Opinion Piece

Fools In April: How a Joke Holiday Has Affected Gaming

It’s been exactly 10 days since April Fool’s Day, but given today’s release of Bayonetta on PC following a countdown that began on April 1st, I thought it appropriate to go back and look at the nature of April Fool’s pranks in the gaming industry.

Simple jokes probably existed and likely went largely unnoticed for ages. Recently, however, they’ve gotten more and more intriguing, and in the Information Age, it’s become easy to claim to announce something and then reveal it as a fake…or let others figure it out themselves. It’s always all in good fun, but what compels a business to do so?

The original mock screenshot included in WayForward’s April Fool’s announcement of Cat Girl Without Salad, which later became reality.

WayForward’s pranks are a good example of well-crafted humor. They always make up something ridiculous and silly that is easily identifiable as a fake, but oddly endearing in a way that leaves you saying “Gosh, I kind of wish this was real”. Several years ago, in 2013, they announced a game called “Cat Girl Without Salad”, that promised a blend of literally every single video game genre possible.

Artist Lindsay “Linzbot” Collins was commissioned to create artwork of the game’s protagonist, and a fake screenshot was attached along with the news. Of course, it was all fake, and it sure left a lot of people disappointed that it wouldn’t ever be real. In 2014, they followed up by announcing “Bloculus VR” as a jab to virtual reality software then in development. In 2015, they announced “You Are The Winner! Go You!”, a game that actually played itself and let the player sit around and do nothing.

In 2016, at the start of the day, they showed off four silhouettes that looked distinctly like classic video game characters, claiming that these characters would be revealed as starring in a game of their design. Over the course of the day, they revealed four increasingly ludicrous characters (all once again designed by Collins) that posed in specific shapes to make their silhouettes resemble other characters. All very clever ideas.

Later that year, however, they announced something that blew everyone away. Contained within the Humble June 2016 Monthly Bundle was…a three stage “Amuse-Bouche” (a play on an early taste) version of Cat Girl Without Salad. As pointed out by a teaser posted in late May, it wasn’t April, and this was no fool. Those who opted into purchasing the bundle received a DRM-free copy of this short but entertaining game (given a fair amount of advanced notice, mind you, to keep it fair for everyone).

Obviously, the game was scaled down from its initial “pitch” due to the nature of it being physically impossible to have a game with every single genre at once, but the various genre-focused weapons came pretty close. Who could have expected that after years of people begging for it to be a reality, that dreams would really come true?

At the moment, it’s unclear what the future holds for Kebako, as the game remains a DRM-free download exclusive to the long-past bundle, but it certainly was quite unexpected for a major developer to turn their April Fool’s joke into reality. What made them consider this? Fan feedback, a chance for an innovative idea to shine, or something else? (Worth noting as a follow-up: WayForward’s parody of remake culture, a Shantae “demake” featuring blocky Atari-style graphics, was a highlight of this year’s shenanigans.)

Screenshot from 8-Bit Bayonetta, the game released by Sega on Steam on April 1st.

Bayonetta, meanwhile, is another standout. As April 1st dawned in Japan, Sega took an old promotional Flash mini-game and released it on Steam as “8-Bit Bayonetta”. It’s Bayonetta on PC! Get it? Very amusing! Well, not really, as PC gamers still desiring to play Bayonetta after many years were the butt of the joke. However, this went deeper than originally expected, as achievements for the game actually held a secret. Players discovered that the achievements held clues leading to a newly published URL on Sega’s website.

This website featured old promotional artwork and a clock counting down to this very day at 8AM EDT. And that’s when the original Bayonetta was released on Steam. The question is, why now? Something like this could be done on any day, with or without the countdown clock, and if they wanted to build hype, E3 or another big gaming event would be the perfect place to announce it. Maybe Platinum Games director and Bayonetta creator Hideki Kamiya just wanted to show off his whimsical side.

These aren’t the only examples of real happenings spawned from April Fool’s Day, of course. As another notable example, in 2014, The Pokémon Company teamed up with Google to create a Pokémon-themed Google Maps adventure. This mini-game is what eventually led to Pokémon GO being developed. Additionally, two years ago, Nintendo held its semi-annual Nintendo Direct on that day, announced beforehand. Definitely a strange time to do so, and there certainly wasn’t any attempt at humorous fakery in the broadcast. Considering that there really isn’t a reasonable explanation for this one, let’s consider it an outlier.

What compels video game companies to spend so much effort on April Fool’s shenanigans? You’ll occasionally see some other corporate brands hold an annual prank, but almost never as elaborate. And why use the day to make real announcements? What attracts video game developers to the very un-officially official holiday?

Perhaps it’s due to the audience. Children, families, and those who still haven’t given up on childhood just yet do certainly seem like the kind of people who would be keen on a good laugh or two. Or maybe it’s influence from the positive reception of pranks from the big companies that do them annually, such as Google. Does doing things like this increase profit? Well, clearly, in the case of things like Bayonetta, but what about the usual pranks? They don’t seem to do much.

Will we see less of those in the future? Is April Fool’s turning into a corporate holiday like Christmas and Easter, or will a small joke all in good fun be a rare instance of genuine humanity in even the biggest of AAA companies? After all, if they didn’t care about it and it didn’t make them money, why would they do it?

Saying that game companies have “hijacked” the holiday isn’t entirely true, but the rapid incorporation and all the creativity involved are certainly worth paying attention to. Some of you may tire of being intentionally disappointed by false announcements, but I, for one, look forward to the holiday every year. Here’s to those who come up with these crazy ideas, and to those that put them into action. And to those nice folks, maybe, like WayForward, consider revisiting some of these ideas later on. I’m sure most of us would appreciate it.