SINGAPORE — It is the year 2032. Major economies across the world have collapsed. China has risen to dominate the eastern hemisphere, while parts of the United States are threatening to secede.
The dystopian global climate has led to a rise of fiercely conservative governments that restrict access to immigrants and rely heavily on automation.
It is against such a backdrop in cyber-punk Singapore – yes, you read that right – that a former high-ranking law enforcer has chosen to set up a detective agency in the heart of Chinatown, now a festering cesspool of vice.
In today’s reality, the city-state is an extremely safe place with a low crime rate, said Mark Fillon, creative director and game designer of Chinatown Detective Agency, an upcoming adventure point-and-click pixel art game he likened to “Blade Runner meets the Da Vinci Code”.
“There was a lot of (creative) licence taken in imagining what our future scenario here in Singapore would be,” added the Filipino, who has been working in Singapore since 2015.
“One of the fascinating things that I think a lot of our audience or potential gamers would find interesting is what would a Singapore with high crime look like in a very chaotic world.”
Chinatown Detective Agency is a cyberpunk homage to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.— Ricardo Juchem (@ricardojuchem) October 4, 2019
You're Amira Darma, a private detective in Singapore in the year 2032, hunting down a serial killer. You have to travel around the world to do it. But you also have to run your business. pic.twitter.com/88YpCrANqk
The 32-year-old advertising agency executive, along with three fellow members from indie game developer General Interactive based all over the world, spent almost two years conceptualising and creating a grittier, darker Singapore from scratch.
Inspired by the cult classic Where in the World is Carmen San Diego?, Chinatown Detective Agency follows the journey of Amira Darma, an ex-Interpol agent and a Singaporean of Malay descent, as she travels from her home city across the world – Osaka, Istanbul, London and more – to hunt down criminals and solve crimes.
It took us a few weeks, but the toil was worth it. Ladies and gents we are proud to present the latest location in the world of Chinatown Detective Agency: Osaka's Dotonbori. Each billboard was its own mini project. Take a bow @ricardojuchem#pixelart #indiedev #ドット絵 #大阪 pic.twitter.com/eEsvgkCd01— General Interactive (@genintco) August 28, 2019
Because much of the action takes place in Singapore, Fillon, who is also a volunteer docent with the National Heritage Board, spent almost six months researching the city-state.
This meant photo-documenting its various nooks and crannies for hours on end after working hours, as well as learning about the nuances in local culture and colloquial language from his Singaporean peers.
“We try to make the game as true to Singapore as possible, right down to the Singlish in the script, and using Singaporean voice actors for the game,” he said. Darma, for instance, is played by Osaka-based Singaporean voice actor Leonie Koh.
Even making the lead character a minority, was a “conscious choice”, explained Fillon. “I wanted to make sure I mirror the population split in Singapore,” he added.
More than half of the 30 locations featured in the game are in Singapore: local gamers would recognise the city-state’s Mass Rapid Transit system, as well as notable landmarks like Darma’s office at 90 Eu Tong Sen Street – formerly the police’s headquarters –, People’s Park Complex, Saint Andrew's Cathedral and Botanic Gardens.
The National Library will also make an appearance in the game, with a 2032 twist: it is staffed by a rotation of robots and a lone human librarian.
Obscure locations such as the Shōnan Shrine at the MacRitchie Reservoir, built by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II and later destroyed by British forces, will set the stage for one of Darma’s missions, teased Fillon, without elaborating.
Likewise, local dishes and hawker centres across Singapore play an integral part in the game, as part of its core mechanics include keeping Darma well-rested and fed to move on to the next mission.
This would mean ordering food from uncles in stained aprons and cargo shorts, and getting Darma to chomp down popular local fare such as chicken rice, laksa, chendol and kueh lapis, each of which will have a different effect on her character attributes.
“One of the amazing things about Singaporean culture is rich cuisine. We definitely pegged that to the game,” said Fillon.
The People's Park Food Centre in Singapore's Chinatown is packed most of the day. But late at night, it's where the nightshift come to get their Char Kway Teow and Kopi-O. Art @ricardojuchem code @JenMakesGames— General Interactive (@genintco) September 18, 2019
This is Chinatown Detective Agency #pixelart #singapore #indiegame pic.twitter.com/diCgwbWBnm
First time Singapore featured prominently
In spite of Singapore’s “richness in interesting locations, history, and folklore”, Fillon said he found it “curious” that the city-state has never been prominently featured in a video game before, compared with Asian counterparts like Tokyo or Hong Kong.
“Singapore was chosen as a backdrop simply because, ever since moving here, I found it to be an incredibly fascinating city,” said Fillon, who lives in Chinatown in the four years he has worked here.
Through his conversations with local friends and colleagues here, he realised that most Singaporeans – having spent their whole lives in Singapore – did not seem to share “the same feeling of childlike wonder” that he has when “experiencing or thinking about the city”.
“They kind of shake their heads, (and say), ‘Yeah, it’s just Singapore’,” Fillon said. “I guess they were never really exposed to these little pockets of folklore (Kristang, for instance) that I find to be extremely interesting.”
As such, he hopes that Chinatown Detective Agency would give locals a glimpse of Singapore that they may have not been exposed to. “What happens when you walk down that side street, that little unbeaten path – you'll probably find something you didn't know about your own country,” said Fillon.
Ironically, his team received several encouraging offers of aid from the Singaporean community following a recent post about the game on online forum Reddit.
“We got so many emails from different people who worked in music, in the video gaming industry, people who work in graphics studio offering to help,” he said. “They wanted to be part of the process.”
Fillon also hopes that making a game set in Singapore would encourage Singaporeans to follow in his footsteps.
Foreign gamers are interested in Singapore, he stressed, adding that the game has garnered huge interest from the international gaming community as well as Western game publishers from Europe, the US, and Australia. The team was also nominated as finalists at the South-East Asian Game Awards – the sole representative from Singapore – in this year’s Level Up KL, an annual industry event for game developers.
“The ‘newness factor’ of (setting) the backdrop in Singapore – it’s rich and unexplored territory right now,” Fillon explained. “(And) Singapore has amazing talent.”
Given the amount of positive feedback, Fillon is confident that his team will meet the target amount of US$40,000 (S$54,768) for their upcoming Kickstarter campaign to develop the game.
The team aims to finish development by October next year and release Chinatown Detective Agency two months later across PC, and potentially, Nintendo Switch platforms. Just last week, a holding page for the game went live on popular online game distribution platform Steam.
“It should be ready just before the holiday season (December) of 2020. Please do take this with a pinch of salt – in the game development world, release date pushbacks are pretty common, so this date may change,” said Fillon.
Geylang may be the city's seedy underbelly, where every and any type of pleasure can be bought for the right price. But in Chinatown Detective Agency, it's also the best place to buy information.#pixelart #indiegame #indiedev pic.twitter.com/diodnyCY1Y— General Interactive (@genintco) August 30, 2019
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