Saturday, March 16, 2024

Let's Play Life

 hello - this post of mine i've been working on for the past few months! it's a sequel of sorts to last year's California Problem post and it's about let's plays, youtube, and internet culture. it is book-length, so i have divided it into three parts. i could not write something this ambitious without my supporters on Patreon. money is particularly tight for me right now, so if you enjoy this post and you're able to throw me some support - i would really appreciate it! if you can't support me - please share this post with your friends!

my 2000's indie music podcast Kitschfork is currently somewhat on hiatus, but i am working on an album of original songs i'm planning to release before the end of 2024 titled "Saint Elizabeth". you can check out my first released song "Terrible Town" here, and hit the "follow" button on my Bandcamp page for more updates here!

also: yes, you can read the whole post over on my Patreon for free here as well. and no, i will not answer messages on social media that complain about the orange background of this blog or my lack of capitalization in this post. you guys should have learned by now - i will not waver in my convictions.

- liz


" long can a culture persist without the new? What happens if the young are no longer capable of producing surprises?"
- Mark Fisher in Capitalist Realism 
Part 1: The Memory Office

You've heard the usual sob stories recounted endlessly in increasingly public fashion. each one comes on weepier and more uncomfortable than the last. long ago you lost count of the amount of tearful testimonies you've witnessed. by now you've started to feel progressively more alarmed by how the relatively simple memories shared in these stories seem to overtake virtually anything else out there in the world in their passion and fervor.

and yet you could not know that, later in your life, these sorts of stories would be repeatedly invoked by you too as a pivotal moment in your life. or that the feelings brought up by these memories would rarely fail to make even the most hardened of grown men, steeped in the many long days and nights of their brutal everyday work grind, start welling up wistfully in solidarity. even the most grizzled among us can agree: these times, they were so significant, so consequential. they simply cannot be matched.

without even really knowing it, you yourself have spent your entire life silently training to be ready to conjure up story after story of past wistful yearning as well. maybe you won't need them, but: remember that you can drop these tearful treasured memories like a bomb on others the second anyone doubts for a single second that you are, or at least were, passionate. you could even bring them up if you ever run for public office and your authenticity is ever called into question. this path is a crucial part of you - it's your birthright. you've continually demonstrated that you’re a good, normal, media-consuming individual from birth - no one can question that. it’s important to think about that. don't let others dilute your mindset.

and yet your rapidly growing confidence somehow doesn't push away the also rapidly growing dread you feel that these stories have started sounding indistinguishable from each other in their millionth retelling. you wonder, in the back of your mind, if all the trips you've taken to the memory office inside your head haven't left your inner world increasingly stripped of any kind of imagination. sometimes you worry that you have no real distance. can you ever grow past these stories? do others want you to grow past these stories? hasn't the strange ritual of sharing them simply begun to make less sense every time you do it? isn't it all just scattered jigsaw pieces of aimless cultural waste, invoked by you in an increasingly disjointed manner? are we all just performing this elaborate, impassioned ceremony in an attempt to prove to ourselves, or to others... are these memories actually real at all?

the life of sharing these stories sends you hurtling through the endless tunnels and neural pathways of the collective consciousness. you're now on a perilous journey into the elaborate puzzle worlds of others' minds - always searching for a kind of treasure that may or may not have ever really existed. these memories are like the Green Hill Zone of life - they're Level One, full of shimmering fields of possibility... before it all really started happening. before we lost ourselves somewhere out there in the bigger, meaner, more confusing world. 

but also: somewhere out there is a new 'natural' world, one made to compensate for all the vanishing possibility and diminishing sense of mystery in the real one. and somewhere in this new natural world you can actually find a real heaven, a real floating city, a real mysterious gold palace, a real sexy neon futurescape, a real life on Mars. a real sun-soaked land with waterfalls and canyons and birds singing.

anything and everything you've dreamed of is there. and we all can experience it - we can really have it all... through media. 

CRT monitor photo of lost Sonic 2 concept art from Frank Cifaldi

and so, in one of these many childhood memories you've ritualistically shared too many times to count now, a young version of you is over as at your best friend's house. this could be one of many friends. but, in this case, it is your friend whose family had way more money than yours. this friend's parents also didn't appear to care to watch their kids very much, for reasons you did not understand. you seem to recall that a few years later, this friend maybe moved out of town, or maybe decided you were too much of a loser to be friends with anymore. maybe you didn't really have much in common with each other to begin with. maybe you were never really friends at all?

the details are unimportant. on this evening, you both sit inhaling some cans of Sprite and half-watching cartoons that ambiently hum at a low volume in the background on a TV in your friend's family's living room. suddenly, you both make the very consequential decision to stay up all night playing some videogames. tonight it's gonna be just you and your friend (who you're pretty sure was definitely your friend), all night, alone. it's time to sit up with your faces pressed perilously close to the screen. everyone else is gone, for some reason: it doesn't matter why. that is outside the bounds of this particular story. it's time for both of you slam your fingers onto small plastic buttons in order to shuffle your little pixelated guys around in those wonderful virtual worlds.

in the midst of sharing your story, you seem to recall that this memory looked a lot like those kitschy Thomas Kinkade style tableaus of consumer childhood nostalgia done by artist Rachid Lotf. yes, these memories bring up confusing emotions that are hard to put in a particular place or give a particular name to - but these pieces seem pretty close! suddenly you've hit all of the markers of a bygone era that you haven't seen for a long time, and you're flooded with old feelings. once you learn how to channel these feelings, others will materialize to show you their love for what you've done. soon enough, they too will begin to share their own stories.

but, as it turns out, this is all really an elaborate political performance. any sense of memory displacement you experience invariably gets gobbled up and puked out by many esteemed cultural commentators out there. these guardians of the thought realm want to assure you that, regardless of how you might feel, there are powers that be who want to take all these precious moments away from you. posts like the screencaps above and below from twitter account "Wokal Distance" are there to urgently remind you any time you unearth long-dead feelings that you can't really put into words, that what you really feel is the ache of the call home. you feel Pokémon cards, and mom's spaghetti. seeing these makes you feel the late 1990's consumer culture iteration of paintings of the British countryside. but here's the problem: the powers that be don't want kids of today to experience what you experienced. they want to piss all over your memories, and the memories of future generations. and they're doing it every day, in broad daylight. they're pissing in broad daylight, and no one cares! it's actually fucked up.

and so: how to fight back? good question. the time is well upon us now to reassert that we are vigilant consumers. we must violently grapple (for there is simply no other option at this late stage) with the ongoing efforts to exterminate traditional values, whatever those may be at the current moment. we must remember to be guided by the glowing light of these precious memories. our brothers in battle may be marble statue avatar accounts on social media. or they may be failed actors who grew a sizeable online audience by antagonizing blue-haired college students on behalf of good media-consuming people like you, in an act of great self-sacrifice. maybe they're anonymous folks with avatars of characters from some Japanese anime who seem to frequently share vaguely racist images that feature somewhat incoherent elaborate taxonomies of different types of human beings that you don't really understand. maybe we're all strange bedfellows here, but that's what makes it exciting! a brand new universe has opened up to you, and a whole new lexicon of ideas is now there for you to experience and study. 

and now that you have entered into this world, it is time for you to know the true nature of your mission: you must start by extolling the dangers of modern architecture. they have corrupted the beauty of traditional Western values (represented by ornate details and columns on buildings) into the meaningless decadence of the modern world. it was good enough for past civilizations, so why isn't it good enough for us? it's the question that has haunted many generations. and you must fight to achieve a total victory here. you must do this to show your appreciation to those failed actors and obsessive anime avatar souls who sacrificed so much for you.

by now you're pretty far down the rabbit hole - way too far to ask any questions about what gothic architecture or marble statues have to do remotely with childhood memories of engaging with kitschy consumer products of the late 20th century. and the further we go down, the deeper we dive into conspiracies like "Cultural Marxism" and the idea of the Frankfurt School of the early to mid-twentieth century that are built on a foundation of antisemitism (though our culture of the moment is certainly doing everything in its power to obscure what that term even means). the world you're in has become even loopier and more fantastical - these are magical feelings you can no longer feel in your regular life anymore. your family is getting very worried. you can no longer connect to the real world: you've started to look like Robbie Coltrane in the video for the Kate Bush song "Deeper Understanding". the further down you spiral, the more it reads to anyone on the outside that you've become lost in an increasingly incoherent jumble of random grievances on the culture war bingo card linked together by violent bigotry and vibes. the more you dig in, the more you risk permanently alienating your loved ones around you. it's a sad but inevitable sacrifice you must make to live in a true and right world.

and that's invariably where the fixation with nostalgia and returning to some kind of lost past that may or may not have ever existed ends up. any given dive into childhood memories of playing videogames with your friend gets used to fuel right-wing RETVRN-style fantasies on the hyper-politicized internet of today. our memories are all just raw fuel used to send people down one kind of radicalization pipeline or another - leaving broken lives and families in its wake. there's always a Thomas Kinkade-style mind palace somewhere that should be forever fought for and upheld, and there's always a scapegoat to blame for the current rot in society. and it will always leave many more victims in its wake. even when the picture of this memory, the one manifested into a fever dreamy fantasia of consumerist signifiers, probably didn't even really happen. 

where did it all go wrong? those garishly hyper-real re-digested versions of TV or magazine ads of the time are rarely what anyone actually experienced: they're what you hoped you could have had back then. maybe that's the point of their existence to begin with, and maybe that's not so harmful in some ways. because so much culture is so ephemeral, it can be very valuable to further reflect on what's been left behind. from the 17th to 19th century, nostalgia was originally considered a medical sickness so severe that, if left untreated, could lead to death. this was particularly pronounced in the case of soldiers who experienced homesickness serving terms of duty far away from home: the only known cure was to return home. the meaning of the word "nostalgia" eventually changed in the 20th century to mean what it does today: a strong emotional experience of sentimentality. but perhaps something of these homesick afflictions still come out when we observe the victims of today's culture. images you haven't seen in a long time that might conjure up long repressed memories of what was forgotten in your life. the pace of culture moves faster than ever, and it leaves so much waste behind it. perhaps trying to resolve these feelings on a deeper level is essential to help you function and offer a clearer path forward into the future.

and also: you should know, at some level, that the real picture never feels like an ad you'd see somewhere. the real picture is always so much more complex and so context-specific. the true nature of these memories is often elusive and ambiguous. you can't really summarize it in a way that doesn't lead the to you talking about the circumstances of your life in general. and you should know that. you have to know that. right?

and yet, shockingly little of substance ever seems to worm its way out from the sharing of such anecdotes. because, in the social sphere, they're memories that can be shaped into anything you want to shape them into, and used for any sort of purposes you'd like to use them for. they could be the right-wing mass culture war campaign grievance of the hour, or they could look like the consoomer meme, or they could come from ultra-woke fanfic authors and primp Disney adults. so these memories get metabolized by mass media industries into another corny cultural cliché. any horizons beyond the blanket fortresses you created from consuming a trash heap of media inside your giant suburban castle fades into the background. all major sides are invariably fighting for slightly different variations on the same formula. the thought of joining a community not built entirely on unquestioned brand loyalty presented in slightly varying flavors never even enters the picture. it's about stamping your ticket into a theme park of increasingly nonsensical cultural sludge. and it's all reinforced by the culture of the internet, where we can celebrate as some kind of victory for the masses. it's epic bacon all the way down, folks. we all win, even when we're losing!

