Sorry

M+ no longer supports this web browser.

M+ 不再支持此網頁瀏覽器。

M+ 不再支持此网页浏览器。

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, but relatively few game developers. Hugh Davies explores why—and how—games feature Hong Kong so frequently

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

Video Transcript

Note: This is a raw transcription of an audio recording. Part of our mission is to release transcriptions as soon as possible, to improve access to M+ talks. Therefore—while we strive for accuracy—in some places, these transcriptions may be imperfect.

HUGH DAVIES: Great, thank you. Thanks, thanks very much. I want to begin just by thanking my home institution, RMIT in Australia, for giving me the time to come to Hong Kong to undertake this research. And to really thank the Hong Kong Design Trust and M+, as well, for supporting this research. They’ve been so generous in their time and in allowing me to come here and undertake what I think is an incredibly important piece of research at the moment in the field of games. The current moment is seen as the ludic century, the game century. Games are, of course, bigger than the sort of popular film and movie and music industry combined. They’re the current medium, games are very hot right now. And of course, the Asian region, the Asia-Pacific region is also seeing, this is seen in the field of political economics. This is seen as the Asian century.

So, to be looking at games in this part of the world, and particularly in Hong Kong, where so many of these things collide, is such a privilege and I’m very grateful to be undertaking this research, which for the past twelve months has involved investigating Hong Kong’s character and architecture as it’s represented in the medium of video games. So, this research has involved looking at how Hong Kong is represented in sort of around, about 150 video games depending on how you define video games and also how you define Hong Kong—both kind of contested in terms of how they’re represented. So, in doing so, I’ve sort of examined the city in its various incarnations and other things that have correspondences between the actual and the virtual place and space of Hong Kong. I’ve approached this research through three lenses, looking at Hong Kong as a virtual city or sort of virtually represented, through the lens of Kowloon Walled City, which is popularly represented in video games, and through Sinofuturism, or a whole sort of range of terms around that kind of techno-Orientalism and future metropolis, these sort of projections external to Hong Kong, of Hong Kong.

And that’s very much what concerns this thing: the way Hong Kong is represented in the medium of video games, but really from forces outside Hong Kong. So the kind of . . . ground some of this study, it’s very important for me to set up from the beginning that Hong Kong is very well-represented in video games. Arguably over-represented in video games. And I say that from the point of view of, I mean, New York is pretty much in number one position, these figures are all over the place, once again, how you define video games, how you define place is quite contested. But New York is sort of around 215, London 122, Los Angeles 84, Tokyo surprisingly only 117, but Hong Kong 147, putting it just behind New York in terms of the amount of video games that are set in Hong Kong. What’s curious about that as well is that most of, the vast majority of developers making those games that are set in Hong Kong are external to Hong Kong. So most of these projections have come out of Japan, but also the USA, this thin sliver here is kind of loosely Hong Kong but once again, this isn’t an exact representation for a range of reasons, and one of them is games themselves are a very globalised medium, which is to say, developers will work on games from different countries, there’ll be different designers, different funders from different places.

So, throughout the many representations of Hong Kong, similar motifs endure. Images of damp and dimly lit alleyways reflecting buzzing neon signs, steam rising through claustrophobic architecture operating as a shorthand for a city caught between divergent cultures, colonial powers, and economies. With the clichés of Hong Kong as a human pressure cooker reflected and amplified in the game, designers, as I’ve already articulated, mostly from other countries, have sought to question should these archetypes that register as quintessentially Hong Kong be recuperated from virtual and Occidental projections? Or are they justifiable aspects of the city’s character?

So, as part of this research, I’ve collected a pretty big breakdown of all of the games that I’ve been looking at. As I’ve said, there’s around, about 147, this flexes and grows and shrinks depending on how you define these things. In the area that I’ve marked in green by the year that—the colours that I’ve added to there are to note the different decades—so there’s quite a lot in the 2000s and 2010s, but really, over the last thirty years, there are an incredible amount of video games that are set in Hong Kong. I’ve got an hour, I’m sure I will be running late, there’s no way I can cover all of these games, so yeah, this presentation is like the study, it’s going to be rushed, my conclusions are going to be broad and sweeping and so, bear with me. And we’ll also have some interesting technical challenges as well, just for the first few moments, hopefully. So, I want to begin by showing, really, kind of the gold standard for, that is set for representing video games, which occurs in the 1984 game Travels with Trashman. So I’m just going to play a little bit of this here.

