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15 Oct, 2018 / by Hugh Davies

Why Is Hong Kong Such a Popular Video Game Location?

Video game still of a person sitting on a motorbike with their back towards us. In front of them is an urban landscape in a rainy, dusky atmosphere. The street is lit up by neon signs showing Chinese lettering, and a red Hong Kong taxi is seen driving.

Sleeping Dogs (2012) follows an undercover Hong Kong–American police officer on assignment in Hong Kong. Image: United Front Games and Square Enix London Studios

There are around 140 video games set in Hong Kong. The final figure depends entirely on how you define ‘Hong Kong’ and ‘video games’ respectively, as both are contested territories. However, few can argue against the fact that the city looms large in visual culture—a culture that increasingly includes video games.

Yet with so few local developers creating games set in Hong Kong, how can the city’s international popularity in the ludic medium be adequately accounted for? Why do games feature Hong Kong so much? Through my work as a Research Fellow with M+ and the Design Trust exploring representations of Hong Kong in video games, I offer these overlapping explanations.

Cinematic History

Video game still in which a man standing in a dark urban space filled with rubble holds up a gun towards someone just beyond the viewer.

Stranglehold (2007) is a third-person shooter game developed in collaboration with John Woo. It serves as a sequel to Woo’s 1992 action film Hard Boiled. Image: Midway Chicago and Tiger Hill Entertainment

Each new artistic medium restages content from the medium that precedes it; video games, predictably, rely on the cinematic form. In turn, video games set in Hong Kong draw heavily from the city’s cinema of the ‘80s and ‘90s. This connection couldn’t be more explicit than in Midway’s 2007 game Stranglehold, a third-person shooter game following the exploits of Chow Yun Fat’s Inspector Tequila from John Woo’s classic 1992 film Hard Boiled. The game re-evokes Woo’s signature slow-motion ‘bullet time’ and martial arts-inspired shooting acrobatics.

These playable action sequences prove not just the smooth handover of visual culture from film to video games, but also the evolution of weapons play and aerial acrobatics from the earlier forms of Wuxia cinema and the stagecraft of Chinese opera. Hong Kong’s presence in video games has a lineage reaching back many dynasties.

Action and Plot

Video game still of a woman with black chin-length black hair sitting in a vehicle of some kind. In the window behind her, the Hong Kong skyline is visible, including the distinctive Bank of China Tower with its angular lines and shape.

Fear Effect (2000) is an action-adventure game following the kidnapping of the daughter of a Hong Kong Triad boss. Image: Kronos Digital Entertainment

While films are for watching, games call for action. As any movie buff will tell you, much of the action in Hong Kong visual culture revolves around martial arts and crime. Likewise, not only do many fighting game series such as Fatal Fury, Final Fight, and Street Fighter feature a Hong Kong stage, but the violent antics of Triad gangsters and corrupt cops translate equally well into moving images as first-person shooter mechanics.

So do the plotlines. For example, the story of Hong Kong’s beloved cinema masterpiece Infernal Affairs, from which Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning The Departed borrowed, is also used by the game Sleeping Dogs. The subplot of a protagonist working undercover for so long that their identity and future become uncertain provides more than action sequences—it also offers a sharp metaphor for the city under British and then Chinese rule. The cliché of Hong Kong as caught between East and West is not without truth.

Architecture

Video game still of a dark urban street viewed from above. A sign reading ‘Club 88’ is visible on the street corner, with people gathered outside. The neon signs on the side of this building gives the street a purple-reddish glow.

Shadowrun: Hong Kong (2015) is a role-playing game set in 2056 Hong Kong, where the Walled City is an overcrowded slum built on top of the ruins of the old Kowloon Walled City. Image: Harebrained Schemes

Video games are more than images; they are also traversable spaces. The architecture of Hong Kong lends itself well to the video game medium. Consider Kowloon Walled City which, despite being demolished in 1994, continues to reappear in video games. The former enclave’s organic construction and criminal repute offers an actual, historic version of a game developer’s dream: a chaotic urban maze in which everyday rules do not apply. As a result, games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops and Shadowrun: Hong Kong see the suburb recast as a combat wonderland, while in Kowloon's Gate and Phantasmal: City of Darkness, the Walled City is re-animated as zombie architecture riddled with monsters and ghouls.

