Kowloon Walled City: Exploring the City of Darkness that inspired Stray's cyberpunk world

The two worlds (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)
The two worlds (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)

One of the most fascinating aspects of Stray, the indie gaming hit that caught everyone's attention in 2022 and now on Xbox in 2023, is the beautifully rendered walled city that is inhabited by humanoid robots. The rich and intricate explorable space has been immensely praised by both reviewers and critics for its visual aesthetic, ambiance, and design.

Across Stray's 12 chapters, especially The Slums and Midtown, players experience social divisions that cannot be overcome, oppression from a top-down hierarchy, acceptance of defeat, and a strange sense of hope. The feline protagonist's perspective further enriches player immersion in-game.

The futuristic world of dystopia doused in cyberpunk aesthetics is not something new in the video game realm. However, Stray finds its inspiration from a well-known historical place, the memories of which are slowly getting lost to time — the Walled City of Kowloon.


Stray's gamespace is a dystopian version of now-demolished Kowloon Walled City

During its existence, the ungoverned Kowloon Walled City was the most densely populated city on earth.

In his article titled "The Strange Saga of Kowloon Walled City," James Crawford noted that the city, with an area of around one-hundredth of a square mile, housed "350 buildings, almost all between 10 and 14 stories high, occupied by 8,500 premises, 10,700 households, and more than 33,000 residents."

Kowloon Walled City was a jungle of concrete and steel, with tall towers packed together like sardines without any sense of uniformity. The developers of Stray noted the organic nature of the erstwhile historical city. It indeed felt like a massive organism, with closely woven elements that grew like stacks on top of each other.

"Here, prostitutes installed themselves on one side of the street while a priest preached and handed out powdered milk to the poor on the other; social workers gave guidance while drug addicts squatted under the stairs getting high; what were children's games centres by day became strip-show venues by night. It was a very complex place, difficult to generalise about, a place that seemed frightening but where most people continued to lead normal lives. A place just like the rest of Hong Kong." - Leung Ping-kwan, City of Darkness.
A look at the alleys (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)
A look at the alleys (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)

Wires and pipes ran all along the walls and ceilings, both vertically and horizontally. As Crawford pointed out, dripping water from leaking pipes and refuse being thrown from the windows above forced many residents to use umbrellas while walking the narrow alleyways.

The architecture allowed residents to easily move from one building to another using rooftops, something that players will find in The Slums in Stray.

The city was a cornucopia of everything, a lawless cesspool where no questions were asked amidst an environment of gambling, drug-induced fervor, and vices of every other kind.

Yet, the squalid space of Kowloon Walled City was one that survived within itself, self-regulated and self-governed. Crawford commented:

"There was no law to speak of. This was an anarchist society, self-regulating and self-determining. It was a colony within a colony, a city within a city, a tiny block of territory at once contested and neglected. It was known as Kowloon Walled City. But locals called it something else. Hak Nam—the City of Darkness."
The night sky (Image via Stray)
The night sky (Image via Stray)

In Stray, there are no stars. There are merely lights arranged in a circular pattern found in the night sky, and the inhabitants know that. Some of them dream of it. They dream of one day seeing a multitude of stars scattered across the canvas of the sky.

Players will remember Swanito, a robot lying on a rooftop in The Slums, gazing aimlessly at the blank space overhead. It said:

"Those circles of light are pleasing to watch. But I want to see the real sky one day."
Lying on rooftops (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)
Lying on rooftops (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)

Kowloon Walled City's rooftops probably provided the only bit of open sky among the canopies of metal bars and meshes of grids. In Stray, the sky is the covered dome that the Outsiders seek to open, which players finally do at the very end of the control room. Stray ends with the cat walking up the stairs to the surface.

There are a few documentaries about Kowloon Walled City that feature the streets, inhabitants, and ambiance of the place.

A video from 1990 is available on YouTube, a few years before the city's demolishment. It showcases hive-like towers housing claustrophobic alleys, shops, and various other establishments. Greg Girard's album on the city provides an intimate look at how the city lived and breathed.

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Kowloon Walled City was the site of a bitter political contest between British Hong Kong and China while being governed by a number of triad gangs. The government announced its plans to demolish the city in 1987. The eviction process was long, and many tried to hold on to this place that others called a cesspool, but they called home.

Stray's walled city is bereft of any humans. "R.I.P Humans" adorns one of the walls in The Slums. The robots themselves have adopted the mannerisms of humans. They tend to plants that do not need sunlight. They play mahjong and music, have energy drinks, gossip at bars, dance at discos, and more.

The refuse and waste falling from above are hauntingly depicted in the serene Antvillage, where a tree-like vertical settlement is sustained amidst a pit of ever-growing piles of waste.

Two robots calmly sift through the waste as they correct the preconceived notion that the items are garbage. According to them, they are treasures.

Refuse and waste (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)
Refuse and waste (Image on left via Greg Girard, Image on right via Stray)

The demolition of the Walled City of Kowloon finally began in 1993, and it ended in 1994. All that is left there is the new Kowloon Walled City Park, with remnants of its iconic southern gate.

In Stray, when the dome finally opens, players get a glimpse of some of the robots they met during their playthrough, looking up at the sunny skies.

Kowloon Walled City housed an uncountable number of stories about people who lived, breathed, and dreamed within that mesh of concrete, steel, pleasure, and pain haphazardly built upon each other. The memories fade with time. In its afterlife, it has featured and inspired countless others.

The Slums (Image via Stray)
The Slums (Image via Stray)

The absent-present relationship between Kowloon Walled City and the works inspired by it can be thought of as an analogy to Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Talking to Kublai Khan, Marco Polo ponders on culture, memory, death, and human experience through his exploration of 55 fictitious cities.

Upon being asked to talk about Polo's hometown, a city he never mentioned, he stated, "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." Kowloon Walled City is one such "Venice," and Stray's gameworld is a recounting of it.

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Edited by Rachel Syiemlieh
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