So, yeah, this game from New Generation Software in 1984, I mean, not so immersively impressive now but stunningly innovative at the time of the 8-bit spectrum on which it was developed. Yeah, this really would’ve been cooking the 8-bit CPU in its day. And it really sort of established Hong Kong in video games from a range of different perspectives. One, it sort of shows, like, the neon-lit nightscape of Hong Kong, and I suppose the other point, it really sort of established how Hong Kong appears in so many video games, which is, as a single stage in a touring game. So there are so many games that feature like a whole range of cities, like you’ll have London, New York, Tokyo, and Hong Kong as a global destination for games like Streetfighter, Gran Turismo, Hitman, Call of Duty, and so on.

This game is actually playable online if you go to Internet Archive, they have a version of Travels with Trashman. You have to kind of find the Hong Kong stage, because obviously, there are a few stages to go through, but you can play it live in your browser and it’s good fun, I recommend doing that. So yeah, the aesthetic that is established in that game really has endured, I would argue, to the present. And so many games kind of feature that same basic aesthetic of the nightscape, of the neon-lit city, in this we have from top left, Gran Turismo 4, the map of TST (Tsim Sha Tsui), which is really kind of rendered in forensic accuracy. Neo Kowloon in Second Life, just here, continues this rich history of Japanese obsession with Kowloon Walled City. Sleeping Dogs kind of expresses this uncanny, almost schizophrenic Hong Kong streetscape and The Hong Kong Massacre, there’s a bit of hint of Wong Kar-wai in the lighting and the cinematography that features in that game. And in mentioning Wong Kar-wai as well, it’s very important to underscore the role of Hong Kong New Wave cinema in representing video games. It’s sort of difficult to overstate how much that that period of visual culture affected the way Hong Kong continues to be represented. Because I’m wary of time, I’m going to be scrolling through a few of these games, to get to sort of poignant moments in them. So, people are probably familiar with John Woo’s 1992 classic, Hard Boiled, and the 2007 game, Stranglehold, brings a virtual Chow Yun-fat to the, into the game world in which you play as his character, Tequila. Of course, John Woo was also very involved in the production of the game, and the game very much relies on the film and knowledge of the film. You have the signature bullet time, which really sort of set out that series of films. And of course the films themselves really also rely on the vernacular of video games in having things like bullet time.

What’s also really interesting about this game is, it shows what I would refer to as the kind of ludic architecture, which you have in all first-person shooters. Game objects are never really what they represent in real life, instead they, what have, what I would term here kind of a ludic feng shui, objects are placed to complement the logic of the game mechanic. So tables function as barriers, and slides, platforms, overhanging signs have no real design function other than to be shot at and then to fall on people. It’s . . . it’s a sort of hidden architecture within the architecture of physical game space.

It’s kind of interesting in this game, as well, I mean, you know, you have these classic sort of objects that are now interrogating the game study, like just sort of random boxes which are of course part of this ludic architecture. But the way that Hong Kong is being represented in this game, which at its time was a game, like, the peak of video-game technology. But how Hong Kong itself in video games gets broken down into a set of virtual reference, which can be accessed by just, you know, Googling Hong Kong virtual asset libraries. Hong Kong can be sort of bought and constructed and reconstructed by getting this sort of LEGO brick components, putting them all together, and fusing them into a Hong Kong world. This fusion of Hong Kong architectural signifiers within 3D libraries is exemplified, I think, in Battle 4 in Battlefield 4’s Pearl Market campaign. So, this is developed in Sweden, and what’s interesting about this game is that the Bank of China in the background tells us where we are, which is sort of somewhere in Admiralty, but nothing else matches. There’s all these tong laus and you know, like, lots of KFC signs everywhere. There are rainwater tanks on the roof that don’t match anything anywhere in Hong Kong, the neon sign, which is in Mandarin [simplified Chinese], but also upside down. But of course, the people that made this wouldn’t have known what any of this text meant, it was just purely signifiers. So, the result is this sort of uncanny architecture that’s both familiar in its tropes but disturbing in its distortion, echoing Kwai-Cheung Lo’s observation concerning the transnational popularity of Hong Kong imagery, who notes that Hong Kong’s places as signifier outweighs the actual place itself.

