A burbling voice introduces Capsule Silence XXIV as “a video game that will change the way you game for the rest of your life...$33 million dollar budget, soundtracked by pretty popular band, rated top game by all the top game blogs in the world.”
This was the pitch line on behalf of the independent electronic outfit Anamanaguchi for nearly two years.
Taken at face value, Capsule Silence’s creation packs a story of shadowy, blue-chip gaming developers who exploited a growing band’s money, talents and identities, cheapening them by presenting the wider world with a bloated, corporate rendering of their art. Deleted Twitter rants, a leaked beta version and a small media scuff followed, almost entirely without comment from the band.
If that sounds absurd, it’s because some of it is. Anamanaguchi admitted to Billboard Dance that the Internet drama was by design -- the game’s leak was intentional, its developer a single designer with a similar taste for tongue-in-cheek hoaxes. For cynics and sleuths on sites like 4Chan and r/Anamanaguchi, comes as no surprise, but the band has largely kept up the kayfabe since the game’s release nearly two years ago. When brought up in interviews as recent as last month, the band brushes past Capsule Silence questions, calling its creation process “heartbreaking.”
The past few years have provided a long list of bands attempting cheeky, edgy, or ill-advised stunts -- ones that, when mishandled, permanently damage the bonds of trust built with the people that follow them, as outlets or as fans. Many have brushed Capsule Silence XXIV into that category, but that discounts the sweat equity that went into making the game feel like a fan’s permanent memento. Playing it feels like ripping through expensive wallpaper to reveal a safe of private treasures.
For the first time since the game was released in March of 2016, the band sat down with Billboard to frankly discuss how Capsule Silence XXIV was made and what it means to them now.
For a time, Anamanaguchi was a vulnerably trendy type of band. After years of applying circuit-breaking sound boards on gaming cartridges to sugar-crystal pop and rock, the Brooklyn quartet caught a wave of cult-fan support in 2011 after soundtracking the Scott Pilgrim vs. The World video game. Music outlets reached for terms like “chiptune,” “nintendocore” and “bitpop,” subgenres coined using half-truths and assumptions of the artist’s provincially vintage interests. The band also capitalized relatively early on SoundCloud and Kickstarter, the latter of which they used to raise more than $250,000 for a spiraling rollout of their 2013 album Endless Fantasy. All of this bolstered the idea that Anamanaguchi was open to manipulation and constant asks from people presuming their own leverage: that the band’s fanbase was fleeting or their vision limited, and it would be wisest for them to partner up before the bubble of nostalgia burst from underneath them.
“We've definitely found our way into a fair share of unpleasant experiences," guitarist/songwriter Ary Warnaar said. "People with very little taste try to exploit an underground culture with huge numbers. Whether it's gaming or music, we've been a go-to for many people who are kind of like, 'hey what's up? We heard you do cool nerdy music, can you do this?’"
In a “resting period” between Endless Fantasy and their promised next record [USA], Anamanaguchi began staking out a new route to release songs the four had been writing and recording independently. For all the band’s successes on it, SoundCloud had also become a hamster wheel for maintaining relevancy, where artists were expected to drop collaborations and ‘singles’ in an almost-daily rhythm of releases to stoke their fan base. The band didn’t want to be chained to that platform or schedule for these tracks -- a hodgepodge of record-potential demos and uncategorizable musical exercises -- and sonically desired “a clean slate” before embarking on [USA], whose shot as a step away from the 'chiptune' pigeonhole had been called as early as 2014. So the band weaned themselves off the app, as its model was showing its most robust potential, and searched for the right medium for their message.
"I have this motto stuck in my head, from Marshall McLuhan: 'if it works, it's obsolete,'” guitarist/songwriter Peter Berkman said. “SoundCloud worked, therefore, it was obsolete. We're much more comfortable doing stuff that doesn't necessarily work -- at least, I am. When we had this mixtape, it had to be released in a way that was very...silly. [laughs] And elaborate. And most importantly, fitting.”
While in Austin for performance around SXSW in 2014, Berkman met Ben Esposito of Arcane Kids, a game-making collective that would later catch acclaim for their surreal fangames in Sonic Dreams Collection. As “the only weirdo kids” around and Berkman already a fan, the pair were naturally drawn to each other’s tastes. Over the weekend, Esposito shared with them the demo for his game Donut County, and Berkman pitched his idea: a track-packed, ultra-meta indie game that would become Capsule Silence XXIV.
