We don’t get to write an awful lot about North Korea here on Tech in Asia because, well, they don’t produce a lot of tech. So you can imagine how excited I was when I came across this post on Beijing Cream about what is apparently North Korea’s first-ever domestically developed game.
Now, before I go any further, you should click here and play the game yourself. It’s free and runs in your web browser, and it’s amazing (though only in that so-bad-it’s-good kind of way). Or just watch this video of me playing a little bit of the game (apologies for the hideous “demo mode” watermark; my usual screencapture software is broken but this should do until I can fix it):
The game — called Pyongyang Racer — was commissioned by North Korean travel agency Koryo to highlight some of Pyongyang’s most famous tourist sites, and evidently developed in-country by a company called NOSOTEK. The game tasks players with driving on a closed course of Pyongyang’s roads past several touristy landmarks while avoiding accidents and collecting oil barrels to ensure their car stays fueled up. Despite the title, there is no actual racing in the game, you just drive a black town car through the deserted streets of Pyongyang at whatever pace you wish, occasionally being admonished for your poor driving by a pretty-but-stern-looking policewoman. When you drive past landmarks, you can hit little tiles in the road that give you a brief popup window with some trivia about the location, which is presumably how the game ties into Koryo’s business.
The game looks pretty awful — like a poorly-coded Playstation 1 game — and at least on my computer, it also ran at a shockingly low framerate. The graphics are full of glitches and artifacts, and you’ll pass the same few buildings over and over again while generically cheery music plays in the background. The gameplay is also terrible; there’s literally no challenge (except for that bit when you have to make a right turn), the car drives like a bear on a unicycle that has gotten stuck in the mud, and it’s unclear why your car runs out of gas after 30 seconds of driving.
But yet there is some fun to be had in the ridiculousness of it all. The music is hard not to laugh at. The game includes a honk button for — as far as I can tell — literally no reason whatsoever. And since there’s no actual race and no challenge, the fact that the car handles terribly doesn’t matter that much because there is nothing at stake anyway. The whole thing feels almost like a parody, even though it appears not to be. The virtually empty roads, for example, are probably just a limitation based on how much memory the game can use, but at the same time, doesn’t it seem like sort of a sarcastic commentary on Pyongyang itself, which really is pretty devoid of cars?
Intentional parody or no, we hope to see more games coming out of North Korea in the future. Pyongyang Racer isn’t terribly compelling, but it’s enough to keep your attention for a few minutes, and games could be a good way for people to learn about the Hermit Kingdom without visiting (or contributing any money to its government, as long as the games are, like Pyongyang Racer, ad free).