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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

[Adult Swim] and the Artistic Value Of Assholism

[Adult Swim] has an amazing collective persona that can be adequately summed up as, essentially, "Fuck you, fans." They have spent years cultivating a public image that revolves around ticking their viewers off as much as possible, making fun of their fans at every opportunity, and snarkily lampooning everything under the sun.

And it's allowed them to push their media further artistically than nearly every other major cable station.

But wait, let me back up for those of you who aren't in the 'States, or who didn't grow up with cable. [Adult Swim] is an offshoot of the channel Cartoon Network. It's essentially the dark side of Cartoon Network, the thing that Cartoon Network turns into when the hour gets late and the children go to bed. (Of course, part of the allure of the channel for a lot of people my generation was staying up late and sneaking around the house to watch it when no one else was awake.) The channel shows cartoons aimed at a more adult audience--everything from comedy (like Family Guy and their own shows such as Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast) to action (for a long time, each Saturday showed a range of new Anime alongside classics like Cowboy Bebop and FLCL).

But what really makes Adult Swim so iconic is its white-on-black text rants, its odd station bumps that bracketed the commercial breaks and sometimes bordered on turning into pure surrealist collage, and its well-edited, frequently voiceoverless commercials:







Ah, I could go on about those commercials for ages. Despite--or perhaps because of--how iconic they are, and how influential they've been on 'Net culture (AMV culture in particular), I've never seen anything quite like them. I mean, they had the guts to cut out exposition entirely and let the images themselves, paired with music, speak for the show. And, what's more, they played with techniques culled from video mashup culture and hip/trip-hop, resulting in commercials that are fascinating little artistic experiments in and of themselves.

And you know, it's possible largely because of the final thing that makes Adult Swim so memorable:

They're assholes.

Seriously, all that stuff I said in the beginning? Not an exaggeration. From mocking fan mail, to randomly rearranging shows as a practical joke, to actually airing a full season of 12 Oz Mouse, [Adult Swim] set out to demonstrate how few fucks it gave, and it overwhelmingly succeeded.

But this article isn't just about how supremely dickish [Adult Swim] could be. No, it's about the freedom that this attitude granted them to experiment artistically.

Remember this quote?

"Junk is a second-class citizen of the arts... There are certain inherent privileges in second-class citizenship. Irresponsibility is one."

I used it waaaaaay way back in one of my first articles, an article about how comics should embrace their more bombastic, less "literary" or "high cultural" stylizations.

To some extent, I'm not sure I need to elaborate on the point made in the quote. I mean, that's pretty much my argument here, in a nutshell. [Adult Swim] can do all sorts of crazy things with their art that others can't, simply because they don't have to be responsible. Or, to put it another way, they can take risks that could potentially alienate an audience, because their audience kind of already expects them to be dicks, anyway.

You can see that in the videos I included above. [Adult Swim] was taking a risk with those odd bumps, and with their mostly silent, stylized commercials. Now, it would be easy to look at that and say that the ads work because they're cool. To conclude that is to ignore the simple fact that [Adult Swim] dictated the terms of cool, they dictated exactly what cool was. That primordial power of naming and declaration is made possible by a system where anyone who complains is publicly declared to be a moron.

[Adult Swim] dictated the terms of cool to their audience with the tried and true method of popular assholes everywhere: by always being ready to put the competition down.

I remember, in particular, one bump where [Adult Swim] noted the fact that National Lampoon had lauded their approach to comedy. What was the station's response?

That would have been more impressive back when National Lampoon was actually good.

Ouch.

What makes that comment so interesting is the subtext: National Lampoon is the old guard, ossified, no longer relevant, whereas [Adult Swim] is an innovator, young, arrogant, and self assured of its artistic decisions. That confidence is possible because of the leaps the station makes, the chances it takes. And those leaps into the abyss are only possible because of the confidence. It's a masterful, masturbatory feedback loop.

Nowhere is this clearer to me than with [Adult Swim]'s games. Check out this little masterpiece, for example: Lee-Lee's Quest 2. Just play through a little bit, I'll wait.

Bartender! Bring me another White Russian.

What? No, no, not the Tsar, I've already got one of those, I meant the drink, you utter nimrod.

