When gamers around the world tuned in to see their first glimpse of games on the next Xbox, the very first game they saw was a first-person shooter set in a classical Chinese garden, complete with bamboo trees and pagoda lanterns.

That first title showed off at the event on Thursday was Bright Memory: Infinite, a game Microsoft’s Damon Baker said was made by just one individual in China.

It’s a designation that impressed fans who have embraced the indie game for its slick graphics since it was first unveiled for PC. The original version won overwhelmingly positive reviews soon after launching on Steam last year. But it’s also baffled doubters who questioned how such an elaborate game -- which has been compared to Titanfall and Dark Souls -- could possibly be the work of a single developer.

Some people thought they found the answer when it was revealed that Bright Memory: Ep1 was built with art lifted from pirated software sites. In a public apology posted on Weibo in January 2019, Zeng Xiancheng admitted that he repurposed unlicensed 3D models in the game he created. Recalling the controversy earlier this year, he said the graphics were free for download and he didn’t realize they were actually stolen, blaming the error on his “weak copyright awareness.”

Zeng says Bright Memory: Infinite is inspired by historical architecture that still exists in China today, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing and the classical gardens of Suzhou. (Picture: FYQD Studio)

The discovery forced Zeng to scramble to replace the pirated graphics with new ones, even as the game continued to amass downloads on Steam. Zeng said that within a week he had contacted the rights owner, who gave him an additional grace period of five days. With little time left, it was clear that this wasn’t going to be a one-man job.

The lifesaver ended up being an art colleague at the gaming company that Zeng was working for at the time. The pair managed to put together new character models and get them approved by the original rights owner.

The changes were far from perfect: What were once scary growling monsters became lethargic animatronics. And scenes that previously had music inexplicably turned silent. But they settled the dispute, and Zeng promised to move on to expand the game to Bright Memory: Infinite.

Left: ANGRY! Right: Sleepy… (Picture: FYQD Studio)

By May 2019, armed with proceeds from sales on Steam, Zeng quit his day job and moved back to his hometown to focus on the project.

“I’ve never actually liked working outside,” he wrote. “I only worked at a gaming company to make a living. I actually prefer to create things on my own, that’s why I don’t like having too many restrictions from other people. Every time the game company presented me with the monthly update plan, I felt extremely bored.”

With his newfound freedom, Zeng spent his days working on Infinite while porting the original game to mobile at night. The latter resulted in Bright Memory Mobile, an hour-long adventure available for US$4 on iOS and US$2 on Android.

Microsoft says the games that appeared in Thursday’s Xbox showcase, including Bright Memory: Infinite, are slated to come either during the winter holidays or early next year. (Picture: FYQD Studio)

Zeng maintains he’s still the only full-time developer of the game. But he’s previously said he plans to hire outside help for projects unrelated to the core game development, such as poster art.

In a Weibo post on Thursday, Zeng said he’s currently about 40% finished with Infinite, but he expects to complete the work by the end of the year. It will launch on both Xbox and PC, and Zeng says that anyone who purchased Ep1 on Steam or GOG.com will receive a free upgrade to the sequel.

He also offered a few hints on the plot: The armored soldiers that appeared near the end of the trailer came from ancient times through time travel. The paranormal occurrences in the story will be based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.