Each year here at Audiences Everywhere, I like to take some time during our end-of-year celebrations to look at things that don’t quite fit into any of our other Best Of categories. As we’ve grown to include a greater variety of lists, I’ve had to stretch the definition of “Almost Film” past its breaking point. I could go on about how the definition of cinema itself is becoming more and more unstable, and how the combination of various mediums requires a more open-minded approach, but I’ll spare you. This is just a list of stuff I liked in 2016, and it’s stuff I hope you’ll like as well.
100 Ft. Robot Golf
Unlike The Beginner’s Guide from last year’s list, I don’t include 100 Ft. Robot Golf to make a point about the increasingly blurry lines between games and cinema. This game from indie studio No Goblin is fun, no doubt – it’s a golf game where you control 100-foot tall robots, using missiles and lasers to clear a path or distract our opponents – but it qualifies for this list on the basis of its cutscenes, which lovingly ape the style and tropes of 90s anime to hilarious effect (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a particularly popular point of reference here). “Lovingly” is an apt descriptor all-around for this game. 100 Ft. Robot Golf radiates a positive and affectionate charm – always pleasant but never saccharine, always goofing but never mocking. The cast, largely comprised of game designers rather than professional voice actors, is energetic and passionate. The cutscenes often sound more like a group of friends goofing off than anything else. In fact, the opening cutscene has a fake “fandub” tag, implying that this is actually the case in the fiction of the game. Playing this game is like spending time with friends, a feeling that’s shockingly absent in so much of this ostensibly social medium. There’s also a non-binary character, and you know I’m all about that. Oh, and the in-game “commentators” for your robot golf matches are podcasters and internet icons Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy. You’ll be hearing about them a lot on this list…
The Adventure Zone
…like right now! This Dungeons and Dragons podcast has been going on for a couple years, but things really ramped up in 2016. Justin and Travis McElroy, along with their dad Clint, play as the airhead wizard Taako, the carpenter/fighter Magnus, and the mage who isn’t good at healing Merle, respectively. The three work for an organization called the Bureau of Balance, tasked with recovering objects of immense and dangerous power. Their commitment to these characters has grown tremendously over time, gaining the sort of depth and complexity afforded by this sort of long-form storytelling. Griffin, meanwhile, is the dungeon master, and each successive arc has shown even more of his brilliance as a writer. 2016 was dominated by the sixth arc, titled “The Eleventh Hour,” which found our heroes trapped in a town which repeated the same hour over and over. The four hosts draw a staggering amount of narrative nuance from the same endlessly repeating beats, and they kept the story compelling for months. D&D devotees will probably take issue with the way that The Adventure Zone plays fast and loose with the game’s rules. The show will always go for the gag, even if it means circumventing what’s technically allowed. This makes the show more accessible for people like me, who know nothing about how D&D is supposed to be played. And yes, like all McElroy content, it’s very, very funny. The most recent episode featured a lengthy argument between Justin and Griffin as to whether the spell “Flesh to Stone” would work on a slime monster, since it technically didn’t have any flesh. The fact that Griffin and Travis have newborn babies at home means that the show’s release schedule has been punctuated with previously recorded live shows, so now’s a great time to catch up on previous episodes.
The funny thing about the game Overwatch is that nothing that happens in it is canonical to its own universe. The cinematic that plays when you start the game explains that the conflict and chaos of the world has led the super-intelligent scientist (and gorilla) Winston to reassemble the peacekeeping force known as Overwatch, which had been disbanded for many years. This is ostensibly the set-up for the action of the game, but it’s quite a bit more complicated in practice. Overwatch is a team-based shooter with 25 characters, each with their own lore and backstory and history with one another, but you can choose any of them at any time, even when that might conflict with that lore and backstory and history. So you can have the upbeat musician and activist Lucio work together with the cold-blooded assassin Widowmaker. You can have omnic (that’s “robot” in this world) monk Zenyatta help deliver an EMP bomb to an omnic worker’s camp. You can have two of the character Genji on the same team (and until they took out hero-stacking from Quick Play, you almost certainly would). The story of Overwatch is set dressing to the game itself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t compelling in and of itself.
To promote the game’s release, Blizzard Entertainment released a series of short films which expanded on particular characters and where they found themselves prior to Winston’s call to action. “Alive” had time-hopping heroine Tracer try to stop Widowmaker from assassinating an omnic spiritual leader. “Hero” showed Soldier: 76 (the alias of Overwatch’s former commander) busting gangs in Mexico. The best of the pre-release shorts was “Dragons,” which showed master bowman Hanzo confronted by Genji, the brother who he thought he killed long ago. Their fight is impressively rendered and choreographed, and the moment when Genji reveals himself has surprising pathos for such a slim short.
Blizzard has continued to release shorts post-release, and they keep getting better. The most recent one, “Infiltration,” was meant to introduce a new playable character, the hacker anti-hero Sombra. When you get down to it, these are all basically just commercials for the game, but they’re still fun and engaging little films, and they’re made with far more effort and skill than your average advertisement warrants.
Death Grips’ “Eh” Music Video
Another year, another Death Grips video on this list. This year’s entry is significantly less depressing than 2015’s, matching the shift in energy from The Powers That B’s punching bag exercise to Bottomless Pit’s wild, unpredictable flailing. “Eh” is the most accessible song on the album (though with Death Grips the word “accessible” doesn’t mean a whole lot) but the accompanying video is as experimental as ever. It’s hard to describe the video, as to my knowledge it doesn’t have much stylistic precedent. It turns its images into audio waveforms, which shake and vibrate along with the loopy beeps and boops of the beat and MC Ride’s uncharacteristically monotone delivery. Not all of the group’s visual experiments this year landed (the video for “Giving Bad People Good Ideas” was a major whiff) but “Eh” shows that Death Grips is making as vital art in 2016 as they ever have.
Oh, Car Boys. To be honest, I could have filled this entire list with episodes of this Polygon Youtube series. It started out with humble intentions. The aforementioned Griffin McElroy and his Polygon co-worker Nick Robinson made a video showing off the soft-body car physics simulator game BeamNG.drive, which lets you destroy cars and trucks in stunning graphical detail. The comedic potential of the game had much longer legs than either host anticipated, and each week they dug deeper and deeper into the possibilities of BeamNG.drive’s engine. Watching them push the game’s limits and find new inventive ways to destroy cars was a weekly pleasure. There’s something about watching a flaming wreck careen into the sky in slow-motion while “Claire de Lune” plays that never stops being funny.
The show takes a dramatic turn when they finally break through those limits. It starts with an orange crash test dummy affectionately named “Busto” by the boys. For reasons that are still unclear, Busto has properties which are uncontrollable and outside the laws of nature. BeamNG.drive is designed to simulate reality in minute detail, but Busto turns the environment into an abstract cubist landscape at the slightest physical provocation.
The running gag that Busto is an all-powerful digital god with malicious intent eventually spilled over into live-action interlude videos and even videos on Polygon’s channel that were unrelated to Car Boys. The show has moved away from Busto’s antics in recent episodes, but BeamNG.drive has plenty more bizarre and hilarious features to explore.
The things that happen in Car Boys are as inexplicable as they are delightful. It’s an ode to the things that make video games unique as a medium. You can appreciate a game for how closely it hews to reality, but you can also enjoy the little distinctly gamey aspects that give it away as a digital construct. Car Boys is about recognizing the former and the latter in equal measure. Like The Adventure Zone, Griffin’s paternity leave has put Car Boys on hiatus, so there’s no better time than now to get caught up on 2016’s best video series.
Featured Image: Polygon