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A meaningful story about Chinese linguistic differences among family, January 21, 2023
It is late morning and your mother texts you about going to a restaurant together. Spending time with your mother and eating food sounds like a great idea, but there is anxiety looming in the back of your mind as you agree to meet. Part of it has to do with language.
差异 // Disconnect uses a mix of Chinese characters and English. Occasionally, Chinese characters are substituted with phonetic spelling. The game begins with a short text message exchange between the protagonist and their mother.
11:05 AM MOM: I know a good restaurant, have 手拉面
The first Chinese characters, 手拉面, initially did not have the translation, prompting me to immediately reach for an online translator. I thought this was interesting because the protagonist did exactly just that after I did. It was a brief moment where I could relate to the protagonist, although less so since I lack any working knowledge on the Chinese language. I got "hand-pulled noodles," as did the protagonist when they used consulted Google. It was a neat moment.
The remainder of the gameplay takes place at the restaurant. This seems to be a story where the PC feels like they are messing up more than they are, but the awkwardness so, so real. A noteworthy scene is when the protagonist is trying to give the waitress their order. Their menu is written in Chinese with an English translation, and automatically find themselves reading the translation. But when a waitress comes over to the table, they feel pressured to order in Chinese.
You review the pinying over again in your head. Wǒ yào niúròu shǒu lāmiàn tāng. How hard can it be?
Trying to use perfect accent and pronunciation while on the spot, they trip over the words. You can either try again or bail out and switch to English. Either choice serves to serves to put the player in the protagonist’s shoes to show what it is like to sit on a fence between your closeness to the Chinese language as part of your heritage, and the everyday convenience of English that you rely on in daily life.
What I did not like was how quickly this game ends. It happens sort of out of nowhere. I would have easily given this a rating of five stars if it had more of a conclusion. When you sit down to eat, I thought the game was just getting started, that there would be a little more dialog or examination of other cultural norms. The game is far from incomplete. In fact, it’s excellent. However, I was invested in the story and looked forward to seeing more the protagonist’s experience.
Story + Characters
The story is told in second person, and it seems that your character is gender-neutral, although there is one section that slightly suggests that the protagonist is female. I’ve opted to use “they” instead. Yes, so they feel anxiety and regret about their broken Chinese and how it has shaped encounters with their mother and older family members. They especially remember being pressured into attending Chinese language school when they were younger, but now feels guilty about not making the most of what they learned. They are left as someone who understands Chinese but is unable to speak it with the same proficiency of their mother.
These differences go beyond spoken language. The protagonist has the urge to hug their mother when they see her at the restaurant but refrains from doing so since older members in their family typically did not do that. It was something "reserved for your friends and younger, Westernized relatives.” There are all sorts of subtleties that contribute to a feeling of disconnect. I have always liked games that show the inns and outs of cultural interactions that would otherwise go over your head. The point is not to be a crash course on culture, just a glimpse into a single story.
The game keeps it simple but visually appealing. Links are a cheerful yellow. Most of the Chinese text is highlighted in yellow that, when clicked on, reveals the English translation. Text is a mix of black and grey against a white background. I liked the simplicity of the cover art.
So, this game got me thinking about the title. Courtesy of online Chinese-to-English translate, 差异 means “difference.” Someone better correct me if I’m wrong. Difference // Disconnect. Based on what I learned from the gameplay, it seems the title means that linguistic differences- and other differences- have formed a disconnect between the protagonist and their mother. It is a caring relationship but not always a seamless one as we see in the game.
I really enjoyed this game and recommend it to anyone interested in a slice of life game about family dynamics and Chinese culture. As someone largely unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Chinese language/culture, I found this to be an insightful piece on a human experience.