The Video Games About Nothing

By Andrew King on at

Seinfeld is a sitcom about the mundane and tragicomic aspects of everyday life, a subject matter that led to George Costanza's infamous fourth-walling description of it: "the show is about nothing!" True as that may be, it seems like indie developers continue to find and awful lot of nothing to work with.

The almost-three-decades-old comedy-cum-mainstream hit’s history in video games wasn't contemporary with the show, as far as I can tell anyway, which started in 1989 then finished airing in 1998. One of the first substantial sightings seems to be Kramer popping up at Newgrounds in 2004, with a starring role in an NSFW browser-based visual novel. In 2008, a scene from episode “The Contest” got a ragdoll remake in Garry’s Mod. The moment from the show where Jerry and Kramer dropped a Junior Mint into some dude’s body cavity would be immortalised in a flash game in 2014. Today there are various Seinfeld-inspired games on itch.io, Seinfeld mods populate the Steam Workshop, and a well-known indie developer is working on a Seinfeld point-and-click adventure with the director of Childish Gambino’s “Feels Like Summer” music video.

Thing is, an 'official' game isn't really on the cards. But wherever games or mods can be made on the cheap and distributed for free, Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer have shined as bright as a Kenny Rogers Roasters sign. These games are the real deal, even if sometimes they fall short of the inspiration, and show how the indie scene enables creators with impossible-to-market ideas to find fellow enthusiasts regardless. Here we’ll walk-and-talk our way through the history of games and mods inspired by the show, and speak with creators about the processes and inspirations behind their finished games. Giddy up!

Hello, Newgrounds

In 1995 Seinfeld was in the middle of its seventh season, and simultaneously Tom Fulp was taking his Neo Geo fanzine, New Ground, online. It was reborn a short while later as Newgrounds andm in the early 2000s, became a haven for Internet creators to share their art, music, movies and games – no matter how tasteless and offensive.

One of those tasteless and offensive games was a pornographic visual novel starring Jerry’s improbably high-haired next door neighbour. Kramer Hentai Adventure, created by Newgrounds user MessYouUpMac, casts the player as “Cosmo Kramer, the ASSMAN,” who’s searching the globe for “hot anime women.” Gameplay is typical visual novel fare, as players click through screens of text attempting to pick the dialogue options that will lead to anime sex scenes. Pick the wrong option and you’ll hit a game over screen.

MessYouUpMac’s version of Kramer is a horndog asshole that doesn’t bear much resemblance to Michael Richards’ lovable mooch (except visually – Kramer is a copy-pasted press photo of Richards). The sensibility of the game (and the three sequels MessYouUpMac created) is more of a snapshot of early-to-mid 2000s internet culture, with the Seinfeld layer adding a touch of surreality. The fourth game in the series features a bizarro version of Kramer telling a knock-knock joke with the punchline “God doesn’t exist and also fuck America.” Edgy!

Unfortunately MessYouUpMac could not be reached for comment. Their Newgrounds account has been inactive since 2008. I can at least doff the cap to this creator's description of their own game: "THIS IS NOT GOOD AND I DO NOT RECOMMEND PLAYING IT."

Kramer Hentai Adventure found an audience on Newgrounds, with over one million views, and the title’s continued existence suggests Warner Bros.’ approach to fan-created content: as long as no-one is trying to turn a profit, it doesn't seem they're too bothered.

Mods About Nothing

Valve’s games have always encouraged extensive community participation, with many standalone games beginning life as user-created takes on existing titles. Half-Life 2 is no exception: the 2004 first-person shooter ultimately enabled 'walking simulators' like The Stanley Parable and Dear Esther, alongside a raft of mods and multiplayer conversions that allowed players to mess with Valve’s Source engine (the most well-known and successful being Garry’s Mod).

Garry Newman’s creation (which culminated in a standalone release published by Valve in 2006) invited players to create their own levels complete with furniture, characters and ragdolls. In 2008, one user decided it was time that Garry met Jerry. PC Gamer executive editor Tyler Wilde, who worked for GamesRadar at the time, brought the full extent of Garry’s Mod’s unsettling, ragdolly power to bear on a scene from Seinfeld’s infamous masturbation abstinence episode “The Contest.”

