Genshin Impact fans have been eagerly anticipating the new region of Sumeru since it was first mentioned in a launch trailer way back in 2020. But ever since the new Sumeru characters leaked online yesterday, fans have been expressing concern that the developers have been whitewashing the characters.
The community broadly agrees that Sumeru is primarily based on the cultures of Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA). The launch trailer’s Sumeru character had an Egyptian-like jackal head, and many of the NPCs from the region have Arabic or Sanskrit names. Before the new characters leaked to the internet, Genshin fans were nervous about how the Shanghai-based studio would handle having SWANA characters in the game. Genshin’s cast is notably light skinned with only two exceptions, and all of the Sumeru NPCs in the game are similarly light. So even though the leaks aren’t necessarily the final designs, fans don’t feel optimistic about the odds of getting darker-skinned characters that would help the character roster feel more representative of Southwest Asia and North Africa.
This isn’t the first time that the studio has faced criticism over representation. The last major instance occurred in April last year, when fans discovered a video of Genshin developers referencing indigenous dances for the animalistic Hilichurl enemies. Fans were also upset that the playable knight character Kaeya was described as “exotic,” a term that many people of color find to be dehumanizing (this was later patched out of the English localization). What makes the recent leaks upsetting for people is that Genshin will be getting an entire year’s worth of content based on HoYoverse’s interpretation of SWANA people. If the developers don’t accommodate the critical feedback, then a whole year’s worth of Genshin content will potentially be marred by the misstep, an unpleasant prospect for players of SWANA heritage.
As a result of these leaks, fans who want darker-skinned characters are already starting to be alienated by the fandom. Some have been subjected to racist comments, and others have had to justify why a character named “Kusanali” shouldn’t look like a fairy from Mondstadt. It’s an ugly situation that will likely continue as Sumeru receives live updates in the next major patch series. The Genshin community can be racist toward even accurate Chinese representation. Any significant mistakes in how SWANA characters are represented will be amplified by racist sentiments that already exist within the fandom.
Some fans wanted representation from the SWANA region, but have had misgivings about how Sumeru mashed multiple cultural influences into one composite city-state. That creative decision was especially alienating because previous regions were based on single countries: Germany, China, and Japan.
Community lore enthusiasts have speculated that Sumeru is not based on any modern nation, but potentially the ancient Zoroastrian civilizations of the First Persian Empire, which did encompass the territories of multiple modern-day countries. And it’s likely that Sumeru itself is named after the Mesopotamian civilization of Sumer. So it’s entirely possible that Sumeru could be well-researched and respectful in terms of its lore. But fans are still expressing alienation over HoYoverse’s apparent reluctance to include darker-skinned people as playable characters. Especially when the company will be monetarily profiting from gacha pulls on SWANA characters.
Genshin Impact is a fictional work, but it made significant effort to connect the fictional world of Teyvat to real-life history and culture. If HoYoverse cared as much about the historical accuracy of Sumeru as it clearly did for Inazuma, then it should release playable characters who are darker than white or beige. And as some gacha fans have pointed out, the recently released action-RPG Dislyte has more darker-skinned characters in its cast despite also being produced by a Chinese company.
And frankly, I’m not moved by the argument that developers from China don’t know about racism, or that they don’t understand the importance of accurate and respectful representation. The developers clearly knew that their global audience might react badly to Yun Jin’s reveal when they made a video defending her traditional Chinese opera design. I had a beautiful, affirming experience when I played Yun Jin’s quest. I just want my SWANA friends to be able to experience the same thing that I did.