Mortal Kombat arcade ad

and yet, the promise of your old stories has yet to be fulfilled. you are still afflicted with a severe case of nostalgia that has yet to be cured. clearly there is still so much unresolved business lying dormant here. in your old memory, you're still sitting there with your childhood friend late one evening. the controller is still in your hands. where will it take you?

will your friend swipe the controller from your clammy grasp and commence mocking you mercilessly once it becomes apparent you don't really know how to play this game? will your friend see that you are so obviously, visibly frustrated about your lack of ability to execute the correct inputs and try to prod you even further into unleashing a temper tantrum? will you later sit stewing by yourself for hours about your inability to adequately game in this moment, never quite letting it go? will these failures to successfully perform weigh on you heavily later in life, to the point where decisions you make will be (perhaps too) informed by them? 

what if you were, oh my god, a girl? will your basic capacity to show interest in games be constantly called into question? will it always be assumed that your passion for playing any sort of game is a put-on to attract others, and that any knowledge you might have gained towards these ends is not real? will you face unending hostility for wrongly asserting or expressing enjoyment of a type of media others have determined is not made for you?

maybe your defining experience is like mine with my second cousin. i swear, he only seemed to exist to lord things over anyone immediately around him. the summer of 1997, at his house, was the first place i saw a real life Nintendo 64 in action outside of a department store. owning a Nintendo 64 in 1997 was a very big deal to many children of the time. this cousin bragged about how long his mom waited in line before Christmas 1996 to get it, a ritual any child at the time was apparently required to proudly recite if they owned an N64. the stars had aligned for him, after all: he got to be the N64 kid that Christmas, and we didn't. and isn't that really all that matters, in life?

at the time, my second cousin lived in a large three-story house that was mostly empty. his mom was friendly, but somewhat clueless and she wasn't around most of the time anyway. after about five or ten minutes of showing off the overworld castle area of Mario 64, never once handing off the controller, he started to look visibly agitated. it was as if we (me, my older brother, my other second cousin) - or, let's be real, maybe just i - were getting too enamored by the game and not by whatever crushing insights he was delivering about some unrelated thing at that particular moment. perhaps he was giving all of us a brutally profound take on some song that had recently played on MTV that i simply did not appreciate the depth of at the time. his growing agitation meant he promptly got up and turned off the TV, and i felt the joy inside me die as we went outside to a nearby playground. here he could feel free to commence making fun of me for one reason or another. i was the youngest, after all, and the most easily made fun of. 

his mom ended up selling that house not too long after. they only had it for a bit. it was never really theirs, it was just in the extended family. that's why it was mostly empty - they didn't really live there. his life actually wasn't that great, from what i later found out about it. i have no idea what he's doing now. but i still think about that house. it seemed so impossibly big to me. until then, i didn't know houses outside the one in Home Alone could go up to three stories. somewhere, somehow that house still contains all the secrets of Mario 64 i never got a chance to see.

but let's just say, instead, that your friend is more like my teenage friend. for the sake of this post, we'll just call him "Martin." i promise that i'm calling him by a pseudonym not for any sordid reason. i met him on the swim team for the local YMCA where i grew up in rural Central Ohio. he lived on the other side of town, and actually went to another school district for the first several years we knew each other. we didn't get to see each other too much outside of swim practice (and, later: karate) until he transferred to my school district for high school. us hanging out was a bit of a special occasion for those first few years.

i started hanging out with Martin when i was twelve years old. it was a particularly dark time in my life. the middle school i attended was, and i don't know how else to put this: a factory of human misery and sadness. the reasonably charming old middle school building right next to the town's also reasonably charming local library had several building code violations. and so, the current building had recently been built as a replacement, right behind the already existing high school. it was an area surrounded by some nondescript fields, a water treatment plant, and the local evangelical university. this complex only had two entrances, which ensured that there was always major traffic congestion right before and after school. and god forbid if you wanted to walk home, or to anything else after school: that ain't happening. 

the structure of the school was bent twice at forty-five degrees in the middle, and had random wings branching at different angles. it was like some kind of uncanny valley construction spit out by algorithmic generation. the building's facade was built of lite puke-red bricks that had a sort of weird plasticky sheen on them. that was paired with an even more puzzling vomit-inducing mint-colored roof that jutted in all directions and angles. the contrast made the roof seemed as if it was made of play-doh.

pictured: hell on earth

on the inside was a joyless maze of oppressively drab drop-ceilings, spirit-crushing fluorescent lights, and bland walls made of concrete blocks painted white. one of the school's two giant windows that, from the front entrance, looked maybe a little flashy... looked into the shabbiest cafeteria you've ever seen. the color combinations gave hospital cafeteria mixed with corporate nursery. everything was made of plastic and felt like it wasn't really meant to be used. it looked more like a model render of a cafeteria than a real space anyone was reasonably expected to occupy. it was as if the green Formica table The Man From Another Place talks about menacingly in a famous Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me scene was sentient. all the evil sins of America's various crimes came out at once to possess us while we were eating re-heated frozen chicken nuggets. the other giant window looked into our very bleak school library that i'm not sure i ever saw anyone sincerely using for more than a few minutes. it was filled with books that may or may not have just been props to make the library appear like it was a functioning space. it was more the idea of a library that could theoretically exist, than a real one.

giant LCD clocks hung from the ceilings of the halls, perhaps intentionally borrowed straight from your favorite piece of dystopian science fiction. they were prepared to crush any wayward joy in the spirit of students had still yet remaining. they somehow appeared to tick faster in between class periods, whenever teachers would threaten us with the idea that we'd be tardy and could be risking getting in trouble at any moment. many teachers seemed to take extra pleasure in being assholes to us awkward tweens about how we were being unappreciative and might fuck up this great state-of-the-art new building. have you kids ever thought, for a single solitary moment, about our responsibilities to our employers??? we couldn't take our coats or backpacks in to any classes with us either - they had to immediately go into those lockers. the Columbine school shooting in Colorado had recently happened and the school administration was terrified of kids carrying concealed weapons. and so, we had to carry piles of books around with us in our hands the whole day.

the architects of the school were actually invited to my math class for the gifted program (which was called "The Challenge Program") one day in sixth grade. we had an assignment to draw our own building plans for a new school, and these architects would pick a winner. my design was completely fantastical - a tangled assortment of diagonal rooms linking up oddly to each other with no connecting hallways in between them. when others pointed out the basic design flaw of having no connecting hallways, i declared that these rooms utilized a new invention called "sideways elevators" in order to transport students. when i saw our middle school's architects pick a design that definitely had normal hallways, i realized they were not actually looking for "sideways elevators" and felt like an idiot. but in hindsight, my fantastical design was no less of an incoherent jumble than the actual building we were forced to occupy every day. my design was certainly a lot less boring. and i definitely would have picked a better color scheme.

i was eventually kicked out of "The Challenge Program" between seventh and eighth grade. i was never given a concrete reason for this, but i assumed it was for having one too many angry outbursts about the nonsensical curriculum for our seventh grade "reading" class that seemed to be guided mostly by vibes. we spent the first month or two of the class talking about Lyme Disease for some reason. i wanted to talk about literature, and i couldn't. i could have also been kicked out for writing a short story that heavily borrowed lyrics i misquoted from Radiohead's "Climbing Up The Walls", which seemed to make the teacher very alarmed i was a potential future criminal. i was devastated upon learning i had been kicked out of the program at the beginning of eighth grade. this incident turned out to make absolutely no difference whatsoever in the overall trajectory of my life other than being a funny story.

in spite of being a public school, i.e. not a religious school, the only time we had school-wide assemblies were to listen to some motivational speaker launder barely veiled evangelical christian talking points. usually this meant proselytizing about how we shouldn't have sex until marriage. i even bought into that idea for a day or so before talking to my friends about it and immediately realizing i was a sucker. my eighth grade homeroom and science teacher essentially taught creationism in class and had a huge amount of community support for it. he was only later removed after a years long battle, in an incredibly public case which received tons of press coverage (there's a long wikipedia article about it). the only reason he eventually got kicked out was for him doing incredibly brazen stuff, like allegedly burning a cross into a kid's arm with a Tesla coil. 

you might not be very surprised to learn that he had a lot of other kooky beliefs too. i still recall one instance of him pridefully declaring "i make my own toilet paper!" with a smirk to the class, almost mystifyingly out of context. i still puzzle over what exactly he meant by that to this very day. later on in high school, when me and others on the swim team would enter the locker room at the YMCA before practice, we'd always see him standing alone in the shower. our practices happened immediately after open lap swimming for adults, but he seemed to be the only adult who was ever there. his purpose was a mystery. and even with all of that, even though his classes frequently diverged into Mr. Freshwater's Bizarre World of Quackery with him holding court about some idiosyncratic new belief he had developed, even though class felt at times more like a weird carnival side-show than it did a real science class... i still remember thinking he was one of the better teachers.

my point with all of this is: if some rogue state were to drop a bomb specifically on that middle school, i would have been happy to be vaporized along with everyone else in it. until i attended this middle school, i'm not sure i fully grasped why school shootings seemed to happen so often in America. after that, i began to wonder why they didn't happen more often. maybe that's why the administrators were so nutty about students carrying their coats and backpacks around. maybe they knew that being forced to be in that environment for too long would surely plant imminent thoughts of mass violence in the minds of us kids. 
it's weird how little adults seem to consider how the design of buildings like these add to the existential terrors experienced by children every day. the half-formed dreams of adults that are never fully reconciled into coherent spaces just end up being another way to psychically torture the kids who are forced to occupy them. and the turn of the millennium, far from being this period of kooky techno-optimism it's framed as by many nostalgia cycles of the moment, felt more at the time like an era of hollow, mean-spirited excess. the popular culture of boy bands and nu-metal was a gaudy monument to the stupidity and conformism of American consumer culture: one that didn't even really make sense half the time. it all felt like a pointless, incoherent, and mean-spirited waste of money.
any good art and culture that did come out in this window of time probably meant a lot more to the people it did specifically because it directly placed itself in opposition to those oppressive norms. it was the last time it felt like we had a true monoculture to push back against. every discovery i made about art and culture as a middle school tween was a personal demonstration of my spite for everything that plasticky computer render of a building represented. i get that Millennial culture has now retconned songs like the Backstreet Boys's "I Want It That Way" into consequentially important cultural events, and one-in-four queer twenty-somethings now seem to want to emulate nu-metal for some reason. but really: come the fuck on. i had taped versions of Kid A or Black Foliage by Olivia Tremor Control on my walkman. i didn't even know what a hipster was at the time: it was just a higher-tier of what you can experience from music, to me. listening to those on the bus ride home from school was the biggest "fuck you" i could manage to all of that culture. my soul was not going to be crushed by these miserable ordeals.
Danny McBride as Taekwando instructor Fred Simmons in The Foot Fist Way (2006)
this was the reality i occupied when i started going over to Martin's house. Martin's dad was a doctor who made a lot of money by Ohio standards, so the family happened to have a large assortment of games and consoles in their possession. this videogame ownership was not why i was friends with him - i actually did find him pleasant to be around as a human being - but it certainly helped. the first time i stayed overnight at his house, he had to leave for sparring class in the morning and i chose to stay there at his house playing Goldeneye by myself. while his mom told me that doing this was okay, i ended up feeling really guilty about this decision. i felt i had overstepped my goodwill in what was then a brand new friendship. i was afraid he'd think i was just using him for his videogames.
after deciding to visit him at sparring class on a different weekend, i actually ended up joining that karate studio and participating in his sparring class not too long after. the studio taught American Kenpo, a type of hybrid martial art founded by Ed Parker (and famously studied by Elvis, who Parker was buddies with). it used to be on the second story of an older building off of the town's dinky downtown square, above the gloriously named "Hottie Body Tan" shop, which is inexplicably still there after all these years. eventually it moved to the outskirts of town in a strip mall near the DMV to a much more spacious, but much more generic location. i did karate for years. but i never quite got to a black belt level before heading off to college and transitioning, forever sealing myself off from the world of the normals. this studio was still open up until 2020, when it sadly closed forever due to the pandemic.

Martin's dad was a big karate guy. he had a black belt - and he was involved in helping assist with the instruction in a few of the classes. i suppose his pedigree as a family doctor (and - i forgot to mention - our local county's coroner) helped him get away with more suspect behavior in that class than anyone else would. he was painfully neglectful in a few dangerous situations Martin got put into while fighting a much older adult man in our sparring class as teens, which resulted in at least one concussion for Martin. while the studio's main instructor was a soft-spoken man who was a model of patience, restraint and respect and wouldn't allow this sort of thing to happen... Martin's dad was a cocky tube of machismo wrapped in a portly middle-aged frame in the mold of Danny McBride's Foot Fist Way protagonist. in other words... he was a true American asshole. the depths of his assholish nature would reveal itself in vivid, sordid detail further down the line. but that is beyond the scope of this post.

sorry if i'm embarrassing you here, "Martin", by the way, if you happen to read this post.

anyway - part of the childhood prestige about the Nintendo 64, for anyone who did not come of age during that period, is that the games were especially famous for not being cheap. they usually launched at around sixty bucks in late '90s dollars (around 110-120 USD today), and could sometimes be even more expensive than that. this was in contrast to Playstation games, which were usually forty to fifty dollars new. and if these Playstation games happened to be RPG epics spanning multiple disks (like, say, Final Fantasy VII), the scope/value disparity between those multi disc PS1 games and the singular cartridge N64 games that could not exceed sixty-four megabytes became even larger. unless you had a substantial investment in the games of Nintendo, a PS1 (known as a PSX at the time) just seemed like a better value.

Nintendo really fucked itself in a lot of ways with the release of the N64. much has been reported on how Nintendo burned Sony on a potential deal for a disc add-on for the Super Nintendo (which later re-emerged as a prototype that made the rounds at various game conventions) and led to the creation of the Playstation. but it also had to do with Nintendo sticking with the cartridge format, instead of riding with disc-based media like Sony, in an attempt to stave off piracy and keep control over their own console's ecosystem. Nintendo has always been obsessed with maintaining a closed ecosystem on everything they own. this approach gave them control over the console market in the '80s and early '90s, but inevitably ended up costing them a lot when the winds shifted to CD-ROM. to this day, many games on the Playstation (and the PS2, to some extent) can still feel like a gateway into the new promise of a multimedia CD-ROM era. dreams of rotating 3D objects and '90s Warp Records beats still dance in our minds whenever we play those satisfyingly crunchy early 3D games. because of all the experimentation going on in its diverse library of games, the Playstation felt like it was as open an experience as a home console could reasonably be. but the N64 was closed, as always.

regardless, the significant difference in price also afforded the N64 a special social power. the damn thing shipped with four controller ports - four! the controllers came with an analog stick too - you could rotate it to fling Bowser around! it was the perfect consumer object for that asshole rich kid at your school who managed to inexplicably get ten games for Christmas and bragged about it to the entire class. you could just imagine all the fun he was having playing Mario Kart 64 with his family, with those four controller ports. so long, gay Bowser!! your second cousin wouldn't even let you look at the game for more than a few minutes, but this guy got to experience it all. he got to play Mario in the third dimension, with his probably freakishly picturesque happy family around him, to his heart's content. once again, he won at life, proving you and your own family's ultimate failures to adequately consume.

