I first became aware of Sense – 不祥的预感: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story (according to Google Translate, the Chinese is ‘Ominous Premonition’) in August 2019 when I was playing a bunch of itch.io demos of cyberpunk games for a podcast, and while it was decent enough for me to find the Steam store page for the in-development project and add it to my wishlist, it wasn’t particularly memorable either. I mainly remember it for the completely unashamed horniness of whoever designed the character models, and some basic but functional 2D gameplay where I walked down a street, picked up an item or two, used them to solve a pretty simple puzzle, made my way into the second area of the game – which just so happened to be a strip club – and then found myself in a spooky office where I was chased and murdered by a vengeful scissors-wielding ghost.
That said, when I use words like ‘simple’ and ‘functional’ then I worry that they sound like backhanded compliments, and they’re genuinely not. Sense certainly isn’t going to be the next Undertale, but if that’s the standard you’re setting for indie games, you’re only going to allow yourself to play maybe two or three of them per year, and you’ll miss out on a lot of hidden gems. Sense definitely had enough potential that I wanted to see the finished product. I worry that I’m overcompensating to make it sound like, “Of course, my decision to keep an eye on this title was not influenced in the slightest by the protagonist having a chest with its own gravitational pull!” but honestly, you could sell a picture of a turd on Steam and as long as the page description included “inspired by Clock Tower” then I would probably still put it on my wishlist. I really liked Clock Tower: The First Fear. Haunting Ground too.
Sense stuck out on my wishlist for a long time because I’m not normally in the habit of putting anything on there unless it’s already on sale. Then in August 2020, the game was released, and it stuck out for the less-positive reason that it was the only game on my wishlist with a ‘Mostly Negative’ rating. I hadn’t played it, so I can’t say for certain, but from reviews at the time, it looks like the complaints were mainly about unintuitive and repetitive gameplay, a lack of variation in character design, a couple of bugs and glitches, and no instructions regarding how to save the game.
I kept it on my wishlist, partly because I knew that issues like the glitches and a bad save system could be patched out, and partly just out of pettiness; removing a game from your wishlist is sort-of an admission that you shouldn’t have put it on there in the first place, and hey, screw you, I don’t make mistakes! Worst-case scenario, the game would eventually go on sale at 75% off, and it would either be worth playing, or it wouldn’t, in which case I would have a fun time complaining about it. I wasn’t actually planning on buying it any time soon.
Until something unusual happened.
The developer announcing that they were pulling the game wasn’t that unusual. I’ve seen studios do it before, and normally it doesn’t garner much sympathy from me, because if a (Jim Sterling voice) TrIpLe-AaA production is rushed out of the door without meeting basic quality standards, it’s a sign that they emphatically never gave a shit about providing you with a quality product. Which, y’know, most companies don’t, but they’re at least polite enough to pretend. But I can totally understand that a much smaller developer may genuinely have underestimated the impact of bugs, and they may not realise that actions that felt like second nature to them may not have been as clear to new players as they thought, and in that event, removing the game from sale while they correct the problems is undoubtedly the right thing to do.
But then, this happened.
I really wish I had a screenshot of the store page when this happened, but you’ll just have to take mine and the developers’ word for it; since they were having trouble communicating with Valve to have the store page taken down, they were openly warning customers not to buy the game. It was a big ole’ warning, bold and underlined and everything – I think – and the message it communicated to potential customers of Sense was “Thank you very much for checking this game out, we hope you check it out again in the future, but we strongly advise against purchasing the game at this time, as it does not meet our standards, and we don’t think it’s a fair deal for you.”
Maybe this is more common in the indie scene than I’m treating it – when Scott Cawthon received similarly negative feedback for Five Nights at Freddy’s World, he infamously offered refunds to all customers and then released the game for free – but for an indie studio that was much smaller and had much less of a reputation, this was… genuinely really neat of them. They actually did care about providing people with a quality product; so much so that they were advising people not to buy the game in its current state, because it didn’t live up to their expectations.