“I think I just saw inherent comedy in taking a famous sitcom scene and reproducing it with animated characters I had very little control of, and really embracing how bad I was at keeping them in line,” Wilde told me via email, “like how George physically flies out of the window at one point. And also, to do that with a Kramer entrance, he becomes the most accurately represented character while the others struggle to stay in their skin, as if they've all been nudged into a more Kramer-like universe. That was funny to me and I probably chose the scene just because it had a big Kramer entrance. Unruly physics was kind of the height of video game comedy at the time. Might still be.”

While creative players like Wilde used mods to re-stage Seinfeld scenes, others made their own mods to inject a touch of Seinfeld into otherwise-unrelated games.

Doug Keener produced one of the most popular: a complete recreation of Jerry’s apartment running in Doom II — including the unseen fourth wall behind the TV set. Pixelated versions of Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer and Newman wander the apartment and hallway outside, spouting their famous catchphrases (Kramer exclaims “Yo-Yo Ma!” when shot).

Others have created much less extensive in-game tributes. A Garry’s Mod add-on, made by user StealthPaw, simply plays the wobbly bass of the Seinfeld theme whenever you die.

Most Seinfeld-inspired mods hew closer to small effects like these than Keener’s full-scale creation. Mods have always been the place that creators can tweak their favourite games to inject a little of the flavor they want. What’s the difference, really, between giving yourself an unlimited supply of ammo and giving yourself an unlimited supply of Seinfeld?

High Profile, No Profit

The more improbable a Seinfeld-related project seems, the bigger buzz it tends to generate. The Junior Mint – potentially the most improbable of all – is no exception. The project began in the mind of Jason Richards (an appropriately Seinfeldian name) who is behind the popular twitter user @Seinfeld2000, a shitposting humour account born from a desire to relentlessly mock the then-popular parody account Modern Seinfeld.

“I was someone who had followed Modern Seinfeld and then had grown tired of their bit, and then grown even irritated by it,” Richards said over the phone, adding that he received more than his fair share of messages from friends with links to @ModernSeinfeld tweets.

“This was just sort of the natural response. And I remember thinking, ‘I’m just going to do the mocking, kind of really dumb version of theirs with the whole conceit being, ‘This is a copy of a copy, this is a degraded, kind of deranged version of what they’re doing.’ And I remember at the time thinking, ‘If I can get a few hundred followers and them to acknowledge the existence of this account, I can have confirmation that they had seen me making fun of them…' I would have blown off some steam and that would have been it.”

It’s more than five years later, and Richards’ account is still active, now with roughly 210,000 followers. In the early days Richards worked hard to broaden his oeuvre beyond the confines of the Twitter account.

“I would try to do these larger multimedia projects that would make people go ‘How is it possible that this very dumb thing is capable of this type of production value?’” he said.

The first of those projects was an eBook Richards wrote and published through Smashwords. The book, which Richards was selling for $2, earned him a cease and desist from Warner Bros. Smashwords took it down. Then Richards created a website called SeinQuest 2000 where users were treated to a “guided meditation” session, during which a narrator pondered the big questions of life such as “What if Seinfeld is still, like, on TV today?”

After that, according to Richards, a video game seemed like a natural next step. He briefly attempted to learn programming himself, but ultimately decided the project would be in better hands with a professional on board. He reached out to Pippin Barr, an experimental game developer who Richards had become aware of while watching Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, a documentary on Abramovic’s performance art exhibition of the same name. Barr had created a browser-based game (also called The Artist is Present) as part of Abramovic’s release strategy.

Barr agreed to help and, over the course of a few months, the pair created The Junior Mint, a browser-based game (which also released on mobile) that, like Wilde’s Garry’s Mod skit six years before, sought to recreate a single famous scene from the show. Barr and Richards mined plenty of comic fodder from this moment.

Jerry and Kramer, observing an operation from the elevated vantage of a viewing balcony above, accidentally drop a Junior Mint into the body cavity of the patient below. To their horror, the surgeon stitches the patient back up with the “very refreshing” mint “next to vital organs in their abdominal cavity.”

While in the show the action is accidental, getting as many Junior Mints as possible “into the hole” becomes the twisted goal of the gamified version. The candy bounces off surgery equipment and the doctor’s head on the way down. Miley Cyrus, clad in her “Wrecking Ball” regalia, swings in repeatedly as the single blasts in the background.

“The Junior Mint angle all came from @Seinfeld2000 – he was absolutely determined that it would make a fantastic web and mobile game that people would really want to play again and again. And I think he turned out to be right – it's a very compelling and simple game design that aligns well with that one moment in Seinfeld,” Barr told me via email.