So, once the signifiers are established in a video game world, you can begin to add other elements, so you can really sort of begin to be a little bit playful as a game designer in working out what you want to include and how you want to represent the city. I used this example of Asphalt Street Storm, which I don’t know where . . . we’re in Des Voeux Road or Hennessey Road or King’s Road, but it’s snowing, which is interesting, and of course, you know, the snow on the road allows the cars to come adrift and move around. The question of snow in Hong Kong is really not important from the point of view of the player of the game. And once again, it is difficult to know exactly where we are, but within the context of the game, it’s not important. It’s Hong Kong, and we know that through this library of elements… I’ll be coming back to this idea a few times.

So what happens with this breakdown between kind of the virtual space of how Hong Kong is projected in video games, and the actual space is this kind of, like, recognition by players, particularly players who live here, like this player, who’s uploaded a video in which he wanders around the streetscape of Sleeping Dogs to really sort of discuss how it corresponds with the actual city. And he’s not very happy about it.

PLAYER: [unclear] the game is enjoyable but [unclear] type of mapping, which is every . . . all the worlds are fake and big so you can join really easily. But then you lose touch of what the city should look like. I mean, all . . . what annoys me most is that, because they’ve done so much right and correctly, that the wrong stuff gets me more annoyed. Now this one, it’s nice they put in the escalators but the escalators are far wider than what they should be. And they need to know it. When I first heard this game, I really hoped that I can go back to where I lived because I lived at the top of these escalators

[unclear, loud laughter]

Hong Kong mapped out. But even I can’t get to where I live because it still goes to similar streets of you know, but now, the escalator here looks really right but . . . it just goes back down. This escalator’s supposed to go up the mountain, halfway up the Peak, and it doesn’t. Again,… [unclear, loud laughter].

HUGH DAVIES: So it’s quite a generous video actually, discussing all the correspondences and differences of which he’s not happy to point out that there are many. A similar, sort of related, but different reference exists in relation to Kowloon Walled City. Although demolished in 1994, Kowloon Walled City remains fully and faithful, maybe not faithfully, but fully intact in video game spaces. Not just in video games themselves, but also in the arcades in which they’re housed.

[unclear, loud noise]

Or maybe a little bit familiar with the Kawasaki game arcade in . . . just outside of Hong Kong where they’ve produced a very similar Kowloon Walled City, which is in itself the game arcade. But the Kowloon Walled City that they evoke is much closer to the Kowloon Walled City that appears in video games than Kowloon Walled City that actually existed in real life. I’m going to fast-forward through this and several of the videos in the interest of time.

The arcade itself really sort of represents this Japanese obsession with Kowloon Walled City in video games which has been articulated and with it, Kowloon Walled City architecturally itself. Its makeshift verticality and ungovernable repute has really sort of seen Kowloon Walled City become or offer historical reality to a game developer’s dream of the chaotically complex metropolis in which everyday rules don’t apply.

The games, the systems in video game spaces represent a kind of zombie architecture. Which is to say, it’s still living long after its death and of course in so many games, horror games, like Kowloon’s Gate, there are actual zombies in the video game as well. The city has become a bit of a favourite for first-person shooters and horror games, mirroring the former enclave’s makeshift architecture, the game Phantasmal from 2015 has a procedurally generated design or architecture of Kowloon Walled City, basically meaning that every time you play the game, it generates a new city to navigate through, so if you’ve played a horror game, you, sort of, like, I played this before and there’s, you know, like, always a zombie around the corner.

This doesn’t occur in Phantasmal because it’s a completely regenerated, algorithmically regenerated game, which of course, you know, in some ways, represents the kind of, the architecture of Kowloon Walled City itself, of an architecture that was changing and mutating constantly.

What’s so interesting about Kowloon Walled City and its representation in video games and in other screen spaces is that it’s one of the few mediums where Hong Kong developers have intervened to take the city back from, to re-appropriate the city from its international representations. The game Oblige from 2017 is actually developed in the US, made by a couple of former Hong Kong locals, and in that game, you play as a woman trying to sort of move around the city and move out of the city to buy bits and pieces for yourself and your family.

