The pitch for Sunshine Shuffle, a new indie game out this week, is a real good one. You play as one of several cute animals, together on a boat, playing poker. As you play, you learn that, like in Reservoir Dogs, said cute animals have just done a robbery together. Poker, animals, and crime — a compelling mix for a promising indie game that was supposed to come out this week. The problem is, some people won’t be able to play it for a few days, because a pretty funny joke from the game’s developer got a little out of hand.
Xalavier Nelson, Jr., who runs the development label Strange Scaffold games, is known professionally for both his quirky narrative games (An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs, Space Warlord Organ Trading Simulator) and his occasionally tongue-in-cheek online presence where he goes to great lengths in the service of extremely corny jokes. (Consider this 93-tweet thread, a shaggy dog story in the service of an awful, awful pun.)
One of Nelson’s latest jokes was about Sunshine Shuffle. As he explains in a video, he settled on a recurring gag that the game “teaches children to gamble” because of the combination of cute animals and poker — which, to be clear, the game does not do. Unfortunately this meant that at the 11th hour, people started taking him seriously — the result being that, while Sunshine Shuffle is out now on Steam and itch.io, it is not currently available on the Nintendo eShop in North America, and, according to Nelson, banned entirely from the Republic of Korea.
SUNSHINE SHUFFLE IS SUPPOSED TO COME OUT TOMORROW ON SWITCH AND PC— Xalavier Nelson Jr. (@WritNelson) May 23, 2023
KEYWORD BEING “SUPPOSED TO”
APPARENTLY, MY SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN ABOUT THE GAME NOT TEACHING CHILDREN TO GAMBLE HAS UH
CONVINCED NINTENDO THAT THE GAME IS ABOUT CHILD GAMBLING pic.twitter.com/B8YY2zo0x0
Learning that his game was banned from its largest potential market on the eve of its launch was “not that funny,” Nelson tells Polygon on a phone call after 24 hours of frantic communication and also lots of Destiny 2. “And then a few hours later, it was the funniest fucking thing in the universe.”
According to Nelson, the impetus for his gag was getting ahead of potential bad-faith critiques of Sunshine Shuffle, where people would see the game out of context and say that it was unsavory to have a game with cute animals gambling, because it would teach children to gamble. Nelson even says that Strange Scaffold even tried to invent a new card game that didn’t use regular playing cards, but “it didn’t work for the gameplay and narrative dynamics we wanted.” So poker stayed in, because it worked best and because it serves as an homage to Poker Night at the Inventory, Telltale Games’ now-delisted 2010 narrative poker game.
Through it all, Nelson has remained good-natured, having faith in the publishing process and still making the joke that got him in this mess. He’s also making lemonade, using it as an opportunity to engage with people, including those who have the wrong idea about his game.
“Someone on TikTok said, ‘I won’t even look at a game with microtransactions and loot boxes, glad to see Nintendo shutting it down,’” Nelson says. “And I said, ‘We have no microtransactions or loot boxes, checkmate, you have to buy our game.’” This interaction (another joke!) which Nelson says led to a sale, might explain why he can’t quite stop goofing about his games, even as he remains sincere about genuinely not trying to mislead anyone.
“I think a lot of people want to be treated with dignity, and there’s a lot of incentive structures in our world to remove that human dignity and reduce people to utilitarian concepts, instead of human beings with souls and experiences and ideals,” Nelson says. “And, yeah, because [Sunshine Shuffle’s banning] is unusual, because it is eye catching. And because it is, frankly, one of the most stressful things I’ve encountered in my career, this gives me a fantastic opportunity to speak to people as people. And in rare instances where people are reacting negatively or abrasively, sometimes turn that entirely around.”
There’s a happy ending too: After our conversation, an email from the PR firm representing Sunshine Shuffle announced that the game will be released on the North American eShop on Wednesday, May 31. It remains banned in the Republic of Korea.