Berkman’s concept was both layered and satirical, arranged like a maze that intentionally left clearings in its hedges. Styled after major-studio RPGs like Final Fantasy, the player is made to roam around a high-fantasy universe rife with technical errors and inconsistent graphics, until they commit “a little transgression,” -- a hallmark of Esposito’s games. Once the player typed the right command into ‘developer’s console’ -- a feature most casual gamers feel uncomfortable doing -- they gain access to an “architectural palace” that allows players to hunt for cassettes containing the band’s new music, hidden within ‘rooms’ designed around each of the band members. By rummaging through these fantasized workspaces, fans would be given not only new music, but the rush of finding something odd -- an email containing Berkman’s ‘alternate House of Cards finale’ theory, or Warnaar’s obsession with cars -- that only they knew.
“I think Capsule Silence was made to not be found by everybody, in the way a time capsule is made,” Berkman said. “But it was also made to be as earnest and piecemeal as a time capsule is. We were trying to get across with this preservation of the weirdness of that time.”
“This is the opposite of what any manager who would be working with us would've wanted,” Warnaar added. “They would’ve been like, ‘No! We should get ten songs together and put out a single!’ So there was a lot of second-doubting what we were doing. This was making art, not being a professional musician [laughs]. It's a clear one-or-the-other [position]. This is not the natural route if we were trying to accomplish [being] just one.”
The other of Capsule Silence’s concepts -- which would become one of its stumbling blocks -- would be presenting it as a high-ticket collaboration with NHX, a non-existent game-maker rich enough to bank millions on a game and inept enough to ruin said game. It was a well-intentioned deceit meant to draw parallels the band saw between the reputations of AAA-title game developers and titanic record labels: expensive sounds and looks, made cheaply and often without ingenuity, innovation or emotional payoff. Anamanaguchi, being both a midpoint and outsiders of both industries, would show one side to the other by mimicking the type of artists passive follows believed they were:
“Super vacuous, no substance at all -- like we're a vessel for other people's stupid fantasies, basically,” Berkman said. “The [initial look of the] game is the ultimate version of that: a triple-A, military-style RPG game with 500 hours of content and only one ending!"
Esposito joined on as Capsule Silence’s one-man development team, handling the bulk of the game’s art, level design and programming. His first time working so closely with a band, Esposito endeavored to combine their aesthetic love of Katamari Damacy with the crash-prone, outsider-art games of Thecatamites. But beyond that -- and anything he’d done as a contracted maker before -- he probed into Anamanaguchi’s feelings about each other. Proustian Google spreadsheets were filled out to make Capsule Silence capture as much of the band as possible, giving fans an intimate, almost intruding look into the peculiarities of each band member.
“I felt like I was doing a documentary, in some aspects,” Esposito said. “I would do these phone interviews with them and I would have them tell me how they wanted their room to be, but I'd also ask them about each other, to try and get a more well-rounded picture. What I ended up building was about as [reflective of] them as I could make it.”
As Capsule Silence was being prepped for release, the band -- Berkman especially -- began emphasizing to Esposito their second layer of performance. As a rebellion against NHX, the band leaked the WIP test-version game (hence its amateurish look), as well as screenshotted arguments with developers and an eleven-page PDF detailing NHX’s “dedicated fanbase targeting” and “consensual alliances” with brands like Taco Bell and shows like Rob Dyrdek’s Fantasy Factory. Once the leak was out, radio silence. The band’s Twitter account would be scrubbed and there would be no engaging with reactions, from the media or fans.
“It's the gross side of capitalism in the arts, essentially, which is a thing we were familiar with, a world that was easy for us to role-play within," Warnaar said. “But at the same time, it was a very realistic situation for us to [potentially] be in, even though to us, it was presented in such an absurd way, that everything was blatantly manufactured.”
“They went full-throttle on it, and I got little scared, to be honest [laughs],” Esposito said. “Anamanaguchi and I both like to overdo things to comic effect, and I think they -- or at least Pete -- got really into this concept. I was under the impression that it would be an open secret, where fans were supposed to be in on it, and it would be pretty obvious that this was a stunt for their benefit. I told them, 'hey, this is probably way more than you need to do.' I think it was super funny, but I didn't know that it was going to be done in this sincere way, where they wanted people to actually think that was true.”
Capsule Silence XXIV was ‘leaked,’ as planned, on March 28, 2016. The band was prepared for the confused skepticism over “the concoction of a diabolical viral marketing strategy,” but the outraged reaction they remembered most distinctly was GameSpot’s. When a writer caught wind of the Twitter rant and reported it as Anamanaguchi presented it -- perfectly playing into the band’s hand -- the website found itself issuing a series of corrections. Their reaction, less than the fiery self-righteousness that creates the desired reverse-Streisand effect, seemed more disappointed that the band let this “fake game” undermined their integrity.
