The First North Korean Racing Game Is A Perfect Metaphor For Their Society

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My tolerance for bad, primitive racing games is pretty high, as is my love for isolated Communist video games. So when I heard that a North Korean development house called Koryo Group made the first North Korean racing video game, Pyongyang Racer, I was delighted.

So I played it. And let me tell you, 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. I loved it.


Well, "love" is maybe not the right word to use— I love that it exists, and love how abominably awful it is. If it was just slightly crappy, but generally close to mainstream racing games, I'd be disappointed. But that's so not the case.

The fundamental concept is so very, very North Korean: drive your car carefully, along a pre-set path with no deviation (if you try to go, say, off the road, you just get restarted), past sparse, immobile other cars, collecting black barrels of gasoline to keep moving, and collecting stamps (?) by each major landmark. Oh, and there's a lovely young traffic-woman who periodically commands you to, you know, keep it in line.


And that's what makes this game so fascinating — it's like a parody of what travel to Pyongyang is like, but the North Koreans are so geo-politi-culturally up their own ass they don't see how hilarious this is.

I've never been to North Korea (yet) but I love reading about what it's like. Essentially, all outsiders are kept in very specific areas of the city, and you're only allowed to move about accompanied by a state-assigned guide. There is no wandering, no exploration, no discovery. Exactly like Pyongyang Racer.


The music is a bit of a puzzle. I hear French lyrics (maybe a nice Frenchperson can tell me if they recognize it) and it's stunningly annoying and constant. So turn those speakers up!


Technologically, it looks a lot like very early 32-bit, early 90s video games— few polygons, lo-res textures, basically just a few steps above an SNES Mode 7 game. And this is perfect when thinking about the game as unintended parody as well. Of course it looks like this. And the look is perfect— Pyongyang is notably clean, empty, and sterile, and these low-poly, super-saturated colors fit the aesthetic perfectly. The sparse, immobile traffic is also perfect for a city where only a tiny, privileged portion of the population even has private cars.

The gameplay element of collecting generic, black oil drums to keep driving is telling as well, as fuel is generally in such short supply that many North Korean trucks run on wood-gasification systems.


It's not often you see something made so earnestly that works so well as parody. The closest game to this I can think of is Penn and Teller's Desert Bus, but that was a joke from the start.

So, Congratulations, Dear Leader (I'm assuming he'll claim to have made it)! Another triumph!