Is there ever a good time to release a game about gun violence in the United States?

One game studio may know the answer

There were so many ways that it could go wrong.

First of all, would it even find its audience? On the surface, The American Dream looks like just another first-person shooter. Would that be enough to kill it right there? Would the people with their fingers on the pulse of the VR gun scene also be the ones to laugh at the idea of a game where every action requires you to fire a bullet? Or would the target audience for the game’s message be too busy playing pacifistic titles like Stardew Valley or Undertale to even take notice?

Then there’s the issue of Poe’s Law: the idea that the more you commit to an accurate parody of something, the higher the chance that people will miss that you’re poking fun at something, instead taking your satire literally. Would people realize The American Dream was a joke, or would they think it was just another game where all you do is shoot?

More than all that though is the fact that in the United States, we rarely go more than a couple weeks without a mass shooting. Regardless if you think we need stronger or softer gun laws in order to fight the problem, the underlying feeling is the game. Everyone is afraid. The discourse is poisoned. Nobody trusts anybody now, and we’re all very tired.

How are you supposed to release a comedy game about American gun culture in the face of all that? Nicholas McDonnell and Winston Tang of Samurai Punk may be two of the only people in the world who can speak to that question, so we asked them.  

First, a little background. Development of The American Dream started well before the 2016 United States presidential election, the mass shooting in Las Vegas that left 58 dead and 851 injured in 2017, the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, and so many of the other events that have further polarized the country’s attitude toward gun violence. Despite being just a few years ago, America was a very different place then, at least on the surface. 

Committing to the game in the wake of these events wasn’t always easy. Winston told us “Personally, and as a studio, it was interesting seeing our attitude towards guns evolve throughout development.”

“Starting out, we’d been desensitized to stories of gun violence in the US over the years, to the point where foreigners like us would joke about it, lumping guns together with screaming eagles and super-sized fast food on the long list of amusing American stereotypes. However when we started work on this game, we had to pay more serious attention to the gun situation, and it certainly shifted our perspective. Suddenly these stories were affecting us and our work, so we watched the news closely and had to make sure the game navigated the evolving situation tastefully.”

“During development, when a mass shooting happened it would generally go down like this: somebody mentions it, we all go ‘Not again!’, breathe a deep collective sigh, feel a bit depressed about it and then get back to work. We’d sometimes integrate current topics of discussion into the game and while it did feel kinda fucked up using such recent events as inspiration for our game, we felt it necessary to keep the game timely and relevant.”

Timing was especially key when it came to picking a release date. The American Dream launched on March 14, 2018 on Steam and PS4. This was a month after February’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida that left 17 people dead, and a little more than a month before a shooting in April where a gunman armed with an AR-15 killed four patrons of a Waffle House in Antioch, Tennessee.

Some would say it was insensitive of them to launch the game so close to the dates of these real-life massacres, but if they were to try and wait for a time when the country was free from mass shootings for more than a few months, they may have had to wait forever.

On May 18, ten were murdered in a high school in Santa Fe, Texas. In June, five were shot dead in the offices of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland. In July, Five were shot and killed in an apparent murder-suicide in a nursing home in Robstown, Texas. Then in August, two were murdered by a gunman at a Madden NFL 19 competition in Jacksonville, Florida before the gunman turned the weapon on himself, sparking an ever-so-brief reexamination of gun violence in our culture that was quickly washed aside in the mainstream media by scandalous accusations against various politicians and celebrities, the release of a book that alleges that the president’s genitalia is shaped like a Mario character, and so on. 

There was no way for the team at Samurai Punk to predict these shootings, but to many outside the U.S., the pattern is clear. Nicholas explained: “As we got closer to release and the shootings kept rolling in we had to start thinking about how the timing of our game to the next shooting was going to affect our release. Releasing it right after a shooting would be in poor taste. This was a pretty grim topic to have in the office but unfortunately that’s what development became in the late months.”

