While it might not have the flashy graphics and widespread popularity of other video games in the Middle Kingdom, we came across one particular Beijing-themed game which was oddly captivating.
The Beijing Runner was designed by Daniele Baratelli, an architect who lived in Beijing for around 10 years before recently returning to his native Italy.
He says that bringing “all the different Beijing environments into a virtual experience and adapting it into a game” was an idea he’d been contemplating for a long time. And, The Beijing Runner does exactly that.
So, what exactly is the game all about? Let us walk you through it (without giving away too much before you try it for yourself).
A still from the game showing the runner facing Beijing rush hour
Think classic Super Mario Bros. with Beijing characteristics. As the name suggests, the player is running through the streets of Beijing with the aim of getting as far as possible (1,523.4 meters is our record… so far!).
A still from the game showing the runner facing Beijing pollution
Players must avoid the obstacles – the waimai delivery drivers, the tuktuks, the ordinary pedestrians and whoever or whatever else might be in your way.
Get hit by one of them and you’ll lose one of your three baozi. Collect jiaozi during your run and you can spend it on unlocking more locations and new characters etc.
Other than official games released to mark the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, there seem to be few games which take Beijing as the main theme in the way The Beijing Runner does.
For anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the Chinese capital, the features of the game – the baijiu bottles, the hutong streets, the baozi and jiaozi – may just tap into certain sentiments.
This is something Baratelli explained to That’s in a recent interview before he left China for Italy. We asked him about his experience designing his first video game, the inspiration behind The Beijing Runner and the general response to the game so far.
What’s your background with video games?
I had no previous experience with video games, though I did have some experience with using design software, especially Photoshop because I do it as part of my day job.
But no experience in programming the gaming part.
The graphics I was able to do myself. But the programming I had to learn from scratch.
Tell us about the inspiration for and some key details of the game.
The inspiration came from the fact that I myself have been a “Beijing runner” many times. I’ve run through the Beijing hutong many times and been around the city a lot on my bicycle.
I find when I’m trying to get somewhere in the hutong, anything can happen! Bicycles, garbage trucks etc. can all very easily get in your way. You really have to concentrate to avoid all these things!
That’s really where the idea came from; the idea of the runner and avoiding obstacles seems to be a part of daily life in Beijing.
From top to bottom, the three pictures show the designs for Ditan Park, Guomao and the hutong which are featured as backgrounds in The Beijing Runner
My architectural background is really what helped me with designing the game. I started by designing the locations which make up the backgrounds behind the player. These were inspired by certain locations in Beijing. I started out with the hutong. Then, I expanded to include Guomao, 798, Ditan Park etc. I wanted to show areas of Beijing that I know better.
There are eight locations. You start with the hutong and you can then unlock the other seven with jiaozi, the currency of the game instead of coins.
Once you have unlocked a location, it will appear randomly as a background on the game. You end up running around a random mix of areas in Beijing.
Do you have a favorite area of Beijing which you featured in the game?
I think the place I like the most is Ditan Park because of all the green trees. There is also the Temple of Earth in the center of the park. You can see it on the background of the game.
There are trees and a little bit of art. That’s why Ditan Park is my favorite area.
To your knowledge, are there any other similar games that are set in Beijing?
To my knowledge, I am proud to say that I think I am the first person to design a game that is set in Beijing. I am sure there are others set in China.
This game is really tailored to people who know Beijing. Different elements of Chinese culture are represented in the game with the jiaozi, baozi and baijiu. So, it’s really a game made for people who are part of the community in Beijing.
What’s the general response to the game been so far?
We had a very nice launch party in November, 2021, just before I went to Italy. In the last week before I went to Italy, the production of the game was very intense because time was running out. But I managed to release it just before my flight back to Italy.
The Beijing Runner launch party in Side Street
So, we had a party. I say ‘we’ because a couple of friends helped me with the organization of the evening in Side Street.
I made a version of the game especially for that night – a tournament edition. Everybody played together on a big screen. At the end, we gave out prizes for the top five players. People were very engaged and very into it.
The downloads have been okay. I launched the game and then went to Italy for Christmas. I couldn’t really follow closely what was happening in China anymore because I was in Europe.
I had to pause the marketing of the game. I hope it will get a little better.
You already have a full time job as an architect. Do you see designing this game as a side project? Do you see it as a hobby?
That’s a good question. It’s really a side project. I spent one year of my weekends and my evenings making the game. I would not call it a hobby. I’d call it more of an addiction.
I specialize in interior design. I create spaces. I think about spaces and environments. Technically, it’s an environment made up of moving images. There are certain rules. But, on the upside, you can control everything. You don’t have any clients you need to please.
It was very pleasant from a creative perspective – very fun and without too many constraints from clients.
I also wanted the game to be free. There is a way people can support me with some money by paying for unlocking some extra items in the game. But that’s really an extra. The game was not made to make money.
Could you see yourself doing other video games in the future?
I’m still tweaking this one and working on an update. I would like to do more. This kind of thing brings me a lot of gratification. For the next one, I won’t do it alone because it really is a lot of work. I’d like to have a team, maybe a couple of friends, to join together and split the workload.
And, I don’t think the next one will be about Beijing.
Search for The Beijing Runner or scan either QR code below to download. As of press time, the game is not available to users with Chinese mainland accounts.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
[All images via Daniele Baratelli]