North Korea has been in the news lately for a very scary reason, but it isn’t every day that Asia’s hermit kingdom releases a car racing video game. And when they do, you can definitely expect it to be a boring simulation about driving down a pin straight, barely decorated highway.
Just as Tetris came as a surprise from the Soviet Union in 1984, Koryo Tours, a tour company run by a bunch of Brits, commissioned the DPRK IT venture Nosotek to develop North Korea’s first government-supported PC game: Pyongyang Racer (it takes forever to load and barely works at this point). This profoundly uninteresting game gives its player the thrill of driving around the capital city of North Korea, without a government sanctioned tour guide, ushering you away from shit you’re not supposed to see. It even lets you do all the concrete sightseeing your fast-lane, road-runner, gas-guzzling heart desires. Completely and utterly alone.
Before beginning, the label reads: "This game was developed in 2012 and is not intended to be a high-end technological wonder hit game of the 21st century, but more a fun race game (arcade style) where you drive around in Pyongyang and learn more about the sites and get a glimpse of Pyongyang."
In other words, it’s retro. There's a traffic girl who gets in your face sometimes, a gas collection mini-game, and maybe even some mildly reckless driving if you’re really feeling crazy. The goal of the game: drive in a straight line for a long time. That's about it.
I asked my video game obsessed younger brother George what he thought of Pyongyang Race. He said Pyongyang Racer is, “Badly programmed and poorly designed. There are glitches and bugs, and it’s boring.”
Just like the Dear Leader’s dictatorship, the game is really restrictive. You’re forced to play the game the way that they want you to play it, and the landscape has all the visual dazzle of Saskatchewan or rural Ontario.
As Jason Torchinsky from Jalopnik said, “It's exactly what actually driving in Pyongyang is like: slow, wildly boring, empty, incredibly restricted, and at least a decade behind technologically. It's a perfect, irony-blind parody of itself.”
The pimped-out ride you virtually floss through the digital streets is made by Pyeonghwa. Just recently, the car company’s president, Park Sang-Kwon, was rumoured to have sold Pyeonghwa. Sad, because they're the only company in North Korea to advertise with billboards and TV commercials (Hey Geico, now is your chance!).
Angry North Korean traffic cops: a vaguely erotic thrill.
The most exciting point in the game comes from being bitched at by the traffic cop Barbie-ho, who does not like being stared at. The peak insult of the game is a comment the traffic cops make: “Drive straight on. Don’t stare at me. I’m on duty.”
Nick Bonner, an England-born filmmaker who has been running Koryo Tours since the 1990s, created the Pyongyang racing game after talking to Volker Eloesser at Nostek. He liked the idea of working on a “fun, non-violent and non-political” project with North Korean youth. Gaming students from the Kim Chaek University of Technology in Pyongyang helped create the game with Nostek.
Why is it so retro? Bonner says it’s because it’s “ultra cool.”
“I was a young lad in the 1970s and remember the best arcade games – early Nintendo, Space Invaders, early car racing games, I love it and love the simplicity,” he said via email from Brussels, where he is screening his North Korean-shot romantic comedy.
“I would have loved to have trolley buses, trams crossing the roads and giving the game more challenges,” said Bonner. “But maybe later when we upgrade.”
Till then, keep driving straight.
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