Martin's family went even further - they were one of those high rollers who had both a Playstation and a Nintendo 64. but their Playstation was upstairs in the family room, so i saw a bit less of it (though i will always thank him for introducing me to Silent Hill back when the first game came out). the N64 was the console that sat in the basement - an area pretty remote from the rest of the house. you could only access it from some stairs near the garage entrance of the house, and at the rear entrance in the backyard. down there, it almost felt like a separate apartment. it was quiet. the carpet was extremely soft and the whole area was climate controlled. i grew up in old house without any heating upstairs, so that was a big deal to me.

in this area, there was hallway off in the distance to the left of the main living room area. off to the side there was a nook with a desk and a computer i remember playing The Incredible Machine with him at. there were also several rooms - a bathroom, a bedroom that i think his older half-sister sometimes used to crash in, and another room with a sewing machine and a bunch of plastic storage containers where she worked on craft projects. one of the first times i visited Martin’s house, he walked me through the actual, “basement” room of the basement floor on the farthest end of the hallway behind a door. other than the usual cement floor, boiler, and fuse box, that room alone seemed totally massive to me. it was so oddly clean, and they had so many different kinds of soda and snacks stored there! walking in spaces like that felt like living in such an entirely different reality than ones i'd experienced before. it was like an alternate universe of a life i could have been experiencing. it was my closest real-life analog to being inside one of those kitschy Rachid Lotf '90s nostalgia tableaus.

the whole downstairs was also filled with the constant lingering smell of mothballs that emanated out of a nearby closet filled with toys and board games. there's a building in my current neighborhood in Brooklyn i happen to walk by frequently now that reeks strongly of mothballs. the smell conjures up weirdly positive memories for me - in the same way i associate cigarette smoke with the arcade of my local childhood pizza place. it feels appropriate to have the most nostalgia conjured up by the smells of two things that were probably also slowly poisoning me. these are smells you just don't smell as much anymore, so they feel connected to a very specific time and place. it's those good old memories of mom's spaghetti again, but of the poison variety. mom's poison spaghetti.

in the main living room area of the basement floor, there was a glass door which was to the right of the couch and the TV. it led outside to the backyard rear entrance, and usually had those constantly clacking plastic vertical blinds slid over it. through the blinds, you could see that the door looked out into a little bricked-off ground-level pit. there was a hammock hanging off the bottom of an overhang from the wood balcony from the upstairs entrance. beyond that, the large empty lawn of his backyard eventually sloped downward and led to thick, black woods. those woods seemed to stretch far off into the distance. Martin lived pretty far out into the country. we used to have to drive around the local county fairgrounds that friends of mine would gossip was "owned by members of the KKK" (which i'm not sure was actually true, but vendors at the fair sure hawked a lot of confederate flag merchandise) to get to his house.

i remember staring out into the black woods in Martin's backyard while trying to go to sleep with my head propped on his overstuffed couch. i felt unnerved by the way the back porch lights shined into them. sometimes Martin and his family would illegally burn trash in a clearing far back out there in the woods, for reasons i'm not sure i ever understood. another time i stayed at his house for a few days, his dad tried to awkwardly force me to help with woodworking projects they had started in the woods that i had absolutely no interest in participating in. Martin and his family were originally from West Virginia and seemed comforted by those sorts of things. in spite of having a lot more money than my family, their tastes often veered away from the more yuppie WASP-y tastes of my family. they loved stuff like The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. i remember weakly feigning laughter while listening to the elevated humor of Larry the Cable Guy for the first time in their company. now that's funny, right there.

retro game youtuber MetalJesusRocks standing over his Nintendo 64 game collection featuring custom cartridge labels.

in a cabinet underneath his TV, there was a huge pile of loose cartridges all individually labeled and stored in a couple giant plastic containers. N64 cartridges famously have no labels or identifying information on their top end, which makes them hard to tell apart from each other at first glance. it meant that people were often forced to apply their own custom labels. these containers of assorted gray cartridges felt like a sacred treasure trove to me. digging through the pile and seeing mysterious names like "Buck Bumble" and "Mischief Makers", and getting him to shove those cartridges into the cartridge slot on the top of the console gave me a window into a world i could not otherwise experience. the blue glow of that downstairs TV on "Input" mode, in between us slotting in cartridges, also still sticks with me to this day. to me it represented a blank slate - a window into the world of the unknown. who knew what forbidden images and sounds were about to be conjured up by this magic technology? it was all on the table now, man! this was my reality... at least for the evening.

i didn't even really insist on being the actual person playing the games a lot of the time. i just wanted to see them in action. Martin could at times be a little standoffish and we diverged on some of our interests (we liked basically none of the same music and rarely talked about that), but he was generally very nice and accommodating about these sorts of things. he seemed to want friends, and wasn't too interested in proving he was better than me like many other 'friends' i had known - which was a relief. i was really easily flustered, and i'd often get too frustrated or angry about losing at games anyway. it was not an enjoyable experience for me to try to be too competitive with my friends most of the time. i didn't like being reminded that i was bad at things, especially when it involved getting killed in first person shooters. so we'd generally only play on co-op modes, or competitive multiplayer mini-games with low consequences (i.e. Bomberman 64 and Kirby 64).

but my most intense memories were from singleplayer games - the strangely melancholic feelings i couldn't put into words that were conjured up by the smooth jazz ambience of the Hang Glider and Birdman stages of Pilotwings 64's challenges. there was a replay mode that let you see your vehicle's most disastrous crashes into these strange low-res island model towns. somehow that only seemed to add to this weird feeling of melancholy when it was 1AM and everything around was dark and dead quiet. i also remember the quick surreal episodic mishmash of Mischief Makers, which featured this whole world full of characters that operated entirely by their own rules. the design of these levels also felt weirdly formless. any given level you played could be a completely different thing, almost like a different episode of a TV show. or i remember watching him navigate the weird pulsating multi-dimensional dungeons of Ocarina of Time, particularly playing the famously unsettling Forest Temple. this stuck with me as an entirely new kind of experience i hadn't seen before.

so many N64 games had a particular sort of naive, blurry innocence to them, even when they were kinda surreal and felt "off". even when you knew many of them were missing what a lot of other, much more serious games increasingly had. i knew about PC games (at that point i subscribed to PC Gamer magazine during the era of peak late '90s grotesque game ads). i knew that many of those PC games at the time went further than these Nintendo games did in terms of detail and scope. and, of course, by that point Final Fantasy VII had been out... and that's all anyone in the world of a twelve year old seemed to want to talk about. but it didn't really matter. because playing the N64 at Martin's house represented a feeling that this was a gateway to the future. something brand new and, as yet, still un-formed was on its way.

but this feeling was short-lived. i never felt the same after i picked up a used N64 with my dad at an incredibly cursed looking pawn shop that vanished within the year. the shop was buried beneath a cartoonishly sketchy empty parking lot on the industrial side of town, and one of the controllers was a half-working third party controller. i played many N64 games by myself at home (including Goldeneye, a major object of my obsession), but often felt a kind of lingering emptiness i didn't feel when i played over at Martin's house. the games somehow felt dinkier and more frustrating at home, even though they were the same games. clutching my awkwardly designed third-party controller while playing on the tiny old TV in the upstairs hall of my house probably didn't help my feelings of immersion.

i didn't have a good childhood, so home often felt like a not particularly safe or trusting environment. but i was at home a lot of the time because there wasn't a lot to do in the middle of Ohio. i didn't really trust other people very easily, or find that i was interested in what other people were interested in, or feel remotely comfortable with myself anyway. i certainly wasn't going to spend lots of time around the evangelical Christian kids in my school. any time i was with a friend who i actually was having a good time with, in an environment where there wasn't immense pressure to conform to the will of the group, it was special and rare. and i definitely didn't want to leave. the feeling of sadness of leaving was so palpable.

it got a bit better in my teenage years when my parents moved their bedroom downstairs and our family computer upstairs - next to my bedroom - granting me a kind of independence that i had never had before. i got to help repaint the room after my parents removed its old wallpaper, which completely changed the room's association in my mind. we moved a larger '80s dial TV we bought at a silent auction at my elementary school that we hadn't really been using into the room, and hooked it up to the cable box. the first thing i did was there play Jet Force Gemini on my N64. it felt like a new beginning - a much more positive memory than those earlier memories i had of playing Goldeneye on the tiny TV. now i could zone out to TV (usually Comedy Central stand-up specials and Adult Swim) in freedom while posting on online forums later at night. very rarely would other people come in - my dad mostly worked at the computer in his office, and my mom didn't really use the computer at all. my brother was usually either off with his friends or gone to college. that period in high school is when i met most of my online friends and started making my own creative projects on the computer.

so it wasn't really about the N64, as much as the N64 was just the background to larger forces playing out in my life. the most positive memories i had with games or media i liked at the time came out of contexts where i had freedom to discover some new part of myself in relative comfort. sometimes they were times i could share something with someone else without judgment. sometimes they were me experiencing something that felt transgressive and like an escape far from the bleakly stupid and nonsensical world around me. sometimes they simply were times that felt untethered from the usual awkward bullying dynamics and pressures to conform that i was used to. those meant a lot, because they were hard to get. they felt precious.

it should sound obvious at some level to say this - that the art and culture i experienced was a background to other things going on in my life. but the wires frequently get crossed in our world when talking about experiencing media of the past. many people always want to be given a shortcut: they want the media itself to be the cure for something. they want the more you consume to reflect on your character in some way as a person. of course there is a lot to the media we experience that we perceive but can't articulate - it does often hit deeper than we're able to express. it's not simply subjective, and there is a tangiable, important material form there. hearing Kid A upon release at a relatively young age certainly had a profound effect on me that carries over to this day. and i don't want to diminish the magic of this kind of experience at all.

but most media isn't Kid A. and even when it is, the greatest pieces of media still absorb all the emotions we experience around us but don't know how to articulate or identify. and as a teenager i, of course, was not equipped with the emotional vocabulary to identify the nature of my true feelings. everything felt very fuzzy and confusing. my knotted jumble of feelings got offloaded onto specific objects of media i experienced at the time, and those stuck with me. when i grew a little older and learned how to better identify and articulate my feelings, a clearer picture begun to form. but maybe something was lost after a certain point too - when the art and culture became less of an active escape from other things, it also became less of an enigmatic monolith of power to me.

but little did i know that if i were born fifteen years later, maybe those early moments at Martin's house might have felt less vanishingly rare. i wouldn't have to endure the terror i felt of boys at the lunch table in our plastic corporate nursery of a middle school cafeteria mocking me for not knowing what "69"ing meant. i wouldn't have to listen to my elementary school friend miming wrestler Shawn Michaels shouting "Suck It!" while thrusting his pelvis and double karate chopping around his nuts for the seventeenth time. i wouldn't have to be forced to watch all of Little Nicky and pretend to find Adam Sandler funny just so me and my D&D buddies could play some more fucking Mario Tennis.

if only i'd known: the internet could be here for me. and not just me: anyone else with the time and willingness to engage, but lacking the friends and/or money to do so. anyone who doesn't want to be subjected to the endless new opportunities for humiliation and degradation that real life encounters always seemed to introduce. it could be our permanent escape from public shame. we could watch other people, people who we actually like, play videogames and experience media. and we could do it by ourselves, in peace... from the comfort of our own electronic devices.


Part 2: The Dream of 2008

 "okay. welcome... to an epic."

...a voice says nervously while cracking open a DVD case and shuffling some plastic wrapping in front of the mic. this is the voice of Something Awful forum poster Pokecapn. it is the year 2008. this young man, this self-appointed captain of Pokémon, and his posse of friends are about to undergo a unique expedition: to play through all of Sonic The Hedgehog 2006 in one sitting. 

as he utters "...and you are about to witness: Sonic 2006" Pokecapn is joined by the voices in the room of his posse: fellow Something Awful forum posters KungFuJesus, Medibot, IlluminatusVespucci, and NoTimeForSocks. i'm sure these people all have real life names and i could find them with slightly more digging, but the real names are also unimportant here. NoTimeForSocks does use the name "Condit", before Pokecapn insists "you have a username, it's important for something later on" to which Socks acts surprised and reluctantly reveals his username, interjecting with "i don't really post, it's okay." his attempt to awkwardly make a joke out of being out of sync with the rest of the group falls a bit flat. perhaps that's telling: he would leave shortly on into the experiment. only true travelers into the unknown can cross the threshold.

