The Quest To Save Cookie's Bustle From Being Erased From The Internet 1
Image: Rodik

Perhaps the greatest contribution to society that American singer and actor Barbra Streisand made is the so-called "Streisand effect". That is the backfiring attempt to hide something from the internet, resulting in said thing being more well-known than before the attempts started. Singing "The Way We Were" might definitely suit the misadventures of Cookie’s Bustle, an adventure game originally released in 1999 for Windows and Mac, but only in Japan.

The game was developed by Rodik, a small eight-person Japanese company, and directed by Keisuke Harigai. We control Cookie Blair, a New Jersey five-year-old girl who believes she is a bear. The girl lives in Bombo World, a fictional island where – a hundred years prior – aliens have crash-landed and established their own place to live in, Derocity. Cookie wants to compete in the regional Olympics, but after travelling to Bombo City, she discovers that the whole place is in a state of unrest and, in order to reach her grandma, she will have to develop "a pure heart".

Despite its weird plot, Cookie’s Bustle plays like an ordinary point-and-click adventure from the late '90s, developed entirely in Macromedia Director. While the strange ideas and overall quirky tone were apparently the designer’s choice to try and make the game more appealing to European tastes, Cookie never left Japan. After that game, Rodik switched to doing contract work for other companies and doesn’t seem to have released another game again.

Almost twenty years later, in 2018, a collection of disc images of obscure and rare Japanese PC games was leaked without the original owner’s permission. The Windows version of Cookie's Bustle was in the collection, and soon, the game’s overall weirdness started to catch the attention of many. Videos of the game’s quirky dialogue and strange events began appearing on YouTube in 2020 and 2021, especially on the channel Classics of Game. This led to other creators noticing it, with the first actual longplay being posted on YouTube by Sebmal in 2021.

"I played through the whole game during the process of making the 2019 videos and genuinely fell in love with it during the process," Sebmal tells Time Extension. "I originally wanted to get someone to translate the dialogue into English, so it kinda sat a while, but that ultimately ended up not happening. My only intention was to share this weird little game I fell in love with." But, after posting a few videos – which would gather around 10k views – things took a turn for the worst.

"One day in September 2022, I woke up to a takedown notice; my longplay video was the first victim of a long series," Sebmal recalls. The notice came from a company called Graceware, via the UK association board Ukie. Sebmal wasn’t alone, either. "Other people who had uploaded vids started getting hit later in the day, and over the next couple of months, the game was gradually taken down from basically everywhere." Indeed, the game fell victim to what is fair to describe as 'copyright trolls'.

The Quest To Save Cookie's Bustle From Being Erased From The Internet 1
The company listing for Graceware, the firm that is hell-bent on removing all trace of Cookie's Bustle from the web

Graceware seems to have been registered by a man called Brandon White, but the company’s address reports a misspelt street in tax haven Andorra. While at the time of writing Graceware does not appear on the Ukie’s website in the list of members, the association told me that is a mistake and that the company is indeed a member. Apparently, companies outside the UK can join Ukie as well, regardless if they are based in a tax haven. It is worth noting that Graceware has never made any attempt to monetize the content, but weirdly enough, none of the other products from Rodik – such as To-Gen Kiko – have been hit with takedowns.

The creators found that counterclaiming seemed to fail and that game uploads would soon be taken down as well. By early 2023, when Cookie's Bustle was already quite hard to find on the web, the game was streamed by Twitch streamer Vinesauce to a crowd of around 10,000 people. The resulting VODs and videos from the stream were soon taken down, and a copyright strike was issued to Vinesauce’s channel. "Why is this game forbidden?" the streamer commented. "The person doing this is not telling anyone [...] the strikes continue to come from different names and companies[...] if it was the creator, just tell us why you want it removed! This game is a work of art and it should be preserved."

To this day, on YouTube there are two videos still available that explain the history of Cookie’s Bustle. One is a well-researched and quite informative dive by Patbytes, originally published in December 2022, who says to this day he feels quite fortunate the video has not been taken down.

"Even though my video did include various screenshots and clips, it was also a scripted and edited project that I entirely believe could be defended as fair use if YouTube questioned it," Patbytes tells us. The project came about after the creator found out the first original videos were suddenly missing. "I did some research, and I think there were a couple of loose Reddit threads about the missing videos at the time. This was all happening immediately after I had worked on research for a (now deleted) video about a stranger on Twitter copyright-trolling various obscure game soundtracks online and putting his name in as a composer on game documentation websites."

Patbytes found out the information about the wrong address for Graceware, but also that the original creator’s name does pop up in the UK regarding the takedown notice. In May 2022, a trademark for Cookie’s Bustle was indeed filed by someone named "Keisuke Harugai". On this point, Sebmal thinks "it's just someone using the name and not the man himself." Indeed, many have tried to track down Harugai several times, even before the takedowns started, but to no avail. Ukie has assured me that they did their due diligence before acting on the takedowns, but still, that leaves a few open questions regarding Graceware’s misspelt address and the strange takedown requests.

The Quest To Save Cookie's Bustle From Being Erased From The Internet 1
Anyone who hosts videos of Cookie's Bustle seems to be hit with takedown notices

To this day, the overall situation for Cookie’s Bustle remains quite curious. The game still cannot be streamed or shown without a takedown arriving a few days after the original upload – even on social media. Patbytes thinks that a more transformative video on Cookie’s Bustle could potentially survive the copyright trolls, like "a video breaking down the flow and storyline of the game." Sebmal concludes that while it is true that the copyright troll situation did contribute to the current popularity of the game, it is a small comfort. "I just want everyone to be free to talk about it and share it out in the open."

Either way, as it happens, the desperate efforts by the trolls to take down the videos have ventured into the Streisand effect, creating a tight-knit community of fans of Cookie’s Bustle. It is definitely not a coincidence that there is a full translation project going on in the Discord server dedicated to Cookie’s Bustle (which has almost 1k members) and it is nearing the final stages. Only the cutscenes remain a major hurdle, with the rest of the game now being fully playable in English.

The overall situation speaks of a problem with our current copyright system, more than anything, where anyone can register dubious trademarks for a game and start enforcing said copyright anywhere without anyone bothering to even check.

It is fair to say that, thanks to the efforts of the copyright trolls, Cookie’s Bustle is far from being forgotten. We might never have an answer as to why people are not allowed to even upload images from the game along with why, out of all the countless “abandoned” games around, this was the one chosen by the copyright trolls. But until there are people wanting to save Cookie Blair’s cute smile from the evil trolls and their ban hammer, we can live safely knowing that the bear girl will continue to thrive.

(Thanks to Misty for the help in researching Rodik)