The Many Video Game Versions of Hong Kong
Hong Kong is disproportionately represented in the world of video games. In fact, the blog Hong Kong in Video Games lists more than 180 examples of games set in the city.
The blog's creator is video game fan and software engineer Eddie Lau, who grew up in Hong Kong and currently works in the United States. Here, he chats with Hugh Davies, a media researcher and artist based in Melbourne, Australia. Davies's recent research with M+ and the Hong Kong Design Trust examines how Hong Kong appears in video games.
Below, the pair discuss their respective research into their shared passion for Hong Kong’s depiction in video games, revealing the rich visual character these playful experiences contain.
Hugh: You’ve been blogging about Hong Kong in video games since 2015. How did you decide upon this personal research project?
Eddie: As a teenager, I spent quite some time playing video games and following related news and reviews. I even imagined being a video game magazine editor one day! Then, around summer 2015, I saw some articles discussing Hong Kong in video games. I felt qualified to expand on this theme by highlighting the actual history and culture of the city and how it informs the games. So I decided to start the blog as a way to diversify my career and draw public attention to the city. It’s become quite educational and fun for both me and the readers. What about you, how did you start to research this subject?
Hugh: Well, in 2016, I co-created a pervasive game called Xon Kon set in the streets of Hong Kong. Part of the game production process involved making a 3D model of the city based entirely on its depictions in virtual imagery. It was a tricky business, but your blog became an invaluable resource. Undertaking this project also made it clear to me how often Hong Kong appears in video games, which became a big part of my next research project. It appears in video games so much more often than most other cities. Why do you think that is?
Eddie: I noticed the statement in your article discussing Hong Kong as a popular gaming location. I agree, it’s kind of surprising given that Hong Kong is such a small place and not somewhere many game designers call home. I think there are two reasons.
First, Hong Kong has developed a really unique visual culture over the past 150 years, and many of its features are adaptable to video games. I’m not just talking about the stunning metropolitan landscapes, the colourful advertising, the myriad skyscrapers, and the spectacular Victoria Harbour views. The city has also managed to preserve many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, like feng shui and myths, while simultaneously coming up with its own characteristic local landmarks, such as the enigmatic Kowloon Walled City and the legendary Kai Tak Airport. The local movie industry has heavily influenced video games as well, with kung fu, action adventure, and triad movies. When game designers take elements from these genres, they in turn evoke characters and locations intrinsically associated with the city.
The second reason is the sense of belonging that has taken root in the current generation of Hongkongers. This accounts for the rise of local game designers choosing Hong Kong as their setting. Having grown up in the city, these makers want to use their own games to preserve and promote the history and culture of their home town and, sometimes, communicate their views on certain social and political affairs here.
Hugh: I see this in the game Cage (2018) set in Kowloon Walled City. In an effort to reclaim the city from occidental representations, the local Hong Kong developers interviewed former residents and collected hand-drawn maps to rebuild it accurately and respectfully in the game space. A similarly authentic Kowloon is evoked in the game Oblige (2017). Both games have successfully drawn on local knowledge and history to recreate intimate and domestic spaces.
Are there any other games that you think really capture the mood or landscape of Hong Kong?
Eddie: Two games warrant mention. The first is Travel with Trashman (1984). It was created by a British developer and is one of the earliest games ever to depict Hong Kong. With the limited computing graphics of the era, the design depicts neon signs, Chinese dragon dances, and labourers wearing conical hats, all of which give a vivid impression of 1980s Hong Kong as seen through the eyes of a foreigner. This Chinese metropolitan stereotype appears in many other video game versions of Hong Kong created by foreigners.
Hugh: I totally agree! That game completely set the standard for Western depictions of Hong Kong—those neon-lit streets are everywhere now, from Shadowrun: Hong Kong (2015) to The Hong Kong Massacre (2019).
What is the second game you wanted to mention?
Eddie: Little Fighter 2 (1999): It’s one of the earliest locally made games that includes Hong Kong stages. One stage is set at the University Mall of The Chinese University of Hong Kong. The university's unique sculpture known as ‘Gate of Wisdom’, which is prominently featured in the stage, clearly appealed to the local designers who were graduates of the school. Students walk by this sculpture between classes, and there is even a rumour that, if you pass through it, you won’t graduate. Since it is often used for assemblies and forums, past students may also remember it as a place of fervent debates. Located far from the city centre, the stage may not be familiar to foreigners. However, it has special meaning for locals.
