The American dream is the idea that every American citizen can achieve greatness, and prosperity through determination, and arduous effort. The American Dream, by Samurai Punk Co., is a game about what your everyday life would be like if literally everyone had guns, and used them to perform literally every task. Both are satirical, ficticous perspectives of reality, but Samurai Punk’s game is still something both tangible, and hilarious. The PAX Aus demo gave a small taste of what players can expect, casting them as baby, and factory worker in a world where firearm proliferation creates a bizarre utopia, and not a terrifying hell hole. When I was done chortling my way through this cheeky little jaunt, I spoke to Winston Tang and had to ask, “What the actual hell?”
So… That was really messed up. Babies with guns, factory workers with guns – where did this idea start?
So, our previous game was Screencheat, it’s a multiplayer split-screen shooter where you shoot your friends in the face, and it was a tonne of fun. We enjoyed working on it, we saw people enjoying playing it, but when we finished Screencheat we were left with the thought of, “Well, what do we do next?” We looked at our pedigree, and looked at the kind of games that were being made, we realised – and you may not notice it at first, but it’s really obvious when you actually pay attention – but most games, the only way of interacting with anything in that world is through a gun. So based on that seed, we thought, “How would you live your life if all you could do to communicate and interact with the world was through guns?” Like, what the hell is that? It’d be ludicrous. And from that, it’s like, “Oh shit, you could eat with a gun! You could cook food with a gun, you’d drive a car with a gun, you’d just do everything with a gun!” It would just be really stupid, but probably a lot of fun. That’s basically the long story short.
So I got a vertical slice of the game, going from being a baby that summons his mum with a pistol, and who feeds you with a pistol, to shooting bagels as a factory worker. What else are you planning on having in the game?
Well, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers because it will be a story driven game, but here’s what I can tell you. The way that we’re structuring the game, it’s like a 1950s world fair ride. Imagine the EPCOT centre world of tomorrow, you’re kind of sitting through it, and seeing the different scenarios that people have in their lives, and how technology will help them solve their problems. The way that’s going to work is we’ll be going through the different stages of a stereotypical American’s life, obviously starting out as a baby, then we have sections about early childhood, teenage years – there’s going to be a prom, there’ll definitely be a prom.
Oh yeah, we have plenty of ideas there. Then, you know, progressing onto adult hood, and so on, and so forth. Another section that we have revealed already, which was at PAX West, is the driving demo. That’s where you have the van, you have your pistols, and you’re steering with pistols, then there’s a garbage truck in front of you that’s littering the road. So, as the good citizen you are, you’ve got to clean it up, so you’re driving along and being like, “Pop-pop! Ppop-pop!” You know, cleaning up the roads, you go into the drive-thru, which is called Donald’s Drive-By Donuts, ordering food, having breakfast, then heading off to work.
So with the 1950s vibe, the closely associated themes to that era of “the American dream,” and America’s obsession with guns, this is obviously satirical. Was your aim to make a statement, or was it just an idea that worked for you?
Yeah, so, obviously the gun debate is constantly running, and we felt that we wanted to make a game that had a point to it, but, at heart, we just like being silly. We enjoy making humourous games, and we have found that the best way to deal with serious subject matter is to look at it with a lighthearted tone. Again, we’re dealing with video games here, at least to a certain extent there should be some enjoyment out of it, and I think people have a lot more fun when it’s satirical, and it’s funny. It could just have been, like, grim dun death simulation, where you get thrown into a warzone, and you see people get shot up all around you, and you’re all, “Oh no! Guns are scary, aaaahhh!” Now we get to do it in a subtle, more enjoyable way with things like having a gun pointed at your head, but it’s not because someone’s trying to kill you, it’s because they’re trying to feed you breakfast.
How long has the game been in development for so far?
