It all goes back to the Kowloon Walled City. The festering alleyways, the near-abandoned spaces, the underground dental clinics and smoky opium dens.
Torn down in the early 1990s, Hong Kong’s lawless city-within-a-city was a real-life version of what every video game developer had long dreamed of: a chaotic, hauntingly unique setting grounded in reality, where society’s everyday rules didn’t apply.
Art soon imitated life, and that influence is now reaching fever pitch, in a series of largely independent games virtually emulating Hong Kong and Greater China.
Hong Kong-set Sleeping Dogs was the innovator in 2012, an open-world game in the vein of the Grand Theft Auto series that paved the way by taking creative liberties with the city in a sandbox format.
“What struck me were the differences in Hong Kong,” Sleeping Dogs developer Jeff O’Connell told me back in 2012. “You can be on Kowloon and have the night markets, the lights, smells and all the people. Then you can be amidst Central at the IFC tower, and it’s just overwhelming. “The blend of eastern and western, old and new – it’s a city of contrasts and we hope we’ve captured that.”
Despite its gameplay influences, Sleeping Dogs didn’t make GTA-style money. It did, ironically, become a sleeper hit. For the developers who played it, that was enough to open up a world of possibilities and it soon became a launchpad from which to explore other facets of the city: the iconic cinematic history, sci-fi/fantasy-like geek culture, the obsession with all things cute.
Each of those mini-worlds is the basis of an independent game, the small-team build offering developers the freedom to explore each niche without the pressures of the greater public.
Hence, Shadowrun Hong Kong, a futuristic role-playing game released in 2015 that channelled otaku-style geek influences. The Hong Kong Massacre, a violent beat-’em-up game released in December inspired by ’80s action cinema.
And HK Project, a tentatively titled walking simulator that brings things full circle, as gamers take on a cat persona roaming around a futuristic Walled City-inspired Hong Kong.
But, more importantly, that gaming interest in the Far East has opened things up to a once-forbidden kingdom: Hong Kong’s rough-and-tumble neighbor, mainland China.
The country hasn’t become the powerhouse producer it has aimed to be, but developers are instead taking inspiration from its free-for-all world – a place surprisingly similar in regulations, if not aesthetics, to the Walled City’s corrupt sensibilities.
Among them, Shenzhen I/O, an independent game released last November and set in the not-so-different distant future of the border city. The inventive game sees players take on a highly realistic role as an engineer for a Shenzhen company, blending computer programming, problem-solving and China’s almost unrestricted technological power.
“Shenzhen’s freewheeling electronics culture isn’t just about manufacturing muscle, it’s also the interplay between design engineers, parts suppliers and factories,” said developer Zach Barth.
“It’s entirely possible to walk up to an electronics stall in the Huaqiangbei market, purchase a million units of a certain part, and have it delivered to your factory later that day. That’s the sort of world we wanted to capture.”
Shenzhen I/O wasn’t aiming for huge sales numbers, but the game has become a surprise cult hit among obsessive gamers, largely for its fascinating city setting. If nothing else, its relative success has proven that China-inspired virtual worlds are a niche set to flourish in the independent gaming world.