There’s no way I could possibly be prepared for Samurai Punk’s bizzaro virtual reality experience, The American Dream. What starts as an amusement park tour of American gun culture (perceived through wistful, rose-colored glasses) slowly descends into a whirlpool of insanity that would be funny were it not for my country currently tearing itself apart over gun control. The interactive adventure uses the same offbeat style of comedy similar to The Firesign Theater and Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which takes a simple concept and subverts expectations and norms to produce something a little for weird and crazy. The American Dream ends up being one of the most abstract and troubling VR experiences you’ll find on the PlayStation 4. I’m actually surprised that Sony brought something so disturbing, so funny and nonsensical to the console.
The American Dream is a first person nightmare through the heart of America’s obsession with firearms. Designed after an on-rails funhouse attraction, the journey was made by the fictional American Rifle Association as a celebration of the second amendment. As you ride along in a small cart, the ride puts you in the shoes of a child growing into an adult in a version of America where everyone worships the gun. In other words, this is the sort of wet dream National Rifle Association president Wayne LaPierre and his walking mouthpiece, Dana Loesch, would masturbate to on a daily basis. Guns are so pervasive that they are used as tools in every aspect of daily life, from feeding children and flipping burgers to washing cars and cutting hair. As you ride into one scene to another, each decorated by all sorts of cardboard cutout props, a jaunty 1950s era recording narrates your journey through an American child’s most meaningful milestones such as adolescence, the first date, marriage, first sexual experience, childbirth, and getting a job. These themed areas exist as an excuse to shoot stuff with the pistols that are always attached to your Move wands. Shooting targets is as easy as pointing and pulling the trigger but some weapons, like the shotgun and the bolt-action rifle, require two hands to handle and reload. Shooting burgers off the grill, and using guns to pick up and eat snack food may sound like fun and games but as you go through life, the tone gets edgier and more uncomfortable, leading to a finale that’s similar to a fever dream you can’t wake from.
The American Dream makes creating biting social commentary look easy. Developed by a group of Australians, they have that same “outsiders looking in” mentality that served Grand Theft Auto well over the years. Guns and gun fever is the butt of the joke as the well written dialog highlights the attitudes of hyper-masculinity and nationalist patriotism commonly associated with poking fun at gun nuts. However, I found Samurai Punk’s commentary to be a little too on the nose. The developers aren’t afraid to go to some really dark places in their pursuit of a joke. The game’s tutorial, for example, has you eating baby food from the barrel of a gun. There’s another sequence where you have to match the serial number of a gun that killed your mother, all the while the narrator rails against the idea of an electronic database to make tracking this stuff easy (leaving you to just give up and move on, allowing your mother’s murderer go free with a shrug and an “oh well!”). During the segment on courtship, a romantic dinner turns into a recreation of the infamous Russian Roulette scene from The Deer Hunter, complete with a Russian grandmother screaming at you in Vietnamese. Timing is another strike against the game. Although they could not have predicted events leading to the game’s release, The American Dream is made all the more uncomfortable because of the shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida that occurred a month prior. In fact, there’s one part of the game where you’re sitting in front of the television, opening cans of beer with a pistol, and a news report about mass shooters references dialog pulled from real, national headlines and news reports in relation to the Stoneman shooting. And because of the war of words being fought on both sides of the gun culture debate, it’s hard to sit through the game’s dialog that doesn’t go far enough below the surface.
On the flip side, I enjoyed most of the game’s subversive material funny but sometimes, it doesn’t go far enough. There are several opportunities to screw with the game whenever it asks you questions and it makes me sad that there’s no payoff for being a smartass. Upon completing the tutorial, you’re presented with a series of demographic questions designed to let the player specify their gender and sexual orientation, with the game adjusting itself accordingly. Just for laughs, I made myself male with an interest in same sex relationships, to which the game had nothing to say. The only notable side effect of this partnership was my partnership breaking parts of the game. The game audio kept switching genders and at one point, my male husband was somehow pregnant with our child.
The American Dream is one of those games that’s really hard to recommend. If you love cutting social commentary of Grand Theft Auto but wished it went deeper, then this is the experience for you. It’s a bizarre and unsettling experience with an ever-present darkness hovering just beneath the service. The flippant attitude towards guns is matched only by the fervor of the narrator who breaks character to make you sit through “educational” film strips about America’s gun economy. Sadly, the game isn’t without its technical problems. Whenever I had to use two-handed weapons, the PSVR had difficulty lot with keeping my weapon steady. I assume this was caused by the Move wands blocking the headset anytime I wanted to aim down the sight. I also experienced frequent bugs that prevented some scenes to advance or take a long time to trigger the next dialog pieces. In some instances, i had to do a full restart to make it all work again. Bad audio mixing between speech and music causes problems, making you miss important piece is the script because of the game volume.
Samurai Punk’s The American Dream is a really weird thing. It’s a dark journey into a gun-toting caricature of the United States that’s almost too real. And because of the number of shootings being reported on the news this year alone, consider this entire VR experience a trigger warning. You’ll see and do things that are inherently terrible (the dinner scene, for example, puts you in the position of having to pantomime the act of putting a gun in your mouth) which, ironically, is not the craziest things you’ll experience. If you’re the kind of person who played Jazzpunk and thought, “Nah, this is way too mainstream,” then The American Dream should easily satisfy your hunger for pure, uncut absurdity. Just don’t expect to find an answer to the gun debate.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Sony Playstation 4 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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