Sonic The Hedgehog (now widely known as Sonic 2006 to distinguish it from the original Sonic The Hedgehog) was a notorious fiasco of a game released for the Playstation 3 and the Xbox 360 in the year 2006. Sonic The Hedgehog's influence is vast, and casts a long shadow over both mainstream pop culture and internet meme culture. but by the time the fifth generation of game consoles hit in the latter half of the '90s, Sonic's reputation as a relevant mainstream videogame series was starting to falter. things briefly went back on course with the Sonic Adventure series - but that turned out to be short-lived. by the mid 2000s, the Dreamcast was now years gone, and Sega appeared to be moving fully off course with mainline 3D titles like the emo teen Solid Snake rip-off vehicle Shadow the Hedgehog. Sonic 06 promised an epic, Hollywood-scale return to what made the series great: one that would fully take advantage of the increased processing power of the brand new seventh console generation.

Sonic 06 rode a wave of early press hype about its scope and new physics engine into catastrophically poor review scores when it hit stores in the holiday season of 2006. it's development cycle was famously fraught, not appropriately scoped for the amount of time that was given to complete a game of that scale (a thing no AAA game production would dare to do these days, of course). at the end of it all was an experience filled with ill-advised, incoherent creative decisions, poor optimization, game-breaking bugs, and a totally baffling story. 

but many gamers had not actually managed to see the game in action themselves. it came out right at the start of a new console era, after all: the Playstation 3 had literally only just come out in the North American market two months before that particular version's release. and it was hard to see most games in action, in general, if you didn't own them. online video was still relatively new, and it wasn't exactly easy to upload long sections of game footage in reasonable quality. youtube used to have a fifteen minute upload time restriction. and even when it didn't, youtube's compression was still notably bad: more suited to short form web content and vlogs than longform videos where the quality of the image is particularly important. this meant relying on a variety of other somewhat sketchy video upload services (this Sonic 06 let's play used one called "Viddler", for example). these videos would sometimes take much longer to load than what we're used to now. this also meant consistently mirroring videos as those services folded. as some of these playthroughs eventually just ended up on youtube, others disappeared off the internet forever, or are only preserved now on places like the Internet Archive - if at all.

any given internet user freely uploading globs of gameplay footage to be witnessed by people who didn't own these games on the internet also introduced a potentially thorny copyright issue: one that seemed to grow into the laissez-faire attitude of "you can probably just do whatever, except when Nintendo gets mad" of today. so Sonic 2006 was a recent high-profile failure of a game - a widely known monument to excess and stupidity at a particularly excessive and stupid time for the game industry. some even went so far as to call it one of the worst games of all time. so it was a perfect spectacle for any potential rubberneckers who wanted to witness the damage up close. what happened here? whatever it was, we now got to see all of it fully on display, with commentary, in the Pokecapn posse's Let's Play.  

Pokecapn's Let's Play would become famous on some corners of the internet for many reasons: the bizarre, silly banter of its hosts was a major part of appeal. they're not really speaking in an affected way - they just sound like they could be your real-life friends... except probably more clever than your real-life friends. these were internet characters who had absorbed the more esoteric sensibilities of forum posting, but also had the means and willingness to go along with their own unhinged ideas without flaking out. perhaps this is far from the universe of your real life friends who might quickly lose interest in undertaking a project like this or force you to sit through all of Joe Dirt, among other humiliating rituals, instead. 

Pokecapn's crew is not trying to milk every second for memeable Content either - these videos are much more of a fly-on-the-wall, Cinéma vérité style document. this more slow burn pace just makes our hosts' eventual descent into full-blown madness while fighting mightily with this game that much more cathartic. this Let's Play is often described in terms like "an epic struggle" or a "journey into the abyss", and i don't think it's unreasonable. it went beyond the usual bounds of internet videos about games, especially at the time. it feels like an emotional odyssey, even if at some level it's just another Let's Play.

this is how i learned of the series back in 2010. i ended up back in my childhood home after college, working part-time at a cafe. the Great Recession had just hit, and my parents were not particularly sympathetic. and i had recently started transitioning, which made everything that much more tense. my mind was as far away from my home town as it could possibly be. i was right back into my high school zone of dissociating to Adult Swim while posting on online forums. i was plotting my eventual escape.

i had recently reconnected via IRC with a lot of people i used to talk to during that period. the edgy, combative tone of online posting high school had given way to something else: people had a bit more life experience and were a bit more contemplative now. we were trying to put some distance between our high school selves and the adults we had only just become. the directionlessness of being in your early 20s out in the world had set in, and many of us seemed to realize that the rules had suddenly changed due to the recession. we needed to do something real with our life, and it wasn't going to come by following in our parents' footsteps. one of my friends insisted i talk more to this person named John who would often show up to her IRC channel. he used to post on the forums back in the day of the early/mid aughts, and his posts were always fairly edgy and provocative. he frequently appended the below graphic to his posts (which i now call "the smiling apple"):

pictured: the smiling apple

at that time, John largely was viewed as a minor instigating troll trying to make a name for himself (and not even one of the more clever ones). when i encountered him again in 2010, he seemed to be much more reflective. he'd talk about staging interventions with random people he ran into in various online multiplayer games. he wanted to have a heartfelt conversation with them about their lives. and he seemed particularly interested in a certain type of surreal, long-form, navel-gazing internet content. i knew what Let's Plays were by then, but i didn't really engage much with that side of the internet at that time. this was still the era of people performatively raging about games in the mold of the Angry Video Game Nerd (i.e. The Irate Gamer, Game Dude, etc). i liked the AVGN, but i couldn't stand most of his imitators at all. but John was adamant that i should watch this Let's Play series - that the whole thing was almost a spiritual experience for him.

perhaps my first experience watching anything like a Let's Play might have been the video by Toronto-based writer and new media artist Jim Munroe called "My Trip To Liberty City". my film professor in my Cinema Studies 101 class in college was also from Toronto, so that's perhaps why she screened Munroe's video in the class. i was pretty taken aback to see a video like this come up in a basic film course, but it made me excited by the creative possibilities this kind of new work introduced. the way Munroe's deadpan frames his bumbling journey through Grand Theft Auto III like he's just going through family photos is really funny. the passive, oblivious tone of the commentary contrasted bizarrely with the absurdly violent tone of the game. it made it into a sort of Being There style comedy of errors, and a commentary on the stiffness of larger videogame tropes as a whole. i actually recorded my own, Doom wad-based tribute to "My Trip To Liberty City" for a Let's Play-themed event held in Chicago by Kentucky Route Zero designer Jake Elliott in 2013. it's still my most viewed video on youtube, for whatever that's worth.

but you could say "Liberty City" was more in the machinima lineage at the time, specifically in how it made a new narrative out of default videogame characters and locations. machinimas are videos that use videogames as the basis for original animation or cinematic experiences (their name is a combination of "machine" and "cinema"). they originate from 80's and 90's hobbyist demoscene culture, although Machinima, Inc. was also the name of a company that started back in the original web 1.0 tech boom era due to the popularity of Quake-based animations. eventually it became a youtube channel that ran its own original content, though the company went out of business and shut down in 2019. when online video became more viable, the machinima style eventually produced longer series like the bafflingly large and now recently defunct internet media empire Rooster Teeth's Red Vs. Blue series based around Halo or Ross Scott's Freeman's Mind series based around the first Half-Life game. of course, machinima does continue on to this day with many Minecraft-based youtube channels with complex character lore, or with currently popular memes for toddlers like Skibidi toilet, also derived from the modding culture of Half-Life and Garry's Mod. i also think the popularity of videogame sprite webcomics in the '00s and fan flash animations of popular game characters in absurd situations as part of this trend.

but the Let's Play coalesced into its own thing a bit later. Something Awful poster "slowbeef" popularized the idea, but it really started in the mid-00's as an attempt to add a humorous spin on the act of playing through a game by way of sharing screenshots on forum posts with humorous commentary. some claim the first official Let's Play was a screenshot thread about The Oregon Trail from 2005, but no one really seems sure about the exact origins. after the popularity of these threads, some other posters from SA decided to make the jump to video. slowbeef also started the channel Retsuprae around the same time, which is a sort of Mystery Science Theater 3000 style parody show with commentary intended to mock or poke fun at particularly poorly done or clumsy Let's Plays. Retsuprae is responsible for the one thing i primarily know them for: a parody video dunking on notoriously bad game-player DarkSydePhil. to this day i still often quote "FOUR WORDS?" and "Why is there a BOAT here??" to no one in particular. the jokes in this video feel somehow extra timeless because Phil and his exploits still are known by many savvy internet users to this very day. perhaps this is just due to him being a constant subject mined by various internet lore channels (but we'll get to those later), or maybe it's that no one ever forgot about the famous instance of him supposedly accidentally masturbating on his stream in 2016. 

the Let's Play archive, which chronicles this early era of Let's Plays from the Something Awful forums, is still up and provides a more comprehensive history of Let's Play origins than i could. unfortunately, a lot of its video links broke when a lot of the older video hosting sites went down permanently

this new glut of people suddenly offering their commentary over videogame footage came from a lot of different places. some of the more culturally literate online folks at the time might have known about the popular Japanese show GameCenter CX, where comedian Shinya Arino attempts to, with the help of his staff, play through and complete a bunch of very difficult old games within a certain time limit. the pressures of the show's conceit and Arino's generally mediocre gaming ability really add to the tension in the series. it is especially fun to witness Arino's consistent failure to handle basic obstacles in the games that those of us who are more videogame-savvy never would struggle much with. there are various places online now where you can download many of the episodes online with English fansubs, if you're curious.

but i also view this kind of commentary as a product of the same era that produced the New Games Journalism, a term coined in 2004 by then-videogame journalist, now-comic book writer Kieron Gillen. one major example for me is in some of the aughts-era work of Insert Credit, and especially in the early writing of Tim Rogers. there's a heavy emphasis on firsthand encounters around playing games, and what that says about the author's life and relationship to larger culture. this was the first generation of people who really came of age with videogames. these were not hobbyists or tech enthusiasts - these were childhood fans. 

children generally grow up with games without any real context - as if they were just all strange interchangeable consumer objects. knowledge of the overall social and historical context of a work is difficult to achieve, and many kids (or even their parents) never really knew much about where videogames came from. games in the '80s and '90s especially often felt like a virtual zone of mystery where you could become hopelessly confused, frustrated, or terrified at the drop of a hat. and so many things about these games, especially for Western players of Japanese games, were lost in translation. you just didn't quite know what you were getting into with any given encounter. so that subjective experience was fundamental to how people of this new generation experienced and thought about games.

sharing anecdotes of formative game-playing memories and how they affected you as a person was a way to communicate to other like-minded gamers on the internet the value of a sort of experience that's hard to put into words. this is what the internet was made for - hobbyists for things considered 'niche' and outside of the mainstream culture. videogame culture and the internet have been inseparable since the beginning: partially because games were what helped sell and popularize at-home computer use, especially in Europe. and games were too new to have really permeated into the dominant culture as any kind of serious cultural entity, but far too popular to not attract a lot of interest around them. so outlets for discussion on videogames have always been some of the most active and far-reaching spaces on the internet. and these more personal and ambitious stories embodied by New Games Journalism were a veiled way to advocate a common talking point of the era that "Video Games Matter" as form of culture. to this day, any time some legacy media publication trots out another mind-numbing "Videogames have come a long way since Pac-Man" style observation, we can rest easy knowing that videogames have maintained their subcultural status and some things never really seem to change.

personal writing about games was a way to relate to others outside the bland corporate trade show language of official games media. this is starkly obvious if you ever try to watch your typical industry press conference from the '90s or '00s now. many of us wanted games to be more cool: a desire for games to embody more personality that echoes the visceral emotional places games can often take us to. we longed for games to be considered equal to other parts of culture, instead of merely treated as an escape outside of culture. and the game industry was seemingly not interested in allowing for that. it felt like, especially in the West, game developers had to be high-tech smart guys who mostly stayed out of public view (with a handful of notable exceptions). but the idea of the game developers as socially-maladjusted male D&D nerds and megalomaniacal techno-libertarians pounding Diet Coke and Domino's in desolate office buildings is not a particularly romantic image for some of us. perhaps that's part of what has led to the Western fascination with figures like Hideo Kojima, Suda51, or Keita Takahashi who seem to embody more of that kind of personal flair or artist-for-arts sake of a big name movie director that we don't have many equivalent big-name game industry figures in the West to.

but there's a big problem with fans taking up the mantle of creating and preserving the existing videogame culture. when guided primarily by the way fans approach media, that culture is often built on foundational misunderstandings or mischaracterizations of the game development process. the centering of fan experience above all else leads to an influx of ignorant/harmful views on games being blasted everywhere without much pushback. the ignorance was all-encompassing during the peak "What were they thinking??" Angry Video Game Nerd-imitator era of the late 00s, and is arguably even more of a concern now as traditional games media outlets are crumbling and as the space becomes more dominated by youtuber personalities.  

the fan experience being paramount means game developers usually face the brunt of this angry fan culture any time something goes wrong, which the people at the top of the industry are perpetually protected from. and those forces at the top are certainly not interested in changing this status quo. the more you let employees be individuals and put any further scrutiny on the various horrific business practices and labor atrocities you're complicit in committing as a person who runs your average videogame studio, the worse it is for you. so this dominant sensibility in games becomes a self-reinforcing status quo that ultimately serves those in power.

