Shenzhen I/O is already being hailed by critics as a cult classic.

Video game Shenzhen I/O lets you be an electronic engineer in China in the near future

In new indie game Shenzhen I/O you write code and create products for a China-based electronics company, in an open-ended world inspired by the freewheeling business culture of mainland China

Certain things about the future are inevitable. Computer programming will become a powerhouse career, with its attendant technology shaping the direction of our history. Video games are set to become the go-to form of entertainment for the masses, bridging the interactive gap between fantasy and reality. And Shenzhen – much as many weary Hongkongers hate to admit it – will most likely emerge as China’s key centre for global relations.

The connecting factor between them, aside from their inevitability: all three elements form the basis of Shenzhen I/O. The independent video game from boutique American developer Zachtronics was released on the Steam Early Access distribution platform last month, and it’s already been hailed by critics as a cult classic.

The game’s problems are designed to be difficult but solvable.

Trying to explain the game’s concept isn’t easy. Basically, you’re a computer engineer in the near future working at a Shenzhen-based electronics company. On the surface, the gameplay focuses on seemingly mundane tasks such as writing code, building circuits and creating products for clients – but once you open the hood, everything is revealed.

Shenzhen I/O is what you could call an ‘open-ended programming puzzle game’,” says Zach Barth, co-founder of Zachtronics, which is renowned for creating Infiniminer, the block-building precursor game of Minecraft.

“But at its heart, it’s about being an engineer – not just finding solutions to problems, but also things like checking your email, looking up documentation from multiple sources, and watching the success or failure of a product you worked on in the marketplace.”

The game’s appeal centres largely on the unique insight it offers into a niche world. But the main attraction of the game is Shenzhen itself – the city might be familiar to us Hongkongers as our gateway to mainland China, but to the larger world and particularly those in the technology field, it’s filled with a sense of mystery.

“In electronics, parts designed, manufactured, or assembled in Shenzhen are very common,” says Barth. “In some sense, we felt that the rapid growth of Shenzhen was like a concentrated version of China’s general growth as an economic power, and particularly within the world of electronics engineering.”

Barth’s idea to set the game in the city was inspired by two particular experiences. First, there was his work alongside US-based game developer Valve and Taiwan electronics giant HTC, on the Vive virtual-reality headset. Working with the companies allowed him to encounter a fascinating creative environment, where the everyday office language quickly evolved into a mix of English and Mandarin.

Zach Barth.

Second, and more important, is Barth’s own obsessive interest in the electronics world and how it led him to China. “A couple of years ago, Chinese manufacturer Espressif Systems released the ESP8266 chip. Very little was known about it for a long time in the Western community,” says Barth. “Eventually, we realised the chip’s impressive capabilities – and I don’t think it will be the last time that a potentially important product is introduced in China without the West realising it straight away.”

These two experiences helped him imagine the ideal near future setting for his game, especially when one tied it all within the framework of China’s technological goals. But for Barth, that exhilaration is part excitement and part fear, and based on much more than the country’s production abilities.

“Shenzhen’s freewheeling electronics culture isn’t just about manufacturing muscle, it’s also the interplay between design engineers, parts suppliers and factories,” he says. “It’s entirely possible to walk up to an electronics stall in the Huaqiangbei market, purchase a million of a certain part, and have it delivered to your factory later that day. That’s the sort of world we wanted to capture.”

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Indeed, within the game, there’s a balance between managing the Wild West madness of mainland China, and maintaining your role in a profit-driven company. It’s a large part of what makes it all such a heady challenge, and players aren’t simply tasked with solving abstract puzzles that are devoid of context. You’re brought down to the factory floor, where sometimes your created products are incredibly important and at others absolute throwaways.

“In the real world, the challenges you get as an engineer aren’t guaranteed to be fun. You may get a problem that is impossible, or something that’s not difficult but boring and tedious,” says Barth. “In the game, the problems are designed to be difficult but solvable, so that you feel good when you complete them. And each puzzle is designed to be unique, so new approaches are constantly required.”

Shenzhen I/O doesn’t have a single solution, ‘though certain solutions may be more elegant than others’.

Those open-ended aspects exist alongside standard gaming requisites. There’s the story, of course, one that develops cleverly over a series of emails between your character, co-workers, bosses and other regulars in the tech world. There’s also the manual, a throwback to the early days of store-bought games, based on real-life data sheets for the game’s fictional companies.

But beyond the expected mechanics are Shenzhen I/O’s many possibilities, ideally framed around the world of programming. “Programming is an expressive, flexible way to interact with and work with complex systems,” says Barth. “I also find that programming is interesting in its own right as a means of expression. So in the same way you might play a game with words or with music, you can play a game with programming, too.”

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It’s a fascinating creative spark within the framework of real-life technologies, and it ties the game firmly into the current trend of independent releases. For the uninitiated, new-wave indie games appeal to both sides of the spectrum: small-team developers can utilise modern technology to build their dream games on minuscule budgets, while players are offered imaginative and affordable alternatives to the “run-jump-gun” mainstream.

But Shenzhen I/O – alongside Zachtronics’ many other games – goes that extra mile by tapping into a particular niche. “Our games are different to a lot of indie titles because they’re for a narrower audience,” says Barth. “People who enjoy the challenge and difficulty of working out the intricacies of the system and the programming language. They’re also open-ended, meaning that there isn’t a single solution, though certain solutions may be more elegant than others.”

Shenzhen I/O has placed Zachtronics on the gaming world map.

And while it might not be the first technology-based game they’ve developed, Shenzhen I/O has certainly placed Zachtronics on the gaming world map. The Early Access reactions to its realism are proof of its draw, with everyone from obsessive tech-heads to diehard gaming fans and even casual China-based players praising its accuracy.

“People all over the world have told us the setting feels realistic. Some have said: ‘Finding a new part data sheet in Chinese that hasn’t been translated yet is very true-to-life, I deal with that all the time’,” says Barth. “And we’ve got positive comments from Chinese players and that’s really great to see. It was very important to us to get it right.”

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Of course, getting China’s anything-goes climate correct inside the game was far from easy. And one would assume anyone who’s spent that long examining the particulars of a potential metropolis would have opinions on the overall country’s prospects. But rather than guessing about China’s future, Barth would rather concentrate on the possibilities and potential of video games.

“Instead of making a particular argument one way or another about China’s future, and the future of technology, we’re aiming with Shenzhen I/O to simply capture the way we feel things are now – slightly exaggerating it with a near-future setting,” he says. “We’re still deeply interested in technology, its capacity to change the world, and how we as human beings deal with those changes, so we’ll see where that takes us.”

You can buy Shenzhen I/O here.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Business for pleasure