So naturally, in response to their announcement that I shouldn’t buy the game, I bought the game.
I know, it’s not the best reason to buy a game, but I genuinely wanted to show my support for the developers and reward them for conducting themselves in a manner than benefited their customers. So, I bought the game, I made a note to actually play it at some point so that I could give it a positive review if it was good, and otherwise I moved on with my life.
It wasn’t until recently that I found myself thinking of the game again, and you might be aware why.
That image probably doesn’t show off the text very well, so let me transcribe it for you here; With the recent news of Sense – 不祥的预感: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story coming to Nintendo Switch, we are aware of a large amount of messages and demands aimed toward the games’ console platform released based on lies (claims that it is explicitly “pornographic” or somehow “encourages violence” or, most ridiculously, somehow “breaks the law”). Furthermore, voices have attempted to advocate making sale of the game untenable through demanding harsh censorship aimed towards the developer’s artstyle, with threats to “review-bomb” the game and/or harass its distributors. In addition, we have received death threats from those who feel threatened by what essentially boils down to an aesthetic decision of how pixels are arranged on a screen. While disappointed at these behaviours, we are certainly not surprised.
Let us be clear on this – we will not censor the game because of self-centred crowds who care solely about grandstanding. We categorically and absolutely refuse to restrict creative expression. Creators should be allowed freedom to express themselves, particularly when it is an expression of the subcultures they have been immersed in. As a cyberpunk game, Sense uses imagery and themes relating to a future of hyper-commercialised, over-commodified imagery as part of its cyberpunk theme and inspiration; this is reflected in ALL character designs. With that said, we expect that this is lost on those attacking the developer for being “harmful” and somehow inflicting “violence and pain”. Those who believe words or images inflict “violence” should perhaps stop spurting their own hateful, false rhetoric and also cease condoning death threats to those they disagree with.
Then there’s a little bit reiterating the game age-rating, another few lines informing you when the game will be released and on what platforms, and the final sentence, a decent summary of their intended message.
The game will not be censored. We categorically refuse.
To their supporters, this message looked like a courageous display of open defiance against authoritarian demands to censor their work in order to appease a bunch of over-sensitive people who were trying to force their opinions onto everyone else. To their detractors, it was a shallow and insincere attempt to get some much-needed attention from The Gamers™ by exaggerating some negative comments they had received and trying to ingratiate their product into some tedious faux-Culture Wars bullshit arguments held mostly by people who are still angry about female Ghostbusters.
In other words, it looked like marketing. Now, without immediately assuming the worst, this message still throws up a lot of red flags, but before I get into them, I wanted to briefly touch on two games – I’m sure there are more – that might help explain exactly how we ended up in a situation where a developer might want to fabricate an outrage about their own product in order to help it sell better. And where better to start than with the game that was designed entirely with the sole aim of provoking enough outrage to try and trick people into believing that it was interesting enough to play; Hatred.
Hatred is… a lot. Hatred is an isometric shooter from 2015 featuring a protagonist simply known as ‘The Antagonist’ who wants to murderize everyone to death, because he hates them all and he hates himself and he hates the Earth and he wants to kill lots of people so that he can die and go to hell. That’s my charitable description of the game, taking plot points directly as they are recorded on the store page on Steam. For a less charitable description… Hatred is like if a school-shooter wrote a self-insert fic and cribbed the design of DC’s Lobo. Hatred is like if Shadow the Hedgehog was Adults-Only and the soundtrack was done by Bullet For My Valentine. Hatred is Postal without the fun. Hatred is what old people who hate video games and watch a lot of Conservative news channels think Grand Theft Auto is. Do you remember that BuzzFeed article about that men’s rights activist who described the ‘red pill’ moment of his life as ‘when his mother tried to force him to take his diarrhea medicine? Hatred is like if that specific moment of time was a video game.