Let's Plays helped open the door for this pivot to the dominance of youtuber and personality-based media, for better or for worse. and i think, in some ways, this just has more to do with contemporary internet culture in general than the specific landscape around videogames: which Something Awful very much helped define. Let's Plays are only one of many things its forum users helped manufacture and spread into larger internet consciousness. i'm sure many readers of this essay are aware of the tale of Groverhaus by now, given how many times it seems to pop back up in all corners on the internet. i'm not even going to bother to summarize this story here, so please just click the embed link if you really want to know more.

but i never messed with Something Awful back in the aughts, mostly because i thought the infamous ten dollar entry fee required to post on that forum was ridiculous. even when i was assured more than once by other people that it was "worth it", i didn't have any interest. there is part of me that is always somewhat skeptical of incredibly long-winded, self-indulgent historical narratives that center Something Awful as the originator of one internet trend or another. the very core of me wants to dispute that idea that cultural products that come from a forum behind a paywall are inherently more cool or more meaningful than ones that come from elsewhere. a lot of aspects specific to online forum culture never translate outside the context of their communities, but Something Awful users seemed fanatically devoted to the idea that theirs was the more important and worthwhile culture worth preserving. they were and are famous for being loud on the internet in a somewhat self-interested manner. perhaps they're only taking after their disgraced (and now deceased) founder. but i do wonder how many micro-histories of smaller, less influential forums are being lost to time because of this. that's part of what led me to do a podcast episode in 2020 about an at the time big online community i was active in during high school.

but i guess it's also hard to argue that Something Awful doesn't have a way better cultural legacy than 4chan, another place a lot of wayward teens like me started to flock to on the internet in the 2000's.

be prepared to see a lot of this loading screen in Sonic 2006

so why do i really care about some Let's Play of some SA goons in 2008 losing their minds to a famously bad videogame? aren't i just buying into the usual self-serving SA narratives by doing so? 

in general, i'd say that much of the appeal of this Let's Play is of the "you had to be there" FOMO variety. this was arguably even the case at the time, because it was directed internally towards SA forum users: many episodes feature a moment of Pokecapn doling out a Sonic-related trivia question directed at members of the forum, who were awarded points based on how quickly they answered. obviously anyone viewing outside the context of those forums at that very specific point in time cannot participate in this aspect of the videos. there are also other markers that only further establish the specific time and place these videos come from: our hosts sometimes apply a liberal use of the “r” word to their banter, among other terms, which were more common at the time but are definitely considered more unacceptable now.

but to me personally, it's hard to think about this series without thinking of the game's comically long loading times, especially in the main city hub sections between stages. the Let's Play archive page even calculates the exact amount of time on their playthrough our crew sat watching the game's loading screens: it's two hours and 24 minutes, or a little under twelve percent of the total play time. steering one of many main characters in the Sonic universe's rapidly ballooning main cast, our player is forced to wander around an empty and confusing maze of a large overworld city. this hub is filled with fairly indistinguishable gesticulating humans who are noticeably smaller than our characters, and never really seem to offer much helpful advice. the designs of these humans contrast somewhat grotesquely with the anthropomorphic Sonic cast: especially when it comes to Sonic's main love interest in the story, Princess Elise. it just makes you wonder - who on the development team thought this was a good idea? as our friend James Rolfe would say: what were they thinking??

each time the player enters any sort of side quest that gives them items required to move to the next main stage, they (especially on the PS3 version, which the Pokecapn posse are playing) have to wait an interminably long amount of time on the loading screen. this is all do the most insipid little required side missions you could think of, filled with totally inconsequential time-wasting tasks. sometimes they require you literally to just jump through a few hoops, or run to another part of the stage, and that's it. the length of the loading screens compared to how short the side missions are starts out as an ongoing absurd joke early on in the videos. it stops being funny pretty quickly after, though, and becomes more a symbol of the cruel universe of this game. each long loading screen doles out more and more psychic damage to our poor unsuspecting players. they stop even consciously realizing the torturous effect it's having on their souls after a certain point. like the Dilbert of the famous CBoyardee videos, you must completely lose your mind and dehumanize yourself and face to bloodshed to finish this game.

another strangely memorable moment of the Let's Play comes early on in the series when the posse orders Chinese food. every single one of them decides on General Tso's Chicken because, as Medibot puts it, it "gives you ideas". the reasons for this are never expounded upon further. our group also seemingly has no utensils where they are - they have to make sure to tell the restaurant to send them some. are they in a college dorm room, and just lack utensils? i always assumed so, because you hear Medibot and IlluminatusVespucci at one point in a later video talk about exams they have during that semester. i remember hearing that they went to school somewhere in Maryland or DC, but i can't recall anymore if this comes from one of the videos, or if it was something i read elsewhere (though the title of episode 8 is a reference to Baltimore legend Dan Deacon). so i initially assumed they were just in a dorm,  but then KungFuJesus later references having to stop a video at one point because "the cleaning people" had to come through the room. so perhaps they are in a hotel room for the weekend? the ambiguity of their surrounding environment becomes one of the interesting mysteries of this series.

another very crucial moment happens early on when we witness a discovery slowly dawn upon our group. the true extent of the game's unforgiving buggy hostility doesn't take long to reveal itself when we first reach one of Sonic's horrific Mach Speed segments. the movement on the PS3 controller's analog stick appears to be hypersensitive here - flinging Sonic violently with only a simple tap in one direction or another. Sonic's deaths in these segments feels strange and arbitrary - he wriggles his body around wildly and clips through walls off into the distance. this happens once Sonic loses all of the power rings he's collected and is stopped by any sort of obstacle. the posse alternately describe these bizarre deaths as "breakdancing into infinity" or "breakdancing in the void" - terms i now think about any time i now see deaths that occur in games that defy rational description. there's a feeling of body horror to this sort of unintended reality-breaking. it's like the famous Simpsons joke of the cartoon character Poochy suddenly proclaiming in a different voice "I have to go now, my planet needs me" and sliding up out of frame un-animated. that these deaths are simply presented to us without comment in a big-budget tentpole game from a major franchise release is truly vexing.

Pokecapn dies quickly upon reaching these Mach Speed stages for the first time, leading to an unexpected restart of the whole game from the beginning. it turns out he forgot to save his game. this inauspicious start ends up being a harbinger for the madness to come. when he finally returns to this section, there are many stomach-churning moments where it's not clear if he can even proceed further in the game at all. and a few videos later, the first Radical Train segment establishes that, even after facing down the horrifying specter of timed failure, the despair has only just really begun. this convoluted stage featuring terrifyingly confusing conveyor belts and enemies you must very quickly blast through in order to stop an oncoming train or otherwise fail is enough of a hassle. but we are only just the beginning: here we have yet another sphincter-clinching Mach Speed section. 

after many quick rounds of predictable deaths where Sonic flings around the screen and off into the void wildly, Pokecapn finally loses it: screaming in exasperation, "NO!!! this is UNCONTROLLABLE! the game cannot be controlled by human reflexes alone!!" hugely distorting the audio. the other members of his group laugh and mimic Sonic saying "YOU'RE TOO SLOW!" in the background in response. i used to think of Pokecapn's angry outbursts in these videos as overly exaggerated, playing up the badness of this game for Content like an AVGN imitator would. but now i understand it as Pokecapn's increasing exhaustion and desperation upon realizing that he, a seasoned Sonic player, might not even be able to complete this game at all. things have gone off the rails by this point.

Pokecapn's manner is generally matter of fact: but he gradually grows into more and more of a blind rage at the game's incompetence. however, he occasionally is able to momentarily break out of his cloud of fury to join in with the rest of the group's riffing. while this group is primarily playing this game to make fun of its numerous flaws, you can tell there is a part of Pokecapn who is a hardcore Sonic fan and is secretly still trying (and failing miserably) to enjoy this game. KungFuJesus's style is dry and quick-witted, and he often seems to fill the role of the experience's director and facilitator. he increasingly helps the stages move along and looks up online walkthroughs as Pokecapn gets more and more exasperated. but he also very much has the sense of humor of an edgy stand up comedian circa 2008. he throws out many jokes, and several of them are the things in the videos which age the most poorly. at one point he makes a transphobic comment about Rouge The Bat, as one of many examples. these aren't lingered on for too long, but are worth mentioning for anyone trying to watch the series now.

probably the fan favorite of these videos is Medibot, whose sense of humor is more surreal and whimsical - sometimes outright nonsensical. Medibot's unexplained comment about General Tso's giving you "ideas" is the core of their humor - strange, imaginative, but also very much borne out of 00s "lol random" style internet wackiness. this combo of free-associative humor with out of context older internet memery is more in touch with the surreal sensibilities of a lot of internet posting humor of this current era.  the fourth member (not counting NoTimeForSocks, who leaves early) IlluminatusVespucci's entertainment value comes from him being a bit of a know-it-all nerd. he positions himself above the fray of the rest of the group's goofy exploits... only for him to quickly descend into madness too. he reads as a bit of a STEM-brained guy who thinks he can do it better than everyone else, only to realize he is just as out of his element as the rest of them.

the audio during the Let's Play is sort of its own character too. at many points, (like Pokecapn's many breakdowns over the game's piss-poor controls) it distorts to levels that would definitely be considered unacceptable to any current streamer of note now. it was of course more common for recordings of Let's Players or streamers at the time to feature shrieking over-reactions that distorted their audio in response to whatever moment just happened in a game. eventually, it felt as if this was a quick and easy note these players could abuse for maximum virality. this was such an overused trope for let's players of horror games in particular that it's become a bit of a cliche now.

but that's not exactly what is going on here - the playthrough doesn't feel deliberately engineered for viral moments, per se. it's just our group using the recorder they have. and it gives the sound of the recording a specific timbre of older technology that might be a bit uncanny to experience for newer audiences now. this becomes even more apparent at one point later on in the videos when the posse's recorder seemingly craps out entirely and they have to overdub themselves from the future over the video footage, trying to remember what they said. a sort of haunting quality of the overall experience is enhanced, as more chipper disembodied versions of themselves from the future comment on things that happened in the past, before returning to their much more ornery past selves in later videos. 

Sonic 2006, while obviously not a widely regarded game, does have a generally pretty well-regarded soundtrack. this makes for occasional oddly poignant moments as parts of the soundtrack bleed through their distorted ramblings, giving a sort of melancholic feeling to parts of the recording. it's these kind of moments that bring me back to my twelve year old self staying up late with my friend 'Martin' playing Pilotwings 64 and feeling a strange sort of wistful sadness. this feeling is particularly strong to me in the section where Pokecapn's posse plays Silver The Hedgehog's jungle stage, where they seemingly break the progression of the level entirely and become hopelessly lost. as they're searching for where to go, haunting tribal music pokes through in the background. the contrast between the mystical environment in the game and their increasingly flustered and incoherent state of confusion has that sort of "Hot Couch Guy" (a term coined by Felix Biederman of the podcast Chapo Trap House) poetic grotesqueness to it. it makes you question if there's actually something deeper inside of the strange jankiness of this game. perhaps this sort of moment is part of the foundation for some of the game's defenses now.

but the total breakdown of our posse fully sets in on a timed billiards puzzle utilizing Silver's floppy physics powers. they must manipulate the billiard balls to move past a series of holes, or else restart the puzzle - but the ball has a timed number on it that gradually ticks down, and ticks down faster each time it is hit. when the ball runs out of time, the ball explodes. here's a video of someone successfully completing the puzzle in 48 seconds for reference. however, perhaps because of the level of fatigue every member of the group is operating on at this point, this puzle eludes our posse completely. and pretty soon we're witnessing a Getting Over It-style five stages of grief at their collective inability to navigate janky physics puzzles. every person in the room has tried multiple times to help Pokecapn and take over game-playing duties at this point, and they all have failed in their duties. they all have been thoroughly humiliated by now - there is no real recovery from this. the only option now is survival. 

the fact that they eventually pull it together just makes this bit hit harder. their ultimate perseverance in finally completing the game a dozen or so episodes later becomes a true testament to the strength of their collective friendship.

the horrible billiards puzzle from Silver's story in Sonic 2006

watching chunks of the Sonic 2006 let's play in the year 2010, after my work shifts at the local cafe, felt like meeting a long lost group of friends. and i think that's why my internet acquaintance John was so adamant about me watching it. this group's dynamic teaches you something about what the internet was in 2008, and shows you how an online-poisoned young person talked back then (for better or for worse). its primary appeal was definitely parasocial, but in a way that felt more personal and directed towards valuing a specific sensibility and less of a celebrity worship. Pokecapn and his posse were not really talking to an audience outside of themselves and the forum thread they posted in. they did have lives outside the internet - as is apparent in their comments about classes they're taking. they seemed mostly to just treat the internet as a space to do something fun in. and in doing so, were creating a newer kind of experience that spoke specifically to people who grew up on online forums.

in many ways, our posse's approach represents an era where there was still this sense of larger uncertainty about what online culture could really be or do. this meant strangely poetic moments could waft in and out of this kind of media in a way that was completely free of cynicism. this means that while this playthrough did become codified in certain circles of internet lore (for reasons that are not always particularly well articulated), Let's Play Sonic 2006 exists far outside the universe of online media now. the world where everyone who puts content online seems to secretly want to pivot to a career of 'content creation' with the hopes that it will save them from the outside world's increasing dysfunction did not yet exist. there was simply not the idea that you could turn something like this into a real career at this point. at best, these spaces were a facilitator to real life - something to point you in the direction of greater friendships and connections you could make outside of the internet. that, to me, felt like the real benefit of internet culture of the 00s and early 2010s - it was a way into the outside world that might be scary or alienating otherwise. certainly it's how i was hoping to use them at the time. 

