Game Worlds: Deus Ex’s Hengsha vs Sleeping Dogs’ Hong Kong

There are two games I played a lot lately and they are both (at some point) staged in a Chinese supercity. Sleepings Dogs with Hong Kong, And Deus Ex Human Revolution with Hengsha. I have an affinity for asian architecture so i´d like to compare.

Different type of games need different levels. One is 1st person and the other is 3rd person and mechanics dictate the environment on both accounts.
Here are the perimeters I used to compare:

Size, Detail, Interaction, Real World Likeness, Ambient Sound and Navigation Benchmark. For shorter sentences i will from now on refer to Deus Ex Human Revolution and Sleeping Dogs as DX and SD. You will thank me later.

Size.
A level does’nt have to be bigger if it’s big enough to enjoy yourself in. A huge damper on enjoyment is the feeling of boundaries in the playing field. Hengsha is the smallest of the two but it’s also designed to function as a maze. This constantly shifts your perception of what the actual border of the level is. You will rarely feel as if you actually hit a wall. It might not appear huge but it does appear endless.

Hong Kong is huge but there are cars. The player’s perception of the size of a world is related to how fast he/she can travel from one place to another. With sportscars as fast as these, travelling from top to bottom takes under 5 minutes. Just a little more as it would take Jensen to travel all of Hengsha by foot. Unlike Hengsha, Hong Kong might still have places you won’t have seen after hours of playing. But you also less likely to care as much. Hengsha’s small size makes it comprehendible enough to make you want to finish the unconsiously set task of exploring it wholly.

Detail.
Or as i like calling it “behind every corner is another corner”. How much is there to see per square mile? This is especially relevant for asian supercities as space can be scarce. SD has its share of accessible buildings and there is no piece of space that appears as if it could use a bit more attention. What Hengsha lacks in space is more than made up for with the fact that you can get into buildings. see people have some chit-chat. climb on top of stuff and joyfully discover little corners every time. Both games are on the same level when it comes to texturing and geometry. The detail is in the number of buildings you can get inside and how they’re connected through vent ducts. alleyways and sewer systems. With a little more effort SD could have some of these but it would be useluss because of the player perspective. DX’s 1st person view allows for much better navigation in small spaces. It would be a struggle to move through such small spaces in the 3rd person view SD has.

So DX has denser connections and smaller streets but it’s not just the view: Again, SD has cars and the streets are wider apart because the cars need to be able to fit through these. Even streets that would be narrower in real life are broadened up for you to keep on driving. This is the part of realism SD sacrificed.

I did some math and a game that would have the level size of SD and the detail of DXHR would take about 3400 years to make.

Interaction.
Your level of immersion is related to how much you can interact with your surroundings. This is part of what makes games like Skyrim and Fallout fun. As pointed here. The good news is that both cities offer a wealth of this. In SD You can shop for clothes, Drink green thea, Do Karaoke, Hurt people (this one’s important) and climb on some buildings. Some. but not all. The game decides whether Wei Shen will climb or not when you run into a wall. This hurts your experience because it breaks the illusion of the game designer’s god hand absence.

Is this important? yes!
For the sake of fun, When playing a game your mind is willing to discard the knowledge you are simulating instead of really experiencing. You know it’s not true but your mind is able to trick itself. It needs some help though. It’s about meeting or breaking the player’s expectations of what is possible. But a players expectation of how a game environment functions is based on the system of how real life environments function. Anything that breaks with the perception of a functioning game world is a reminder that everything is just fake. Dealbreakers.  like the absurd disability to climb a seemingly easily climbable obstacle. Every time Wei can’t somehow climb onto something. you are reminder about how fake this all is.

That won’t happen as much in DX. You can jump on pretty much any platform you see. Which is is quite something for Jensen has a mighty high jump. You can also break into people’s houses. empty their vault and plant their fridges on their beds. Quite the mayhem.  You will never be able to see them come home and freak out though. The ability to move inside buildings gives the player a premise upon seeing a building from the outside. The premise that you might be able to go in. That you are able to get inside the larger geometry at display.

The people on the street also react to you with both games. Nobody likes you carrying a gun, people cower when you assault someone publicly and strangely utter sentences that are non-replyable. The cower in fear part is an important one. Though both games are not specifically meant for you to cause mayhem among citizens, the do account for it. Because many players enjoy doing it and more important: A world with citizens not responding would break your suspension of disbelief.

Real World Likeness.
How much it is like the real thing is not as important as how much it feels like the real thing. Both games are made for a western audience and there’s some tricks to abuse when you want that “authentic” Asian atmosphere. The opening hours of SD display every China cliché you can think of: Busy Night Markets, Red Lanterns, Herbal Thea, Kung-Fu school and  this and that instrument.

Cheap. But you do feel like you’re in Asia. And guess what. You will encounter these in real world Hong-Kong, and not just just in the tourist area. SD’s Hong Kong does look like Real World’s Hong Kong. But there’s more than just the cliche tricks to make that work.

