How The Pirate Queen Brings Cheng Shih's History To Life In VR

Following last month’s launch, we spoke with The Pirate Queen’s director to learn more about this 19th-century adventure. Read on for our full interview:

Created by Singer Studios, The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend is a narrative adventure game focused on puzzle-solving and exploration. It stars Lucy Liu as Cheng Shih, leader of the South China Sea’s Red Flag Fleet. In our recent review, we found it to have a refreshing focus on exploration and story over combat.

During GDC 2024, we sat down with director Eloise Singer for a Q&A session. I’m told The Pirate Queen began as a film, which initially was put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having previously discussed developing a game with Dr. Dave Ranyard, former studio director at PlayStation’s (soon to be closed) London Studio, she received funding from the UK’s Creative England. Later winning Best Debut at Raindance, Meta agreed to support The Pirate Queen.

Asking how Lucy Liu got involved, Singer explains she approached her team with this story after being accepted for the Tribeca Festival, talking about the historical accuracy side of this story with her. A key aim was to ensure players feel like they’re stepping into 19th-century China, pointing to the game’s ships as an example.

“We initially made the ships with wooden pack and metal nails. However, our researchers told us that China didn’t use metal nails back then. Our artists had to remove all of the nails and replace them with dovetail joints to ensure we were representative of that time.”

As for choosing VR specifically, Singer points to the medium’s immersive potential.

“It’s the only medium that can do this story in such an immersive way. There’s no other way to step onto a 19th-century pirate ship. For us, being able to experience this through a female leader of the time that people have seemingly forgotten about is really exciting.”

Singer Studios wasn’t targeting “highball gamers” with The Pirate Queen, instead aiming for VR newcomers through more “comfortable” gameplay and less complex interactions. Singer tells me that’s why the rowing section go on-rails instead of offering free movement, as a means of mitigating motion sickness.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel in mechanics. We wanted to create a game that isn’t violent without combat, because we want something that kids can play that parents are really excited about… it’s exciting to champion something that new players can come into and feel quite empowered by.”

Regarding combat, Singer said the team “really thought about it” and considers its exclusion a “huge creative risk.” However, this would have gone against the studio’s values, so they settled on a sequence near the end involving indirect combat by lighting cannons to create something cinematic.

“We don’t want to create things where you’re killing people. I want to leave a legacy where I’m creating games that inspire people, so it didn’t feel right.”

It’s been no secret since The Pirate Queen’s announcement that the studio is looking to champion female empowerment. Singer touches upon that multiple times, telling me she’s proud to create a game that champions narrative and female characters and points to her previous project, Mrs Benz. She believes getting new audiences in requires being able to create different narratives.

“If I compare it to film, it’s like if we just had James Bond in the cinema every single day. Ultimately, 50% of gamers are women, and that’s not reflected in VR yet. We need to create games in VR that reflect that in order to attract that audience.”

As for what’s next, Singer Studios previously confirmed multimedia plans for a graphic novel and film. While the VR game focuses on the night Cheng Shih rises to power, I’m told the graphic novel’s first volume will be a more expansive story about her entire life, starting with her early days as a flower boat girl before eventually opening a gambling den. Future volumes will focus on other pirates, while the film will be animated.

The Pirate Queen: A Forgotten Legend is available now on the Meta Quest platform and SteamVR.