I run behind a bandit in the North End night market, crashing into colorful stalls and sending meat skewers flying while the spectators shout in Cantonese. I reach my goal in a dusty alley full of trash bins and scattered garbage bags, and suddenly I'm surrounded by thugs. I grab one, give it a knee in the stomach and bang its head against a humming air conditioner, sprinkling blood on its rotating white fans.
Five minutes later, I'm cruising the traffic on my motorcycle, looking at the neon signs. I park on the east coast of Honk Kong Island, away from traffic and noise, and wander through a wooden pier. The houseboats rise and fall slowly, a fisherman throws the bait into the water and an old man slowly sweeps the dust from the boards. Peace at last.
The open world of Sleeping Dogs is one of my favorite games. Capture the variety, buzz and character of Hong Kong, as well as any action movie, and the environment feels as believable now as it was when it came out in 2012. I wanted to discover how the now defunct United Front Games managed to capture this world, so I spoke with the design director Mike Skupa, who told me about the "battle" between making a fun and accessible game and faithfully recreate Hong Kong, and how a trip to the city changed the way the team thought about their world .
Compact cities and idyllic islands
The skyscrapers of Sleeping Dogs give the impression of a great open world, but the map is quite compact. It only has four of the neighborhoods of Hong Kong Island: Kennedy Town, North Point, Central and Aberdeen, and they are much smaller and closer than their real-life counterparts. If you floor it, you can drive between the southern and northern points in five flat minutes.
Skupa says that initially, the team imagined a larger map covering other parts of Hong Kong, but decided to stay with the island to give it a more "focused" feel.
"We wanted Sleeping Dogs to be a very focused open world game," he told me. "We wanted the activities to be connected to the story, the goal was not to have an extensive game of 100 hours."
"We chose the areas that we thought would work well with the design of the game, and by setting the most along the coast, it allowed us to condense everything. "
By keeping the map manageable, the team could pack it with personality, it feels constantly busy, even at night, cars honk in traffic, passers-by talk on their phones in the local language , and the thugs, eager to fight, hide under the overpasses, and yes, not all the streets are full of life, but the ingenious design choices guide the players to the best moments.
the neighborhoods around parts places, where key missions would be carried out, and we were strategic with roads and travel routes, so that on average players would experience where the team put more effort, "explains Skrupa. "The night market in North Spring comes to mind: the early chase of the game makes me want to return when I'm in the area."
"You can put so much time in every little corner, but for us, just based on the budget. , the deadlines and the fact that we really wanted decisive moments, it was important to create that balance. "
Love your neighbor (hoods)
All neighborhoods look and feel different North End has narrow alleys with smoke coming out of the vents and screaming food vendors, Kennedy Town, on the other hand, has clean streets lined with palm trees and bright glass-fronted buildings, the way people dress, the cars they drive, the configuration of, ahem, & # 39; massage rooms & # 39 ;, either on the corners or within larger businesses … everything changes as you move from one place to another, which creates a sense of place. , you can say r the kind of people who would live in each neighborhood.
And yes, many monuments are missing from Hong Kong, others are very disturbed and there is still more in the wrong place … but it captures the character of the city. The little details matter: the telephone boxes, for example, are They look exactly like the real ones, as do garbage bins, street signs and road markings. In addition, the distinctive crossing signal & # 39; clack-clack & # 39; It is strange.
Skupa says the team combined elements from different neighborhoods and time periods, creating an amalgam of Hong Kong's modern life and the dramatized version to see in the action films of the '# 70 and # 39 ; 80 The team thought about adding Kowloon, a staple of Hong Kong cinema, but instead decided to take portions of it and put them in the North End, for example.
"I would not say the game is a true representation of the locations, so it was nice to hear that we captured the energy," he says. "People even told us that they grew up in Hong Kong and that they had not returned in a long time, and playing was like visiting the house, which was very moving."
That attention to detail came from the United Front Games visit to Hong Kong during the development. The art team visited the city a week earlier to take thousands of photographs, and the design team flew out a few months later to walk the streets and interview the locals. They spoke with members of the ex-triad, security consultants and people associated with the police, as well as contacts from the music industry, who helped with the story and audio of the game.
These visits transformed the way the game was made. Skupa cites the smells of each neighborhood, the pace at which people walked and the "constant buzzing of air conditioners" as things they could not have captured through the images and videos they had been studying. The local fashion attracted attention as well, and the team photographed and filmed people from different social backgrounds, and then created their own versions of the clothing brands game.
"Our character designs seemed outdated instantly, as they borrowed a lot from genre films of the past and our own environment," he tells me. "We realized that our clothing choices did not match the humidity, our characters were … too clothed, some of those inherited designs were kept, so you'll see some characters fighting on hot, humid nights with swollen jackets." .
Authenticity vs fun
Sleeping Dogs was never just authenticity. Skupa talks about walking the "thin line" between creating an accessible and fun game and something faithful to the city, and I think they got the right balance. Yes, the story is exaggerated, but it never looks too much like a caricature. Skupa says the events were inspired by stories the team heard in Hong Kong: "You would hear what happened with the triads, or with a particular political figure, and weave them into the story."
Violent combat does not just exist so you can beat people, it gives you a better idea of what the world is like. It is heavy on environmental action, and you can leave the thugs in garbage containers, kick them in phone boxes or bang their heads against a urinal, which makes violence feel like part of the environment.
"It helped you to focus on why" We are fighting here, what is going on, who is living here, "says Skupa." Hopefully, even thinking sometimes: who will clean up here? The team had a lot of fun with that. "
Skupa says managing the game's scope was" always a problem "and that" balancing the density with the game and the freedom of the camera was a great design challenge. " says the team did not have as much time as they expected to work in the late play areas, which gives them less "nuances and sensations." But it's hard to be too critical: despite its limitations, Sleeping Dogs feels that it is true to material of origin and very fun to play.
Six years later, I still love to get lost in the streets of virtual Hong Kong.
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