I would like to talk a little bit about my experience with The Invisible Guardian. Not the 2017 Spanish thriller movie, but the prodigiously popular Chinese visual novel that quickly became the highest-selling title on Steam in 2019. Why haven’t you heard of it? Because the game is strictly region locked. This is unfortunate, because The Invisible Guardian rules.
When a friend introduced the Invisible Guardian to me, I was blown away by the high production values. The game recreates its historical settings in a stunning fashion. But what made me stay up all night to finish it was the clever writing and interactive storyline used to grab the player’s attention.
Players take control of Xiao Tu, a Chinese intellectual who has just arrived in war-torn China from the Empire of Japan. After joining a fringe underground resistance group, the aim is to infiltrate Japanese-occupied Manchuria. At first it seems like The Invisible Guardian is a black-and-white retelling of the second Sino-Japanese war, leaving little to reflect on, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Xiao Tu meets a variety of colorful characters with different allegiances and hidden motivations. The Japanese, the liberals, the nationalists, and the communists are all doing what they deem right and trying to survive the political turmoil. The masterful writing humanises the characters, and becomes very tangible during important decisions.
Like many other visual novels, the thrust of The Invisible Guardian is centered around your choices in conversation. But it does something special by putting you in the shoes of a quadruple agent, whose every word could lead to the end of him and his mission. Not only must you consider the motivations of who you're talking to, but also those of everyone else around you, as they've all got something to hide, too. My friends and I spent hours guessing at agendas and identities, even when tasked with the simplest decisions. Every idle conversation becomes surprisingly sensitive in this context, and every line has far reaching implications you might not see at first glance. Juggling these plotlines, paying attention and making compromises all creates a wonderful illusion of being a spy, and as the game progresses, decisions become mind-bogglingly complex. If you're not careful, you might lose everything you were fighting for at the beginning.
“Is it worth it?” is the question that sticks with you throughout The Invisible Guardian. Is it worth compromising your mission to save your relationships? Or should you put your humanity to one side in order to keep hold of your original dream? Personal morality is another layer of being a spy. Not all decisions lead to death, or what are traditionally considered to be bad endings. Some of them, for example, might see you switch sides and betray your comrades. The game doesn’t tell you what is right or wrong; it simply presents you with the harsh reality of the war and gives you the tools necessary to move within its boundaries.
With so much to contend with, The Invisible Guardian can be stressful at times, but any feelings of anxiety it raises are always the good, knotty kind you get from working out a difficult problem. Its immersive storytelling stays with you, and the characters are so well-developed that forcing you to choose between them is truly thrilling. It's a shame developer New One Studio haven't brought it to the west yet, but the future of localised Chinese visual novels is looking bright. Media giant Bilibili is bringing more and more Chinese games to Steam these days in a publishing capacity, and their upcoming Once, In Times Of Chaos takes a similar approach by putting the player in the shoes of an insomniac spy during the chaotic time of the 1920s republic. Thankfully it's going to have an English localiasation on Steam, and hopefully we'll see even more games inspired by what The Invisible Guardian started.