Overall though, Hatred is just a bad video game. It received widespread negative reviews from most publications, and even the ones who could look past how cringe-inducing and edgelord-y the whole thing was found it to be repetitive, buggy, and only a few hours long. So how do you convince people that it’s a good idea to spend their money on a bad product that they’re probably not going to enjoy?
Simple; just make it explicitly political and tell the people who agree with your politics that it would really own those stupid idiot snowflake libs if they bought your game specifically to stick it to, uh, them. You know. Those guys. Whoever the people you don’t like are, that’s specifically who will be upset if you buy this game! Those people are the worst, right? And they’re so gullible too! They just do whatever they’re told by the mainstream, and – oh, right, could you also please buy the special edition? It’s $20 extra but it comes with three whole pages of some sketches we did, and the entire nine-minute soundtrack. Plus, it’s $20 extra of owning the libs! You will? Great!
The developers of Hatred, who were also unsurprisingly caught liking Facebook posts of far-right nationalist groups, explicitly stated that they wanted to buck video game aesthetic trends such as ‘political correctness’, ‘politeness’ and the concept of video games as a form of art… which is kind of self-defeating when you’re intentionally designing a game in line with an explicitly political message supported by the themes and narrative, even if that message is nothing more serious than “There’s too much politeness in video games these days!”
Not to give the developers of Hatred literally any credit whatsoever, but I would be in remiss not to admit that there were calls to stop the game from being released, including a temporary removal from Steam Greenlight due to its violent content, before being brought back with an apology from Gabe Newell. But it’s hard to see this as the developers being censored or beaten down by ‘the man’ when it was clearly exactly what they were hoping would happen, because even before anyone had heard of Hatred, they were selling it as an outrage-magnet bound to cause controversy. The overwhelming negative reaction to Hatred was not from people wishing to censor it, but simply from people who genuinely thought that it looked like a shit game.
Naturally, The Gamers™ were smart enough that they required more than just a hollow promise that shelling out actual money for this miserable monochrome misanthropy would really stick it to someone, and Hatred was a commercial failure. I’m kidding of course, it was bombarded with positive reviews from Day 1.
I don’t want to go through too many of these for reasons related to ‘my will to live’, but let’s look at some. “Heil Gaben for not listening to whiny Democrats” is hopefully self-explanatory enough in terms of showing exactly the kind of audience that Hatred was hoping to get. Another positive review opens with a lengthy rant about how ‘trolls’ are harassing anyone who likes the game, and their reasoning for this is that they were banned from an internet forum for getting into arguments over it, and also for insulting My Little Pony because – I mean, fucking hell, this has to be a parody, right? No? Jesus. Another positive review just openly begins with “This is NOT a good game.” Then there’s someone bragging that they didn’t buy the game to enjoy it, but to “prove a point to the haters.” Them someone sums up the whole review section with “Made the SJWs mad. 10/10.” They paid $20 for this game when it came out and played it for less than an hour, solely to write that. Just think about that for a second.
My favourite positive review begins with a lengthy rant about ‘the media’ – no outlet in particular, just, you know, the whole media – because according to ‘them’ then playing this game will turn you into a psychopath, so they had to buy the game and give it a positive review to show their support. The reason this was my favourite is because after ranting at ‘them’, the reviewer lists several problems they had with the title, including but not limited to; terrible AI, the framerate constantly dropping, dull visuals, unclear objectives, hitboxes not working correctly, vehicles killing you in one hit regardless of how fast they’re travelling, and being shot to death through solid walls. And they still give it a positive review, because the quality of the game is ultimately irrelevant to them compared to supporting developers who are basically grifting off them.