in a post-2008 world, the millennial generation was hit hard with the fallout from the excesses of previous generations, and it feels like most of us never really recovered (in spite of what some reports say). many people (including myself) have had to face a permanent downward economic mobility from our parents' generations. these online communities were where people sought refuge from what was happening. it was a way to get away from older authority figures who seemed flummoxed that you couldn't just show up to a job and get hired, and assumed it was all just a generational lack of gumption. they were places for escape for people like me enduring my dad screaming "you're going to fuck up you life!!" at me because i deigned to be stuck at home for a year after college. at their best, these online spaces could be supportive zones for online friends who understood your situation better than anyone else to offer emotional aid and help you get out of a bad situation.

i feel similar about Let's Play Sonic 2006 as i do with other pieces of ephemera from that era, such as Tim Rogers's "Get Bonus" documentary. in it, Tim and his friend Bob (a subject of much sordid internet lore himself) film each other guerilla-style while wearing tracksuits at the Electrionic Entertainment Expo in 2010. everything about the documentary screams 2010: from the casual misogyny represented by the constant presence of booth babes at E3 and what i'm assuming are Bob's random camera zoom ins on butts and boobs, to the edgelordy but sometimes transgressive jokes they make about the stupidity of the event, to the extremely stilted corporate press conferences (okay, maybe that part hasn't changed so much). in an era where the culture around videogames... and really, just about all culture had seemingly become more bloated, more corporate, and more soulless... you at least had the internet to provide entertainment that was closer to the ground. these people helped you process where the world was going.

this was also the peak era of cynical gaming personalities like Yahtzee Crowshaw who gave you a more jaded-but-informed look into the world of games you wouldn't necessarily get from official gaming magazines or websites at the time. it was the early era of pranky videogame forum guy jokesters like Mega64. it was also the era of incredibly of-their-time parodies like this cover version of "How To Save A Life" by The Fray where the lyrics were rewritten to be about the shitty Playstation 3 launch and performed by a personality known as the Sarcastic Gamer (aka Doc Adams). sure, this industry, and this culture at large was going crazy with producing a lot of shit you didn't like. but you at least had your friends and figures you liked online there to make light of the spectacle. people like these were windows into the larger culture that made it feel more bearable, like you had some point of connection to it. these people hinted that the plates might be shifting in a new and better direction, somehow, and you were closer to the ground in having its answers than other people. because it didn't feel like this status quo could hold for very much longer. so there was a growing oasis in the desert - at least if you fit into the target demographic of these groups.

eventually, internet personalities like the GameGrumps were able to take the parasocial appeal of some goofy jokester guys (they are almost always guys) riffing over themselves playing videogames and made it into a very successful business. it turned out that a snappier, less insular version of this kind of quirky internet humor directed less towards jaded forumgoers and more towards younger audiences scaled quite well. crucial to YouTube's history now is in how it's biggest, earliest ultra-celebs like PewDiePie and Markiplier all built audiences on playing and reacting to weirder niche games for an audience of mostly children. even in the dedicated games media, Giant Bomb managed to take the more parasocial personality-based sensibility of the podcasty "quirky guys who could be your friends" model and apply it towards being a full fledged games media outlet (even if it now exists as kind of a shell of its old self.) the McElroy brothers, of whom Griffin was a founding member of the game website Polygon, turned the parasocial popularity of kooky online figures into a whole family affair that they spun into a media empire that went beyond the world of games as well. and the surreal and insular Something Awful style of humor especially embodied by Medibot in Let's Play Sonic 2006 dovetailed into Weird Twitter (with its now one remaining famous holdout Dril) and somewhat of the post-2016 lefty alternative media universe (especially, to me, in things like the Episode One podcast).

so there is no question that the style of Let's Play Sonic 2006 has clearly been absorbed into so many different facets of internet culture. why, then, does watching it now feel almost like doing cultural anthropology? why is it in this awkward period of being just old enough to feel utterly alien to our current landscape, but not new enough to have hit a nostalgia cycle that's codified into anything concrete?

it feels as if we have become awash now in a certain generic 'content creator' voice that emerged in most facets of internet video in the 2010s. it's the sort of reassuring, yet weirdly coddling tone we know from many big YouTubers and TikTokers of this moment. that seemed to solidify in part out of a fallout to the hostility of online discourse created by ultra mobilized fan communities targeting figures they don't like for various reasons, and part because of platforms like YouTube demonetizing discussions of controversial topics (from all sides of the political spectrum). the default tone of online video now is so often conciliatory, a perpetual 101 explainer to bring new people into the fold that never moves beyond the 101 level. channels feel increasingly carefully designed not to offend, to be inclusive to its audience, and to stave off any criticism that might inevitably come from mobilized fan communities. the insular weirdness of online communities has been squeezed out into alternative spaces like the aforementioned post-2016 lefty media space as online 'content creation' is, to summarize, now a much more tightly controlled affair... far from the weird formlessness of Let's Play Sonic 2006

i don't want to sound like i'm overly romanticizing this older era of the internet either. these forum users were completely unequipped for what came after. many people of my generation who grew up on forums probably thought the internet would continue provide a shield from larger culture's money-hungry smashing and grabbing. i don't ever think there was a broad belief that the insularity of online communities would ever translate to mass culture. i certainly never saw virtual real estate as being the same type of commodity as real real estate at the time. the internet was built from a bunch of insular in-groups, and a lot of people in these communities foolishly believed it would always stay that way. many of us thought we could police the purity of these communities. this meant constant drama and flamewars as people struggled to maintain their idea of what they thought any given online community they were a part of should be. these conflicts were inevitable but usually did far more damage than they helped. they helped give a lot of communities an expiration date. it was, in the end, a losing battle - there was no way to keep up that internal cohesion in most smaller spaces when the big money really started flowing into the online content industry.

which gets to the point that this culture was also predicated on the idea of exclusion. the trauma of an adolescence being mercilessly bullied and shunted through humiliating environments like my middle school gets taken out on other targets outside the sphere. and videogames in particular have heavily targeted themselves towards disillusioned young men. the language of older internet culture in general is often dated partially because it's coming from groups of mostly male nerds who communicate with a sort of dark humor of frustration and isolation from the larger culture. there was an encouragement towards pushing boundaries to see what you could get away with online in relative anonymity, outside the bounds of polite society. specific communities might have rules about harassment or hateful language, but you could always find plenty of other communities that didn't enforce this to run to. the internet was still an escapist refuge from real life, after all, and built to enable that. once internet culture officially became increasingly indistinguishable from 'real life' and began to absorb everything else around it, getting away with this kind of behavior became a lot more difficult.

the idea that suddenly now something done on some obscure corner of the internet you never pay attention to could, in an instant, be everyone else's problem, whether we like that or not... was just not something people considered.

pictured: me wearing a Giygas-themed t-shirt i accidentally lifted from a friend at MAGFest 2011

i had just arrived at the eighth annual MAGFest (alternatively known as the Music And Gaming Festival and the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival) in Alexandria, Virginia when the clock struck midnight to begin the 2010's. i was talked into making the trip only just a couple months before, after reconnecting with some people from an online community i was a part of during high school. it was the first time i ever met people i had substantial relationships with online, and the first time i ever went to any sort of convention. i had basically no money at the time (and not much has changed on that front!), so i was heavily dependent on the charity of some of those online friends i had just met in the flesh to let me crash for free and cover most of my meals. being there for the first time felt a bit like going Disney World. some stuff i made in high school that i thought had no real significance or value apparently had a lot more significance and value to some people than i thought. it was way more real, and way more intense than i expected. it was like a strange dream suddenly come true. i cried a lot, the two years i went.

i had felt so disconnected, so hopelessly uncool in college. various community dramas involving the unceremonious exits of one or two people i was friends with had left me feeling like my days were numbered in that particular community. i had begun to tune out of most aspects of my former online presence by that point anyway. i wanted to become a sentient adult who had an existence outside of the internet. i was a 00's Pitchfork-era indie kid who followed that kind of music pretty significantly, and also got into studying film towards the end of my time at school. both were big parts of my identity, and i took them seriously. college gave me the opportunity to further explore culture i wouldn't have been exposed to when just left to my own devices, which i was grateful for. but the whole experience ended with me feeling a lot less secure (both emotionally and financially) and unsure about who i was or what i wanted than i had ever been. i never felt like i could get on the same page as other people in college. it was like we were speaking a different language most of the time. there was this invisible impassable gulf i simply could never seem to cross with most people. and by the time i had started transitioning and tried to confront some of my own emotional traumas, college was over. it was time to go back to my family, the source of most of the trauma.

then, suddenly, online people who i didn't know i'd even think about ever again just showed up. and they were all coming from a community formed around videogames, the most escapist of things. this space was something that felt too irredeemably dorky to me that i was absolutely ashamed to tell people i knew in the flesh i had been involved with it at all. being a persistent forumgoer at the time felt like the sign of a socially maladjusted dork, and i was trying to shed any sign of that from my existence. it actually weirdly made it worse that i had made music for that community, because it showed i was deeply invested in being a part of something very uncool. it seemed like kind of a joke, like a black mark. i was easy prey for being judged for by anyone who was actually cool, and there was nothing i could do in response to prove otherwise. it didn't matter that my tastes and sensibilities were a lot different from a lot of people in the community, or that it was one of the major things that led to my initial exit. i was not rocking with shit like Dream Theater whatsoever, and life didn't begin and end with videogame nostalgia for me. didn't matter: i was forever stamped with the label of Internet Nerd.

at the same time, i felt like those of us who spent serious time online in that community all shared something concrete that no one else did. anyone who spent serious time in the trenches dealing with various intense dramas that upended that community had been through something real and lived to tell the tale. and there really was something increasingly so pre-fab and so manufactured feeling about the kind of "cool" Pitchfork indie music that blew up in the 00's that i was desperately trying to attach myself to in college. it was always selling the idea of authenticity, but a sort of upscale boutique shopping mall version. the whole hipster lifestyle, the whole idea of art as a personal aesthetic fashion statement really struck the wrong chord with me and caught me off-guard. it all felt like chic nu-urbanist crap that someone in a boardroom came up with to sell iPods. i couldn't envision this, or how it seemed to infiltrate everywhere. i used to joke that my college campus was sponsored by Apple. i no longer had the same kind of personal relationship to indie music i had growing up when it offered an escape from my culturally destitute surroundings. 

in spite of their escapist origins, my former online forum experiences felt really tangible, and way less imaginary in how they went down. even when they were filled with drama, and even when everyone was relatively anonymous and using a pseudonym... they were real. these spaces were almost all teens and young adults figuring out everything for themselves, more or less without older adult knowledge or supervision. and a lot of people involved had very grandiose ideas about what these communities could or should be, even if they expressed that in ways that exposed their own cluelessness and lack of real life experience. in hindsight it was sort of like the experience of being a part of a punk scene, but for a generation of kids who grew up on the internet and lacked access to decent in-person spaces. even if the sensibilities of the music were generally softer and way more wedded to sounding polished than punk, the space could be even nastier and more unstable than they were even in punk scenes. the anonymity that gave people freedom to express themselves however they wanted also gave them license to get away with safely saying or doing things that were particularly fucked up. this made it a place of contradiction: in some ways, quite horrible, but in other ways absolutely special and unique. while the forum had a bad problem with gender imbalance and harassment towards female users, it also was surprisingly racially and culturally diverse. while not exactly featuring the same sort of dynamics, the documentary Earthbound, USA about the community is one of the only pieces of media i've since seen to accurately capture this kind of experience of youth growing up on online forums.

at the end of that first MAGFest in January 2010, there was a huge snowstorm where me and my friends ended up holing up with someone from the community in his huge apartment nearby in Baltimore. we were there for days on end, mostly farting around playing games on a modded Xbox one person had brought, or working on an incredibly bad joke track for some online competition. i didn’t tell my parents where i was during that time, and they never asked. when i finally got a ride home back to Ohio, it was in the middle of the night in the midst of a still ongoing blizzard. that moment was like being in the midst of a wonderful dream that you could sense is about to end. the intersection of online friends into the yard i grew up in, however briefly, was surreal. we took a couple photos in the driveway of my parents' house before parting. even if we took no photos, that moment will be forever burned into my memory. 

afterwards, i was quite depressed for many months. but there was still a glimmer of hope that existed there that it could all come to pass again. i kept in touch with the friends every day and kept them updated about my situation. the indie game space had blown up, and people from that community had seen success from it. it promised potential new outlet for finding work making music again, when i felt otherwise utterly useless and hopeless. i truly felt like i had been ground under the gears of "the real world" and i could not survive before that point. in college i had been around people from more wealthy backgrounds who seemed to have a much easier time functioning and being rewarded for it, and it really cracked the image of meritocratic success i had built up in my head before that point. i felt like i was not made to exist in this world -  i felt that i could never operate in any kind of space where you had to know people and say the right things to make your way into creative industries. but suddenly it might not matter anymore.

