only title, even outselling AAA games like Fallout 4 and Civilization 5 for a period of time. Its story is comparably smaller than surviving the post-apocalypse or ruling the world. Starting as a wee toddler, players have to maximize their stats as much as possible — IQ, EQ, constitution, memory, and imagination — and ace their exams without crumbling from sheer pressure. All these efforts are in preparation of the annual university entrance exam known as the gaokao, which players must sit for in the game’s finale.

In China, the gaokao is the only means toward higher education for students, and is also one of the few ways families from lower socio-economic backgrounds can secure a better life for themselves, since it offers their children the rare opportunity to enroll into a prestigious university. Since this exam determines the course of a student’s future in China, the academic stress can be overwhelming. It’s in this context that you’ll be going through the mill of juggling parental expectations and your stress levels in Chinese Parents, which can rise to debilitating heights if you’re not careful.

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The burgeoning interest around the game led to its developers, Moyuwan Games, localizing it for a Western audience. The game’s sentimentality and humor are captivating and universal enough to keep Western players glued to the screen.

Chinese Parents is a resource management game at heart, where prioritizing which stats and skills to strengthen is the game’s pivotal challenge. Every round begins with you collecting colored gem fragments in a mind map, which corresponds to your stats; for instance, collecting red improves EQ, and green upgrades IQ. You can also collect knowledge points to purchase skills.

As a toddler, the skills include learning to crawl, speak, walk, and swim, and later as an elementary student, picking up subjects such as English, Chinese, and math. Your round concludes after you plan your activities — which include the skills you’ve purchased — for the week: Will you spend your time gallivanting about at the park, or devote days on practicing basic algebra? These decisions may seem inconsequential, but play your cards right and you can unlock hidden skills, enhance your stats, and be privy to a litany of benefits.

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What’s amusing about Chinese Parents is how startlingly accurate it captures the quirks, joys and tribulations of childhood. Apply skills frequently, for instance, and you may soon unlock traits, which are essentially their powered-up versions. So instead of crawling, you can perform airborne flips, and rather than just clapping along to music, you can become a prolific child drummer who participates in state-wide competitions. Such traits are wielded as trump cards by your parents when they engage in intense, one-on-one bragging showdowns with nosy relatives and overachieving neighbors — not unlike a Pokémon battle where you have to whittle down an opponent’s hit points to defeat or humiliate them.

One of the most difficult concepts to accurately convey is the sociological term called “face.” In short, it’s the idea of boosting your parents’ prestige and reputation to their peers through your efforts and achievements. While it’s a stat you cannot directly influence or raise by collecting gems, you can gain more “face” when you excel in exams, help your parents win those bragging challenges by unlocking outstanding traits, or participate in events that improve their social standing. “Face” doesn’t affect your character’s grades, but exacts a more subtle influence in the game; you can ask favors from your parents, who may give you a bit more pocket money or buy you your favorite toy — both of which can affect your skills and stress levels.

Moyuwan Games/Coconut Island Games

Then there are random events, which present scenarios you react to via multiple-choice questions, as well as social situations like accepting red packets — monetary gifts given by relatives during Chinese New Year. Reflecting the nuances of such exchanges in real life, there is a fine line to thread in this situation; you can’t seem too eager to accept the red packet, but you also have to be wary about your relative’s feelings if you reject them too blatantly. These scenes are presented in a hilarious, over-the-top manner, which aids the game from becoming too heavy-handed or preachy in their portrayal of Chinese-style parenting.

With Chinese Parents so steeped in Chinese puns and pop culture references — one segment pokes fun at the prevalence of reality singing competitions and dating game shows in the country — capturing the subtleties of these jokes is undoubtedly challenging. Hence the translations are mostly functional and understandable on a superficial level. One random event, for instance, describes how you would, as a child, “change up the content” of Three Character Classic — a Chinese classic text — even as you’re reciting them, but it leaves out how kids would often mispronounce them on purpose because it’s funny; even the accompanying illustration contains the mispronounced words in Chinese. Meanwhile instructions to a few puzzles can be a tad fuzzy, although they aren’t too difficult to figure out after rounds of trial and error. Nonetheless, the stresses of Chinese childhood and preparing for the gaokao are still extremely palpable, leaving my palms sweaty and my heart palpitating with anxiety after cramming for and going through grueling rounds of exams. My modus operandi involves carefully strategizing and planning for studies and classes so I can maximize my scores, sometimes even at the expense of my mental health. It’s almost like operating an efficient business to run like clockwork.

Chinese Parents makes no illusion about this system being a perfect one; the immense pressure and constant stress can cause pessimism, anxiety, and even severe depression in your character. Yet the game also refrains from making any overt statements. Instead it largely frames the experience as part and parcel of childhood, while highlighting the lesser seen but heartwarming facet of affections Asian parents tend to dole out in small, infrequent doses.

Even as my student was visibly struggling with her grades, her mother would encourage her by making her a bowl of chicken herbal soup, or take her to a rare dinner out at a fancy restaurant. It’s sweet and relatable. In the end, Chinese Parents is ultimately a tribute to, well, Chinese parents — their tremendous expectations on their children, the unconventional ways they express their form of tough love, and all the familiar eccentricities of Chinese parental love.

Chinese Parents is now available on Mac and Windows PC. The game was reviewed using final retail Steam code. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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