I’m hesitant to include this because of how much of a stretch it is, but you might have seen a recent video from prominent Donkey Kong 64 speedrunner Hbomberguy discussing the so-called ‘War on Christmas’, in which he relates how far-right outlets with very poor reputations like InfoWars may intentionally make videos about the most redundant and stupid topics, in order to ensure that their audience is filled with people who are gullible enough to enjoy said content, who you can then exploit for easy money. He related this to a paper from a researcher at Microsoft entitled ‘Why do Nigerian scammers say they are from Nigeria?’ The idea is that while you are obviously a very smart and thinky person who would not be taken in by their poor grammar and the telltale signs of an obvious scam, by filtering you out of the scenario, they’re ensuring that the only people who actually respond to them are people who will be likely to fall for the ensuing scam.
On the one hand and I can see why relating the negative reputation of a questionable news outlet selling water filters and BRAIN FORCE™ to a video game company might be a little bit unusual. On the other hand, I would like to point out that in December 2020, the developers of Hatred released another isometric shooter that didn’t receive any kind of controversial attention, and that game currently has a total of 15 reviews, in comparison to Hatred’s 8,000+. To be fair, all 15 of those reviews are positive, although many of them immediately gush over how awesome and cool the developers are rather than focusing on the actual quality of the product.
This doesn’t make a great comparison for a game like Sense though. Hatred was designed from its conception to be a game that would court controversy, whereas Sense is just a fairly standard Clock Tower-inspired 2D survival horror game. The real success story when it comes to manufactured outrage comes from a company that was neither the developer nor the publisher of the game, but just a third-party company whose profits rely solely on persuading you to order imported games from them.
This story was a little more… extreme.
This is one of those stories that I keep coming back to in my head, because it just seems like… I mean, if you paid someone to write a fictional scenario in which a group of gullible but easily-angered people were tricked into giving their money away, I honestly don’t think you could come up with a better example than the Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 fiasco. It beggars belief.
You may be aware of the Dead or Alive franchise of fighting games, which happens to feature a roster of mostly attractive young woman who compete in tournaments to presumably win enough money to purchase the sports bra that they desperately need. It’s known for having pretty detailed jiggle physics, which led to the creation of a spin-off series, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. All of those attractive female characters, only now they’re in bikinis and playing volleyball, along with some gambling mini-games, relationship mechanics, and a surprising variety of activities in the sequel, like riding jet skis, water slides, or engaging in epic… butt battles.
I do actually want to throw out a little disclaimer here, because while I wholly disagree with the cynical marketing methods I’m about to go into, I really don’t want to give off the vibe that I’m making fun of anyone who enjoys these games. They aren’t critical darlings (although I was genuinely surprised at how positive the reception to the first game was) and I couldn’t honestly say that I think they’re objectively ‘good’ by any measure, but at the same time, if you want to play the titty-bounce bikini volleyball game, you fucking play the titty-bounce bikini volleyball game. Play it proudly with your head held high, because you can play whatever the hell you want, and don’t take shit from anyone who looks down on you for doing so. It’s not my thing, but I can say this; I’ve played weirder. My friend made me play Huuma Mina: The Secret of Immortality for a podcast once and I ended up 100%-ing it and… you know what, let’s just move on. Don’t look that game up.
So unsurprisingly, the Xtreme Beach Volleyball series never really gained a fanbase to rival Zelda, or Street Fighter, or the original Dead or Alive series. So, when it was time to release the third game, Koei Tecmo decided that it would only be released in Asian territories. While the volleyball spin-off games did reliably sell more copies in North America, taking into account the size and population of North America and Japan, the diminishing sales of the series in general, and the much more impressive opening week figures in Japan, it was extremely uncontroversial to say that the series was just more popular in Japan than it was in North America. If you want to know the specific figures, don’t worry, they’re coming.
Enter Playasia, a company that makes its money by selling you imported copies of games that weren’t released in your region. This was a great opportunity for them to make some money; sure, the series didn’t have loads of fans in North America, but it certainly had some.
And you know what’s better than making money? Making more money!