the summer of 2010 i watched Let's Play Sonic 2006 thanks to John was a part of that. his belief in these new forms of expression born of the internet as a way into some kind of more liberated cyber-future was definitely infectious. that the Pokecapn crew appeared to be from the same DC/Maryland area where MAGFest was held just added to the feeling that they were somehow all part of the same magic sphere of possibility. the idea of making a career online where the rules were far less set in stone seemed liberating, like a swerve you wouldn't ever expect to ever happen... until it suddenly did. now you could make your way online, and make your own rules doing it.

but my dream of post-Recession possibility ended up being relatively short lived. the feeling of internal cohesion to the community that had recently just meant so much to me drifted apart over the next several years. i felt like i had grown far apart from my place in that world since high school, and i always needed to move into another space. besides, a lot of other people had real lives and careers to get to, and things became so much more complicated as an increasing professionalism at the promise of real money entered into everything. and in the end, i did get to live out some aspects of my dream... even if that dream ended up feeling like a nightmare a lot of the time.

millennials like me grew into our twenties deeply internalizing the lesson of "this is just what you have to do now" which, initially, this seemed like a positive sentiment. saying i was going to focus on making a career on the internet was, at least for me, a big way to stick it to people like my parents who thought the whole space was imaginary. i could show them that the rules had changed forever. but the uneasy anxiety that possibilities were still rapidly being foreclosed on sat underneath all of this. as i moved further into the space, it felt as if there was a simmering cynicism undergirding so many things of the era that was rarely explicitly stated outright. i felt like i wasn't really allowed to express myself in a lot of different ways, that there was immense pressure to conform to the moment in a way i simply could not fit into. but stating it out loud in public often just seemed to make things worse. it was like any time you did, someone else who was never going to complain or be difficult like you could just come along and easily replace you. and it just wouldn't matter - no one would remember you, and they'd be happier to have you gone so you didn't have to make them feel bad about themselves. and by 2014, the sheen had really fully started to come off it for me. 

perhaps the explosion of media that developed around the political panic of the Trump era just helped mask the rot underneath various 2010's media ecosystems for longer than it would have otherwise. a lot of things were on fire, but Trump was the easiest and most effective scapegoat there could possibly be. the 2010's was a decade filled with mass protest in numbers never before seen in human history. people were grappling with the power of decentralized organizing tools that new forms of mass social media provided us with, and using it as a way to try to fight our increasingly contradictory and morally bankrupt reality. and yet, as we know, it all had startlingly little impact on changing the existing order. this is something journalist Vincent Bevins extensively covered in his recent, very timely book If We Burn. while i am by no means qualified to speak on the totality of the failures of various global protest movements, i did write about this issue from my own personal perspective about during 2020

what i could not have known then is that once the extent of the impacts of the pandemic truly sunk in around 2021, it was impossible to ignore all that we had lost anymore. we never really moved out from underneath the shadow of the recession or recovered from it. a lot of culture, and a lot of lives have been destroyed in the process. and now in the 2020s we seem to be experiencing a massive cultural malaise as a result. we're now in the blackpilled decade, where any collective gains (if they were ever really won at all) seem to be getting totally rolled back by the powers that be, and all-encompassing cynicism rules the day.

the incredibly dumb Avicii logo tattoo from the "Wake Me Up" music video

somehow the music video for the Aviici/Aloe Blacc song "Wake Me Up" that, at the time of writing, has 2.3 billion views on youtube was like the perfect document of 2010s dreams for me. it's so painfully corny. the way our young single mom protagonist rides her horse around the rolling hills of California and into the streets of LA would be even a bit too on-the-nose for a car commercial now. the visual motif of those ridiculous Avicii logo tattoos that serve as her connection point to other friends unfortunately only conjures up the image of the brandings left by the NXVIM cult in hindsight. the depiction of an EDM concert being this liberatory joyful grassroots collection of outcasts, instead of the music now commissioned for corporate retreats, increasingly soundtracking the various forces hollowing out our current culture is very funny. and the idea of music festivals being these real community spaces for collective joy instead of a corporate wasteland of toxic bros, influencers, and clout chasers couldn’t possibly feel more out of step. also the random ad for a Sony smartphone thrown in the middle of the concert is incredibly brazen too (featuring a selfie, because it's 2013).

and yet, somehow, something about this video still works. it hits you on the most base emotional level. you might be a young single mom who emigrated from another country, judged and misunderstood by the villagers in your immediate area. those cartoonishly small-minded villagers you encounter that look like they come from some kind of cursed Southern Gothic-style fairy tale might be like my dad, screaming at me that i'm going to fuck up my life because i don't immediately have a job lined up at twenty-two. but an outlet for escape still exists: you can ride your horse of imagination and find a new land of opportunity a lot of other people can't, or won't see. and if you're open to it, you can find your true buddies there, and you can join together. you come join our commercial new cult  - it’s great! and now your world isn’t so small at all  - now we’re a big business. and we can all share a part of that! 

it's strange how the events of the "Wake Me Up" video are just this bizarre mirror world version of all the experiences i went through with my online friends at MAGFest. there really was something going on at that particular post-recession moment that added to the intensity of people's need to connect in this specific way, in those specific places.  the desire to just feel optimistic about something, to just feel like you belonged somewhere in a sincere way that wasn't draped in five layers of irony was so all-encompassing. even when it meant lopping off many things about who you were or what you value that might alienate people, that was just what you have to do now. fan communities ostensibly existing for one purpose had taken on such an outsized social role. scenes invariably became so big and important that they couldn't contain their one initial purpose anymore. you were no longer presenting yourself to an insular like-minded community as an escape from outside culture. you were part of a political movement, even if what that "movement" was was completely incoherent. even if it was just you all being the fan of some random EDM artist (or, say, videogame music).

the burgeoning chiptune scene was experiencing its own flirtation with the mainstream around the exact same time as the Avicii video with the release of Anamanaguchi's album "Endless Fantasy", as one example. my friend and chiptune artist Space Town has covered the dynamics around this moment extensively and has tried pinpoint what happened to the chiptune community during this time on his recent "What Happened To Chiptune?" podcast. and of course Skrillex had, by 2013, fully popularized dubstep to a massive new audience of American fans, much to the chagrin of most of the genre's British originators who derided it as "brostep" and felt it as an incredibly gaudy perversion of the much more rich and nuanced underground subculture they originated. 2010s poptimism was now the unquestioned order of the day partly because every other kind of space was increasingly now too niche to be truly viable anymore. but it made a lot of things the culture produced feel very shallow and cutthroat, like a series of weird jokes on the whole idea of culture manufactured for maximum virality instead of any kind of grassroots cultural space.

perhaps i fell out with my own online community after high school because i realized that there were a lot of parts of myself i could just never reconcile with how it functioned. there was one member of that community i grew up with, in particular: let's call him "Jacob" for the sake of this post. Jacob was an early supporter of my music, and an accomplished musician himself. he was generally one of the most beloved artists on the website, and was heavily involved in shaping the direction of the community for a few very crucial years. some decisions he made were good and added a lot to the site, while others were ill-advised and left a cloud of negativity in its wake. he was also a notorious internet troll - and a far more persistent and ambitious one than John's petty Smiling Apple jpegs. someone else i had become even better friends with at the time via AIM, who was also involved with helping the site's operations, partnered up with him and they both ended up forming an online troll duo. some of the things they did were genuinely funny, but most of them were stupid and mean-spirited. i happened to agree with them on many things they had problems with in terms of how the larger community functioned, but i thought their methods of expressing that were often really over the top. eventually their various shenanigans made them fall out with the community and get banned from the forums. that put me in an awkward position as someone who was still active on the website, which i never really recovered from. but i was sort of over the whole space by that point anyway.

when MAGFest rolled around in 2010, Jacob was also one of the first people i reconnected to, thanks mostly to his partner (who was also from the community). she seemed to be really trying to make good with all the people he had pissed off by going back to MAGFest. i was there to witness and take part in this whole cathartic experience of people finally unburdening themselves of years-long old wounds in person. it gave me faith that there was a chance for people on there to really grow beyond seamy online dramas. it was also clear to me that Jacob had been scapegoated for far bigger structural problems in that community, just because he was one of the most identifiable trolls people could point to to blame whatever problem on. i ended up spending a lot of time around Jacob and especially his partner. she helped provide me with support and helped me get through my various financial and emotional problems in the fallout of me dealing with my parents. we even lived in the same area for several months in 2013 after i moved to the SF Bay Area, though that ended up being short-lived.

but by mid-2014 i had fully lost touch with most of the people from that community. and around 2017, Jacob went off the deep end. suddenly all he'd talk about online was how Sandy Hook was a hoax. i talked to his partner on the phone on and off around the time, but she kind of waved it off as him just doing his own thing. soon enough he would message many of the people he had been friends with incredibly venomous, often racist messages about the various ways he always hated them and regretted ever being friends. perhaps there were other events that precipitated these messages that happened in the several MAGFests i didn't go to after the two i went to in 2010 and 2011, but i'll never really know. Jacob fully going off the deep end totally unchecked was enough for me, as a trans woman in the Trump era, to be eventually scared away from trying to talk to either him or his partner anymore.

this experience with 'Jacob' going down the rabbit hole was crushing to me, as someone who wanted to defend him and believe he had gotten better. Jacob did not make it out of the decade okay, and i'm not sure if he ever will recover from that. he was, by no means, the only talented and accomplished person who i had been friendly with who ended up like this. something the intensity of the culture in the hyper-connected 2010's and the stress of online clout and promotion and just upended some people's lives completely. we all were not prepared for it. the fact that a handful out there from the space were suddenly making really successful careers, and that fact was always in your face... really destroyed some people. Jacob and his partner were friends with at least a few people who achieved freak amounts of success, which i'm sure only made him more paranoid. and the hysterical hyper-politicized age of Trump had obviously pushed everything over the edge.

to me, this just underlined what i had always believed about this community: that many of the people who became the most successful were often not the most beloved or talented. they were often just the ones who were best positioned from a combo of inherited wealth, lucky circumstances, and just having the right personality for networking. i had often felt thrown under the bus and underappreciated in that community, and i only felt like i had witnessed the same thing happening over and over again to many people i knew in the indie games community. while some people prospered, others were sent spiraling into the abyss and i'm not sure if they will ever be able to crawl out of that hole again. these experiences showed to me how much many of these scenes have a body count. a lot of people simply did not make it out okay.

another person who didn't make it out okay was Avicii: he died in 2018 at the age of 28 as a result of the alcoholism he developed coping with his criminally intense touring schedule. his death is one of an alarmingly high number of popular musicians that died really young in the late 2010's (Lil Peep, Juice WRLD, Mac Miller, and Pop Smoke are other notable examples). maybe if more of these guys had the vocabulary to identify what was going wrong in their lives, or the ability to hit the breaks on their careers, more of them would still be here. but so many people, especially younger people, never felt like they had been granted any space or ability to do that. when the machine is fully set into motion, you're supposed to just keep going. so many people depend on you to keep going. so this is just what you have to do now. and you've won a game that is increasingly hard for anyone to win. i'm sure that weighed heavily on some - i know it weighed a lot on Lil Peep from watching his documentary. something about getting literally worked to your grave while trying to convince yourself that you still won is so 2010's. 

it's everyone's favorite genre of annoying contemporary internet meme, the iceberg. from this vid btw.

all of these various casualties of our culture just further open up the portal to the dark side. these occurrences get digested in and puked out by the internet content machine as a brand new sort of morbid gawking media ecosystem that's native to the internet. the space of lolcows that has driven so much internet culture from the beginning, from the Star Wars kid to ChrisChan, serves as an endless trough of content for bottom-feeding grifters. from the beginning, many online spaces were overrun with merciless bullying from people whose power went unchecked due to their relative anonymity. this helped enable harassment machines to exist and thrive at many different scales. and now it serves to fuel numerous youtube channels that are just glorified glossaries of KnowYourMeme and Encyclopedia Dramatica articles spit back out as consumable entertainment. i often call the many dark internet lore channels on youtube that specialize in examining the decline of various internet figures "snuff channels": to me it's this generation's own versions of snuff films.

it's so painfully obvious the way so many of these channels purport to objectively educate viewers on internet history, but extremely quickly veer towards rubbernecking, harassment, or (especially when we get to cases like the unsavory Sonic-obsessed internet figure known as ChrisChan) outright obsessive and criminal stalking. of course it's not actually about educating people, at least not most of the time: it's about reveling in other people's misfortune. the sordid details of decline and death underneath the often coddling and inoffensive surface of brutal online hustle-and-grind culture makes us feel better about our own lives. the morbid lurid ephemera that must be held onto, catalogued and redigested. internet figures like the previously mentioned DarkSydePhil or Bob Peloni of Bob's Game (or particularly Lowtax) become new monuments to the dark excesses of internet culture. they're sources to squeeze easy content out of that makes us feel like we're equipped for the dark sinister side of existing online. it's our own Hollywood Babylon for famous internet figures. it doesn't matter how accurate any of these stories are, because we don't ever have to view our targets as real people. we can gawk at their failures safely from behind the shield of our screens.

