With Animal Well, the YouTuber Dunkey Goes From Critic to Salesman

With Animal Well, the YouTuber Dunkey Goes From Critic to Salesman

By Oghale May9,2024

Now Dunkey, whose real name is Jason Gastrow, is hoping to parlay his 14-year rise as an entertaining critic into a serious business publishing indie games, something few influencers have attempted.

On Thursday, his publishing company, Bigmode, released its first game, Animal Well, in which a mysterious blob explores a complex labyrinth while encountering animals that might help or hinder its journey. Billy Basso spent seven years making the game, which relies on well-designed puzzles and hidden secrets to motivate players and has generated extra attention because of Dunkey.

A few days before the game released on the PC, PlayStation 5 and Switch, Gastrow posted a YouTube video in which he encourages players within Counter-Strike and VRChat to put Animal Well on their wish list.

“He has a specific taste,” said Leah Gastrow, his wife and business partner, who answered questions on behalf of her husband, describing him as press shy. “It has happened time and again where he picks up a game before it has found mainstream success.”

(He gave the 2018 game Celeste, now considered an indie classic, an early rave.)

Game reviewing on YouTube and Twitch is a thriving subculture, with influencers often sponsored by companies to promote their titles in exchange for money.

“The issue comes when influencers are not necessarily adhering to journalistic ethics,” said Ash Parrish, a staff writer at The Verge who covers games. “Dunkey gets around that because he is unafraid to say something is bad; in fact, people like hearing him say that.”

Jason Gastrow says he does not take sponsorship deals to review games. His ability to criticize without scorching the earth behind him has resulted in nearly 7.5 million subscribers on YouTube, where his logo is a donkey wearing sunglasses and smoking a large cigar.

He has also become an unassuming luminary in the gaming industry — someone elected as Wisconsin’s top celebrity in a public vote held by The Milwaukee Record, beating the football coach Curly Lambeau and the actor Gene Wilder.

Animal Well, part of the Metroidvania genre known for its mazelike structures, caught the attention of the Gastrows at the industry event Summer Game Fest in 2022, about the time the couple were discussing plans for their company. Bigmode, which is also publishing Star of Providence, a retro top-down shooter, wants to raise the profile of indie games that reflect the founders’ tastes but not necessarily the dominant trends of larger studios.

For Animal Well, Basso worked alone for nearly 80 hours each week to design its game engine, animations, music and more, relying on savings he earned at large studios like NetherRealm, the developer behind the Mortal Kombat series. He said Bigmode’s feedback improved the gameplay experience.

“Every time that I update the game, they play through from scratch,” Basso said. “The big beats of the game don’t really change that much. Maybe it’s the order you do things or adding visual clues to let players know that certain things are possible.”

Bigmode made only one major request during the development cycle, Leah Gastrow said: Put more animals into the well.

Basso agreed, adding dozens of animals with distinctive animations and interactions. A kangaroo stomps the ground, a sea horse creates helpful platforms with bubbles, and a rabbit seems to guide the player’s way.

The marketing for Animal Well began in earnest when Jason Gastrow introduced himself as “funny man Videogamedunkey” during last year’s Nintendo showcase for independent developers. As Basso spoke about his game, one “filled with puzzles that you would want to keep coming back to over and over again,” Gastrow intentionally stumbled into a pond of quacking ducks behind him.

A thriving Discord channel soon emerged in which players tried to decipher any subliminal content behind each frame of promotional videos. The mysteriousness was part of the publicity strategy by Dan Adelman, who is leading Animal Well’s business development.

“It is a difficult game to market because you cannot communicate its secrets,” Adelman said. “You cannot communicate how good it feels to play.”

The deepest secrets are encrypted. In an interview with Game File, Basso explained that a hacker would need “quantum computers” to access the information without playing Animal Well as intended.

“It is very artistically handled from start to finish,” Leah Gastrow said. “And we will put whatever we can into producing to get this game out to more people.”

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By Oghale

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