And so, apropos of literally nothing, Playasia boldly announced to the world in November 2015 that the real reason that Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 wasn’t coming to Western audiences was because of SJWs. It wasn’t because the publisher had looked at the sales figures and concluded that it would be safer to make a profit just by selling the game where it was notably more popular; no, that was just a cover story for what really happened; Mr John SJW himself had strode into the offices of Koei Tecmo and threatened them into not releasing their wildly successful volleyball simulator, all for the sole purpose of preventing The Gamers™ from seeing some titty in their video game. And it was all Anita Sarkeesian’s idea, probably, and George Soros was probably involved too.
While to the best of my knowledge, Playasia never actually elaborated on their theory for why the SJWs were preventing Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 from being released, several people were quick to jump in with evidence of their own; the kind that actually looks like it makes sense, provided you don’t think about it for more than a minute. For instance, the series had reliably sold many more copies in America than in Japan – the first instalment sold 360,000 copies in America and only 140,000 in Japan (and only 80,000 in Europe because we’re all prudish and boring as fuck) and the second game sold around 150,000 copies in America and only 60,000 in Japan.
But consider the following; America is around 26 times larger than Japan, and has a population that’s four and a half times larger. For these reasons, for the series to truly be more popular in America, it would need to be outselling the series in Japan by almost five games to one, and instead they were barely managing half of that. The much larger region to sell to would also balloon shipping and marketing costs, and while the series certainly sold more in America, it sold faster in Japan; according to VGChartz, in its opening week in America, Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball 2 sold under 10,000 copies (9,551), whereas in Japan, opening week sales were more than quadruple that (46,307).
But all of this boring mathematics and reasoning only matters if you actually care about the sales figures of a Dead or Alive spin-off series, and the business decisions of Koei Tecmo, and most people – even ardent video game fans – honestly don’t. But do you know what people did care about? SJWs. Especially in late 2015, when… a thing was happening that I’m not going to talk about because it would take another 10,000 words just to cover the basics of that entire shitshow. Suffice to say though, claiming that SJWs were the reason why a game wasn’t being sold was guaranteed to get you plenty of free advertising, and a loyal fanbase of the most absolutely gullible fucking morons to ever walk the earth. How gullible? Gullible enough not to even consider for a second “Hey, maybe this company that literally depends on persuading people to purchase imported copies of video games only released in certain regions, is possibly lying to me about why a video game wasn’t released in a certain region, in a cheap attempt to make me buy it?” Nobody has time to consider things like that; not when there’s SJWs to be owned, fictional or otherwise.
Once again, to the surprise of no-one, Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 went on to break Playasia’s pre-order records, and later their sales records too. An outcome which, of course, had absolutely nothing to do with why Playasia had decided in the first place to unnecessarily insert the game into an ongoing series of toxic internet controversies by stating with no evidence that the SJWs were responsible for the title not getting a Western release. I’m sure that they just felt really passionately about freedom of speech, or something, and the fact that they made a lot of money by conveniently persuading people to purchase a game they otherwise wouldn’t have cared about had absolutely nothing to do with their decisions at any point at all.
But hey! At least now there’s proof that there’s an American audience for Dead or Alive Xtreme, so you can be sure that the next time a game in that series is released, Koei Tecmo will be sure to release it in all regions. Unless of course, their interpretation of these events is that it would be a huge waste to spend millions of dollars on shipping, advertising and production for American audiences, who have just proven that they would happily pay exorbitant fees to import the copies from Asia instead, essentially removing the need for localization at all. Oops! But what are the odds that’s going to happen?
Now that we’ve covered two examples of companies manufacturing, or at the very least, greatly exaggerating outrages with the intent of drumming up free marketing, it’s time to start talking Sense (first time for everything, har har.) First, I want to go over some of the red flags in the statement they posted that may have helped some people come to the conclusion that it was all a marketing campaign, or at the very least, aimed specifically towards the same demographic that was being targeted by Hatred and Dead or Alive Xtreme.
