How Singer Studios and Lucy Liu brought forgotten history to life

I had a favorite grows up (Anita Yuen in the 1998 Taiwanese series). I was into Chinese period series , and . I consider myself quite knowledgeable about Chinese historical figures, especially those represented in 90s and 2000s entertainment in Asia. When I found out that a UK-based studio was developing a VR game called Pirate Queen Based on a forgotten female leader who was prolific in the South China Sea, I was shocked. How had I never heard of him? How did the Asian film and television industry not embrace it?

I got to play some of the game that was released this week on the Meta Quest store on March 7. The titular character Cheng Shih is voiced by actor Lucy Liu, who executive produced this version of the game alongside Eloise Singer, CEO and founder of UK-based Singer Studios. Liu and Singer sat down with me for an interview Pirate QueenCheng Shih, The strengths of VR and the importance of cultural and historical accuracy in games and movies.

Cheng Shih, which translates as “Madam Cheng” or “Mrs. Cheng”, was born Shi Yang. After marrying the pirate Cheng Yi (usually translated as Zheng Yi), she became known as Cheng Yi Sao, which translates as “Cheng Yi’s wife”. Together they led the Guangdong Pirate Confederation in the 1800s. After her husband’s death in 1807, she took over the reins and what became South China Morning Post “The greatest pirate in history.”

A screenshot from Pirate Queen showing an ornate ship with a warm glow from its windows.  The ship is over a pool of water with lanterns floating on it.A screenshot from Pirate Queen showing an ornate ship with a warm glow from its windows.  The ship is over a pool of water with lanterns floating on it.

Singer Studios

How did Singer Studios learn about Cheng Shih and decide to build a game (and a future franchise, including a movie, podcast, and graphic novels) around him? According to the singer, it was word of mouth. “My friend first told me the story,” Singer said. “He said, ‘Did you know that the most famous pirate in history was a woman?’

Cheng Shih is clearly cited before that, as Mistress Ching in the 2007 film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Jing Lang Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. As Singer mentioned, Cheng Shih also appeared in a recently aired episode Doctor Who.

The singer said that his team started preparing the project as a film at the end of 2018. But the pandemic disrupted their plans, and Singer adapted it into a game. Short version Pirate Queen it later debuted at the Raindance Film Festival, and shortly thereafter Meta came on board and provided funding for the game’s development. Liu was approached when the full version was ready and about to appear at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival.

“The rest is history,” Liu said, “But not forgotten history.” He said that Cheng Shih was never known as the strongest pirate. “It seems so crazy that this woman who started as a courtesan in the 19th century would later rise to power and then have this fleet of pirates that she commands,” Liu said. He went on to talk about how Cheng Shih was premature and also represented “a bit of a weak story”. For the full 15-minute interview, you can watch the video in this article or listen to this week’s episode of The Engadget Podcast to hear Liu and Singer’s thoughts on VR and technology over the past 20 years.

Capturing the historical and cultural details of Cheng Shih’s life was paramount to Liu and Singer. They said the team had to create female hands from scratch to be represented from the player’s perspective in VR, and a dialect coach was hired to achieve the pronunciation of the Cantonese words Liuya Cheng Shih speaks in the game. While I’m not entirely sure whether Cheng Shih speaks Mandarin or Cantonese, the latter seems a more accurate choice given that it is the lingua franca in the Guangdong region.

A screenshot from Pirate Queen, a scroll depicting a woman with Chinese characters underneath, as well as an English translation A screenshot from Pirate Queen, a scroll depicting a woman with Chinese characters underneath, as well as an English translation

Singer Studios

All this increased its immersiveness Pirate Queen, where players find themselves in an atmospheric marine environment. Meta Quest 3’s controllers served as my hands in the game, and I paddled boats, climbed rope ladders, and picked up items with relative ease. Some of the mechanics, especially the idea of ​​“teleportation” were a little hard to get around, but after about five minutes I got used to how things worked. When you select a location, you have to point the left controller and press the joystick, and the scenery around you changes. This probably minimizes the possibility of motion sickness because you’re not standing still while watching your surroundings move. It’s also pretty typical so those who have experience playing will likely be familiar with the move.

You can still walk and explore, of course. I scrutinized the corners of rooms, checked the inside of closets and more, looking for keys that would unlock boxes containing clues. Most of it is pretty standard for a puzzle or room escape game, which is what I played most in my teenage years. But I was particularly drawn to the sequences like the boat ride in the sea and the rope climb, both of which produced a light sweat. Inside Cheng Shih’s cabin, I lit a stick and placed it in the incense holder—an act I repeated weekly at my grandfather’s altar when I was growing up. It felt so real that I tried to wave a stick to put out the flames and could almost smell the smoke.

It’s these types of activities that make VR games great tools for education and empathy. “We didn’t want to have these combat elements that you have in traditional VR games,” Singer said, adding that this was one of the challenges of creating it. Pirate Queen.

“Unlike ‘Let’s turn to page 48,’ it’s fun to see and learn and be a part of,” Liu said. “It’s not as exciting as doing something and being an active part of something.” As a historical character in a play when you play and it’s as immersive as a VR game, “you’re living that person’s life or that moment,” Liu added.

while Pirate Queen Currently only available on Quest devices, Singer said there are plans to bring it to “as many headsets as possible.” Singer Studios also said it was “stretching out.” Pirate Queen Beyond VR, it’s being turned into a graphic novel, film, and television series.

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