How Chinatown Detective Bureau is making a cultural impact
Creative managing director Mark Fillon on being polarising, challenging players, and how to portray Asia
Chinatown Detective Agency is a indicate and click run a risk game that takes place in Singapore in the year 2037. It follows a immature detective named Amira Darma equally she starts up her agency to solve cases. While futuristic Singapore has secrets hiding at every corner, the instance she ends up working on takes her all over the world. I spoke with Mark Fillon, creative managing director at General Interactive Co., nearly the inspiration behind the game’s themes, characters, and scope.
Chinatown Detective Bureau started development in 2017 later the release of the studio’south first game Terroir, a winemaking tycoon game. In March 2020, the studio released a free alpha demo of Chinatown Detective Agency onto Itch.io, and successfully crowdfunded the total game on Kickstarter just a calendar month later.
The game is reminiscent of the point and click Carmen Sandiego games back in the 1980s, where the titular grapheme would travel throughout the world to take hold of criminals and solve cases. General Interactive decided to emulate the classic retro pixel art style with Chinatown Detective Agency too, but to fit in with the overall grimier dystopian aesthetic, art managing director Richardo Juchem and the others wanted to requite the art way a dark and edgier feel.
In particular, they used the Unity engine’s new 2D lighting effects to add more depth that commonly wouldn’t show in flat pixel art. “That’due south a huge deviation betwixt the actual game versus what it was two years ago. We’ve refined the art style and went wild experimenting with lighting effects until we found the right tone,” Fillon explains.
While Chinatown Detective Agency steadily improved over the several years of development, not everything made the final cut. Earlier versions of the game included an Endurance meter where, if her Endurance got too depression, Amira would accept trouble completing tasks, even requiring food or remainder to bounce back. But a good number of demo players found this mechanic confusing and halting, and it’south completely absent from the shipped game. Although the mechanic sounded great on paper, it ended upward just bogging down the entire game experience.
“It seems great the start few times, but the novelty wears off actually fast – and we had multiple playtesters bring this up,” says Fillon. “So we decided to focus more on the core gameplay and mechanics.”
In Chinatown Detective Bureau that core revolves around solving puzzles with factual trivia. For instance, in one of the early chapters Amira has to find out a stamp’s country of origin. There’s no in-game resources to figure information technology out, so players have to take to the real globe and use search engines to find information (though, 2022 being what information technology is, this had resulted it its own trouble).
At the start of development, the squad decided to deliberately make the puzzles challenging, the kind that they’d want players to step abroad from the game to retrieve about, do real reading and research, and so come up dorsum once they figured out the reply. “We were already taking a bold step in requiring gamers to exercise research in the real world,” Fillon says, “so nosotros idea we should go all the way and put in some puzzles that call for serious analysis and investigation.”
He knew, however, that almost players would eventually hit a wall anyway. That’s part of the reason why Mei Ting the librarian exists. Amira meets Mei Ting very early in the game, and the character is incredibly bubbly and enthusiastic — she’southward very curious well-nigh how Amira conducts her detective work. Players can call Mei Ting if they get stuck, and she tin can provide either a hint or straight up tell yous the answer. Simply doing then costs Amira some money – and perhaps the player’southward sense of accomplishment.
“Information has never been as on-demand with such ease in all of man history, which makes a game like Chinatown Detective Bureau possible.”
Fillon also notes that emphasising search engines was done out of accessibility and approachability. Sites like Google are available to a big portion of the game’south audience, and the global population in general. Players in China make up a big clamper of the studio’due south player base, and even though Google is banned in the country at that place are plenty of alternatives (such as Baidu).
He explains that search engines are incredibly powerful technological tools that many people take for granted. “Information has never been as on-need with such ease in all of human history, which makes a game similar Chinatown Detective Agency possible,” Fillon says. “The Carmen Sandiego games came with an actual almanac! These days, your smartphone volition do.”
I of the strongest aspects of Chinatown Detective Agency is its cultural authenticity. The game even references the global COVID-xix pandemic in some of the locations’ descriptions, such as the Singapore airport. Fillon says that the team wanted to reference as many existent-world events as recently as possible to give the game more plausibility.
A player noticed that the developers snuck in a hypothetical future regarding Australia’s elections in a character’s email. Information technology references Gina Rinehart, who is Australia’due south richest person, every bit well as executive chairwoman and billionaire magnate of Hancock Prospecting, a coal visitor. In Chinatown Detective Agency’s world, Rinehart wins the ballot in 2037 and is sworn in as Australia’s Prime number Minister. “It’s incredible how imagining the dark possibilities of the future can often lead to authentic predictions in the real world,” says Fillon.
What makes the game so believable and grounded are its characters. The iii different clients that Amira works for are the hardboiled Keeran Iyer, the secretive Rupert Zhou, and the quick-witted Tiger Lily. Fillon describes Keeran Iyer as “the embodiment of the Singaporean civil servant, a by-the-books crusader for police force and order, by whatever means necessary.” Rupert is the most morally vague one out of the three, as his case involves Amira chasing down a secret organization of thieves; he offers lucrative jobs, but his motives and ideals are shrouded in mystery. “I beloved characters with that kind of ambiguity,” says Fillon. “Blurring the lines of morality is a lot of fun, and probably a more accurate reflection of man beings in real life.”
Tiger Lily owns a nightclub and her outward appearance is a deliberate caricature of the “orientalised” media depiction of Asian women: hypersexual and docile. But she flips these stereotypes on their caput and uses people’south preconceptions to keep command of a state of affairs. Tiger Lily also has a lot of depth and heart to her graphic symbol, and is subsequently seen helping out a lawyer and environmental activist fight against a corporation.
“Getting actors and actresses from the actual countries of the characters in the game was non-negotiable,” Fillon explains. Local Singaporean talent is represented, such as Leonie Koh and Su Ling Chan voicing Amira and Tiger Lily, respectively, also as Kimberly Tan playing Mei Ting and Ryan Lim as Rupert Zhou.
Getting the right people to bring these characters to life is important. Ane of the biggest themes of Chinatown Detective Agency is family and where to belong. After all, Amira is single and doesn’t have any children, so she manages to bail with the several characters who hang around her agency. There was the concept of nature vs nurture and how the shadows of our by shape the paths we have later in life.
Fillon also brought up the idea of technology, saying that they “besides wanted to touch on upon the idea of technology equally an extension of the self, of whether information technology is possible to grow so attached to something synthetic and programmed, that you see information technology every bit a manner to gain immortality by imprinting yourself upon it.”
What makes Chinatown Detective Agency all the more impressive is that despite using the futuristic dystopian Asian setting, like Cyberpunk 2077 or Deus Ex: Man Revolution, the game doesn’t feel orientalising or culturally insensitive. Fillon tells me that Asia and Asians have been depicted as aliens and backdrops in western-dominated media for far too long.
Throughout the region’s history of beingness imperialised by other western countries, Asians take their own perspectives on family and relationships that are lost by non-Asian storytellers. Sometimes, these histories are filled with long periods of humiliation and subordination. “I looked to my parents, to our politicians, and to our picture show and literature for inspiration on how best to portray Asia and its part in a larger globe that’south on the brink of irreversible collapse,” Fillon says.
Still, Fillon is proud to exist a Southeast Asian game developer – the region is experiencing an incredibly productive and creative period in video game development. “Chinatown Detective Agency is a potentially very polarising game. We certainly don’t aim to please anybody,” he says. “But I recollect we need some of that daring to really accomplish the cultural impact nosotros all dream of with our games.”