“I can understand going with an edgy, ‘gotcha’ sense of humor, but it wasn't something that really fit with our impression of the band,” Justin Haywald, senior editor at GameSpot, said in a statement to Billboard. “We expect the individuals who present themselves on those platforms to represent their honest views and opinions, and it's a breach of trust when someone takes advantage of that.”
Supposedly spurred on by a NHX representative to respond to GameSpot's coverage, Berkman and Warnaar ‘traded off’ on Twitter, cursing, sharing low-res screenshots and dropping decontextualized gripes about “intellectual property” and “brand capital.”
“I guess working on a big budget game is just as depressing as pumping out singles for blog posts and followers,” one tweet, written by Warnaar, read.
Anamanaguchi was convinced that silence over their self-inflicted fiasco was the ultimate service to their fans. The “fever” Berkman expected from “creating a firestorm online,” as they had by flash-funding Endless Fantasy, was missing its essential element -- fans, magnetized to the band though several reps of Anamanaguchi’s left-brain record releases, to carry out the con with them.
“I've worked on other projects where the angle of it is that we say, on the website, is official, et cetera et cetera, but everyone knows that we're joking,” Esposito said. “Nobody wants to get tricked like that. I think it was at their [fans'] expense, and I don't feel great about that. I feel as if it can have the same effect when you let people in on the joke.”
The band’s sincere commitment to this online soap opera was meant to galvanize their fans, who could watch outsiders freak-out with a knowing smirk, but under the knowing spell of, as Esposito put it, ‘it's just a goof,’ wasn’t clear enough for most to catch the joke. So they had to break into the joke themselves. The digging that Warnaar hoped fans would put into discovering things about the band’s music and sensibilities was instead tuned to proving how the game was a scam. The first drip of Capsule Silence being authentically debunked came when users on 4Chan -- “the home for chaos online,” Berkman put it -- had found that NHX was run out of a website registered to Berkman. Originally imagined as Anamanaguchi’s label where friends and collaborators could control their material, the repurposed website gave angered fans a mainline to not bother with the band’s art at all.
The confusion and disappointment felt by their fanbase spilled out from there. Frustrated fans completed their own narratives: the band’s labyrinthine game was unintentionally half-finished; a complicated way of aggrandizing b-sides; to be resented for preoccupying the band while it could’ve been developing genuine material for [USA], a long-promised LP over which fans grew increasingly impatient.
“I saw people making posts about how they were not going to download it on principle,” Esposito said. “'you can just download the music here -- don't bother with the game, it's a trick.' In what universe does someone make an entire video game in spite of you? That's madness to me.”
Shortly after, Anamanaguchi moved on from the project to [USA], the themes of involuntary identity and expectations reflected in the events both the band and the country had gone through. Each bandmate found themselves taking a different strike at evolving, folding it into the band’s larger dialogue around the album. Berkman read centuries-old unpublished treatises on nation-building, while Warnaar explored new equipment to avoid recreating the “easy, immature [and] chaotic” sounds that thrive on Endless Fantasy. Not yet finished (“It’s coming out in 2015,” the band deadpanned repeatedly), [USA] is still protected space, but the tracks from the album they’ve begun performing live have bright, visceral voices cleanly in check with each other, signaling a re-centering of the band’s dynamic.
"[USA] is definitely the exact opposite of each of us, in our own rooms, working on music that has nothing to do with each other,” Berkman said. “It's almost modular -- one thing does impact everything else now. That we're doing it as a band is almost 100% opposite to what Capsule Silence was.”
Album and video game cycles will never reach a solid collision point, nor will designers from either field ever understand the limitations of the other. But Capsule Silence XXIV is, so far, the only project to have come this close to syncing these worlds. Cleverly designed to reward a small, loyal cross-section of fans that had to seek out its rewards. There’s a haphazard magic that no magazine cover story or Vice-style documentary could give as entertaining and personal look at the creative interior of a band, in all its sprawling, separate parts, as Capsule Silence XXIV does for Anamanaguchi.
“I think...we did betray them a little bit,” Esposito said. “We wanted to create something sincere where the barrier was lifted and you get to sift through their personal stuff and get a picture of them that you'd never get, but it ended up feeling kind of cynical to them. The game is a space for you to interact with the music and the people who make the music in a way that you don't normally get to. And I don't know, are people ready for it? I think they are, but I think you have to hold their hand through it. I would love for them to check it out with more open eyes, seeing what it actually is rather than what it represented to them at the time.”