About five or six months, it came hot off the heels of Screencheat. We finished Screencheat in March, literally we were working to the line to get that out on consoles, and then afterwards we thought about what we were going to do next. We knew we were going to be at PAX, we needed to figure somethign out, then this idea really sparked our imagination, and it’s moved really quick since its inception. It’s been a lot of fun to work on, VR’s been really interesting, as well, but I think we have a lot of enthusiasm about it in the studio, so it’s moving along really quickly.
It does work really well with VR, obviously just being able to point at things and shoot them. Was it a case of the idea just working in VR better, or were you really intent on doing a VR project? And what’s it been like to work on VR in general?
When we originally came up with the idea, VR was not attached to it, but around the same time that we were thinking of what to do next, that was when the VR platforms were really reaching out to developers. They were like, “Hey! We have this hardware, and we really want developers to play around with it, and see what they can create!” So we though, you know what? Sure, let’s give it a go! We had this idea sitting around, and we thought it would be pretty good in VR, so we made a prototype over about a week, where you were trying to make breakfast with guns in VR. It was weird, it was clunky, it was awkward, but we could see that glimmer of potential in there, it was actually really fun to hold these guns. And it was weird not having hands, but just having guns for everything. Based on that prototype, we decided that it would be a good fit for VR, it would be really interesting, we could do a lot of things in VR that we can’t do in a traditional style game. We just kind of ran with it.
To answer your question about what it’s like to work with VR, it’s really interesting because there’s a lot of untapped potential. If you look at the landscape of traditional games these days, there’s a lot of recycling, and reuse, a lot of times you’ll pick up a new game, and it’ll be new, but you’ll get the sense that you’ve played it before. But with VR you don’t have that as much, or at all, because it’s such a fresh medium, so it’s exciting to play with such a blank canvas. The downside is motion sickness.
Is that why a lot of the game is literally on rails?
Pretty much, we threw out a lot of ideas of how to get the player to move about this space. Then what we ultimately found was that, in order to make it accessible to as wide an audience as possible, and to try to keep it immersive, the rails fit well with making it accessible, but also with the theme of the game. It’s very important about putting the player in this experince of going through a messed up, twisted theme park right. It just fit perfectly.
Whose idea was Buddy Washington? Because whoever came up with the talking dog needs a promotion of some kind.
Buddy Washington, honestly, was an accident, but a brilliant accident. So, you can see the key art that we have up on our booth here. You’ve got the kind of nuclear family, a stereotypically American family. At one point, our friend Matthew Campy, a very talented 2D artist, we was the guy who did the art, as he was working on it – where the dog is, there used to be another kid. But the kid didn’t fit in, he just kind of was standing there, arms crossed, not really doing anything.
We thought, “That kid looks weird, I think we should get rid of the kid and put something else in there.” Then someone said, “What about a dog?” And we thought a dog would be cool, so he put the dog in, and we were like, “We really like that dog, that’s a cute dog – can we put the dog in the game?” And then we thought, “Ooooohhhhh, what if the dog was the one narrating to you the whole time? It’s a match made in heaven, let’s do it.” From that point we were full committed to Buddy Washington, and he’s basically the main character of the game now.
Outside of the idea of the American dream, and America’s obsession with guns, have their been any other influences that have informed the design of the game?
Honestly, the biggest inspiration, for me at least, is The Simpsons. I love The Simpsons, I grew up with it, I’d watch it every night, 6PM, channel ten, always there. I love their earlier seasons, and I loved how they’d tackle serious issues, but always in a tongue-in-cheek way. They were able to do it really efficiently because the episodes were really short, they would put in the right gags, and be able to make you think, but also make you laugh. That’s what we want to go for, that’s what the humor was inspired by. In terms of games, we looked at Bioshock Infinite, for obvious reasons, because it’s all like “America, fuck yeah!”
Also looking what else is going on in VR, looking at what others are doing, getting a lay of the land. Also, a little bit of Portal, as well, because it’s about going into these test chambers where you’re solving these problems in a novel way. Aside from that, a lot of it is just ourselves. A lot of what the design process is, is we have these toy guns in the office, so I’ll just be holding the gun, thinking “What could I do with this? What would I do if I was at someone’s birthday party? They have to blow out the candles, maybe shoot out the candles, or something.” That’s where a lot of the ideas come from,. it’s kind of fucked up.
