British Columbia

Vancouver stars as a dystopian, post-noir home for animal characters in new video game

Raccoon detective says the city smells like 'wet concrete and overpriced fast food'

Posted: June 19, 2021

The exterior of the 'Rogue Theatre,' in the version of Vancouver's Granville Street featured in the video game Backbone. (Eggnut)

Despite Vancouver being a hotspot for film and video game production, it doesn't get to play itself very often in popular entertainment.

But the city is the setting for a new video game released this week and it features some unexpected twists.

Backbone is a "post-noir" game set in a dystopian version of Vancouver that's populated by animals. The main character, Howard Lotor, is a raccoon private eye with an office in the downtown peninsula.

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When the character steps out of his office to investigate a case, it's onto a rainy, 1950s-looking neon-lit Granville Street with pawn shops, corner stores and nightclubs. According to Lotor in the game, it smells like "wet concrete and overpriced fast food."

It's not Chicago or New York, but Vancouver is "the perfect noir city," according to Nikita Danshin, a designer with Vancouver-based developer Eggnut, which has been working on the adventure game for the past five years. 

That's because the classic thematic elements of film noir — social stratification, class conflict and corruption — feature prominently in Vancouver's history, according to Danshin.

In the game, different species represent different social classes. In one scene, Lotor is not allowed to enter a nightclub because he's a raccoon and the club is only open to species with a higher social standing, like dogs.

Vancouver's famous steam clock, rendered in a pixel-art style... (Eggnut)
... and the real thing, pictured on June 16. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The idea for the game came about when Danshin and several other co-workers were in an online meeting five years ago. They were working on an entirely different idea when a family of raccoons suddenly swarmed Danshin's backyard and helped themselves to his compost bin.

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Like a video game protagonist, Danshin handled the situation creatively.

"I had a trumpet nearby me that I tend to play. So I took that trumpet and decided to toot them away," he said.

"With that, the whole just team just went insane."

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Backbone follows an anthropomorphic racoon detective and features a number of Vancouver's well-known landmarks.  1:22

The encounter inspired the Eggnut team to make a totally different game. What started off as an idea for a game about "raccoons in Vancouver who walk around and sniff garbage," evolved into a broader discussion about what a raccoon society might look like if it was set in Vancouver.

A map of some of the game's settings. (Eggnut)

Vancouverites will recognize many landmarks in the game, including the Gastown area and its steam clock, and the Vogue Theatre. The game even includes a reference to the Lady in Red, the infamous ghost said to haunt the Fairmont Hotel.

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Vancouver has appeared in a few other games in the past, though not many. The Nintendo racing game Mario Kart Tour has a track that features the west coast city. The Olympics game Vancouver 2010 features Vancouver, of course. The skateboarding game Tony Hawk's Underground has a level based on Robson Square. Perhaps most memorably, it was the first city destroyed by aliens in the futuristic science fiction game Mass Effect 3

Danshin says the game is something of a tribute to Vancouver, and he's hoping that Vancouverites get some delight out of recognizing their city. He adds that the sequel to Backbone will also be set in Vancouver.

Vancouver is a major hub for game development, being home to over 170 large and small video game development companies, according to the Vancouver Economic Commission

Electronic Arts, one of the world's biggest game publishers has one of its major development studios in Burnaby. However Vancouver's dominance in Canadian game development may be somewhat on the decline. According to a report in Gamedaily.biz, game developers have been drawn to other provinces due to better tax incentives, and lower operating costs.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gurpreet Kambo
@gkam99

Gurpreet Kambo is an Associate Producer for CBC Radio Vancouver. You can contact him at g.kambo@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @gkam99