If you felt uncomfortable with the paddy field hats of WanderYou’re not the only one. Wander raises Asian aesthetics to evoke exoticism and danger, but it does not address the history of the city that it appropriates. This is particularly problematic because its actual setting carries painful historical baggage that cannot be reduced to neon signs and cramped apartments.
With over three million people per square mile (which is 47 times more densely populated 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. The developers of Wander Told USA today that the walled city of Hong Kong was “the perfect playground for a cat”. The artists at BlueTwelve Studios were inspired by how the real city was “organically constructed and filled with interesting details and vantage points”, such as air conditioning units and exposed pipes. And they weren’t the only ones admiring the environment. Photographers and architects praised the ingenuity in the way people lived without security codes or centralized government.
But this organic construction took place for painful historical reasons. The walled city was originally a military base during the Qing Dynasty era. It became a separate enclave from British-controlled Hong Kong after China was weakened by the Sino-Japanese War. Japan, China and Britain have all attempted to claim the walled city throughout its history. To ease international tensions, China and Britain eventually gave up governing the walled city after the end of World War II. The resulting anarchy fermented organized crime and opium dens. Triad gangs have turned the enclave into “Hong Kong’s narcotics epicenter”. None of this background is particularly apparent as you explore the dusty streets of Walled City 99.
Jessie Lam, a video game concept artist whose family is originally from Hong Kong, explains:[The Walled City] was this overcrowded city block full of crime and misery – thanks to the triads – that it took decades to finally tear down. We’re not talking high-rise coffin-sized apartments these days… There’s a dull anger out there.
The history of the walled city is inextricably linked to colonial rivalries, but none of this is represented in Wander. In the game, the city was a shelter built to protect humans from the plague. The only remaining sentient beings are self-aware “companion” robots who have built their own society in the absence of humanity. Later, I enjoyed 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 troubled history within the Asian diaspora community. They are used as racial shorthand to indicate Asian origins, regardless of the actual context. Clothing retailer Abercrombie and Fitch, for example, has previously used images of Chinese men wearing paddy field hats in its product line. While the existence of farmer’s hats isn’t offensive on its own, it does become incredibly racist when used in unrelated imagery, such as a racist parody of a laundry business. The protests and angry letters forced Abercrombie and Fitch to remove the offending t-shirts from their stores.
Fortunately, Wander meets the bare minimum of non-racist language to describe robots (even if it’s free use of Japanese language in Hong Kong fiction is a bit raising eyebrows). But the game’s unbridled appropriation of Asian history and culture must be supported by careful design and implementation. Singapore-based Alexis Ong wrote an excellent Polygon article on Wanderin 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. Anything in English is clearly facing the player but [in-game], who would these beacons be intended for? Lam said Kotaku. “It’s one thing if they’re robots passing messages to each other but some overlap instead of being written around each other. Which calls into question whether said developers also understand graffiti culture and the etiquette. But also… Why deliberately make some bots wear rice hats? When there’s clearly no way to go outside or anywhere in the game to farm?” Headgear such as baseball caps have become ubiquitous in street fashion, which might explain why mates copy this style, but not rice hats.These conical hats have been used to denote Asianism in Western media, and Wander cannot detach from this story.
Since it comes up every time I write a blog about Asian representation: No, I don’t believe that BlueTwelve Studios is intentionally racist. I also don’t think the resulting game is the worst offender of cultural appropriation. Its weaknesses are typical of the cyberpunk genre as a whole. Cyberpunk originated in American concerns about Japan’s economic dominance, but cyberpunk media are often reluctant to populate their cities with Asian characters. I felt the same sense of alienation while I was playing Wander.
I’m sure the developers weren’t happily rubbing their hands when they decided against implementing human characters. But Walled City 99 was yet another cyberpunk city where people like me weren’t welcome. Unless I was a robot with a conical hat. And that doesn’t suit me either. “Asian Robot” is a Hollywood troupe that frequently dehumanizes Asians (Ex Machina, Cloud Atlas, The Matrix). There’s even a genre name for it: Techno-Orientalism. In these works, Asia is expressed through “aesthetic sensibility rather than depicting or centering genuine Asian characters”. Wander fits perfectly into this genre.
“[There’s] a lot of the same general ideas get recycled through the projects a lot and sometimes that extends into the cyberpunk genre,” Lam said. Kotaku on Twitter posts. “Orientalism as a whole is not new.”
I just wanted to play a cute cat game without the techno-orientalism. Unfortunately, Wander does not question his creative influences at all. And from the moment the developers decided to base their game on an enclave created by British colonialism, they had the responsibility to tackle its history. Wander takes so much care in how he portrays cats. I just wish it was this consistent about the legacies of real humans.