Suffering from realness: A tale of two Kanye West games

Leigh Alexander looks at two very different Kanye West video games, and how each approaches his music: Is there room for something to exist on the spectrum between cynicism and humor?
You could make a case that video games and hip hop have some things in common: The swagger, the big money, the big guns, the celebration of achievement and attainment. In music, the common focus on themes of traditional power seems to have evolved over time from hip hop's roots in marginalized city communities, while games' younger history knits closely with the (less important, of course) power fantasies of shy geeks. The flavor of music currently pioneered by megastars like Kanye West and Jay-Z has a gamelike affinity for trophies, sometimes literally -- during his recent wedding to Kim Kardashian, one of West's gifts to his new wife included a 'regal' portrait celebrating her beauty and sexuality. The painting was called "Perfect Bitch," the same title as a song he's said is also about Kim, released on a compilation last year. In it West talks, as he often does, about courting the hatred and envy of other men (and peeing on them, it seems). Kanye recently collaborated with Future on "I Won," (previously titled "Trophy Wife"), where he suggests he'd like to dip Kim's popular posterior in gold, among other superlative odes to his wife, various fashion labels and their high-end lifestyle, as Future sings about the feeling of having won a trophy, and showing it off. Fittingly, Future's camp also put a game out about the song. In the game -- Kanye West's first officially-sanctioned appearance in a video game, if I'm not mistaken -- he and Future sit by the sea in beach chairs. As Future sings his "I Won" hook ("A trophy, I won me a trophy"), the player controls the musicians as they fling gold chains at women strolling past in bikinis. Land a hit and the woman literally transforms into a trophy lying in the beach sand, score value floating up into the summer sun.
"It's interesting to notice someone felt that game mechanics would be the best way to communicate and augment the spirit of "I Won."
Probably if someone were to imagine a game experience sincerely designed to communicate the nuance and ethos of Kanye's fascinating public persona and his excellent music, this would not be it. But it's interesting to notice someone felt that game mechanics would be the best way to communicate and augment the spirit of "I Won." Another thing to think about is, as bleak and unsettling as we must admit "I Won" is, at the moment I can't think of any other video game with two black male playable leads and so many ethnically-diverse women, so there you go. "I Won" may be the only official appearance of Kanye West in a video game, but there are surely many unofficial ones -- observe this stunningly elaborate fan-made tribute to Kanye, hip hop culture and superstars like Lil B. And Davey Wreden, of The Stanley Parable fame, also released a uniquely-grating, parodic little exercise called Life in the West, "wherein you play the psychological collapse of Kanye West seen through his Twitter account," in Wreden's words. While "I Won" may have raised eyebrows and attracted broad criticism for its prescient provocation about the role of women in capitalism -- ha, just kidding, it's sexism -- the most popular Kanye West game has to be Otter Spice's Kanye Zone, born from a captivating little snippet of Kanye and Jay-Z's stunning chart-stormer "Ni**as in Paris," the two-time Grammy-winning Single from Jay and Ye's metallic gold-sheathed collaboration album "Watch the Throne." Toward the end of "Ni**as in Paris," the floor suddenly plummets out of the song's provocative fast pace, giving way to a haunted sonic tunnel cut with soft, chugging pistons, and Kanye's mysterious droning, again and again, ominous as a lion drowsing in the desert sun: "You are now watching the throne; don't let me get in my zone, don't let me get in my zone."

Otter Spice co-founders Stephen Barlow and Michael Frederickson (their company name, they told me, is how someone with a hard Midwest accent might pronounce "Outer Space") became fixated on the lyric. While "I Won" leaves very little to the imagination, Kanye's threat about his "zone" is pleasantly abstract, the sort of space that games should be made in. What is Kanye's zone, and what takes place when he gets in it? Of course, there's not too much to gain from literal analysis of a boast from rap royalty. But in their game Kanye Zone, Barlow and Fredrickson decided to conceive the "zone" as a physical space, and the player as someone mechanically taking Kanye's warning to heart, disallowing him from the zone. In a way, it's the complete opposite of the "I Won" game: a game about literal achievement is cynical, but one that makes an abstract expression mechanical is funny. Add to that the fact that "zone" is already well-understood as a games vocabulary word; classic platformers all have different "zones," with their own unique climate and challenges. Imagine a Kanye Zone.
Kanye Zone itself is incredibly simple: While Kanye's large, sunglassed head pings around the play field ("bouncing ball physics the likes of which you might see in a programming experiment created by a fifth grader, or your favorite DVD screensaver," Fredrickson joked at Nordic Game recently), the player guards the circular violet "zone" at the field's center, swinging a bumper around its perimeter to keep Kanye from getting in it. Cash symbols effervesce every time the bumper repels Kanye, and the player's score increases. The Zone also grows in size over time, gradually increasing the game's difficulty. It has the same ominous feel as the lyric that inspired it: The zone swelling, threatening to swallow, inexorable.
"While 'I Won' leaves very little to the imagination, Kanye's threat about his 'zone' is pleasantly abstract, the sort of space that games should be made in."
The game got little interest at first from Reddit's gaming community, but a nod from a music subreddit quickly snowballed into mainstream coverage and a sudden rush of players -- and leaderboard cheaters. All players start the game with $50,000, a reference to Jay-Z's lyric in the song where he suggests that particular number is not of significant worth to him. Jay also appears in the game -- if Kanye does make it into his zone, Jay Z appears alongside him, to mouth along with the lyric "I'm definitely in my zone." As players racked up absurd cash totals the game designers struggled to ban and correct, Fredrickson and Barlow themselves were out $700, having to invest in the infrastructure of the site. In the end, the game netted only eight dollars' profit for the pair, they say. There might be some kind of critical metaphor there about the juxtaposition of wealth and achievement fetishism in music with financial losses for a pair of white West Coast roomies who defer to calling the song "Buddies in Paris," but let's maybe not. I have a copy of Watch the Throne on CD because of the time I went to go see Kanye live. Thank you, Activision. I went to the publisher's Call of Duty event in Los Angeles, set in a massive compound where fans on pilgrimage could drive Jeeps, play paintball and, inside, play Modern Warfare 3 competitively for hours and hours at lurid banquettes. Wristbands to see Kanye play there were one of the press gifts. The affinity between the two entities made sense to me at the time. It still does. I wish there were more video games about and encompassing hip hop. Something has to live on the spectrum between cynical indulgence of a man like Kanye West and just finding him funny, right? Until we find it, definitely play Kanye Zone instead of I Won.

Latest Jobs

Cryptic Studios

Senior Producer

Anne Arundel Community College

Arnold, MD, USA
Instructor/Assistant Professor, Game Art

Night School Studio

Los Angeles, CA, USA
Level Designer / Scripter, Games Studio
More Jobs   


Explore the
Subscribe to
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer Newsletter


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Subscribe to

Game Developer Newsletter

Get daily Game Developer top stories every morning straight into your inbox

Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more