The game Cage, which has been released in 2018, but is still in production, they’re still working on it, they’re still improving it, the developers Scaffold Studio have been very meticulous and very overt in what they’re trying to do with their game, which is they’re trying to create as accurate a depiction of Kowloon Walled City as possible, and they’re really trying to recuperate the representations of the city from being a first-person shooter space and from being a horror game. And they’re in this constant struggle because they take it to studios to get funding for development, and everyone says, this is like a fantastic first-person shooter space, because what they’ve done is that they’ve actually spoken to former residents of Kowloon Walled City itself. There’s a society in Lok Fu where they’re based and they gather, and it’s a community that still exists and they have gone to that society to get hand-drawn maps of how it used to look. And they’ve been sort of saying, you know, like the architectural designs that you have, they’re wrong because there was a corridor there but it got so filled with junk or someone built a wall or whatever. This is what it actually looks like.

So that game Cage is producing an incredibly, forensically accurate depiction of the city and they’re doing a great job in keeping it away from the first-person shooter realm.

It’s also interesting to see the way game developers are not just building the game development world but also in artists intervening in Hong Kong and Kowloon Walled City as a space, as a play space, but as a, like challenging the reference, challenging the way the city is referred to. So here, the game Autosave: Redoubt, which is a site-specific recreation of the World War II bunkers and tunnels of the Kowloon peninsula, but remade as a playable map using the Counterstrike development engine.

The project critiques the use of 3D computer game technologies, the virtual archaeology, but also in playing this game, it’s quite evocative in that it maps the subterranean place in a very unusual way, in that it’s quite sort of metre for metre, in that in playing it, you realise, wow, this is quite different to a video game space because it’s so heavily related to an actual space, so even though it’s not an actual space that a lot of people have been in, being a World War II bunker, there is kind of this strange moment of, like, this is not how it would be in a video game.

And the other game I referred to here is Another Day of Depression in Kowloon by Ip Yuk Yiu who’s re-appropriated or appropriated Kowloon, Call of Duty’s Kowloon depiction and has taken out all of the action and the violence just to sort of create these machinima settings of the city in the rain and as kind of returning it like a . . . I don’t know, bit of an everyday banality, which is quite nice, and it really highlights the potential of game space, I suppose, as a beautiful location.
It’s very interesting to me to see particularly Kowloon and Kowloon Walled City, it’s very much become, I would argue, a bit of a political tool or whenever there are representations of Kowloon Walled City, there’s always a politics at play, there’s always something political happening. People are probably familiar with the film Chasing the Dragon, in which Kowloon Walled City is quite lovingly recreated in a virtual engine. So people familiar with Martin Scorsese’s film will recognise the tracking shot here and it’s something which Martin Scorsese used in Goodfellas. This isn’t a Martin Scorsese film but it draws very deeply from this idea of creating an intimate and friendly space where everyone knows each other through a tracking shot where people are referring to each other and knowing each other and the way that space is created virtually here is quite an interesting and political depiction of space.

So that argument that I’d make about Kowloon Walled City is that while at the time, it was very much derived by not only a lot of people inside Hong Kong and outside of Hong Kong, but snubbed by British, Chinese, and Hong Kong governments, but it’s more recently kind of moved to become culturally embraced. Not only in Hong Kong but as you can see by this film in mainland China itself.

Its nostalgic memory represents a timely model within Hong Kong of another kind of independent space, but a space independent of external government rule and perhaps this is why its image of repute has been snatched back by local game designers and to present a more authentic city, pictures of place, but also probably why it’s been used in this mainland Chinese film to really sort of hold on to that presentation of how it’s depicted.

Sinofuturism,… So Hong Kong looms large in the science fiction imagination, renowned for inspiring the futurescapes of cyberpunk classics such as Blade Runner and of Ghost in the Shell, Hong Kong has not only shaped the vision of the techno-Orientalist metropolis for the past forty years, but endures as a template of contemporary and competing futures. This accounts in part for the city’s overrepresentation in the video game medium, from the dense multicultural megalopolis of Mankind Divided in 2016 to the monumental architectures of Project: Snowblind in 2005. From the games of Ghost in the Shell in 1997 and Blade Runner, also from 1997, Hong Kong flexes in shape and scale but endures as a model of techno-futurist things to come.

This techno, like I’m complicating a whole lot of ideas here when I talk about Sinofuturism, like sort of cyberpunk globalisation techno-Orientalism and neo-noir all collide in this idea of Sinofuturism, the name deriving from the essay by London-based video artist Lawrence Lek who, like the Hong Kong that I’m sort of evoking here, evokes this idea of Sinofuturism as this kind of kaleidoscopic mash-up of cinema, computer-generated imagery, documentary footage, and video games. And this has really sort of been capitalised on by video games, the whole sort of cyberpunk aesthetic, the idea that you can just get what is really established in Travels with Trashman but with a very strong science fiction lilt that you can get the darkened streets and you can get the neon lights, and you get the signs and traversing through these spaces as this depiction of Hong Kong.