Ultimately, it seems like there would never be a ‘good’ day to release this game because mass shootings are sadly still happening all the time,” said Winston. “The release date we settled on was March 14, one-hundred percent for business reasons, as we wanted to have it out prior to GDC and PAX, which coincidentally and unfortunately was the one-month anniversary of the Parkland, Florida shooting, which as you’ll soon learn had some serious ramifications for us.”

Nicholas continued, “Working on and releasing this game felt a bit like having a gun to our heads. We were always preparing for a worst-case scenario, but what we had envisioned was completely different to what ultimately happened. Our fears were that there would be massive backlash from the public for making such a controversial game, that we’d piss off the NRA and the gun-lobby and suddenly be in their line of fire. But rather than going fully automatic on us, the public opted for a suppressor. They just went quiet on us.”

After years of development, and hopes that their game would at the very least help spur discussion, looking at it now, Winston saw there was no way around the cold reception they were headed toward.

In the month of our release,” he said, “the Florida shooting happened, Donald Trump started blaming video games for gun violence, and the March For Our Lives movement was established. The majority of the press and platforms that we were relying on went cold on us and dropped the support they gave us prior to release. Here we were with our next major game which had enjoyed amazing press and platform coverage in the past, and suddenly at launch, we had an empty clip.”

“And I completely understand why.”

“The gun debate was incredibly loaded at the time, so associating with us was a risk not many people were willing to take. Nobody wanted to poke that bear because the debate rarely budges, problems don’t get solved, and to get involved would be to probably get hurt by angry mobs for no real gain.”

From there, it only got worse. Nicholas told us “On top of this our physical release was limited to Europe because after all the gun-related events in early 2018, our North American distributors were basically like ‘I ain’t gonna touch this shit!’ We had hoped they’d reconsider after the situation cooled down, but despite our efforts, all our potential U.S. distributors pulled out.”

Winston agreed, stating: “We learned first-hand that there’s a tangible habit of silence and a willingness to ignore issues that goes hand-in-hand with the gun culture of America. My guess is people would just not rather talk about and confront the issue because it feels like nothing’s going to change anyway.”

The team at Samurai Punk did not take a similarly complacent attitude toward their work. They pressed on with attempts to drum up attention for The American Dream, as they still believed the game had an audience waiting to discover it. “We did all your standard firing off press releases,” described Nicholas, “hitting up streamers, YouTubers, social, and all that. We had a solid network after developing both our first game, Screencheat, and promoting this one.”

“As for the weird stuff we got to have a lot of fun with the plush guns we had made to sell and hand out to the press, which actually features in the game as well.” Nicholas was referring to the Baby Gunnie plush toy that they had been selling for a relatively low price at various conventions.

The item has since gone up in value. It now goes for about $40 on Amazon, maybe because of its close resemblance to Kinderguardians guns from a recent Sacha Baron Cohen show. Regardless, the warm reception to the toy definitely signaled success for Winston. He was happy when they started “…making appearances at conventions in strange places, which was very amusing.”

Still, mainstream coverage alluded them, even months later when Independence Day rolled around and the world was, presumably, taking collective focus on the country the United States had become. “We did a really wacky parody trailer and a super patriotic update for the Fourth of July as we’d polished the game since release but hadn’t really had a good opportunity to promote it,” Nicholas said.

“I did a bunch of mainstream outreach just after the launch but not one replied. This was in the wake of the walkout though so I’m not surprised that they were a little gun shy about the topic of rampant patriotism and guns in video games.”

So with a little more than six months on the market, how do the two of them feel about where the game stands today? All in all, they are focused on the positives. “We expected lots of backlash,” Nicholas said, “and there was some in the comments sections of videos and articles, but that’s to be expected. Some of this can be tied to the size of the VR audience assuming that many of the people that would have gotten upset didn’t care because it didn’t ‘affect’ them directly.” 