No, you may NOT remove my Tsar from the premises, I don't care if there's no pets allowed, I had to bargain hard with the President to get this Tsar from him, and besides, I get to pretend I'm the Red Army and--

Oh, back, are you?

Now, tell me, as a rough estimate: how many fucks did that game give?

Not particularly many, all things considered.

The game targets just about anything under the sun for parody, including itself, art games, side scrolling platformers in general, and even, at some points, the very idea of subversive, deconstructive games in its same class!

But what interests me particularly about this game is the way it does take advantage of the total lack of consideration for the player to innovate some pretty spectacularly entertaining things. I mean, a lot of the more irritating traps are also downright hilarious, in part because they're so unexpected.

I think, in particular, of the moment when you crack your round blue skull open on a box that traditionally would give you some reward when hit:

Ouch.
It's a ridiculous little gag that I actually went through multiple times simply out of sheer bewildered delight at how misanthropic the game really was.

But this kind of thing, the sudden, unexpected traps, made the game more fun, because they did not, generally, set me back too far and, more importantly, they introduced an element of the unexpected and tension to the game, where anything could turn out to be shockingly deadly with little or no warning. It made me sit up and take notice of my surroundings, rather than play through the game in a rote way.

What's so notable about this is the fact that a larger dedicated game company, that has cultivated an image of giving players what they want, would not have [Adult Swim]'s freedom to challenge their players with that kind of chaotic possibility of horrible, unexpected death. In essence, their games provide a less intense experience because they fear the negative consequences of being a dick to players. I think this is true even of independent developers--those who are actually competent enough to put together a game that functions without unintended glitches, specifically. If you know your Newgrounds game is going to be voted on by users, how much risk will you be willing to take? How miserable are you willing to make your players?

But deep down I suspect that people long to be challenged by their media, especially when they recognize the rote nature of what they are being served by existing institutions. Hence the lasting cultural success of the Punks, New Hollywood, hip-hop, the Fauvists, Pablo Picasso, the Dadaists... even if the individual members of these movements did not achieve success in their own lifetime, their decision to not only buck the trend, but to embrace an attitude of "Fuck you, I'm going to just do what I want" while doing so has made them enduring pop cultural icons, and major innovators that still remain, in many cases, icons of cool edginess.

But let's return briefly to the idea of artistic innovation. If I'm right, the artistic products of Assholism should give us something new to work with, right? They should push their media forward.

Well, not necessarily. Remember, an attitude does not guarantee artistic vision, it just can enable artistic experimentation. And some experiments are bound to be failures.

Thankfully, I think in the case of Lee-Lee's Quest 2 there's some interesting material to work with. Noting the chaotic nature of the death traps, for example, I have to wonder what a game would be like if that chaos was part of the theme. What if your powerups had a random chance of doing damage to you or killing you in addition to/instead of helping you? I believe this has already been played with conceptually in a few places, but the randomness side of it has never been given a thematic focus, to my knowledge, and that's potential ground to explore.

Oh, and then there's stuff like this:

The best part is, there's no way to exploit this strategically, as far as I can see. 
Yeah, that's the point where your character just busts straight up through the top of the game. It's a great gag, simply because it's so unexpected and totally bizarre, but it's also a potentially interesting innovation if used a touch more seriously. What if you could bust through the borders of the game you're playing under specific circumstances? Hell, what if you could, as the game jokingly suggests, "fall down to the Comments section" and get specific power ups based on what you find there? That probably is impossible with Flash (although I wouldn't bet good money on that assumption) but there's probably some way of doing it with Javascript. It would make the game intriguingly collaborative--are the people posting comments going to help you, or hinder you? Can you team up with other people to post beneficial comments, only to be beaten to the prize by another team that steals the good comments and quickly spams negative ones?

Now, none of that depends on the attitude that [Adult Swim] has. However, the fact that the original innovation was a throwaway idea in a larger game is telling to me: it shows that [Adult Swim]'s media, by its chaotic nature and snide disregard of the consumer's expectations, can just spit out new ideas that other media producers have to work extensively to refine, market, and so on. So much of their media revolves around this, from the experimental, artistically brilliant commercials, to low budget absurdist experiments like 12 Oz. Mouse or Perfect Hair Forever (both shows are incredibly bizarre, and worth watching just for the sheer what the fuckery they induce), to games that play more like the ultra-difficult, ultra-unfair games of the early Console era, to the abstract idiosyncrasies of a show like The Big O, to the yearly prize that grants complete control of programming to a random fan. [Adult Swim] can take risks others can't, and often throws good ideas out to the aether haphazardly, because it has a relationship with its fans. At its most deranged, the fans will laugh it off, because they expect that kind of behavior from the station.

