This article is part of Issue 8.5, a digital zine available to Kill Screen’s print subscribers. Read more about it here and get a copy yourself by subscribing to our soon-to-be-relaunched print magazine.
April Fools is a dead sport. One popular, though extremely contested belief is that the holiday was created when Pope Gregory XIII switched to the Gregorian calendar, shifting New Year’s Day to January and leaving the uninformed rubes celebrating in March. It had lived for centuries, only to die on the internet. Pranks are lovely, but with every brand, website, and their dog planning to roast up something stupid on April 1st—defaults these days being fake trailers, mock hacker attacks, or just 24 hours of opposite day—the rest of the world rolls their sleeves up, already annoyed, One might long for the days of switching the sugar with the salt.
Capsule Silence XXIV should be a considered a triumph in that regard. It began when the chiptune band Anamanaguchi gave a preview of the title on GameSpot, telling the site that a multi-million dollar game was being made under their guidance, that it would star members of the band. GameSpot presented it earnestly, even though screens from the game showed the band rendered like waxy Unreal Engine models, decorated with ocean waves and Photoshop flames like a forum signature clumped at the end of a post. It seemed like GameSpot was being taken on a ride, and lo and behold the page has been updated to the point that the original preview is gone without a trace.
Days later, the band feigned a clash with the game’s developer, NHX, a fictional company with an online facade. Reminiscent of Death Grips’ falling out with Epic Records, a frenzy of angry tweets from the band’s account culminated in Anamanaguchi leaking the uncompleted game.
There was scrutiny, but the leak was hosted on MediaFire, which throttles downloads without a bursary, making it easier to gossip than confirm. A simpler moment ultimately sealed the hour-long illusion. Ben Esposito, an established game designer who secretly worked on Capsule Silence, and a member of the videogame art collective Arcane Kids, quickly tweeted “DMing you right now” at the band. For those who saw, it added authenticity to the idea that Capsule Silence was real, a game being gifted out of a bad, public breakup. 12 minutes later he passed along the leak himself. “This is happening,” wrote Esposito.
Capsule Silence is one minute of free-roaming fantasy sci-fi, ending with a challenge from an orc and a technical barrier. The combat functions refuse to work, you can pick up the gun but the bullets refuse to materialize. You’re forced to dig deeper into the game’s files to see if there’s a stick in the engine, at which point you’ll be dropped into what can be described as vaporwave’s answer to Pee-wee’s Playhouse: a low-polygon loft complex where the digital bodies of Anamanaguchi presumably rest their weary heads. Their rooms are coated in web-culture ephemera: Minions, Dance Dance Revolution stations, fake movie posters from Something Awful’s bygone Photoshop Phridays. Something like a mood board reimagined as actual piles of clutter. Under a stack of Furby boxes is a hatch to a secret meme room.
Esposito met Peter Berkman of Anamanaguchi at Austin’s Fantastic Arcade game festival, and they began plotting the game near the end of 2015. Berkman was looking for a way to package a collection of tracks, the idea being that you can sneak around their personal spaces looking for cassettes. Esposito liked the idea, but not the voyeurism, preferring to hide their virtual crash pad within a fake game. This way players felt like they had stumbled into something, “without feeling like a piece of shit for it,” Esposito told me. The ensuing prank was Berkman’s passion, running wild with the cancelled game angle.
“It got a little bit out of control,” said Esposito. “Some people reacted negatively because they might’ve felt duped. Passing it off as just viral marketing bullshit.”
Games like these are the Arcane Kids’ wheelhouse: yuckster, polygonal equivalents to urban exploration. Lost prototypes made by others and rediscovered. The collective originally met each other at a music club in Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a university in Troy, New York. The club afforded them a basement computer lab that they used as a music venue, hosting weekly shows and open mics.
“We loved jokes and games,” said Esposito. “We saw the stuff Babycastles was doing and we wanted to try to make game events like that. We started producing games to go along with the shows that were being played. That spiraled up, scaling up and up and up and up. We’ve been working together ever since. One by one we moved to Los Angeles to do actual work.”
