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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Politicians are pugilists in Spokane Valley video game developer’s ‘Election Year Knockout’

The owner and employees of the small Spokane Valley-based video game development company ExceptioNULL Games found themselves, like much of America, burned out on politics after the 2016 election.

“Ever since ’16, it’s been really heated on both sides,” Jason Stock, owner of the company, said in an interview last week at the company’s offices off Sullivan Road. “And I thought there’s probably a lot of people who want to punch a politician in the face.”

So Stock and his nine-member team turned their gaze into gaming’s past for some inspiration. The fruit of that effort, a boxing mobile game called “Election Year Knockout,” was inspired by Nintendo’s classic “Punch-Out!!” series. “Election Year Knockout” will hit app stores Friday. Its release coincides with the busy nomination season that continues Tuesday with the New Hampshire primaries, and many of the Democratic hopefuls vying for the nomination are the potential foes players must face in a country where debate has broken down completely and the presidency is decided by body blows.

“That’s honestly why we’re releasing it when we are, because we’re starting the primary season,” Stock said.

“And everyone needs to have a good laugh about it,” added Alex Linne, one of the artists who worked on the game.

Like the pugilists in “Punch-Out!!”, the candidates are all exaggerated versions of their real-life counterparts, with behaviors that mimic the politician’s personalities or mannerisms.

The game’s version of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called Ah-O, is light on her feet and her punches must be dodged, then countered, for the player to win the bout. That’s a riff on a video released of the New York congresswoman dancing on a rooftop during college. Joe Biden’s character, Uncle Joe, will crowd the player and force them to use well-timed jabs to land blows, a nod to the former vice president’s reputation for invading personal space.

The ExceptioNULL team didn’t want to be accused of picking political favorites. So Republicans appear too, including a version of Jeb Bush (Jab Bush) who acts as a cowboy-looking introductory foe.

The game’s final boss is President Donald Trump, who, upon knocking the player down, will whip out a tablet to start tweeting about his victory.

The goal is not to add to the political rancor in Washington D.C., that continues to boil over, the team said. It’s to provide some catharsis for those on both sides of the political aisle, or those who are neutral. Still, during the 18-month development of the game the creators tried to avoid taking their jokes too far.

“It’s a fine line, and we try not to stray over the line so that we don’t offend too many people and their sensitivities,” Stock said.

The closest they’d come, he said, is modeling Elizabeth Warren’s character after a Native American, using dollar bills instead of feathers for a faux headdress. Warren, in her first run for U.S. Senate in 2012, claimed Native American heritage and took a DNA test to prove it when she announced as a presidential candidate in 2018. She’s since apologized for the controversy and met with tribal leaders.

Ben Ritter, one of the game’s designers, noted that the jokes are made at the expense of members of both parties. Also, the game they used as inspiration – “Punch-Out!!” – included caricatured foes that some may have found offensive, including a Russian boxer originally named Vodka Drunkenski (changed to Soda Popinski in the Nintendo Entertainment System version of the game) and a turban-wearing Indian man named Great Tiger who could teleport around the ring.

“If you just view it without any context, people would call that all sorts of racist stuff,” said Ritter of the original game. “But when you play it, and you know what it is, you’re like, no, it’s genuine. It’s caricature, and it’s things everyone can laugh at. And that’s also what we wanted to also do with the humor in our game.”

Ritter used the example of Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who appears in the game as a swashbuckling pirate named Cap’n Crenshaw. Crenshaw, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who lost his eye in combat in Afghanistan, has been open about the eye patch he wears and appeared on Saturday Night Live in 2018 to address controversy over a joke the program made at his expense.

“The SNL thing that happened with Dan Crenshaw was, in my personal opinion, the wrong way to make fun of someone or something,” Ritter said. “In our game, he’s at a cosplay convention. I figure in real life he owns this, he’s dressing as a pirate in Texas, and just having a blast about it.”

Stock said his team had received little negative feedback from testers, who are primarily based in Canada, about the characters in their game. The team was recently at Valleyfest to show off its work, and the booth was a popular spot for younger players with their parents who’ve grown up with mobile games, some of whom stayed and played for hours, Stock said.

For a team who’s primary focus has been puzzle games, the release of a politically themed fighting game this week will be a bit of a departure from its usual work, said Stock, who started the company seven years ago. While they’ll be charting sales figures (a free version of the game is supported by ads, while a $6.99 version will also release with no ads and other content), Stock said he’ll mark the game’s success by getting people talking about the game.

“Just being known for the company that made this game would be kind of the benchmark I would have for success,” he said.

Fellow designer Tyelor Klein agreed.

“Seeing the excitement, and the laughter, of people that we’ve shown the game to really makes it a success in my eyes,” Klein said.

The team will be at PAX East, a gaming festival in Boston, to promote its game next week after its release.