The first red flag for me is something that I’ve taken to calling the PragerU technique, even though it wasn’t initially established by them and they haven’t done anything particularly special with it; one thing that “PragerU” – short for Prager University, although it’s only a university in the same way that Dr Pepper is a licensed medical professional – have a “habit” of doing is putting certain “words” in quotation marks in order to “imply” that someone has actually “said” those words, when “actually”, it’s just a fake quote that they’re “making up”. It’s a pretty basic strawman technique; if the people you’re arguing with won’t say anything stupid, just invent something stupid and pretend that they said it anyway.
Another red flag is the line “self-centred crowds who care solely about grandstanding.” This is a pretty straightforward allusion to ‘virtue-signalling’, a phrase used especially by the far-right, which in theory is when someone publicly does something or espouses an opinion solely for the sake of trying to look righteous and, in layman’s terms, score social brownie points, but in practise will be applied to you if you ever express literally any opinion that isn’t reprehensibly racist. I live in Britain, where plenty of journalists make a solid living regurgitating the same crap about virtue-signalling – usually with a dash of ‘cancel culture’ thrown in for good measure – that always boils down to ‘My morals are basically non-existent and other people criticize me for that and clearly it must be their fault somehow that I’m a garbage person.’ It’s also kind-of a self-defeating criticism, because if you accuse someone of virtue-signalling, aren’t you just virtue-signalling that for all of your faults, at least you’re not a virtue-signaller? In which case, you’re virtue-signalling about your lack of virtue-signalling, in which case you should really stop virtue-signalling, although having said that, I now also need to stop virtue-signa- okay, you get the gist, next point.
The last line to raise a few eyebrows is “Those who believe words or images inflict “violence” should perhaps stop spurting their own hateful, false rhetoric and also cease condoning death threats to those they disagree with.” It’s phrased in the most sensationalist way possible, it puts more words in the mouths of the people who are allegedly disagreeing with the publisher, and the assumed ridiculousness of something like words or images inflicting violence isn’t really that ridiculous if you take a second to actually think about it. I don’t want to go into detail for what I hope is an obvious reason, but I can think of plenty of words and topics that would be really bad to just randomly bring up to people without confirming that they were comfortable discussing them. And ‘images’ is even more open to interpretation, because we could get into things like epilepsy or just shock sites, which, you know, if I sent someone [REDACTED] in a work email and they threw up, then I’m not sure whether I would legally be responsible for inflicting violence upon them, but I am very sure that I would lose my job. Anyway, Top Hat Studios conflate this debate with hateful, false rhetoric, and imply that anyone on the other side of this argument condones death threats.
It’s not as straightforward as that though; I’m far from the first person to express skepticism about the apparent demand to censor a game that most people had never heard of, and in response, the developers compiled a few images highlighting the abuse that they had received, and posted all of it on Twitter in a follow-up post. It’s a combination of replies, quote-tweets and direct messages, and just to confirm in the loudest voice possible, yeah, there are absolutely death threats and messages of harassment here.
There is a lot to unpack here, but the most important thing to keep in mind is that these tweets are entirely real, and while I can’t verify the direct messages, there’s also very little doubt in my mind that people would resort to sending death threats on the internet over something so incredibly trivial. The developers of this game absolutely were harassed by a bunch of shitty people, and while we could go back and forth on the topic of morality in marketing and the ethics of exaggerating an outrage for personal gain, that is at least a topic where I can see both sides having a point, as opposed to ‘hahaha I’m going to send this developer a death threat,’ which is unambiguously shitty and only done by people who need to get in the sea.
There are still a couple of twists though. The first, and most-shocking to me, is that when you imagine the kind of person sending death threats to this developer, you would think from their description that it would be the model of a stereotypical SJW strawman, someone so convinced of their righteousness that they consider sending anonymous death threats to be the actions of those occupying the moral high ground. But it looks like a sizeable chunk of the negative feedback came from one of the most reliable breeding grounds of harassment; the TERFs.