Like the great GTA 4. Immense research has gone into capturing the landmarks, atmosphere and general architecture of  a real city. When playing, you can sense that you are moving around in an actually functional city. Just take a moment and sum up what it would take for a city to function properly.  In SD it’s all there. Everything is accounted for. From city halls, to schools to drainage systems. It’s pretty much based on the real city. They made the floorplan first (aka take a map of Hong Kong and chop bits off)  and then worried about how to put a game in that. Like advocated here.

The exact opposite is DXHR. First came the abilities and the mechanics. Then they built a world to cater for that. Add to that the fact they had to cleverly camouflage a limited size and you have the makings of a super well designed world. But does it look like the real world Hengsha? You be the judge. Here is a picture of a typical Hengsha landscape.

The real Hengsha is about 55.74 km2 more of the stuff above. It’s a small rural island of Shanghai. Did I mention that DXHR is set in the year 2027? Here, Hengsh is a densely packed city with a city on top of it. There is an off chance the year 2027 will be exactly like in the game but i would not bet on it.

It’s forgivable they sacrificed some “realism” for the sake of making it so much fun to play in. SD does it for driving. DX does it for walking and questing.  DX’s Hengsha is not based on the real thing. It’s mashed up of bits and pieces taken from photographs, visits and concept art of other cities. But is does feel like an asian city! For one it has all the cliches and most important is that they remembered what makes Asian city architecture remarkable: that behind every corner is another corner. Fun fact: Making – offs reveal that DX’s Hengsha is based a great deal on Hong-Kong (And Blade Runner, which also takes notes from that city)

SD is pretty much a virtual Hong Kong with bits chopped off. DX is not like Hengsha at all but does have all the sights that are typically Asian. Both went for a balance between authenticity and fun. With a focus on the latter. It does not have to be like it is in the real world if the alternative is more fun. But one way to make a gameworld feel more credible is to incorperate patterns players can recognize from their experiences with real world cities. There is a certain logic in the placement of things in most big cities. DX does not have that logic but compensates in other ways.

Ambient Sound.
We gamers have only sight and sounds to take in the experience of our gaming worlds. That makes both pretty important. Which one makes you feel more like you are actually there? SD is in many ways similar to GTA4. Also in the fact that when you drive, You hear the music of the car radio. That music stops when you get out. But DX has music almost as part of it’s city’s soundscape. It smoothly fades in and out and makes subtle use of oriental instruments. It lingers, is pretty exotic and does a great job in making you familiar with the place upon multiple sessions. (you will visit the city twice in the game and the second time it’s like meeting an old friend).But the ambient sound of SD is very good. As a test: play the game with your eyes closed. You can just completely imagine what is happening and where you are. there all kinds of sounds, close and far. And it varies from place to place.  Add to this the fact that SD’s world has realistic colours and DX drenches everything in the golden hue that marks the whole game. It appears that DX wants to bring you atmosphere and SD wants to bring you location.

Navigation Benchmark.
Suppose you passed out and you wake up in the middle of a level. Just by looking around could you recognize where exactly you are? You would if there was something to see that is particular for that place. Could be a certain unique configuration of walls or a placement of chairs. But it could also be a tall recognizable building. These are benchmarks and most open world make good use of these. Like how McDonalds thought it would be cool to put a huge M on a tall pole. Kids in cars can spot those things from a distance and it makes them crazy. It gives them direction as to where to go. Medieval cities have it too. Often a huge tower. On the other side there is the inside of an Ikea store. Which has 0 benchmarks. They want people to get lost so they stay longer.

Hengsha is like that. It has some recognizable buildings but you wont be able to see them until you’re right in front of those. It’s very hard to navigate through. But then again it’s Asia. Some people don’t like the way it’s designed but i find that more people do. I scanned some forums for player’s reception of it’s design and most of it goes like this. be sure to check the replies.  It’s nice to get lost there in the Hengsha they made,

SD is not like that. You won’t be lost. Some buildings are re-used throughout the map but on a larger scale there is a variance in surrounding depending on where you are. There’s the industrial Area, The upper class area, The deep down and dirty streets and crazy-busy nightlife streets. You can seperate these from each other. Then of course there’s the larger copies of Hong-Kong landmarks. Most alleyways are too much alike but the places that matter, the numberous garages for example. Are so different from each other that  you’ll always be able to tell where you are. And then there’s the smart thing where they place relevant places next to other relevant places. If you see one of them you’ll be able to connect the dots and go “if that’s the garage then i must be close to the clothing store”. mission accomplished.

Conclusion.
On the surface these games’ worlds are much alike but they differ in many aspects.  A big factor  in this is the leaner, more flexible first person perspective which allows navigation in smaller spaces. Then there’s the presence of vehicles which warp the needed space between buildings and overall size. They try to achieve different things. They cater for different mechanics and are effective in doing so. The only thing that is genuinely evil is the fact that some walls cannot be climbed in SD. And there’s no telling why some walls are more climbable than others.

In open worlds this is the grandest of sins.

 

 

 

 

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