Winston sounded similarly upbeat, stating: “We found that when people are made aware of the game, they love the concept. It’s always received well at conventions and gets a lot of laughs. As for reception after launch, we found it to be a love-hate kind of game. Some people loved the humor, including a fair number of gun rights supporters, others found it long-winded and boring. We were really going for something meaty to give people things to laugh and think about, so I can understand why some would feel like it’s a bit much. Also I love Metal Gear, so exposition dumps are just a thing I’m used to.”

This positivity in their tone was almost constantly countered whenever the topic of financial success bubbled to the surface. “It came out, it did moderately well despite a bit of a misfire with the launch, but it’s not on track to break even on costs without a major shift,” explained Winston.

The weight of our conversation suddenly swung down onto the side of disappointment. Then almost just as quickly, Winston snapped back with “The majority of people who gave it a shot enjoyed it; mostly positive review scores on Steam, PS4, and Oculus.” It felt like his feelings about the game’s reception were just as polarized as the reception itself.

Winston was definitely unified on one point: the game they made says what they wanted it to say, even if it hasn’t engaged with American audiences the way they’d hoped for. He said that “…even though there were doubts along the way about whether or not making this game was a good idea, we felt it needed to be made and that it had a message worth sharing.”

“We made the game because we wanted to start a serious dialogue among the gaming community about guns, and for gamers to reflect on their relationship with them. Observing the gun debate from afar, we found that the conversation would rise and fall with each mass shooting, but things rarely changed. We hoped that our game would at least trigger [laughs] some discussion among gamers and have them reflect on their attitudes towards guns.”

The hope was that humor would help diffuse the often hateful tone in the verbal warfare between both sides of the aisle. “We didn’t want to preach any particular ideology,” he said, “but we did feel like both sides of the debate needed to step back and think things through, otherwise there would be no way they’d be able to have a proper dialogue and find a solution that works for the majority. I hope that playing the game offered people some good laughs but also raised some interesting facts and perspectives on the gun debate they previously weren’t aware of.”

Of course, Winston would have loved for the game’s message to have been unnecessary, even if it meant further financial struggles for the studio. “There were times when we thought the gun debate and its issues might be resolved before we released, rendering the game completely pointless. However, that hasn’t happened, so unfortunately the game remains as relevant as it was when we started in 2016. It’s kind of bittersweet.”

This sense of bittersweetness matches his general feelings about the game. “Going forward, there’s not much we can do to recover from the botched launch, aside from going into discounts when those opportunities arise. In any case, we’re confident that we made an interesting game that we’re proud to have in our portfolio. Hopefully as the VR platforms grow, The American Dream can stand out as a weird staple for people to pick up and play when they’re bored of the shooting galleries and anime dating games.”

After hearing his studio partner close out his thoughts, Nicholas added one last question: “Was making a VR-exclusive, comedy, narrative-driven gun satire adventure game in 2018 shooting ourselves in the foot? Most would say yes, but as a studio, we feel it’s a good representation of the type of games we want to make. The American Dream ultimately showed that Samurai Punk as a studio stands to make weird shit going forward, and that we are more than just our first game. For instance, our next game is a zen-like exploration experience where you fly around an island as a bird.”

“We’re looking forward to having many failures and successes like this in the future because otherwise we’d just be working a day job at a cafe making beautiful latte art for hipsters.”

Jonathan Holmes
Destructoid Contributor - Jonathan Holmes has been a media star since the Road Rules days, and spends his time covering oddities and indies for Destructoid, with over a decade of industry experience "Where do dreams end and reality begin? Videogames, I suppose."- Gainax, FLCL Vol. 1 "The beach, the trees, even the clouds in the sky... everything is build from little tiny pieces of stuff. Just like in a Gameboy game... a nice tight little world... and all its inhabitants... made out of little building blocks... Why can't these little pixels be the building blocks for love..? For loss... for understanding"- James Kochalka, Reinventing Everything part 1 "I wonder if James Kolchalka has played Mother 3 yet?" Jonathan Holmes