But crucially, Sinofuturism is rarely Sino in origins, its Chineseness, like its futureness is an exoticised one, projected from the West and from Japan. Like the fictions of Coleridge’s Xanadu and Hilton’s Shangri-La, the Sinofuturist trope says much less about either Hong Kong or China and more about Western anxieties of the inevitability of a Chinese-inflected future.

This is Unity, someone’s collected a whole lot of Unity game elements and put them all together so I guess what’s important to see here is that none of this has really kind of been designed for this. This is once again just a library of drop-and-drag virtual elements pulled in. So you can see the level of sophistication but also the way the city is being represented, so once again, this is where we fall into the contested realm of: are we in Hong Kong now? Are these representations Hong Kong? I guess bracketing as well Travels with Trashman, this imagery which does the same thing, it grabs a whole lot of Hong Kong elements from Unity, a whole lot of Hong Kong-specific signs and puts them in this space, and I mean, you know, it really is the same mechanic as Travels with Trashman. You walk through a space with neon lights on either side. Obviously there’s a very different level of technology here but I would argue the only, is that technology and the evocation of temperature, really. It’s a steamy kind of Hong Kong setting.

So games technology extends well beyond games as well. If we look at the way video game technologies have been used in urban design, simulated cities are fantastic for modelling complex systems. For urban designers, I’ve spoken to a couple of urban designers specifically about the use of video game technology, this really is the golden age for simulated cities. Just the advanced visualisation and software allows for the prediction of increasingly, or increasingly accurate prediction of things like population growth, traffic flow, as you can see in this Mini Metro game from a New Zealand-based studio.

So the impact of climate change. So, cities in virtual representations, they don’t just look incredibly accurate, they behave quite, in a quite accurate way as well. Just a quick plug for this game, as well . . . I think a lot of people have a particular preference for games. Some people can play first-person shooters all day long, I simply cannot. I’m not really much of a gamer but when I know that I do have a particular soft spot for games, and that soft spot is for these God-view games, looking down on something, and this is a game that I have spent far too much time playing. Because, you know like the amount of time that I’ve been on public transport thinking, if there was a line that went this way instead of this way and doing that in several cities in the world, and of course this map of, as we see, Hong Kong here, and you know, anyone who’s looked at the Hong Kong MTR map will say, oh wow, that is basically it. But of course, that template is used all around the world, that sort of vector graphic motion of the city, which is so, yeah, this is one way in which the representation of Hong Kong is kind of uniform to the rest of the world. But yeah, highly addictive game.

But yeah, this sort of thing with the connection, that this connection, the tension and the slippage, I guess, between physical Hong Kong and virtual Hong Kong, as we can see here through this fly-through on one side of Google Earth and the other using a drawing, the way the two kind of connect and disconnect is often quite uncanny. As one of my methodologies in undertaking this research was very much spending time in Hong Kong itself and wandering around the city like a process of psychogeography, both in the physical space of Hong Kong but also in the virtual space of Hong Kong-set video games, wandering around those two spaces and seeing how they connected and did not. And as I perspired my way through the summer of 2018, I became very bodily aware, which is of course the whole point of psychogeography, of Hong Kong’s undulating micro-climates, from the gridded blocks of Mong Kok to the winding streets of the Mid-Levels, to the cool and misted heights of Victoria Peak. And I was really compelled by the differences and the similarities but the most striking of the differences was temperature. Obviously when walking around outside, I was really struck by how hot and oppressive it was during the summer, but when playing video games indoors, it was much nicer. That is, of course, I was using the laptop that I’m using now, and quite often I would have the laptop in my lap, and then of course, playing something like well, any of these games, the laptop starts to heat up. Like all video games tend to run at the extent of their capacity and so the laptop starts to heat up, and of course the little fan comes on, and that little air-conditioner inside the laptop comes on to try and cool it down. But still quite a relief to being outside, so I did find myself really enjoying the virtual space of Hong Kong but then at night, I would go out to the actual space when hopefully it cooled down a bit and really be confronted with that cyberpunk vision of Hong Kong, of the darkened streets again, the neon lights.