In another stage, you see the old Tai Hom Village, which was then about to be demolished. There’s even a demonstration banner hung up out front protesting the demolition, stating that villagers would have nowhere to live. Meanwhile, the modern residential complexes of Plaza Hollywood and Galaxia loom in the background. This replacement of heritage structures has been a heated social topic.
Through this game, you get some ideas on new points of view that locally made video games can provide. The objects and places portrayed are more closely related to Hongkongers’ daily lives. This is not just limited to objects and places, but also local incidents and affairs and the responding sentiments and attitudes.
Hugh: Yeah, I’ve noticed a number of recent video games that express popular Hong Kong sentiments. I’m thinking here of protest games such as Yellow Umbrella (2014), Days of Glory 1988 (2016), and the recent first-person action game Liberate Hong Kong (2019). Video games have become an important critical platform of expression and communication within Hong Kong’s protest movements.
I also noticed you reviewed The Revolution of Our Times I (2019) on Google Play. I like that you mentioned how the game presents the difficult decisions experienced by protesters in dealing with family, friends, and workplaces. This personal and political tension closely relates to what friends active in the movement have reported.
Eddie: Yes, Liberate Hong Kong reconstructs the fierce street protests, with roadblocks, fire, tear gas, and riot police in the virtual world. Navigating through the chaotic scene, you could be hurt or arrested through just a small hesitation or mistake. The interactive visual novel The Revolution of Our Times I presents players with the same set of difficult decisions that protestors face in the real world. One wrong choice, and you lose—not just the campaign, but also your relationships and employment. The first time I played, I got a ‘game over’ just because I admitted my protest participation to my boss. He reported the case to the police, and I was arrested. Having your opinion heard was never that costly in the past.
Hugh: I’m so impressed by how these game developers attempt to capture the challenging physical and emotional landscape of the city at present—and in a very gameful way. By confronting players with difficult and impactful decisions, they convey some of the complexity of the situation. Video games have become a notable characteristic of the protests, from the Pokémon Go demonstrations to the Blizzard / Blitzchung controversy, as well as these two recent protest games.
Eddie: Like many in Hong Kong and around the world, I hope that the city will soon return to a state of safety, openness, and fairness. Only then will people have the environment, time, and energy to discuss innovative ideas and contribute to quality artworks. I am looking forward to enhanced versions of these games that cover more events and characters. They would be valuable historical records for both video games and Hong Kong.
Hugh: Liberate Hong Kong seems to closely depict the actual streetscapes of the city. What are some of the other visually accurate representations of Hong Kong in game spaces that you are aware of?
Eddie: People have different impressions of Hong Kong, so it’s very subjective. For me, the city is composed of small but familiar details, such as road signs, vehicles, and storefronts that, taken together, form familiar street views distinct to this city. Developments in game technology over the past twenty years have allowed these details to be lovingly reproduced in the virtual world. Games like Gran Turismo 4 (2004), Kung Fu Rider (2010), Sleeping Dogs (2012), and Resident Evil 6 (2013) have done a great job of recreating them. When I play these games, I feel like I’m navigating the real Hong Kong.
Hugh: Those details definitely make a big difference. For example, I love the way that Kung Fu Rider draws attention to the gradient of the city by getting the player to speed down the Mid-Levels on office chairs. That game beautifully captures Hong Kong’s daylight and shadows too. Likewise, Sleeping Dogs creates a convincing approximation of the city complemented by an unmistakably Hong Kong soundscape of Cantonese banter, ambient traffic noises, and rain.
I also notice that these games rely on violent narratives and game mechanics. Many games set in Hong Kong do. Do you have any concerns about the way the city is depicted?
Eddie: Not really. I just feel proud that the city was included by the game designers. Most players know that video games have imaginative components—that what they see is not a true representation of the real world.
Hugh: Do you think this is a subject of interest that appeals to many people?
Eddie: I wouldn’t say my blog has millions of followers. But I sometimes receive comments from readers stating that they’ve learned about Hong Kong through it. Some were even inspired to create video game plug-ins to contribute to video game versions of Hong Kong, like this project that reconstructs a World War II bunker system in Hong Kong for Counterstrike: Global Offensive (2012). This really encourages me to continue.
After writing for a while, I’ve also become more and more convinced that Hong Kong is a genuinely fabulous place. Even though the city may seem small and young, it already has a remarkable history and a diverse culture. This is reflected by the influence that Hong Kong has in both video game and real worlds. I hope others will feel the same after reading my blog.
Read more about video games on M+ Stories. This article was originally published on M+ Stories.