foreword: this was written as a "fuck it, we ball, pick whatever topic you so desire" research paper for a creative writing class, with a pre-determined format to follow. as a result, my writing style may seem off here. hope you enjoy.
What I Knew and What I Want to Know
While I was both too young and didn’t have the money to fully play the game while it was still under a subscription service, Toontown Online has always been one of my more intense interests, mostly due to the charity that is several private servers that keep the game running, sticking to the original, or branching out into a modernized experience, but for now, sticking to the original game. Toontown Online was a kids’ aimed MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) started by Disney in 2003 and shutting down a decade later, with a pretty lively presence in the genre during this time. The plot was basically that you played as, well, a cartoon anthropomorphic animal, and kept the world cheery and fun against the ongoing invasion of “Cogs”, which are these businessmen robots, heavy emphasis on businessmen, with all the boredom and drab that comes with such. You fight against them using stereotyped cartoon gags, because, well, Cogs can’t take a joke. Rinse and repeat this basic basis with variations of the fighting format all throughout the game as you progress, as well as other stuff to do (grinding gets boring, and Toontown Online was notorious for grinding), and you have what remained successful until it was pushed off to the side for Club Penguin.
I’ve always been much more interested in the Cogs than the toons when it came to this game. Their origins, which elaborated on with a simple flash animation within older installers for the game, are mostly unexplained. And, of course, the unified designs of just average, uncanny office workers with little variation except for head design and suit color dependent on department, are a specific, stylized sort of cool. There’s also probably something to say about my own personal experiences with work and neurodivergency and the want to be one, but that’s not the point.
The point now will turn political – despite the game being aimed at kids who could afford ten dollars a month to play, there are some specifics parts that addle to my now an adult brain, that make it think of the further lore implications, and what it means in the greater scheme of things. What do the Cogs represent? What does the war between the Toons and them mean? Of course, it’s also very easy to compare such a thing to the workforce in our own daily lives, and how big corporations play a role, reaching in, making evil decisions, and yet, giving us no choice but to consume their product. And what would I use any of this information for, to look into the implications of Cogs as a symbolism for real-life capitalism and its evils? Probably just rewording this entire paper into an essay to be posted on my website, but also, for my own fan-writings for the game, because, well, making fan content is fun.
My Search Process
The main treasure chest of information when it comes to Toontown Online nowadays is the Toontown Preservation Project, a website hosting game design documents, concept art, and much more, donated from the developers of Toontown Online while it was still active, such as Bruce Woodside. There’s also, of course, the many still-standing videos and posts on old forums about Toontown Online, as well as the gameplay that remains in private servers (mostly relevant to Toontown Rewritten, which is actually the group that runs the Toontown Preservation Project as well). The documentation is vast, encompassing things never implemented into the game, removed early or in beta testing, but for almost all of the conception, there is no use of the word Cogs to describe the Cogs. Instead, they are called Suits, and no discussion into the robotics parts, either.
The Suits were meant to be regular business men, and if you look at the designs of Cogs, a lot of them still only represent the businessman part on the surface, except for some detailing on the suit of the, well, Suit, seeing as their designs were worked on before the change from Suits into Cogs. This is noted in a donated piece of a Suit’s turn-around reference sheet (for future artwork and modelling to be, well, on-model), with average handwriting jotting down “Giving them bolts turned our business 'Suits' into 'Cogs' — turned out to be a good decision” (Woodside). The artwork was presumably from after the change, and also points out that it wasn’t a hard switch in terminology or design, either. What still remains, however, is why this was changed. While the story varies in detail, apparently a few higher ups at Disney took the Suits as a personal slight, forcing them to be dehumanized and “away” from a concept that reflected poorly on the company. Thus, robots. While I don’t think the Cogs would be viewed the same or with such a nostalgic lens if they were just regular humans, there’s something so peculiar about the need for such a change, and something ironic about the concept of businessmen, while now robot businessmen, coming from Disney, “a game where they are essentially ‘taking down the man’ - it’s hard not to chuckle. Disney IS the man. And the theme that they’re selling children, which is free-thinking and anti-business in nature, directly contradicts the brand’s goal to churn out content and money at a ridiculous pace” (Luthin).
However, these are not decisions that made it into the final game, and thus, could mean nothing at all in the long run. What was in the game, however, was Unites, a reward for completing a certain boss that replenished either your gags or your Laff (the toon equivilent of health), which were considered the most useful of boss rewards for obvious reasons. When a Unite was used, your Toon also shouts “Toons of the World,” and then a slightly varied prose based on the type of Unite. In addition, if you went a little bit out of your way, you could get a Speedchat (pre-picked) phrase of just “Toons of the world, Unite!”.