That is kind of messed up, but a brilliant way of coming up with stuff. So how many times have you shot each other in the head with these toy guns?
[Long pause.] Surprisingly none, no we’ve…. We’ve maintained health and safety in the office. Although, on that note, something funny happened when we were first prototyping this game, and we didn’t expect it. We were making the kitchen demo where you were making yourself breakfast, when we were getting thins setup we would put the headsets on, and hand the controllers to each other. The controllers in the world, they’re just these floating guns, right? And at one point, I think it was Nicholas, our artist, we handed him one controller, and instead of handing him the other controller we were just pointing it at his head. So, he looked around and saw this gun floating there, pointed at his head, and he screamed. And we learned that even in VR, having a gun pointed at your head is just really, really unnerving.
It’s always good to point a gun to your staff’s head, to get those creative juices flowing.
Oh, yeah – it’s like our hazing ritual.
So, how long do you think it’ll be before the game will be finished? And what’s been the biggest challenge with developing the game, especially with VR being a whole new field.
We’re targeting mid next year for release. So, a good amount of time to finish everything up, polish, get it ready for consoles. The hardest part, since it’s not a systems driven game like Screencheat was, there’s obviously the core mechanics of using the guns to interact with the world, but it’s not about giving players the mechanics, and letting them create their own fun. It’s about us creating interesting scenarios to put players in, and to guide them along the journey. It’s the first time we’ve made a game like this, and that’s been really challenging, just to figure out the different work flow, and having to plot things out, then testing them to see if they work. You might have a great idea in your head, but it might not come across very well when someone plays it, so that’s a big challenge.
I mentioned before the motion sickness, I think it’s pretty good now because we’ve done a lot of work to combat it, but in the early days, it was like, “Oh, yeah, you can just move around, right?” And if you have the player do that, they will get sick. There’s a lot of techniques that you have to utilise to prevent that, and there’s some interesting things, like if you look in the lower right hand corner of the screen, you can see a kind of buldge. That’s actually the player’s nose, we’ve given them a virtual nose because it helps ground them in the world, and it helps them to orient themselves in a subconscious way.
I hesitate to ask, given the humor of this game, but what’s your favorite game?
Tough question. I don’t think I can say there’s one favorite, but there’s three games that have personally influenced me a lot. By the way, my recommendations, don’t take them as a reflection of the game’s, or the company’s interests, because the weird thing is that the three of us, we’re a team of three currently, we all have really different tastes in games. But for me, I grew up with Japanese RPG’s, so Final Fantasy VII is probably the one, next to that is Metal Gear Solid 3, and then oddly Heavy Rain.
… Really? Heavy Rain?
I love Heavy Rain. I know it’s not a masterpiece, the craftsmanship is lacking, the writing is jankey as hell, the story is pretty contrived, but it was just so different at the time. I really had a sense that this was a story unfolding before me that I could acutally influence, and I didn’t know what could happen. Like, anything could happen, and the story would just continue with it, and I think my favorite part about that game was that I got a really bad ending.
I mean, spoilers – well, not really spoilers, it’s kind of old now – but the main dude, Ethan Mars, at the end he got shot to hell, and he died. But then, it kind of worked in the context of all the previous events that had happened in the game for me. There was that part where you had to choose whether you killed this drug dealer, or you let him live, and I was like, “fuckfuckfuckfuck, I’ll kill him because I need to save my son,” and I felt so bad after that. And in the end when Ethan died, I was like, “Oh, this is retribution, isn’t it? I was able to save my son, I did what I wanted to, but now I have to accept my punishment.” That just hit me like a fucking brick wall, that was incredible. Maybe I got lucky with my experience with it, but yeah – that’s Heavy Rain. That’s my long answer for what is my favorite game.
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