So this notion of Hong Kong as well, and how it is represented, and this notion of the temperature in Hong Kong really took me back to something I’d read about in the summer of 1994, when Japanese art director Hiromasa Ogura visited Hong Kong to develop the look and feel for the animated feature Ghost in the Shell and like me, he experienced the overwhelming humidity of the climate and spent a lot of time sort of sheltering in air-conditioned convenience stores and then would go outside and start taking photos and his glasses and his camera lens would immediately mist up, a sensation that probably many of you are quite familiar with. And this condensation, the resulting haziness inspired this sort of foggy or brought this foggy, dreamlike lighting of the rain-soaked megacity, which Ogura incorporated, that accident of condensation into his paintings, as we can see here. So, in doing the backdrops for Ghost in the Shell, he kind of rendered the weather, the climate and this same watery haziness and condensation, which occurred in the summer of 1994 in collecting that, that’s now apparent in games like Hong Kong Massacre and Sleeping Dogs. The sort of a lineage of how temperature has translated into video games.

Another part of the research that I undertook was talking to a lot of local game developers and artists working with games, and some of these people I’ve sort of remained good friends with on Facebook. One of them, a guy called Jason, who put these on his Facebook page, I don’t know, probably about a month ago, and I just said to him, I’ve got to have those images for my presentation because he was putting all of this stuff in, which I didn’t really know how to illustrate in my talk specifically, he was drawing the city as it quite often doesn’t appear in video games.

It appears in virtual spaces in this way, but well-lit housing estates is not something that appears very often in video game spaces. But what he also captures here is what I find quite a distinct Hong Kong architecture and that’s the air-conditioner alcoves. The fact that so many buildings have been built with alcoves for air-conditioners to sit in the recognition that the architecture will stay the same but the air-conditioner will need to be replaced through time.

If we’re to understand architecture as the practice of designing structures and environments, then we have to recognise air-conditioning as architecture too, so these human changes to temperature must also be recognised as a global scale. Air-conditioning, or as it’s more expansively termed, climate change, is part of the vernacular of architecture in games as well as in the real world. This is another one of Jason’s work, which it was quite weird in that I couldn’t have commissioned these and he just started throwing them on Facebook, so you know this is like a cybernoir air-conditioner basically.

So this idea becomes especially important when recognising the role and production and consumption fuelling climate change, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region as I began by saying, this is such a big area in terms of the production and the consumption of video games. And of course, you know, the way that these devices, be they computers or aeroplanes or air-conditioners impact in climate change, so this is very much articulated in the book Screen Ecologies from 2015, which examines how the monumental development and consumption of both screen content and screen devices has fuelled global warming.

Examined here is how mobile screens, cameras, technologies, and other devices can instantly transmit disasters such as typhoons, but also how our consumption of these devices kind of makes us complicit in the gradual but larger catastrophe of climate change. So just a sublime footage and devastation makes for compelling screen imagery in film, television, and video games. Likewise, the mass consumption of screen technologies drives future environmental disasters. It’s a close, symbiotic relationship and one into which video games directly play. Now, a lot of this talk might sound catastrophic, but I do make this comment at the beginning of what I mentioned is termed the century of play and the Asian century. So this idea that video games become more and more popular and the platforms on which they’re based become more and more disposable.

And these factors have come to the attention of game scholars. In questioning why climate change is so overlooked in video games, in a recent paper, scholars Benjamin Abraham and Darshana Jayemanne asked ‘Where are all the climate change games? Where are all the video games, if games are cultural artefacts, where are all the games that respond to this idea?’ Which compelled Hong Kong-based game designer and scholar Peter Nelson to retort in another paper: ‘All video games are already climate change games.’

For me, this paradox is best articulated in the in-development game by French developer duo, HK_Project, set in a futuristic Walled City in which you play as a cat exploring Kowloon Walled City by moving across air-conditioners and air-conditioning ducts. So this game mechanic, I mean, I mean the stunning aesthetics for me of this, of this vapourware project, vapourwave, it doesn’t exist yet. I’ve contacted them so many times and they wouldn’t respond. Finally I wrote to them in French and they did respond in English, which was quite a burn and said, you know, that they were very happy for me to use what content was lying around on the Internet that represented their game, but they weren’t able to provide me with any additional high-quality files, which was what I was asking for.