The Arcane Kids describe themselves as a team of online pranksters. Many prefer to remain semi-anonymous, and, while they won’t specify how many belong to the group, another public member is Russell Honor from thatgamecompany.
“We like to make physical movement games that are inspired by the Dreamcast era,” said Esposito, “but also we like to make, I wouldn’t say pirate-y games, but we like to use the language of older games to talk about new things. For instance, we made a game, Bubsy 3D: Bubsy Visits the James Turrell Retrospective, and that was using a game considered to be the worst game of all time as a smokescreen for talking about art. Using the aesthetics of a bad game in poorly executed edutainment in order to get people to interact with art, [gets people to] actually think about concepts related to art and the infinite. Being critical of the idea that games should could be art.”
The follow up to Bubsy 3D landed like a horny meteorite. The Sonic Dreams Collection (2015) was presented as prototypes for several blacklisted Sega projects, discovered in a Dreamcast developer kit the Arcane Kids nabbed off eBay. The collection of minigames have Sonic the Hedgehog as you’ve never seen him before.
One mode, a creator tool, lets you stretch and mutate Sonic to any color, size, or post-car accident configuration. One mode is an empty, isolated MMO where you feed Sonic’s usual nemesis Dr. Eggman worms until he swells into a shapeless nightmare. It should be noted Sonic has no torso in this mode, just a lollipop head on two twiggy legs. There’s a movie-maker where you can play with the Sonic cast like a dollhouse, reminiscent of the strange yet numerous fan comics in which Sonic is pregnant and proud of it. The most howled about mode was My Roommate Sonic, a mock-VR game where you spend an intimate night on the couch with Sega’s needlemouse mascot, looking into his glazed bowtie eyes.
The game is meant as a response to feverish Sonic fandom, a continent of the internet reserved for a community personally invested in Sega’s trademark. But it’s not a negative reaction. It’s pop art.
Ben Esposito loves Sonic, too. We spoke at length about the first level of Sonic Adventure (1998) being a masterclass in overstimulation. It’s hard to argue that anything in Sonic Dreams Collection is more absurd than being chased down a boardwalk by a flip-jumping orca.
Still, many Sonic fans thought the Arcane Kids were making fun of them. Esposito’s feelings about that are only more complicated by the fact that, not long after, Sega’s Twitter account for Sonic began to address the fandom in a similar tone, full of memes and winks at Sonic’s low points and bewildering fanbase.
“It’s complicated,” said Esposito. “On some level I kind of like it, I think it’s kind of funny and self-aware enough to keep Sonic interesting, but also it’s pandering a lot, and it’s using fan stuff against it. It’s making fun of its fans, in a way, and I don’t think that’s cool. Sonic Dreams Collection is a fan’s game. We’re not making fun of the fans necessarily, just celebrating the weirdness of it. Sonic fans kind of hated it for that. I hate any kind of brand that uses anti-corporate language to promote a corporation.”
Arcane Kids’ current magnum opus is Perfect Stride. Esposito described the project as an online skatepark, where players can shred and hang out. Pulling inspiration from early mods and chat rooms, the game’s social setting aims to emulate the way real skateparks let punk kids teach each other new tricks. Ideally, Perfect Stride will be designed in a way that can be broken. Players can stretch out and find exploits within the game, and share them like magazine cheat codes at recess.
How those functions will be implemented, on top of the labors of online play, have made Perfect Stride a long-ongoing endeavour. Talking about it doesn’t seem to exhaust Esposito quite like discussing his personal project, a humorous game he prays won’t come off as a joke.
“Making a game by yourself, for so many years, it’s crazy,” Esposito said when I asked about the upcoming Donut County. “Don’t do it!”
You play as a hole in the ground in Donut County—but it isn’t about a hole in the ground. As more things enter the hole, the hole grows bigger. Esposito became fixated on a certain notion during the initial stages of the project: if all you do in a game is suck things into a hole, then the things that go into the hole must have a significant context.
Esposito made a lot of mistakes in this search for that context.
“What’s a cool thing?” asked Esposito. “This is me being stupid. What’s a cool-looking thing? I’ve always had a fascination with Kachina dolls. I used to go on road trips with my family a lot, I loved pulling over at rest stops with Native American trinkets, I’ve always liked these figures and these characters. I don’t know what they mean but they’re so cool and mysterious. Again, me being an idiot.”
