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When you first load up MTA Country, the screen flashes a virtual version of Gregg T., the quite literal poster boy of the New York City subway. It comes with a message: Gregg needs to get to work, and “only Andrew and Bill can help.” Gregg is then joined by New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can never seem to stop fighting about who—or what—can fix the subways. (And also, everything else.)
An overflowing trash can shoots the trio out into a subway car, and your journey begins.
Earlier this week, as New Yorkers digested the usual routine of subway delays and political in-fighting—this time over a $19 billion plan by the MTA that could (maybe) bring the system into the 21st century— MTA Country made its debut. The game, an urban spoof of the 1994 SNES classic Donkey Kong Country, challenges players to hop over track fires, gaps, rats wielding pizza slices, and stalled trains to deliver Gregg to his final destination (which, spoiler, is in another city).
The game is the brainchild of the designers behind GOP Arcade, a collection of games that (as VICE’s Waypoint reported last year) spoofed the ugly absurdity of what life has been like over the past few years. Such games include: Thoughts and Prayers: The Game!; EpiPen Tycoon, and Bomb the Right Place.
VICE spoke with Mike Lacher, one of the game's creators.
VICE: So how did this game come about?
Mike Lacher: Me and my colleagues [Chris Baker and Brian Moore] all live and work in New York City, and we saw how impossible it is to get to work on time now. So that was definitely an inspiration. And then we're also seeing just all of the discussion, anger, and arguing happening over what the solution is, who's to blame... It really just feels like such a giant quagmire where nobody is responsible, nobody wants to pay, but everyone wants the thing fixed. For us, we've made a lot of those games before, so, I think seeing a topic that we really felt passionate about, and we felt that a lot of other people felt passionate about, we thought it could be good territory for a game.
How did you settle on a spoof of Donkey Kong Country ?
Our usual process is sitting down and figuring out like, if we make a game out of this, what's the actual game mechanic here? We gave it some thought, but once we thought of Donkey Kong, and the mine cart levels, we were like, 'Oh, yeah, that happens in like a decrepit, broken down mine. So this should happen in the decrepit, broken down New York City subway.' And similarly, the two protagonists are Donkey and Diddy Kong. It was like, 'Oh, it should be Cuomo and de Blasio,' to motivate the journey in some way. And for us, it felt like a natural choice to make it about getting Gregg T to work. He's sort of the mascot of the New York City subway; crammed into a tiny space, staring at his face, while stuck and delayed on a train... It soon became, 'Oh, we have to do this.'
What's your background with video game design?
It's pretty casual. I've worked in different jobs, whether it be developing training software or doing more advertising, or creative work. So that's sort of my background. None of us had any formal game design background. All three of us just sort of have experience making a lot of projects on the internet for fun, generally to make people laugh. We've collaborated on a bunch of stuff in the past, and so making topical games is something we got excited about because it wasn't something we had seen done that frequently, and we thought it could be a fun way to sort of cut through the constant news and constant hauntings happening in the world.
Some of us are freelance; others are full-time at other places, mostly doing creative work for agencies and tech companies, and stuff like that. Games are something we do for fun. We did a thing with The New York Times last year—the 'Voter Suppression Trail,' which is Oregon Trail but you play as a minority voter—and with The Outline. So we do it with other publications occasionally, but a lot of the time it's just us, making fun.
With GOP Arcade, your games focused on broader national issues, and the quixotic shit happening with the 2016 presidential campaign. So what was it like focusing on such a local issue in your own backyard for the first time?
Whether it's local or national, it's really the stuff that we feel most passionate and excited about that end up being the games that have been the best for us. I think the subways affect us and we feel strongly about them. Certainly it won't have the same reach as Thoughts and Prayers or the EpiPen Tycoon, which people all over the country responded to. But we also want to make something that will delight all of our friends and family who are also stuck on an F train with a floor covered in vomit for 3 hours underground.
Have you gotten any traffic outside of New York?
It's definitely New York centric; the vast majority of players have been in the New York area, but you can sort of see people from all over the country playing it. Especially people in other urban areas that probably have their own mass transit woes: there's definitely a good amount of people from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago. And certainly there's some people from D.C., who are probably just feeling really smug about the whole thing.
So what's the point of making an online game about the subway—or even gun violence and insane medical costs, for that matter? What purpose do they serve?
To me, it's just a different way to look at an issue. It might be more fun, or more funny, or more strange, and I think when you can have a different way to look at things, maybe there's a chance of changing what happens in the world. I think what a game does well is point out the absurdity of the situation; this debate often gets mired in a lot of seriousness, but if you step back and look at it like this sort of giant, Donkey Kong-style clusterfuck that it is, then maybe people can get a little bit more perspective on it and move toward actually figuring out a solution versus having hypothetical conversations about free markets versus state-run lines, nickel fares, and the legacy of the IRT.
Have you heard at all from the MTA?
We have not. Hopefully their hands are too full replacing all of the broken signals, that they don't have time to reach out to us. I hope we're low on their list of priorities right now.
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