Columns, Opinion

Gaming the System: The most popular game you’ve never heard of thrives off of a respect for fanmade work

In the past few weeks, I have used several of my columns to discuss companies such as Nintendo who are extremely picky about use of their intellectual property, to the dismay — ironically enough — of their most dedicated fans. But is there a counterexample? If being so protective of your game can cause issues for archivists, competitors, and modders, is there any example of good things coming from a more lax policy?

As the Touhou video game franchise shows, the answer is yes. If you are not familiar with it — and I’m sure some of my readers aren’t — I can give a brief introduction. There are more interesting games on sites such as 토토커뮤니티 if you’re interested.

Yvonne Tang / DFP Staff

The Touhou Project, often just Touhou, is a Japanese-made series of PC games in the “bullet-hell” genre, in which the player is challenged to carefully move their character through a hail of deadly projectiles without dying. These projectiles are often even deployed in artful patterns that the player must navigate. The Touhou games are almost entirely the work of one man, known under the alias “ZUN,” who takes care of everything from programming to writing to music composition.

Touhou is “the most popular game you’ve never heard of” because, as a 2016 Vice article quotes Nick Colucci, an editor at XSEED, saying, it is “something that every anime fan is peripherally aware of.” The keyword there is “peripherally” — if you aren’t a Touhou enthusiast but still engage with subcultures around video games or Japanese culture, you probably still know the name, even if the details elude you.

This can come off as an insult, but having such large name recognition is quite a compliment to any media property, especially one as niche and foreign (to non-Japanese audiences) as The Touhou Project. Guinness World Records certainly agrees, bestowing Touhou in 2010 with the impressive-albeit-specific distinction of “Most prolific fan-made shooter series” in their 2011 Gamer Edition.

One of the major reasons the franchise is so well-known is because playing the game itself isn’t the only draw. Rather, the actual gameplay is arguably overshadowed by other elements of the franchise: the fantasy world in which it takes place, the character designs and of course the music.

These non-gameplay elements of the franchise take up so much cultural space because of the overwhelming amount of fanmade Touhou media, from fangames to comics to remixes of the soundtrack. Inside Japan, the series has an incredibly rich “doujin” scene — doujin is a term for people or creators with a shared cultural interest — to the point that Touhou fans are regularly one of the largest groups in attendance at Japanese fan conventions such as “Comiket.” Combined with the decent cult following the series has gained abroad, it’s difficult to dispute its popularity.

As good as the Touhou series is, the quality of the games alone cannot account for its impressive fanbase. Equally important is the creator ZUN’s attitude toward doujin circles, which is very lax. As long as fan works credit him, don’t spoil endings and aren’t distributed commercially, creators can do whatever they want.

The resulting flourishing of fan works is a rare gift that any media property would be lucky to have. I can’t speak for the comics and digital art that have been produced, but if the music is any indication, I have no doubt that they are excellent too. Indeed, the music is one of the main ways the series has been “peripheral” in my experience: even without ever having played a Touhou game, I’ve recognized melodies from the soundtrack in internet videos, other games and even heard them played on public pianos.

Hopefully, other game developers and media companies will realize that it’s better for their brand and fanbase to not guard zealously, cease-and-desist at the ready, against everyone who loves their work enough to make something derived from it. Until that day, Touhou will continue to stand proudly, its endless collection of musical covers standing alone as a testament to the success of their policy.


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