I think the moment that best summarizes the whole phenomenon for me comes at the end of Lee-Lee's Quest, when the protagonist blithely declares, "There's no blood on my hands if the player gives up!"

That, right there, is a statement of true artistic freedom from anyone else's preconceptions and demands.

There are really only two reactions one can have to such a statement. One is to admire the speaker's iron clad balls. The other is to call them an asshole.

And the genius of [Adult Swim]'s cultivated image is that they can get their fans to react both ways simultaneously, and love them all the more for it.

It's a cactus, are you blind?! You can follow me on Google+ at gplus.to/SamKeeper or on Twitter @SamFateKeeper. As always, you can e-mail me at KeeperofManyNames@gmail.com. If you liked this piece please share it on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Reddit, Equestria Daily, Xanga, MySpace, or whathaveyou, and leave some thoughts in the comments below.

6 comments:

  1. This post speaks to me.

    I vividly remember the first time I stood up late to watch Adult Swim. It was on a middle school field trip. I was given the couch to sleep on in the hotel room, and I stood up til two in the morning watching what I would later learn was Futurama and God knows what else.

    Thanks you for that memory, [AS], and thank you Keeper for making me remember that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good article, and a great point about the freedom of low-brow culture. It's curious how in this instance that particular style combined with a rather large popular following, which is something that, as can be seen in your examples, rarely happened.

    I will point out, however, that the concept of 'breaking out' of the game isn't really a new concept. In fact, I would argue that concept originated in the original Super Mario Bros. where in World 1-2 you were able to break the ceiling blocks and jump up into the 'ceiling', allowing you to skip half the level. I agree, though, that the concept definitely could lead to something odd in the future, and sometimes old concepts have to be reintroduced to truly be appreciated.

    ReplyDelete
  3. DAT COMMENT SECTION IDEA. Would it be possible with Javascript...?

    As a Javascript programmer... with today's HTML5 technology, maybe, just maybe, yes. The neat thing is that now Javascript can do graphics as well, and with a fast enough browser/computer combination, you won't notice a significant slowdown compared to, say, Java or Flash. Not for a 2D game anyway. And man, would doing that be fun!

    ReplyDelete
  4. There's a question of turnover here. The varieties and franchises of 'low' culture either become popular enough that they are subjected to some strictures that prevent them from innovating as much (see, for instance, much of genre fiction -- particularly the fairly stagnant state of science fiction before the 'new wave', or the state of police procedurals right now, wherein a formula is expected and subversions of the formula tend to get factored out at the publisher stage) or they become so unpopular that they disappear entirely outside of fringe fan groups.

    Even in 'low' culture, experimentation tends to be championed by a handful of people in the situation of relative safety gained by sticking to formula (and arguably, adult swim also falls into this category, since if it made a particularly expensive mistake it would be bouyed up by the more stable but less interesting daytime CN programming). In comics, Vertigo came out of DC, and Batman and Superman's more or less formulaic storylines made it possible for Alan Moore to have Swamp Thing have nasty psychedelic vegetable sex with a human woman and Grant Morrison to turn Wiley E. Coyote into a vegan christ figure through the mouthpiece of Animal Man. Neither one of those may have been a financial mistake (I'm not privy to DC sales figures from the 1980s), but it's certainly true that an independent imprint like Oni Press could not have brought The Invisibles to fruition -- a few thousand pages of Morrison's acid trip spew that almost was dropped by Vertigo about a third of the way through because of a particularly long arc about eighteenth century poets, it really influenced a lot of other people, and is at least partially responsible for several iconic scenes in the original Matrix movie (in addition to either triggering or feeding the early 90s occult revival, which itself influenced things like the first season of Buffy). In other words, Superman enabled Grant Morrison to make The Invisibles, which caused both The Matrix and Buffy the Vampire Slayer(TV) to exist.

