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The Pirate Queen interview: How Singer Studios and Lucy Liu brought forgotten history to life

The VR game is available on Meta Quest and PC VR now.

I had a favorite version of Mulan growing up (Anita Yuen in the 1998 Taiwanese TV series). I obsessed over Chinese period TV series like Legend of the Condor Heroes, My Fair Princess and The Book and the Sword. I consider myself fairly well-versed in Chinese historical figures, especially those represented in ‘90s and 2000s entertainment in Asia. So when I found out that a UK-based studio had made a VR game called The Pirate Queen based on a forgotten female leader who was prolific in the South China Sea, I was shocked. How had I never heard of her? How had the Asian film and TV industry never covered her?

I got to play a bit of the game this week, which was released on the Meta Quest store and Steam on March 7th. The titular character Cheng Shih is voiced by actor Lucy Liu, who also executive produced this version of the game with UK-based Singer Studios’ CEO and founder Eloise Singer. Liu and Singer sat with me for an interview discussing The Pirate Queen, Cheng Shih, VR’s strengths and the importance of cultural and historical accuracy in games and films.

Cheng Shih, which translates to “Madam Cheng” or “Mrs Cheng,” was born Shi Yang. After she married the pirate Cheng Yi (usually romanized as Zheng Yi), she became known as Cheng Yi Sao, which translates to “wife of Cheng Yi.” Together they led the Guangdong Pirate Confederation in the 1800s. Upon her husband’s death in 1807, she took over the reins and went on to become what South China Morning Post described as “history’s greatest pirate.”

A screenshot from The Pirate Queen, showing an ornate ship with a warm glow emanating from its windows. The ship is on a body of water that has some floating lanterns on it.
A screenshot from The Pirate Queen, showing an ornate ship with a warm glow emanating from its windows. The ship is on a body of water that has some floating lanterns on it. (Singer Studios)

How did Singer Studios learn about Cheng Shih and decide to build a game (and upcoming franchise including a film, podcast and graphic novels) around her? According to Singer, it was through word of mouth. “It was a friend of mine who first told me the story,” Singer said. “She said, ‘Did you know that the most famous pirate in history was a woman?’”

Cheng Shih had been loosely referenced in various films and games before this, like the character Mistress Ching in the 2007 film Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End and Jing Lang in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. As Singer pointed out, Cheng Shih had also appeared in a recent episode of Doctor Who.

Singer said that her team started developing the project as a film at the end of 2018. But the pandemic disrupted their plans, causing Singer to adapt it into a game. A short version of The Pirate Queen later debuted at Raindance Film Festival, and shortly after, Meta came onboard and provided funding to complete development of the game. Liu was then approached when the full version was ready and about to make its appearance at Tribeca Film Festival 2023.

“The rest is history,” Liu said, “But not forgotten history.” She said Cheng Shih was never really recognized for being the most powerful pirate. “It seems so crazy that in the 19th century, this woman who started as a courtesan would then rise to power and then have this fleet of pirates that she commanded,” Liu added. She went on to talk about how Cheng Shih was ahead of the time and also represented “a bit of an underdog story.” For the full 15-minute interview, you can watch the video in this article or listen to this week’s episode of The Engadget Podcast and learn more about Liu and Singer’s thoughts on VR and technology over the last 20 years.

Capturing the historical and cultural details of Cheng Shih’s life was paramount to Liu and Singer. They said the team had to create women’s hands from scratch to be represented from the player’s perspective in VR, and a dialect coach was hired to help Liu nail the pronunciation for the Cantonese words that Cheng Shih speaks in the game. Though I’m not completely certain if Cheng Shih spoke Mandarin or Cantonese, the latter seems like the more accurate choice given it’s the lingua franca in the Guangdong region.

A screenshot from The Pirate Queen, showing a scroll depicting a woman, with Chinese characters below it, as well as an English translation saying
A screenshot from The Pirate Queen, showing a scroll depicting a woman, with Chinese characters below it, as well as an English translation saying (Singer Studios)

All that added to the immersiveness of The Pirate Queen, in which players find themselves in an atmospheric maritime environment. The Meta Quest 3’s controllers served as my hands in the game, and I rowed boats, climbed rope ladders and picked up items with relative ease. Some of the mechanics, especially the idea of “teleportation” as moving around, were a little clunky, but after about five minutes I got used to how things worked. You’ll have to point the left controller and push the joystick when you’ve chosen a spot, and the scene changes around you. This probably minimizes the possibility of nausea, since you’re not standing still while watching your surroundings move. It’s also pretty typical of VR games, so those who have experience playing in headsets will likely be familiar with the movement.

You can still walk around and explore, of course. I scrutinized the corners of rooms, inspected the insides of cabinets and more, while hunting for keys that would unlock boxes containing clues. A lot of this is pretty standard for a puzzle or room escape game, which is what I used to play the most in my teens. But I was particularly taken by sequences like rowing a boat across the sea and climbing up a rope ladder, both of which caused me to break a mild sweat. Inside Cheng Shih’s cabin, I lit a joss stick and placed it in an incense holder — an action I repeated every week at my grandfather’s altar when I was growing up. It felt so realistic that I tried to wave the joss stick to put out the flame and could almost smell the smoke.

It’s these types of activities that make VR games great vehicles for education and empathy. “We didn’t want to have these combat elements that traditional VR games do have,” Singer said, adding that it was one of the challenges in creating The Pirate Queen.

“It’s nice to see and to learn and be part of that, as opposed to ‘Let’s turn to page 48,’” Liu said. “That’s not as exciting as doing something and being actively part of something.” When you play as a historical character in a game, and one that’s as immersive as a VR game, “you’re living that person’s life or that moment in time,” Liu added.

While The Pirate Queen is currently only available on Quest devices, Singer said there are plans to bring it to “as many headsets as we possibly can.” Singer Studios also said it is “extending The Pirate Queen franchise beyond VR into a graphic novel, film and television series.”