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Monkey King and the 五行, the Wu Xing sect of Chinese mythology and philosophy, are separate from one another. Balancing the five phases (elements) of life into a video game’s design structure with an ancient Chinese creature of myth as a playable character, game developers in both League of Legends and DotA2 integrate ancient with modern.
We have to remember that these are two completely different things and don’t naturally mesh with one another, but today we’re going to draw some parallels and look into what the significance of each is.
Sun Wukong, the Monkey King of Mount Huaguo, is an ancient mythical creature born from a stone who lives to be a rebel, turning down the practice of religion for Taoist beliefs. The Monkey King and his journey to the West after breaking free of the Buddha’s imprisonment is one of the most persistent archetypes (and figures) of Chinese mythology in existence.
The Five Elements, known as 五行, arguably better translated as something closer to the Five Phases or Five Cycles. These five elements are distinct, yet connected in their own ways. A pseudo-pillar of ancient Chinese philosophy, Wu Xing plays a strong role in both ideology and mindset.
It was something cyclic that the ancient people of China could hold onto and use as a system, when no concrete system existed at the time. Wu Xing was used to explain patterns of space, the sea, weather, and everything inbetween — even politics and historical events.
Color theory at work is what this is. Three primary colors, with the two shades. Significant both culturally and figuratively. Different phases, signifying the push and pull of each element’s strength and weakness, restricting and allowing power.
Today, we’re going to be looking at two games (of several) and how they integrated the Monkey King, while vaguely employing the relative philosophy of Wu Xing. This is something extremely difficult to dive into, as many aspects are subjective and hold no authority without official reasoning on the designs within the games themselves.
2011: League of Legends’ Wukong Is Summoned
League of Legends (LoL) is the largest video game in the world. This is an objective fact, and has been for several years. Its hegemony within the gaming industry is evident and has been one of the major parts of why esports has shot forward toward mainstream exposure within the last half decade.
Six years ago, however, LoL was (relatively, compared to current figures) much smaller, but still had global impact. In the late winter months of 2011, Wukong was released. Referencing the Song dynasty and being the first video game of this scale to represent the Wu Xing sector of Chinese philosophy in this form (of a hero), Riot Games took a bold move against the grain, and went ahead with introducing their fan base to a strange yet captivating new world of lore.
Up to a certain point, Champions’ last names were the last names of developers and other employees of Riot Games. Wukong was one of the very first to break this cycle.
The foundation of LoL’s appeal has long been art and the stories behind each champion, despite not latching onto that in past years. The incredibly talented artists at Riot have been revered for the artwork shown within the game and showcased on the website, including within videos and on the loading screen. Riot says it best:
A great idea for a champion can come from anywhere. Some of the most wild and epic characters in our universe started out as doodles on napkins or as off-the-wall musings.
Always bringing bright color and fantasy elements into their design philosophy, the artists at Riot make very calculated color and aesthetic choices when designing champions to intertwine with both the historical significance (if based off of something like a philosophy or culture) if applicable, or overall personality of a Champion.
Notice the main picture above — what’s unique about it? It incorporates all five of the elements in one form or another. It is telling a story by itself. The swirling rocks and the wind reference the so-called wind demon the Monkey King once fought and the stone from which it was born. The red symbolizes fire, as the yellow symbolizes earth. A staff of wood and metal, light and dark, while the waters creep below.
The art team at Riot has always been known to integrate and tell stories through country’s cultures in unique ways through their artwork and in-game presence, and the Monkey King is no exception.
2016: DotA2 Releases Monkey King
The Wu Xing influence is evident throughout DotA2, in color selection of heroes, most notably in the 7.00 update and integration of Monkey King.
Although subtle, it’s interesting to observe how deep color selection runs in Chinese culture, especially relating the hero itself. Harmony through color is an ongoing theme with Valve, and it shows heavily here.
As alluded to within the above reddit comment, Sun Wukong is a direct reference to a mythical create from the Song dynasty. What we see in contrast to Riot’s integration is the approach of taking a more realistic and serious execution — from the art down to the character’s description inside of the game itself.
League of Legends' description:
During the chaos of the Rune Wars, an enormous runestone was lost deep within the Plague Jungles.
He performed an elaborate ritual, but things didn’t go as he expected. The runestone was destroyed, and instead of granting immortality, it produced Kong, a monkey who carried in his heart the strength and power it had contained.
The weapon was an unrivalled masterpiece. Guided by Yi, Wukong joined the League of Legends to prove himself as the best, and to show the world the true power of Wuju.
For 500 years the mountain pressed down upon him, only his head free from the crushing weight of the stonewrought prison the elder gods had summoned to halt his childish rebellion.
For a change, Sun Wukong fulfilled his oath to the gods with honor, and atoned for the sins of past insurrections.
But the Monkey King was born for mischief…and offending the gods never gets old.
This is not necessarily to say that Riot’s thought process was inferior to Valve’s, but merely catering to a different audience and demographic. Perhaps, fun-yet-serious, opposed to fun-and-relatable would be more appropriate. We can see this when we see that Riot’s approach was to focus and relate it back to previous LoL lore, while Valve’s was more historically correct and parallel to traditional mythology.
Much like during ancient times, color is used within DotA2 to separate different entities. Color influences us subconsciously, yet is a conscious choice when it comes to the art designer, selecting each color carefully. A quick snippet on its impact:
Colors therefore are closely connected to certain qualities according to the five elements (substances) which are said to have positive or negative effects.
This traditional Chinese understanding of colors and their influence on people’s lives has been applied by emperors throughout the ages, and can be linked to modern science, i.e. regarding color therapy.
Wu Xing’s relevance is something both difficult and elementary to prove. I reached out to Valve regarding further insight into the inspiration behind creating this DotA2 hero, but no reply was met.
As seen, however, through color and design choices, this is an underlying wheel of inspiration for DotA2 that we should pay more attention to when looking at hero and theme design in the future.
It’s interesting to see Valve’s approach to this, with strikingly accurate adherence to their own design foundation and glance value, despite breaking it in the past on many occasions.
The Situation Variable
I’ve always personally looked at Asian culture within video games and media in general as a situation variable, a term in programming used to explain a factor or aspect of a (usually virtual) environment that can affect the outcome of an event.
On one hand, we have basic knowledge of Asian culture, but do not know specifics — and that’s fine. The integration of Asian culture, in this case Chinese mythology and philosophy, is a net positive and exposes more people to aspects of another country’s culture they had no knowledge of previously.
On the other hand, the risk a game development company runs when integrating something like this is that of no appreciation for deeper values, beyond the aforementioned surface level. What is the overall goal here, or rather the original intention, when implementing a warrior rebel like Monkey King into a video game?