I decided against including a screenshot of some of their messages as an example of some of the transphobic comments the developers received, because… well, bluntly speaking, because I don’t want to put that shit on my website, but examples can be found in the screenshots that Top Hat Studios uploaded, and… yup, that sure is a lot of transphobia. I also don’t want to sound biased, because I fully acknowledge that there are people who I would consider on my ideological ‘side’ who send death threats as well, but when I saw these anonymous direct messages and started to think about the possibility that they could have been faked, nothing could have persuaded me more quickly that they were the real deal than a huge heaping of transphobia. Most transphobes can only do four things; send death threats, smell like poo, receive endless invitations to appear on BBC Newsnight to talk about cancel culture, and nobody knows what the fourth thing is because they haven’t gotten tired of the first three yet.
That said, there are still a few curious things about the screenshots shared by Top Hat Studios. For one thing, there are five posts with five screenshots, but three of these screenshots are just close-ups of the original screenshot, which does make it look a little bit like someone is trying to… bloat the evidence just a little bit. But the most questionable thing about the evidence is this.
This… is not harassment. Don’t get me wrong, the ‘Sack the incel game designers’ is extremely mean-spirited and also muddies the waters in regards to whether this is a call for censorship, or whether this is just some rando’s opinion that they have every right to express. But making a – honestly quite funny – joke about the character design is emphatically not, as Top Hat Studios put it “hateful, false rhetoric” that condones death threats. Also, since I mentioned that the joke was funny, I should also disclose that I found the tweet and the poster turned out to be – you guessed it – a massive TERF, so there’s that. I don’t really have much more to say about that specific facet of the controversy but I am really curious how many people on the far-right who bought this game to stick it to the SJWs were aware that they were also actively taking a stand against transphobia, an intolerance that they usually don’t have much of a problem with.
There’s also the way that the messages accompanying the screenshots were framed. This is… um, yeah.
I can understand their frustration if this was all completely sincere, but accusing people who were skeptical of your intentions of gaslighting you is a pretty big conclusion to jump to. The “curious” (???) individuals who apparently have a vested interest in slandering them because of their connections also seems to be completely unfounded given that no-one in the video game industry seemed aware that this game even existed. And that’s not because they were ignoring it for shady, political, “curious” reasons; it’s just because there are thousands of indie games to cover every day and they don’t all get the attention they deserve. It sucks, but it’s not a conspiracy against you. And while I made a passing reference to GamerGate earlier, accusing unnamed individuals in ‘the industry’ of having it out for you has to be an intentional dog whistle to some incredibly shitty people.
Then there’s how the tweets were received. Articles went up quickly on Nichegamer and Techraptor, two GamerGate hubs from way back in the early 1900s when GamerGate was still a thing, and also bizarrely enough on BoundingIntoComics, that site by that one ComicsGate guy – I say ‘one’ because there’s literally only one notable figure from the comics book industry who got involved with that shitshow, and I’m using ‘notable’ in the most generous way possible. Other than that though, except for a few people questioning the validity of Top Hat Studio’s claims and pointing out similarities with other manufactured controversies, it didn’t get a huge deal of attention. Nearly 6,000 retweets and 20,000 likes, but other than that, it was mostly forgotten pretty quickly.
But I’m sure the publishers weren’t too upset that the story came and went pretty quickly, because a number of people immediately vowed to buy the game “on principle” for standing up to the SJWs, and while sales figures are hard to find, a graph showing the number of positive reviews received over time was not.
And here’s what the majority of those positive reviews look like.
This is my favourite out of all of them.