But I’ve been wooing them for a long time, sending them photos of Hong Kong in all of its kind of grittiness and that kind of thing. And I guess what I really like about this project as well is that it rearticulates and combines everything that I’ve been expressing here today like the neon-lit streets, the representation of Hong Kong, and really sort of the temperature of games. Everything is sort of warm, everything is wet, and there’s air-conditioning absolutely everywhere.

So I’m going to really begin wrapping up now because I’m running out of time, but I’ve changed this presentation so many times in the last week, and indeed over the past twelve months, but I think I’ve managed to time it okay. And I’ll close just by highlighting the presence, the appearance, and the disappearance of Hong Kong in video games. I guess the way I mentioned this is, there’s an exhibition which closed a couple of days ago, it closed I think on the night that I arrived, by an online artist called Desmond Lo. His work sort of really exists in the milieu, in the same space, as a lot of, like for example, HK_Project, I found out about through Twitter and through Tumblr, and seeing those images and Desmond Lo’s work really sort of operates in those spaces.

And apparently, a lot of people have seen his work from Instagram, and I’ve just gone, wow, like, where is that space. I want to go there and take a photo, and of course, it doesn’t exist. He’s using this virtual library of virtual assets and creating his own to create this Hong Kong that doesn’t exist but is somehow very familiar to people both inside Hong Kong and not.

I’ll close with this video, which is a machinima from Sleeping Dogs basically. So I’ll see if I can get some sound. I had this weird situation before where . . . I couldn’t get the sound for it working and then I think I realised that the sound, I just couldn’t hear it because I was hearing the traffic outside and that is exactly what the sound of this is, and it runs for about an hour or two hours and it’s just this. It’s a day in Sleeping Dogs. So a day, it corresponds to about an hour in this game and this bit of machinima from Sleeping Dogs, according to the YouTube clip, has been created for people who are from Hong Kong but are not in Hong Kong, and they want a window that reminds them of Hong Kong.

So, it’s basically, you know, people are familiar with the game Sleeping Dogs, it doesn’t just sort of evoke this visual idea of Hong Kong, but the audio is also very close, the Cantonese expressions, the music, the soundscapes really evoke quite a convincing Hong Kong. But I guess what I want to say is that it does evoke this appearance and disappearance of Hong Kong, this sort of idea of this slippage between real and the virtual of what actually is Hong Kong and how much of it is both.

So games are not just entertainment products, they’re cultural artefacts. They’re carriers of cultural information, so at its heart my project is really sort of to discover what are games telling us about Hong Kong as a location and as a visual representation. And for me, that has really been about disappearance, and I say that from the point of view of this game and so many games evoke a Hong Kong which is really based on a pre-handover moment. They hark back to a pre-1997 Hong Kong and I think the reason they do that is that there was this moment basically really kind of between 1994 and 1997 wherein Hong Kong, there was this realisation that before Hong Kong disappeared altogether, it needed to be re-established, it needed to be established, this field of Hong Kongology appeared, which was really trying to articulate what was distinct about Hong Kong and into this moment, Ackbar Abbas’s seminal text of Hong Kong: Culture and the Politics of Disappearance proposed the concept of deja disparu. Basically saying that this idea of, as soon as you articulate something, as soon as you describe it, it disappears. And in so many of the games that I’ve presented here, they don’t present any contemporary Hong Kong. Probably the only one that that does maybe is Mini Metro, in that you know, it is very much a contemporary Hong Kong space.

But so many of the games depict this New Wave cinema era of Hong Kong from really in that kind of Hong Kongology moment of the 1980s and the 1990s. And yeah, the games really kind of re-evoke that space again and again and again. And if it’s not that space, it’s this completely other imagined space, which is this cyberpunk future but of course we’re now caught up to cyberpunk—like 2019 is the year in which Blade Runner is set—so we’re in this strange moment in Hong Kong and in video games where we’re seeing the past and the future, but the present is somehow occluded. I’m going to end there, thank you very much.

[audience clapping]

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.

M+ Members

  • Access to the M+ Lounge with your guests
  • Access to M+ Private Viewing for General Admission only
  • Priority booking and member discounts
  • Priority lanes access for General Admission only
  • Free access to the M+ galleries (General Admission only) and selected cinema screenings

... and much more

M+ Membership benefits list updated in November 2022

Loading