Esposito thought that the Kachina aesthetic would be a good hook, and there was satisfaction in seeing kitsch tchotchkes dropping down a hole, like a telephone pole being pilfered by the worms from Tremors (1990). At the time the game was named Kachina.
A post written by teacher Debbie Reese addressed Esposito after the game was presented at IndieCade, saying it misrepresented the Hopi culture the figurines came from, pointing out that Hopi didn’t use the totem poles or teepees seen in the demo. Esposito responded defiantly, trying to prove his critics wrong by researching into oblivion.
Digging around led Esposito, as an outsider, to assume the lack of digestible information was the product of cultural erasure; so now the all-consuming hole would represent that in some fashion. He finally dropped this angle when he consulted someone from a Hopi tribe, learning that his error had more to do with the fact that Hopi is a faith, not a set of myths, and not one meant for wide distribution.
Esposito suffered an epiphany: he tried to turn a religion into a commodity, just like the tourist traps along the highway.
“The scary, scary, scary part about that whole story is that I could have gotten away with that,” said Esposito. “That’s what fucks me up. Nobody who cares has any power over that. I’d just be making money over it. And that’s fucked up. And that’s why I had to change it. Yeah, it would have sucked to be called out, but I still would have been making a lot of money.”
Esposito didn’t want to try a different, reaching, absolute message. Donut County now takes place in Los Angeles, or at least a version of it: a mashup of downtown and Echo Park, a place experiencing a gentrification spell so intense that Esposito said it’s starting to resemble Brooklyn.
“Turns out it’s fairly easy to make a finger-wagging game that makes you do a bad thing and tells you that the thing was bad at the end” said Esposito. He cites games like Hotline Miami (2012) and Spec Ops: The Line (2012), both of which become morality plays by the end, decrying murder and violence as unethical only after you’ve had fun killing. The lasting message is that being evil is a blast. “I’ve come to learn that’s not the type of thing I want to make, I don’t think there’s any lesson there. I could have made a game where you just destroy everything and let rich people move in, and I tell you at the end, ‘Hey, don’t you see that was terrible?’”
Gentrification, it’s worth noting, is a structural issue. The process which transforms poorer areas into playgrounds for the wealthy doesn’t have villains as much as stages. It’s a process many contribute to: the young and creative looking for cheap rent; the people who notice; the groups that try to clean; the businesses that try to capitalize; and the wealthier class who only top things off like a cherry. It’s not like a rail of dominos that can be stopped with your hand. Some members of the process might have been victims of it otherwise, and Donut County stars one of these people, Mira, who runs a donut service that’s garnering interest and investors. ”She’s too stubborn to say anything because it’s not directly her fault, though she benefits,” said Esposito. “You can do stuff to try to change the tide, but these places will never be the same.”
Many of the games Esposito makes are presented as if he, and the Arcane Kids, only happened upon them, made by others or developed in-character. Not to say those other games are just sugar and joy buzzers, but it seems the game that comes from Esposito, playing himself, should also come from an atmosphere he can speak for.
Pranks can be educational. Keep on your toes, sleep with one eye open, double-check your New Year’s plans and taste a dab of the sugar before pouring it into your coffee. April Fools, as it has deteriorated, has only taught us to turn off our computers on on April 1st, as every corporation just wants to participate, no matter how limp the punchline.
Esposito feels there’s a lot more to learn from pranks than simply “don’t get pranked again.” That you can lure unlikely audiences in with mystery and trademarked characters and fool them into sincere engagement with art. That a prank can be ethical and educational for everyone involved. He and the Arcane Kids haven’t always achieved that, their games can take on unexpected lives of their own, but it’s what they want to achieve.
“Arcane Kids’ work is not very capitalist, we can be very critical of that stuff while making you feel very comfortable,” said Esposito. “People hate to learn shit. They hate to learn about art. It’s uncomfortable. People don’t even like to listen to new music, it’s too much work. If you get them to the place where they’re ready for it, their guard is down, then people will be much more responsive. That’s what Arcane Kids is all about.”
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