    There are systems wherein it doesn't really work this way.

    (continued)

    ReplyDelete
  5. (continued)


    For instance, PKD is known for his mind-bending science fiction -- but, he started out writing some really mediocre and cliche short fiction for magazines, and he continued depending on the uninspired tripe financially until after he had published The Man in the High Castle, for which he got an award. During part of that time he was living off dog food and amphetamines, and writing in twenty hour spurts. If he was sensible, he probably would have quit writing and gone back to work as a record clerk -- he certainly never really made enough money off his writing to justify the hours he worked. But, he consciously sacrificed his time and spent lots of effort on things like Beyond Lies the Wub and Our Friends from Frolix Six in order to tell us stories like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldrich and Ubik. He would have been able to do much more if there had been a system in place for struggling science fiction writers with creative drive to get a bit of breathing room; this system didn't exist during the 50s and early 60s *because* it was considered a low genre (and to a certain extent, the assumption that there is more freedom in a low form is a privilege of those who can afford to take risks financially in addition to taking them artistically: good art is not necessarily profitable).

    Every so often, somebody like Quentin Tarrantino or PKD or Grant Morrison creates a little niche for themselves in the existing system, and finds a way to do really interesting experimental things bankrolled by profitable boring stuff. There are other examples (David Lynch, Cronenberg, Alan Moore, Warren Ellis -- I can't think of any women or non-whites off the top of my head), but even in situations like DC's Vertigo impression or Nothing Records, wherein there's a dedicated place for experimentation, it's hard to get into the system.


    (continued)

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  6. (continued)
    Once you get into the system, your wonderful new creations become systematized, and if they are profitable they will get named. If you follow the siren-song and do as you are expected to do (even if you're an asshole while doing it), you can quickly descend into self-parody. It's trivial to come up with a parody of David Lynch (have a 1950s-styled setting with strange lighting where people with head injuries say random strings of words), or David Cronenberg (somebody's body mutates into an insect, as the result of repeated intentional car crashes, and then their head explodes). The 1990 film Total Recall was almost a complete parody of all of PKD's early work (the only thing it didn't bring in was the later religious obsessions), and arguably Alan Moore has already become a parody of himself even outside of comics. The person becomes a brand and ceases to be original in that context (which is probably why David Lynch stopped making movies and is releasing albums instead). For a musical example, see the interviews given by Radiohead members (notably Thom Yorke) around the time Kid A was introduced: Creep was extremely popular (and possibly the only original-sounding thing on Pablo Honey), and while The Bends and OK Computer were great albums with some really innovative ideas, through all of that they were utterly sick of being stuck with rock & roll (and specifically, being expected to stick to the usual suspects of guitar, bass, drums, and constant touring); they were also, culturally, expected to be drinking and taking copious quantities of drugs. With Kid A and Amnesiac, they gave a great big "fuck you" to these expectations: we start off with looping glitched samples in both cases, and the group makes heavy use of the glockenspiel and automatic writing. They had turned themselves into an electronica group, and their later albums demonstrated their comfort with that idea. But, even as an extremely popular group with a huge hardcore fan base, they needed to overcome a lot of resistance to take things in a different direction; otherwise, OK Computer wouldn't have sounded so much like a rock album!

    Right now, there's a market for clones of early Quentin Tarrantino style films. There's a market for Pablo Honey soundalikes and films that look like Lost Highway. For a little while in the 90s, every comic book wanted to be Watchmen or V for Vendetta or Arkham Asylum, even when it didn't make any sense (and from this era -- from one of the worst offenders -- we get Deadpool, who has been salvaged a bit and given half-decent characterization since then). This is probably a good thing, but it certainly isn't good for the original creators in terms of their continued artistic output. Morrison is currently essentially in a long period of direct reaction to the kind of stuff he wrote in the late 1980s, and is busy writing books about how the meme of a perfect and unstained Superman saving the world will actually save the world from the mentality generated by grimdark Batman reboots and the war on terror; in some sense, everything he's written since 1990 has been a refutation of everything he wrote before 1990, and when the pattern is this predictable it doesn't constitute an informed artistic decision.

    ReplyDelete

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