The most poignant lines in Genshin Impact’s latest update came when I discovered a bouquet of white flowers laid next to the bodies of dead Hilichurls. As I surveyed the grisly scene, the wanderer Dainsleif said, “The Inteyvat [flower] is a symbol for a wanderer far from home, signifying the tenderness of the homeland.” His words were rendered tragic, because his beloved nation had been destroyed centuries ago. In effect, Genshin Impact’s latest archon quest is a philosophical question about loving a nation that cannot love you back.
Genshin Impact is not interested in straightforward answers and solutions to serious themes such as war and displacement. Where possible, the game likes to leave its ethical quandaries open ended. And nowhere is this more apparent than the latest main story quest: Requiem of the Echoing Depths, where you help the wanderer Dainsleif stop a dastardly plot enacted by the dreaded Abyss Order.
A little background: In Genshin Impact you play as a traveler searching for their lost twin. (I’m playing the male version of the traveler, named Aether, so my lost twin is the female version, Lumine.) You eventually find out that your sibling has become the leader of the Abyss Order, a shadowy organization that seeks to overthrow the rulers who reside in Celestia. Dainsleif is the only character who knows enough about the Order’s ambition to overthrow Celestia, and joining up with him seemed to be the only way to effectively oppose them.
But the story became more convoluted with every update. Last year, Lumine revealed that the Abyss Mages and Hilichurls (Genshin’s version of Bokoblins from The Legend of Zelda) who roamed the open world were the transformed survivors of the Khaenri’an genocide from 500 years ago—the same monsters I would regularly fight during my daily quests. While Dainsleif is currently a nation-less knight, he was once a royal guard from Khaenri’ah. Lumine hated him because he opposed their goal to destroy Celestia. While most of his own people wanted justice, Dainsleif was alone in his opposition to war.
At first, I thought that his actions were noble. Here was the gallant knight who would not prioritize his nation’s vengeance over the world’s safety. But as I’ve been exploring the ruins of a nameless civilization and learning more about Dainsleif’s struggles, I’ve started to doubt him.
The newest quest began when some miners told me that the Hilichurls were venturing down the underground chasm without returning to the surface. I ventured down and discovered that the cavern could suppress the creatures’ curse of immortality. Despite their limited intelligence, these Hilichurls had come down to this dark, damp cavern in order to die. Their suicides were a shockingly dark revelation for a game that is typically relatively light-hearted. The Hilichurls were in constant pain, and Dainsleif should have shared their fate. He did, but only partially.
“Even now, I can feel the curse slowly permeating my entire being, becoming part of me, slowly but surely replacing me.” Dainsleif says. “Perhaps it may be possible to suppress the corrosive effect of the curse for a time, but cleansing it entirely… Consider it tantamount to burning away an integral part of your body. It is not a process that one could ever hope to survive.”
However, Dainsleif’s and the Hilichurls have different lived experiences. While Dainsleif too experiences chronic pain from the curse, his body was not transfigured, nor did he suffer a similar loss of mental acuity. He does not actively seek death. For all of his suffering, he is one of the lucky ones, and doesn’t seem to feel as desperate as the countless other Khaenri’an survivors who’ve lost their very humanity.
During the latest quest, the Abyss Order attempts to use a strange device to forcibly dispel the Hilichurls’ curse of immortality. Aether, my protagonist, chose to foil the plot because the Order had not obtained the Hilichurls’ consent to attempt such a reckless gambit. Dainsleif, meanwhile, left me stunned when he condemned the act of trying to remove the curse at all: “There is nothing else left of those hilichurls. Nothing besides the curse itself.”
It was hard to tell if Dainsleif was referring to these transfigured survivors or himself. While Lumine was certainly guilty of projecting her own ideals on these Hilichurls, so was Dainsleif. These were beings who laughed and danced around their campfires. They developed their own architectural aesthetic, and they enjoyed the poetry that I would read to them during a specific daily quest. The survivors of Khaenri’ah suffered, but they also seemed to enjoy their lives in their own way. They did not recognize Dainsleif as one of their own, and so he wandered the world alone for hundreds of years, later traveling with Lumine for an unknown period of time.
The quest features a flashback cutscene of Lumine placing Inteyvat flowers next to the Hilichurl corpses. As Dainsleif explained, this flower is a symbol of Khaenri’ah, which normally only lives for two weeks before wilting. But if taken out of the country, the petals harden and preserve indefinitely, and only deteriorate upon returning to its native soil. Therefore, the Inteyvat symbolized the nation’s love for citizens who’d traveled abroad. In offering them to Hilichurl, the Abyss Princess was making a symbolic gesture to convey her enduring love for the Khaenri’an diaspora. I wondered if Dainsleif had ever received a Inteyvat from his people. The Order’s Abyssal monsters were constantly trying to kill him, and Lumine regarded him as a traitor. On a day-to-day basis, he had no reason to feel motivated to save his homeland.
To be honest, I get that. Like Dainsleif, I’m a weirdo who Chinese people struggle to love. The Chinese diaspora is often seen as too foreign for mainland Chinese people, and we’re seen as too Chinese (aka too scary) in the non-Chinese communities in which we live. And I’m queer, which adds another layer of distrust for any cishet person who’s ever had to interact with me. It’s not just me who faces scrutiny from all sides–Olympics skier Eileen Gu was publically crucified by Americans for choosing to compete on China’s team. And that’s why I want Dainsleif to be better. If the absence of love would prevent one from loving, there’d be no hope for any of us. Or at least, that’s what I want to believe. The alternative is worse: becoming as nihilistic as Dainsleif.
At the end of the questline, Halfdan’s ghost asks him, “Khaenri’ah…didn’t fall, did it? Since you’re still here…” I found it frustrating when he responded, “Correct. So…no need to revive the homeland.” It’s comforting to think that merely surviving is enough after your home no longer exists. But in the present, Dainsleif isn’t simply surviving. He is actively sabotaging any attempts to give the Hilichurls a better existence.
I’m not completely unsympathetic to Dainsleif. Change is inherently hard. After witnessing 500 years of Celestia’s absolute power, hegemonic change must seem impossible. But this latest quest reveals that he did not oppose the Abyss Order out of idealism; he fought them because he did not believe that the Order could rebuild Khaenri’ah or save their people. Celestia has a long history of retaliating against rebellious nations, and Dainsleif is not brave or idealistic. He’s trying to protect people in his own way, but after seeing how this quest plays out, I no longer think that he’s in the right.
Should one oppose evil if innocent people would suffer in the process? Is it worse to accept an unjust hegemony? Genshin has been grappling with these questions since version 2.0 landed last summer. But in this instance, I think the answer is clear. Even if Dainsleif and his lost kingdom’s more monstrous-looking survivors are occasionally wrong in their methods, all of them deserve justice for Celestia’s war crimes. It’s just a shame that the survivors keep getting in each other’s way.