Digital illustration of Kowloon Walled City, showing it from the outside, with a corner of the tightly packed blog of high rises visible. The words ‘Scaffold Studio’ are displayed across the top, and the words ‘Illustrated by Yo Mak, Designed by Paul Chan © 2018’ to the right.

Hong Kong-developed video game Cage (2018) is a 3D adventure game set in Kowloon Walled City. Image: Yo Mak (artist) and Poki Chan (designer), Scaffold Studio

Yet the reality of Kowloon Walled City was both much more complex and ordinary. As such, I’m inspired to see Hong Kong-produced games such as Cage drawing on local knowledge and experience to depict the place with refreshing and intimate authenticity.

Future Imagination

Video game still depicting a helicopter flying above a sprawling city. Lights and spotlights light up the night sky. The top of a tall building, showing antennae and domed surfaces, rises up in the foreground.

Deux Ex: Human Revolution (2011) is an action role-playing game set in a cyberpunk future. Image: Eidos Montreal

No discussion of Hong Kong’s place in visual culture is complete without reference to cyberpunk. Thanks to the sci-fi masterworks Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell, Hong Kong stands as the template of a futuristic metropolis. Many games, including Fear Effect, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Project: Snowblind, Strider 2, Bujingai, Maken X, and Metal Slug 2, take up this aesthetic, which layers globalisation, techno-orientalism, and future-noir.

But while many in Hong Kong fear a future in which their identity is lost within mainland China, the incredible extent to which China has been transformed by Hong Kong has been somewhat overlooked. Not only has China wholly internalised the global capitalism upon which British Hong Kong was founded, but China’s top-tier cities have out-cyberpunked Hong Kong. In future-noir terms, the sci-fi architecture of Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing are completely ‘replicant’, appearing more Hong Kong than Hong Kong. So the question arises: when so much of what makes Hong Kong distinct is found in abundance in mainland China, what identity does Hong Kong retain?

Video game still showing a snapshot of a city in which the high rises are covered in neon signs with Chinese lettering and large video screens.

Fear Effect (2000) is an action-adventure game following the kidnapping of the daughter of a Hong Kong Triad boss. Image: Kronos Digital Entertainment

The answer lies in the contrasts that Hong Kong’s visual density provokes; an aesthetic that has long seduced photographers, filmmakers, and game developers alike. The city’s dramatically constricted space brings its contradictions into sharp relief. East and West; technology and tradition; poverty and wealth; Cantonese, Mandarin and English; past, future, and present—these all exist together in curious harmony.

Video game still showing a simple, graphic map where the land is white and the water is blue. The only markings on the map are subway lines in red, green, and blue, which are in the process of being connected and created by the player.

An image of the gameplay in the Hong Kong level of Mini Metro (2015), a minimalistic subway layout game in which levels are based on real cities. Image: Dinosaur Polo Club

This assault of sound, light, and colour—of compressed architecture drenched in neon and rain—all evoke an emotional pressure cooker. They underscore that the differences in Hong Kong are greater than the similarities; that the city’s enduring identity is its lack of any singular identity. They portray the simultaneous sense of beauty and estrangement this brings.

But visual culture is shifting. While Hong Kong’s film industry has suffered a twenty-year decline, the city’s representation in video games continues to grow, offering new futures free from both Triad violence and cyberpunk orientalism. Take, for example, the games Shenzhen OS and Mini Metro, which envisage a new and expanded Hong Kong, one shaped by connections between people, places, and electronic products. In both games, a networked map expresses the city as a central node in global transport and production. Could this be a new understanding of Hong Kong in the visual and interactive domain?

Hong Kong Architecture in the Video Game Vernacular
Hong Kong Architecture in the Video Game Vernacular
50:38

Davies explores portrayals of Hong Kong in digital games, revealing implications for the city as both a global hub and a cultural object

In what is simultaneously referred to as the ‘Asian century’ and the ‘ludic century’, the way this city appears and evolves in video games is worth both watching and playing.

This article was originally published on M+ Stories.

Hugh Davies is a maker, curator and researcher of games and play. His practice explores histories of media devices and cultures of games in the Asia Pacific region. Awarded a PhD in Art, Design, and Architecture from Monash University in 2014, Hugh’s studies in game cultures have been supported with fellowships from Tokyo Art and Space, M+, and the Hong Kong Design Trust. Davies is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.

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