If you feel uncomfortable with rice paddy hats in To roamyou are not the only one. To roam elevates the Asian aesthetic, evoking exoticism and danger, but does not affect the history of the city that it appropriates. This is especially problematic because its actual setting carries a painful historical baggage that cannot be reduced to neon signs and cramped apartments.
With more than three million people per square mile (which is 47 times more populous than Manhattan), the Walled City was the most densely populated city in world history. The streets were lit with neon signs because the buildings didn’t let in much natural light from above. Developers To roam said USA Today that the walled city of Hong Kong was “the perfect playground for cats”. The artists at BlueTwelve Studios were inspired by the way the real city was “organically built and filled with details and interesting viewpoints” such as air conditioners and exposed chimneys. And not only they admired the environment. Photographers and architects appreciated the ingenuity in how people lived without security rules or a centralized government.
But this organic structure arose for painful historical reasons. The walled city was originally a military base during the Qing Dynasty. It became a separate enclave from British-controlled Hong Kong after China was weakened by the Sino-Japanese War. Japan, China and Great Britain throughout their history have tried to claim the walled city. To ease international tensions, both China and the UK eventually gave up trying to run the walled city after the end of World War II. subsequent lawlessness fermented organized crime and opium dens. The Triad gangs turned the enclave into “epicenter of the drug trade in Hong Kong.None of these contexts are particularly conspicuous as you explore the dusty streets of Walled City 99.
Jesse Lam, a video game concept artist whose family hails from Hong Kong, explains: “[The Walled City] Was this overpopulated city block full of crime and poverty – thanks to the triads – that it took decades before it was finally destroyed. We don’t talk about coffin-sized high-rise apartments these days… There’s a muted anger there.”
The history of the walled city is inextricably linked with colonial rivalries, but none of them is represented in To roam. In the game, the city was a shelter built to protect people from the plague. The only sentient beings left are the self-aware robots “Companions” who built their own society in the absence of humanity. Later, I appreciated their charming personalities, but when I first met these robots, my first thought was, “Why are they wearing paddy field hats?”
Conical rice hats have a complex history in the Asian diaspora. They are used as a racial shorthand for Asian ancestry, regardless of the actual context. For example, clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch. images of Chinese men wearing paddy field hats were once used. in their product line. While the existence of farm hats is not offensive in and of itself, they become strikingly racist when used in unrelated images such as racist laundromat parody. Protests and angry letters forced Abercrombie and Fitch pull offensive t-shirts out of their stores.
Luckily, To roam corresponds to the minimum of non-racist language for describing robots (even if it is inappropriate). use of Japanese language in fictional Hong Kong a bit surprising). But the game’s rampant appropriation of Asian history and culture needs to be backed up by concern for design and implementation. Alexis Ong, who lives in Singapore, wrote a great Polygon article about To roamThe accuracy of Hong Kong, while others like Lam are less impressed with how the game portrays the walled city.
“Graffiti and signage is a huge question mark. Everything written in English is clearly addressed to the player, but [in-game], who are these tags for? Lam said Kotaku. “It’s one thing for robots to send messages to each other, but some of them overlap rather than write around each other. Which casts doubt on whether said developers also understand graffiti culture and etiquette. But also… Why deliberately force some robots to wear rice caps? When it’s clearly not possible to go outside or anywhere in the game to farm?” Headwear such as baseball caps became ubiquitous in urban fashion, which would explain companions copying the style, but rice hats did not. These conical hats have been used to represent Asian ancestry in Western media. To roam cannot separate himself from this story.
Because this pops up every time I blog about Asian representation: No, I don’t believe BlueTwelve Studios is intentionally racist. I also don’t think the resulting game is the worst offender when it comes to cultural appropriation. His flaws are typical of the cyberpunk genre in general. Cyberpunk takes off America’s Anxiety about Japan’s economic dominance, but cyberpunk media are often reluctant to populate their cities Asian characters. I felt the same sense of alienation when I played To roam.
I’m sure the developers didn’t rub their hands with joy when they decided not to implement any human characters. But Walled City 99 was another cyberpunk city where people like me are not welcome. Not unless I was a robot with a conical hat. And that doesn’t suit me either. “Asian Robot” is a Hollywood troupe that often dehumanizes Asian people (From the machine, Cloud Atlas, Matrix). It even has a genre name for it: Techno-orientalism. In these works, Asia is expressed through “an aesthetic sensibility rather than the representation or centering of actual Asian characters”. To roam fully corresponds to this genre.
“[There’s] many of the same general ideas are often recycled in projects, and sometimes this extends to the cyberpunk genre as well,” Lam said. Kotaku over tweets. “Orientalism in general is not new.”
I just wanted to play a cute cat game without techno-orientalism. Unfortunately, To roam generally does not question his creative influences. And from the moment the developers decided to base their game on the enclave created by British colonialism, they took it upon themselves to figure out its history. To roam pays so much attention to how he presents cats. I just want it to be as consistent with the legacy of real people.