Quick aside; ‘Yellow Flash Guy’ is another really big ComicsGate guy on Twitter, and he’s the only other one I remember because he once bought a comic book with a bunch of female characters, and then filmed himself methodically going through every page and stabbing all of the panels prominently featuring female characters with a pair of scissors. That’s one way to make sure people remember who are, I guess. But the real kicker of this review isn’t that nod to the type of people who were driven to defend this game, or even the proud acknowledgement that the reviewer doesn’t even intend to play it, but the mention of “Cultural Marxism”. Let’s be totally clear; I understand that when a phrase gets overused to the point of meaninglessness then you can easily forget how serious its origins were; Cultural Marxism is quite literally a Nazi conspiracy theory that the Nazis created and spread in order to drum up hatred against their opponents so that nobody would care when they tried to murder-kill them, because they were Cultural Marxists, who are trying to destroy society, because something something Twitter suspension, they’re putting ‘Happy Holidays’ on Starbucks cups now, etc…
And maybe that’s a fitting punishment. If Sense never gains a reputation based on its own merits, which seems extremely unlikely at this point, given that most of the people who just bought it wholly have no intention of playing it, then this will be the game’s legacy. It’s that game that people are spreading Nazi conspiracies about in the reviews, because that’s who the publisher decided to market the game to in order to get some quick attention.
So in conclusion, do I think that there is enough evidence to say empirically, with finality and certainty, that the outrage surrounding Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story, was manufactured with the intent of drumming up sales?
… To tell you the truth, I was planning for most of this time to say “No, it’s very likely but there isn’t enough evidence to say for sure, and this is more just a general bemoaning that the video game industry as a whole uses manipulation and deceit in order to trick people into purchasing their products rather than just creating something that people will want to buy, and it also reflects poorly on the community that they are not only this gullible, but also that developers receiving death threats now is such a commonplace occurrence that it’s not even remotely unusual!”
But then I saw this.
Hey look, Sense is getting a physical release in some Asian regions. And who’s that helping with the imports? Why, it’s Playasia of course. Not going to lie, all benefit of the doubt that I was happy to give Top Hat Studios kind of flew out of the window when I saw this.
But my general point remains unchanged regardless. I’m not particularly angry at the developers or publishers of Sense for trying to get a little more attention for their game. To get angry at them and only them would be a huge waste of time when what they’ve done is just a symptom of a larger problem. Ideally, the video game industry would be a place where people just make video games, and those people who make the best video games and who treat their employees well would be rewarded with money for their product. But in the age of microtransactions and false advertising and the death/rebirth of Mr. Peanut, all bets are off. And if your only goal is to make as much money as possible with all ethics thrown out of the window, then there’s obviously nothing wrong with riling up one of the most angry and gullible subsets of people on the internet into buying your product, and all you’ll have to put up with in return is those same people citing actual Nazi conspiracy theories in positive reviews of your product as a reason for why they bought it.
Also, I understand that I’ve been going on a lot about how gullible I think the people who fell for this are, so I would like to remind you all of what I admitted at the beginning of this article; that I bought Sense: A Cyberpunk Ghost Story solely because I saw the developers telling me not to buy it on their Steam page, and I thought that was such a cool and pro-consumer thing to say that I bought it. Was that also just another one of their marketing techniques? I have no idea; I’m sure they wouldn’t have complained if someone had written “Indie studio urges players NOT to purchase their game as it doesn’t yet meet their high standards!” or something similar.
But the fact is, it could have been. And I’m not saying for a second that we should be judging these companies as guilty based solely on the possibility that they could be guilty, but we should all be disappointed that we’ve gotten to the point where the shittiest possible interpretation of events is also a fairly plausible one.
I do not know if Top Hat Studios manufactured the outrage around their game in order to give it a brief boost in popularity, but I do know that following games like Hatred and Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, it’s certainly a viable – and profitable – advertising strategy. And that’s just a little bit sad considering that unlike the people who bought the game to stick it to the SJWs, I bought the game because I thought it looked alright and I genuinely wanted to play it.
Anyway, thanks for reading! Check back in five to seven years when I finally get around to playing Sense and can actually talk about it based on its own merits.