In the glossy, dopamine rollercoaster that is the internet age, we encounter innumerable fruitless diversions and time-sinks. However, beyond the scattering of hashtags, the youtube poops, the click ventures and buzzfeed videos, every now and again we stumble upon something truly special—something that points and laughs at the immense waste-scapes of the web, all while straddling the irony between ill-spent hours and pure entertainment. Donair Academy, a 90s-style educational game, is just such a thing.
A lesson half in history and half in hilarity, the game explores the culinary backstory of the east coast donair: an Atlantic Canadian take on a Turkish staple. Its layout harkens back to the early days of computer-based role playing games and encyclopaedias such as Final Fantasy and Microsoft Encarta, while its graphics feel right at home in the world of 8- and 16-bit imagery. All this is made complete by an original chip-tune soundtrack that, just as in the games of old, is catchy enough to get suck in one’s head and repetitive enough to make it ache.
The game opens up with a deadpan title screen that reads (in this order): Knowledge, Culture, History, Ingredients. The player is then brought to professorial space, complete with a Halifax crest that has a donair superimposed on its centre, hanging on the wall. We are given a choice of three donair areas to explore: history, gastronomy and acoustics.
Highlights include real-life field recordings of people eating donairs, facts about the origin of East coast donair sauce and Hawaiian pizza, a module that allows you to take photos of donairs hovering over such iconic backdrops as the Windows XP wallpaper and the red curtain room from Twin Peaks as well as numerous poetics regarding the donair experience. At one point, the player is told to “immerse [themselves] in great big sea, of solidarity and joy and garlicky milk sauce… breathing in the rhythms of sweet donair communion.”
Once these stages are complete the game drastically changes modes, bringing the player to an apocalyptic world where the only answer for salvation is, of course, donair.
Donair Academy, however, is somehow more than a simple game or diversion. It speaks to the ability of good satire to elevate itself beyond the limitations of its subject, re-contextualize it and make something new. Yes, after all, Donair Academy is just a game. Nonetheless, it is a game that has been lovingly crafted and represents a small and rich region that takes pride in the quirks and uniqueness of its culture.
“One never knows when donair knowledge will come in handy,” says Chad Comeau.
Donair Academy is the first collaboration between Comeau (La vie d’Arcade, Granny Games), and writer and performer Henry Adam Svec (The CFL Sessions, Artificially Intelligent Folk Songs of Canada). The two have both worked as Media Artist in Residence at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. Working with musicians WL Altman and Andrew Penner, they fleshed out the game with a soundtrack. Now, they explain, what began perhaps as a joke has finished as reality.
“We wanted to make a game that mixed several dimensions of donair history and culture. Education, canonization, mobilization, mastication—it’s all in here,” says Svec.
As silly or unusual as the game’s descriptions may be, they point to something more singular and important. They speak of locality, identity, culinary cross-pollination and the personal and collective experience of cultural reinvention. It is fascinating to observe how far an individual icon of culture, in this case a popular food, can go on to express much larger truths surrounding place and identity. It is only part of a story, but sometimes something as simple as a donair can go to great lengths to impart a communal truth.
The game can be played in full at www.donairacademy.org.