Video gaming

Hong Kong-set immigrant housewife video game is a love letter to hardworking mums everywhere

Inspired by their own immigrant mothers and grandmothers, the developers of the game Oblige have created a unique experience that depicts the tedium and frustration of those who helped nurtured Hong Kong’s growth

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 7:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 7:01pm

Life in Hong Kong is not easy. Our cost of living continues to rise and the working class continues to struggle. Some say it wasn’t always like this, but they’re fooling themselves.

Hong Kong has always been tough for those living near the bottom rung, particularly immigrants. Their tales have been covered in documentaries, films and books, but hearing them is one thing; immersing yourself in the experience is something else entirely.

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Oblige is a 2D side-scrolling/typing PC game that puts you in the shoes of an immigrant housewife living in Hong Kong in 1979. It became an instant cult hit, completely out of left field: developers Jocelyn Kim and Ivan Tsang are 21-year-old undergraduate students at the University of Southern California and Oblige was made for one of their gaming classes.

It was only supposed to be a simple school assignment. But then it got nominated at the IndieCade Festival – the game world’s equivalent of the Sundance Film Festival – and everything changed.

The game’s appeal centres on its setting and concept: a retro Hong Kong of low-rise buildings and grimy back alleys, styled in era-appropriate pixel art, with a narrative focused on the back-breaking responsibilities of the women who helped nurture our city’s growth.

“We were inspired by stories of the Asian immigrant mothers and grandmothers in our own lives,” says Tsang, who was raised in Hong Kong. “We realised that among narrative games, there weren’t many set in Hong Kong. When developing the game, one of our player-experience goals was ‘frustration’ over ‘fun’. We wanted to immerse players and have them understand what is going on in the protagonist’s – the mother’s – mind.”

Oblige is set over five virtual days. Each day sees your stressed housewife wake up, check her to-do list and get to work. Your tasks are as tedious as they come – grocery shopping, laundry and the like. As you complete your chores and the day comes to an end, you engage in dinner conversations with your husband and son – all in a tongue foreign to your character.

The overall structure is obviously a love letter to the hardworking maternal figures in the developers’ lives, but the gameplay itself was inspired by other slice-of-life indie releases such as Papers, Please (where you play an immigration border agent) and Cart Life (where you run a street vendor stall).

“Games like these show that not everything has to be fun in order for it to be interesting,” says Kim, whose parents grew up in South Korea. “The narrative and mechanics put players in the shoes of characters with stories not normally talked about. Yet players grow through the game as they take on character roles that force them to see things from new perspectives.”

These oddly addictive games are usually monotonous and celebrate the unremarkable, but what separates Oblige from the rest is its inventive controls. Aside from outdoor interludes that see you scurrying about Hong Kong’s captivating old-style streets, most of the game is spent controlling your actions via a virtual keyboard mapped to your PC. The letters, however, are randomised, meaning that typing “A” might give you a “P”. This makes every action, being it washing underwear or soaking some rice, a frustrating case of finding the right characters before you can complete the task.

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It is a cute idea, particularly when it comes to the game’s use of language. The same haphazard keyboard layout is used in the conversations, with your character challenged with communicating through a foreign tongue as players struggle to learn to type again.

“We were initially interested in trying to gamify what it’s like to be a non-native English speaker, as well as what it’s like to have too many thoughts in your head,” Kim says. “The skill of typing is something we often take for granted, like native language or the comfort of living in our homeland. Our goal was to make players feel frustrated and uncomfortable, and at the same time, connect these emotions to the game’s narrative so that players can think about the housewife’s challenges.”

It was Oblige’s portrayal of a run-of-the-mill immigrant life that largely led to its award nomination. Aside from its acclaim, however, it has also pushed the young developers to fully pursue a future in video games. Each is hard at work on their own separate follow-ups – Kim on an NES-style release set to debut later this month, Tsang on another Asian-based narrative game – but both are interested in expanding on Oblige’s world.

“As I grew up in contemporary Hong Kong, I feel I’m part of a generation that underappreciates the efforts of those who came before us, the people who built the city into what it is now,” Tsang says. “This game might be a millennial’s impression, but I feel that there’s a need to express this story so that people can appreciate the achievements of Hong Kong’s previous generations.”