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New Video Game Makes Us Nostalgic for Shanghai Nightlife Pre-lockdown

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A landmark in the lives of all concerned, Shanghai’s lockdown has become a new time marker, with many alluding to periods of their lives before, during, and after (whenever that may be) lockdown. The new indie video game Once Upon A Time In Shanghai harks back to better days in the not-so-distant past.

Released on May 4, the free online game perfectly captures Shanghai’s vibrant nightlife prior to lockdown. From heavy metal jams at Inferno to smoky DJ sets at C’s, these familiar scenes make us ache for freedom and the companionship of friends.

A faithful recreation of dive bar Specters in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

Created by Inferno’s event manager, Jason Schaller, the game follows the adventures of Tim Boudeogne, or ting bu dong — Mandarin for ‘I don’t understand.’ A recurring inside joke in the game, the phrase is arguably one of the first, and perhaps the most practical, Mandarin sentences that expats who don’t speak Chinese pick up in China.

As his name implies, Tim is an expat who has drunk a little too much on a night out and has lost his wallet, keys, and phone (oof, what a night). He, therefore, embarks on a quest to find his personal belongings before having to catch a flight the following day.

shanghai video game

Metalheads are just one kind of villain Tim must face on a rainy night in Shanghai

Hopping from one iconic nightlife spot to the next, Tim must raise his fists against a colorful cast of villains who haunt Shanghai after dusk — think English teachers, drunk exchange students, and daddy’s money (aka spoiled rich girls).

It is up to you, the player, to make sure that Tim pulls himself together and catches his flight as planned.

True to life touches in Once Upon A Time In Shanghai only serve to increase our affinity for the game. For instance, the only place where Tim can seek solace and restore his energy is FamilyMart, a 24/7 convenience store with a ubiquitous presence in Shanghai.

family mart shanghai

Tim Boudeogne (bottom right) taking a seat (and sobering up?) in FamilyMart

While the gameplay is straightforward, its setting and quirky features have struck a chord with Shanghai residents in lockdown. According to Schaller, the video game has been played almost 4,000 times in the past week.

Few know this, but Once Upon A Time in Shanghais characters were inspired by real people who have crossed paths with Schaller in his 10 years of working in the nightlife industry. Lines like, “When is the next Goth picnic?” or “I love Viking nights!” underscore their eccentricities.

It was three years ago that Schaller started work on the video game, but the lockdown has presented him with the opportunity to finally finish his homage to Shanghai’s local music and nightlife scene.

“I’ve seen different eras of [Shanghai’s nightlife scene] within a relatively short time. There have been sub-cultures starring certain bands and people who have come and gone. And [the game] raises a sort of nostalgia or romanticism about those times.”

A faithful representation of the Eastern metropolis’ eclectic music scene, Once Upon A Time In Shanghai can be appreciated by just about anyone, but only longtime citizens will genuinely understand its pull.

“When I came back to it, I realized I had that pre-pandemic scene mapped out in the game,” said Schaller to RADII. Heaping praise upon the diversity of Shanghai’s nightlife, which encompasses everything from high-end clubs to live music venues and raw dive bars, he added that anyone could find a place to suit their mood on any night.

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Although the Covid pandemic has inhibited local nightlife, Shanghai’s music scene is more alive than ever, opined Schaller.

“Surprisingly, when things started to simmer down after the 2020 lockdown in Shanghai, livehouses eased up on the requirements for shows. Normally, bands had to submit so much information two to four weeks before a show,” said Schaller. The relaxed requirements did more than help the local music scene recover — musicians thrived at this time.

While Shanghai is unlikely to relax its rules anytime soon, Once Upon a Time in Shanghai is a chance to virtually experience a night on the town. Furthermore, a multiplayer version of the game is in the works and will allow friends to ‘bar hop’ together.

All images courtesy of Jason Schaller

Beatrice Tamagno
Beatrice is a graduate student in sociology at Fudan University in Shanghai. Her writings have appeared on SupChina and ChinaNauts, an online magazine she co-founded with fellow researchers from Fudan. When she is not researching gender in contemporary China, you will find her playing mahjong or binging Chinese TV shows.
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