Laughter filled a small corner of the crowded convention space. In the middle of the largest show aimed at putting gaming's biggest and flashiest on full display, laughter is often in short supply. Excitement? Oh, you better believe it! Smiles? All over the place. Cheers? Constantly ringing out. But laughter is a rarer thing. So when I heard laughter from around a tiny booth tucked away on the show floor of E3 2017, I knew I had to investigate. And that's when I found it - a game so pure and good that it improved my life with its simple existence.
Players control the titular disco bear, a polar bear who loves to dance. After suffering an embarrassing, traumatic incident in 1977, Bear leaves the dance floor for good. Five years later, he comes out of retirement to bust a move one last time to save the local roller skating rink. The characters are all still images of animals in various poses of varying ridiculousness. The gameplay isn't deep, merely using the arrow keys to boogie to the best of the player's ability. The idea appears simple on paper, but the humorous execution leaves players smirking and laughing along with the comedic narrative.
Disco Bear isn't the most complex game ever created, but it is certainly an incredibly effective game at achieving its goals. While I watched people play it in that E3 booth, everyone was smirking and chuckling as they wiggled their way through Disco Bear's adventure. I can honestly say that my life is better for having played it, and that's not something that can be said for a lot of games that I've played throughout my life.
I had an opportunity to talk with Katie Pustolski, a graduate student at the University of Southern California and one of the co-creators of Disco Bear. Here's what I learned.
Could you tell me a little about Disco Bear? I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it.
Katie Pustolski: [Brian Handy and I,] we made this within a course of 15 weeks. The project is a heartfelt story about a bear being asked to dance again. It's an interactive narrative, it's very simple controls; it's only arrow keys, and there's no objective, no challenge, it's really just kind of a cute, silly experience. One of our experience goals was actually just to make people laugh, and smile, and it seems to be working really well! We've been getting a lot of positive feedback. The best thing about showing this game is seeing everybody's reactions. Certain people react differently, but there are certain points within the story where most people just burst out into laughter, or it's so unexpected--they weren't expecting the girl in the beginning to die. It's dark humor.
So how did you actually go about and get pictures of the animals? Did you get those online?
Pustolski: Yes. A lot of searching online; we tried our best to find images under creative commons licenses so that we can actually use them, cut them out and whatnot. Actually, during the credits, we have this giant wall of text that credits to all the pictures that we found online, and we did the same with sounds. We also have a music composer on the project who made the music, who is not here, but he is Bill Piyatut. He is not at the table at the moment, but yeah, other than that, we had Eileen Mary O'Connell who is a comedic consultant, so we asked her about comedy, and how do we try to make this funny, what can we do better?
How did you decide on "Disco Bear"? That seems like a very specific thing, or alternatively, a very random thing.
Pustolski: Oh yeah, so random. So during the ideation phase, when Brian and I were brainstorming, we knew we wanted to do something funny. Something with comedy, and spoil the space because this is a space within gaming and interactive media that's not touched on a lot. We're fans of awkward physics games like Octodad, but we didn't really want to do awkward physics, we wanted to experiment with other forms.
Other forms of awkwardness?
Pustolski: Awkwardness, and something to get a really good reaction from the player that's silly and fun and makes people smile. A little bit whimsical in a way. And we found through prototyping that simple interaction, such as playing with the arrow keys, was enough to get people smiling and laughing at a bear just dancing on the screen. One of the inspirations for this project was Colin's Bear. I'm not sure if you're familiar with it? It's like this small video on YouTube, I believe it's around 10 years old, but don't quote me on that because I'm not sure when it came out. This student made an animation project, but didn't feel like he got a lot out of his animation class, so he fulfilled all the requirements for the project within 20 or so seconds with this awkward dancing bear [laughs] and at the end it says 'Thanks for nothing.' That was one of the inspirations, and then of course, it just went from there, from that prototype of a dancing bear and simple interactions, expanded it, and it became what it is today.
A lot of people approach video games and they have these grand visions of castles in the sky and giant wars and sweeping stories. So what made you focus on a dancing bear rather than a bigger, more hyperbolic experience?
Pustolski: Brian and I worked on smaller projects together in the past for school, and we found that we have very similar humor. And again, during the ideation phase, we were trying to figure out what are we doing for this project? Ok, how about comedy? Ok, we we have a similar sense of humor, let's give it a go, let's try something in this area, because again, it's not touched on much. we wanted to experiment a little bit.
So the base goal, just make people smile, make people laugh.
Pustolski: I really like making people laugh and smile, so it just fit.
How did you wind up at E3 with this game?
Pustolski: It was actually Brian's idea to submit to IndieCade and we submitted it, and I guess they did some kind of judging and it was picked! And suddenly, we were here! And we're showing at E3, and this is great because this is my first time showing a game at a show or a festival; I'm a newbie at this. But Brian helped show a different project last year so he did something like this last year; he has more experience showing than I do. He's very good at showing games to people, and I'm still working on that.
What is it like? Because not everyone gets to show off a game at E3. I'm sure there are good parts, and probably not so great parts.
Pustolski: Good parts is networking with people, and obviously seeing people's reactions to the game. So far we've gotten a lot of positive feedback, positive responses and that's fantastic. Bad part, it's very tiring! And I go home, and my feet feel like they're on fire, but it's totally worth it.
Would you ever considered making an expanded retail version of Disco Bear?
Pustolski: We haven't discussed anything beyond what we already have, but this next year, Brian and I have to work on our thesis projects.
Disco Bear can't be your thesis project!?
Pustolski: Well, it doesn't count, because we have a full program, and a full year of working on our thesis. And it's individual too. So Brian has his own project he'll be working on, and I have my own project.
How can people play Disco Bear? Is it out?
Pustolski: Ah! Yes! It is out online right now at discobeargame.com. It is based in the browser. It's not mobile, it's only desktop/laptop because you need the arrow keys to play, but otherwise it's free, and you can go online right now and play it.
Go out and play Disco Bear - it will at the very least improve your day with a ridiculous dancing bear.