“It's even better in some ways because instead of it being a single moment of horror as in the show, it becomes a repetitive, intentional action, an overload of visuals and sounds. All this is absolutely credit to @Seinfeld2000 though, he was the engine behind it all.”

Richards sees himself not as the engine of the project, but rather a pulley system to lift some of the “hard labor” off of Barr. He Photoshopped art assets together, collected sound effects and wrote press releases. Most importantly, he found the game’s third (and highest profile) collaborator: Ezra Koenig, lead singer of Vampire Weekend.

Koenig had been following @Seinfeld2000 for some time, and Richards was a fan of the frontman’s work. He reached out to Koenig for a musical sample, something to play over the title screen and behind the in-game action. Richards hoped, at most, for a guitar lick or instrumental, but Koenig sent back an acapella track of him scatting the Seinfeld theme song.

All of this star power added up to a glowing reception upon the game’s release, including write-ups at Huffington Post, Daily Dot, Spin and Consequence of Sound. The original website domain was seized by squatters, but the game is still playable at Barr’s website.

The ‘90s Sitcom Gets A ‘90s Genre Game

Jacob Janerka made his debut on the indie scene with an adventure game that had a charmingly weird sense of humour. But Paradigm, a surreal 2017 point-and-clicker, mostly takes its comedy cues from the noughties onwards. When Janerka lists his comedy influences – Tim and Eric, Monty Python, Flight of the Conchords, The Mighty Boosh, Peep Show – it’s mostly a who’s who of the alt-comedy scene of the 2000s (Python excluded).

That makes Janerka's current on-again, off-again project something of a departure. While it isn’t the primary game on his plate (“I got spooked” Janerka tells me, worrying that Warner Bros. could sue him into oblivion if he released the game), the Australian developer has been doing writing and pixel art for a point-and-click adventure game designed to play out as an episode of Seinfeld.

“A lot of comedians consider Seinfeld a master class in comedy,” Janerka says via Skype. “A lot of people grew up on it.”

Janerka is one of them.

“In Australia, they used to have it playing every weekday after The Simpsons. So you watched The Simpsons, you watched Seinfeld and then you’d go to bed. At that age I wouldn’t have understood a lot of comedy, when I was in primary school, but I ended up rewatching it when I was in university, because it was the daytime TV so I would watch it during lunch and stuff like that.”

The episode Janerka is writing is titled “The Email.” The game takes place shortly after the show’s finale in 1998. Janerka said that he hadn’t originally intended to create the game, but had been inspired by fan response to some basic pixel art of George that he posted on Twitter.

“[It was] really basic, so basic, and it blew up like crazy, even just the basic George thing,” Janerka said. “No animation, just like George flapping his mouth. And then I was like, ‘Oh shit, people really like this, like Seinfeld,’ so I kept making more and more and people liked it.”

Now, years later, as a game developer, Janerka’s impressed by how well the game’s scenarios lend themselves to game design.

“It just has the perfect set-up for, specifically, a point-and-click adventure game because, one, [the show] is from the same era when they came out. Two, the comedy lends itself to it. Seinfeld has all the props; it has the Seinfeld objects: the suit, the yo-yo. It’s exactly like a point-and-click adventure game.”

“And there’s a ton of puzzles. Even like the [marble rye] when they have to get it through the roof and George has to get the fishing line, that’s such a game puzzle. Like ‘find the fishing rod to get the bread,’ kind of thing.”

When I spoke to Janerka he said that the project was on hiatus, even if he has recruited top-shelf talent. His writing partner on the game, Ivan Dixon, recently directed Childish Gambino’s “Feels Like Summer” music video, and has worked on projects as diverse as Fallout 4 and Gotye’s “Seven Hours with a Backseat Driver” vid.

If the Seinfeld adventure game does eventually make it out the door, it will be the most ambitious attempt ever made to render Seinfeld interactive. Eschewing the Photoshopped art of previous Flash titles, itch.io games and mods, Janerka and Dixon’s game is a built-from-the-ground-up pixel art recreation of Jerry’s world, and that's why even the prospect of it is so exciting.

No-one outside of Warner Bros. will ever make money from a game bearing the Seinfeld name. And that's probably the best way for it to be. Nostalgia is often weaponised commercially; but that's not what any of these games are doing. These games come from a place of love and, by revelling in the surreal and blowing out individual jokes into standalone experiences, capture the show's spirit in a manner that any official production would struggle to match.