While if you had any clue of the book or the man behind it, you probably could’ve seen this coming, but there is something to be said of Toontown Online’s central themes and including a rip from “Workers of the world, unite” (Marx), which is straight from The Communist Manifesto. While it has never been confirmed, nor probably ever will, if the recycling from such a fundamental source of socialist theory was on purpose or merely a coincidence, it sure does work for my point here.
In addition, take into account the setting of the game, and how Toontown’s economy seems to hinge upon a plethora of small businesses, there is the obvious comparison one could make to themes of anti-monopolization. Toontown is defending itself against what the fate of plenty of smaller towns has become, which is depending on one or two companies to carry the entire area in terms of business, and while the Toon’s shops all serve all sorts of purposes (but being boiled down in gameplay to just throwing quests at you), the Cogs only have one overbearing one, so at least there’s one major reason to keep them out of sticking their stick into the ground.
What I Have Learned
What I can gather from all of this is actually pretty interesting into the accidental symbolism the Cogs have become over the years, as, in my own eyes, the unavoidable evils of a society that hinges on capitalism and the selfishness of product become more obvious. They are a stereotype, sure, but also a stripped-down truth to the place of most workers in the eyes of company – in the truest form of the word – just another cog in the machine. The robotism of Cogs can also be taken as a symbol of automation, as more of the bottom-line, repetitive work becomes shelved out by machinery and AI to replace humans, at the cost of jobs for those who do not have a specialization in anything at all, or who’s specialization has become the menial labor needed for these, such as factory work.
There’s little variation compared to the colorful forms of toonery you play as, having to fit into these molds, and perhaps, business stereotypes as the Cog types are most often named after. There is no deviation. You serve a purpose, serve it well, and that’s all there is to it. That’s your life purpose. Have fun doing that until you die.
I’m also not the only one who’s attempted to co-relate their own life to the satire situation of Cogs. During the research part, I was stumbling over some less than reliable sources of social media, and plenty of older Toontown Online players had ended up in office positions themselves, and mentioned how, in a way, they had become what they once fought against. Sometimes, this was more obviously aligned with the office positions shown in-game, with one user stating “When I was having an early 20s life crisis when the song Suit and Jacket by Judah and the Lion came out and I have a vivid memory of standing in the shower hating working at a bank and being pushed to ‘sell’ checking accounts and that’s when I had the sleeper memory of toontown cogs awaken in me” (goddessbotanic). In the system of modern life, where one has to almost kill themselves, emotionally or otherwise, just to be able to keep up with the frivalities of modern life, to keep a roof on their head, the best you can do is try and keep your tooniness alive, though only at the side.
What This Means to Me, and How I’ll Use It
I’ve always cared about little silly niche topics to try and explore like this. Though there is probably no true intention to any of the evidence brought upon the table except for really in-line coincidences, it all seems to add up to a more mature way of seeing a game I’ve cared about since my first years using a computer. I’m all too big on nostalgia – most of my best memories of technology were with the early 2010s net, which encompasses the later years of Toontown Online, as well as the earlier years of some of my other favorite games, as well as an era of content that wasn’t as dopamine-trapping and headache-causing as the modern internet feeds. Something like this is a bright, fresh light, and makes it all too easy to keep caring about Toontown Online.
Fortunately, I am not trying to embrace a grave. The spirit of Toontown Online still lives on in the form of private servers that keep the game running and available to play, and, in both spite of what made Toontown Online shut down in the first place and to avoid copyright troubles, entirely for free. The two most popular are Toontown Rewritten, which keeps to the base game for the most part for nostalgia reasons, and Toontown Corporate Clash, which adds new content and quality of life changes to change Toontown and modernize it into an all-new, exciting experience. I’ve invested a lot more hours than I would like to admit on a few renditions of these servers, but time having fun is not time wasted, despite what the Cogs think.
Marx, Karl, 1818-1883. The Communist Manifesto. London ; Chicago, Ill. :Pluto Press, 1996.
“r/Toontown - Ever Realise We Grew up to Be the Cogs?” Reddit, Dec. 2022, https://www.reddit.com/r/Toontown/comments/zmwjtm/ever_realise_we_grew_up_to_be_the_cogs/.
Luthin, Stefanie. “The Unique Anti-Capitalist Journey of Toontown Online.” VGA Gallery, VGA Gallery, 24 Mar. 2022, https://vgagallery.org/vga-zine/toontown-anti-capitalism.
Woodside, Bruce. “Toontown Preservation Project.” Finalized Suit Turnaround -- Toontown Preservation Project, Toontown Rewritten, 28 Aug. 2022, https://toontown.online/Finalized- Suit-Turnaround-4393ef3db89341638e8a55242b79ee0a
Toontown Preservation Project, Toontown Rewritten, https://toontown.online/