i have a friend of mine who has been a subject for one of these widely-viewed videos and i simply could not hope to convey just how much a) these channels misrepresented who this friend is as a person and b) how the fallout of these videos further damaged and isolated this friend emotionally. it reminds me of the sordid rubbernecking fascination that drove vulturous tabloid media to cheering on the extremely public 2008 emotional breakdown of Britney Spears or the decline and death of Amy Winehouse. those are things that invoke tearful apologies now from parties involved, of course. but now that we're doing this all to random people on the internet, and it's coming from a bunch of totally unaccountable sources who don't have to answer to anything... many people suddenly don't seem to notice or care again. 

i would like to think that if many of the people running these channels truly knew the damage they were doing, they'd stop. maybe we'll eventually get an apology like some former tabloid figures did with Britney Spears. but the point of this culture, so much of the time, is explicitly to punish and harass. this comes from a rich history of people leveraging a litany of psychological manipulations to gain a following in internet spaces. this is about the creation of a full-blown cult of personality. delighting in the misfortune of rich and famous people for clicks is, in comparison, just a trifle.

in a recent piece in The London Review about what the culture of Silicon Valley has wrought on the city of San Francisco, author Rebecca Solnit observes: "The internet has helped people withdraw from diverse communities and shared experiences to huddle in like-minded groups, including groups focused on hating those they see as unlike them, while encouraging the disinhibition of anonymity." this behavior has existed in many spaces, but became particularly notorious on MRA messageboards or places like the the /pol/ board on 4chan. these spaces fed off the various grievances of their users and allowed them to openly direct their own feelings of failure towards specific groups in society they thought were keeping them from living the life they should be living. these created pathways which are now very effectively employed to build larger audiences and careers for bullies and reactionary fascists. the recent cancerous polyp on the anus of humanity known as LibsOfTikTok, run by a woman who now holds political office in Oklahoma named Chaya Raichik, is only one of many such examples.

in a recent, probably ill-advised (for both parties involved) interview with trendy online media journalist Taylor Lorenz, Chaya Raichik appears to struggle to answer even the most basic softball questions about what she believes in. perhaps the main contribution Raichik makes to the interview is wearing a shirt of Lorenz making an awkward expression. this is her primary contribution to the culture in the form LibsOfTikTok: bullying people for looking weird from atop the perch of a massive platform. the interview exposes that her ideological side appears nowhere near as coherent as many figures of the alt-right were 'platformed' and interviewed in 2016 and 2017. it's closer to us reliving the era of the Star Wars kid all over again, except this time explicitly directed as a political weapon against marginalized groups. having this flimsy of a basis for a massive platform doesn't matter, because it's all propped up by a totally decimated cultural and media ecosystem that rewards exploitative grifting. regardless of how much of an idiot she makes herself look like, Raichik has enough of a cult following and has built a big enough brand to where she'll probably be secure regardless. she can just declare victory and move on.

the implications of a bullying culture that delights in the death and misfortune of others is also completely impossible to ignore when you watch all the current images of Israeli Zionists actively celebrating the destruction and murder of Palestinian lives in the most grotesque and strange ways possible. this is a year where we could witness the historical Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest beat us over the head with our own brutal complicity as oblivious citizens of colonial regimes that systematically torture and murder. yet many people still seem to utterly fail to notice this. the desire to subjugate and punish anyone who appears to prevent you from reaching your birthright of bourgeois middle class thriving could simply not be more luridly blunt at this moment in time. and i think that's the direct result of the post-2008 downward mobility many of us have never recovered from.

of course, this trend extends beyond weaponized political harassment. as many younger people become increasingly tuned out of political discourse, it surfaces in places which are far more ambiguous and less lurid. it's in the demented obsession the current generation of children have with liminal spaces, Skibidi toilet memes, and horror games like the 90's lo-fi educational game gone-bad of Baldi's Basics or the gaudy and astroturfed merchandise-palooza of Poppy Playtime. it's in the speedruns of the virtual tour in the now-gone Redfin realty listing of the terrifying nightmare hoarding warehouse of 8000 Blue Lick Road in Louisville, Kentucky. this house is, to paraphrase Slavoj Zizek: the other side of capitalist dynamics - tremendous amounts of waste. this feeling is also in the "disturbing games*" (*note: content warning) iceberg memes that place some of my favorite games, along with games by friends and acquaintances of mine, far down on some kind of vague but sordid fictional radicalization pathway towards media made by pedophiles and white supremacists.

we seemingly lack the collective ability to put words to the complex emotions our cultural moment produces. we appear to lack the collective capacity to approach with empathy or appreciate nuance. there is always a pressure to go broader, and more conspiratorial - otherwise it won't reach virality. the further we tread down this path, the more we become travelers so well versed of the dark underbelly of internet culture that nothing else matters. we're sharers steeped in secret lore of grotesquely public emotional decline. we're wielders of dark cursed objects which can serve as the next Rotten Dot Com for a new generation of aspiring school shooters and neo-Nazi cult leaders. everyone out there's a new potential R. Budd Dwyer waiting to blow their brains out live on camera. and we're here to squeeze it for all it's worth, and lap up all those blown out bits of brain up like jello. every little ounce of pain and suffering that oozes out of the consciousness (perhaps manfiested the form of creamed corn i.e. garmonbozia) is just a brand new flavor of lifestyle right there for you to be radicalized by and make money off of. we cannot acknowledge that things the culture has produced scream to be taken more seriously, or to be treated with any sort of humanity. it's not as if this space is made up of individuals who had hopes and dreams that might exist contrary to your desires. ultimately, these are just NPCs. they don't matter.

the internet has produced many things, but its driving force is cowardice. it's there in the collective failure to conceptualize how the things one does online manifest themselves in the larger world. it's there in the lionization of an almost spiritual level of intellectual laziness in the need to endlessly double down on whatever your personal brand becomes. it's there in the desire to tear down anyone who might attempt to shine a light on your own personal failures and limitations, in either your work or your larger perspective on the world. the internet is a refuge for the bad faith. it's a place to endlessly to celebrate your own fragility and inflexibility. it's a zone where we can magically reframe and hold up all our own failures of imagination as actually pretty fucking epic. to paraphrase something Matt Christman has often said: whatever happens, just say you've won. ultimately your own fantasy conception about what you're doing matters more than anything that might actually come out of it, especially if you've managed to successfully sell the importance of it to enough other people. we're all just performing elaborate shell games on each other in an attempt to feel better about ourselves.

there's a phenomenon i call "poster's narcissism": the desire to feel that you deserve credit for being attached to some part of internet culture that has affected the broader world in all kinds of ways, but an intense hyper-sensitivity to any further outside scrutiny or dialogue being applied to you. it's about wanting to have ownership from behind a perch of anonymity. a thing you have some personal stake in must be legendary in some way, but that legendaryness must remained unquestioned. the internet has sold us a fantasy of being a wildly successful person who also ultimately doesn't have to be accountable to anyone, doesn't have to show up anywhere, doesn't have be a part of any institution. it doesn't matter that very few get to really ever achieve that, and the ones who do mostly have a net negative impact on the world as a whole. 

we all know that we don't really live in a democratic world: everything is controlled by the rich and powerful. and they don't ever have to be accountable to anyone, seemingly. so it's better to view yourself as some kind of insurgent posting revolutionary and create elaborate romanticized fantasies of things you throw out into the world behind the screen. they could be anything, after all. once you have to witness these real things manifest themselves in a more material way and deal with the potential consequences of that, you can easily wither away in the shadows. it immediately becomes someone else's problem, and they must have to be the one to face the consequences of your actions. you're merely just imitating what our most powerful and influential figures in society are doing on a smaller scale. and if you're making good money doing this, all the better.

in a recent, massively viral video essay covering the glut of plagiarized content on YouTube, popular game criticism and lefty politics youtuber Harry Brewis (aka Hbomberguy) concludes his video with: 

"in current discourse, youtubers simultaneously present as the forefront of a new medium: creative voices that need to be taken seriously as part of the next generation of media... and also uwu smol beans little babies who shouldn't be taken seriously when they rip someone off and make tens of thousands of dollars doing it."

this dynamic is by no means restricted to youtube. frankly, we should all be so lucky to be part of the great grift in the sky. the internet consumes all: it cares for no one. and i for one, welcome our new overlords.

perhaps it's increasingly impossible to not be complicit in this dynamic. the bizarre mind-palacey world of online media is the only reason i have any kind of platform at all. i've had many people, especially since my "California Problem" piece from last year, ask why i don't put out a book. and it simply comes down to having no idea where to start broaching the subject of how to get published. it's the same reason i couldn't seem to find a decent record label to put out my music, or haven't performed music live. i grew up online and have no idea how to translate myself to those sorts of contexts. and i'm way too anxious about the core or impact of what i'm doing being substantially reduced in any other context where i don't have as much control. the internet gives me a path, so this is the best you're going to get right now. and perhaps this is all only a justification for my own laziness and inflexibility. i would like it to not be that way, but i'm not saying that i haven't benefited from it.

but it doesn't have to be this way. works like Let's Play Sonic 2006 exhibit moments of poetry behind the veil, whether intentionally or not, that hint to something deeper and murkier. the kind of world my recovered online troll friend John envisioned, the one of therapeutic interventions in unexpected online places, is still in there somewhere. these fleeting moments can serve as a path forward to a far more interesting and enlightened cultural space than the dead husk of one we currently have right now. and a big failure of post-Great Recession culture was in the inability to recognize this latent possibility.

this brings me to the video of this emotional breakdown of a Something Awful goon about his general lack of life direction. this happens during a bygone Let's Play video, preserved by twitter user Jae Bearhat, where the friend of this goon who is playing collects a bunch of colored balls in a particularly bland PS2 Harry Potter minigame. this morbid mental health spiraling is clearly not something the other people on the Let's Play want to hear at that particular moment. the player of the game says "well, i'm sorry that your moral fiber is so lacking" as a joke, but it lands flat and his friend keeps spiraling. one of the other commenters giggles exasperatedly at this goon's morbid rambling before they, in an exhausted tone, say "at least you got a job!" and the host adds "yeah, you're not living in your parent's basement!" when the spiraling friend says "i literally have not progressed at all in the past year" the host eventually changes his strategy to making nonsensical word puns in an attempt to get his friend to laugh and stop the spiraling. this appears to work for the moment: his friend laughs, and the clip ends.

this is the kind of moment of true cinema the phenomenon of Let's Plays introduced to the world - the times when genuine humanity seeps out behind the facade of the usual production of media consumption, before being beaten back into line. the internet was built for you to search for and create communities around shared interests with other people, but they often could not really hold up their initial purpose for too long. that's why i'm glad this specific moment was captured and preserved, even if the surrounding Let's Play seems to be gone from the internet now. seeing behind the veil in this way can be excruciatingly uncomfortable, and always has been a subject for mockery on the machinery of the internet. but it reveals a lot of uncomfortable truths about the larger world. the surreal sense of humor of posting on the internet was a way to avoid dealing with this, but the real world always seeps out regardless.

we cannot stop it from seeping out. the failed dreams of a bygone era now much more overtly fuel the despair machines of the present. perhaps this apparent death of culture, this death of accountability, this death of conscience is just the pit we'll be stuck wallowing in for a long time to come. it may be an exceptionally bleak future. but hey, at the end of the day, if you're still functioning: at least you've got a job.


Part 3: The Waste Land

Nathan Fielder leers at some teenage boys from a parody video about him running a TikTok house

only about six months before my consequential MAGFest 2010 trip, i visited my college friend at his mom's cavernous McMansion in the suburbs. my friend couldn't drive, so at one point we caught a ride with his younger teenage cousin to go see a movie. the entire drive there, she couldn't seem to settle on a particular track to listen to on her iPod. she seemed agitated, flipping through new songs and never staying on one for, i swear, more than ten or fifteen seconds. she did this the entire car ride - which at least felt like a half-hour. towards the end of the ride i had begun to feel sick and disoriented, like i was losing my mind. i was so flummoxed by the idea that she would keep doing this, with seemingly just no consciousness of anyone around her. i thought at the time that perhaps she was just trying to prove to us, or to herself, how big her music library was. but she didn't seem to be enjoying this activity at all. the longer it went on, the more the process of selecting a song only seemed to conjure up greater anxiety and discomfort inside her. i couldn't understand why a person would put themselves through that kind of torture for no apparent reason.

a widely-shared article from Harpers in 2021 by author and college professor Barrett Swanson captures a very similar sort of moment. for this piece, Swanson stayed at a content house for prospective young male TikTok influencers. his document of the time he spent in this house paints a very bizarre and troubling picture. on one instance, he describes the members of the house dishing out massive shit-talking towards each other in the build-up to a pick-up basketball game that they'd been hyping up playing. but just as they were about to play the game: 

"...after we pick teams, something strange happens. For reasons I cannot identify, most of the boys scatter and disperse, wandering in the direction of the jacuzzi and pool, looking like left fielders distracted by butterflies. Only Baron and I remain on the court. “What happened?” I ask. Shirtless, dribbling at the top of the key, Baron sighs and says, “Honestly, man, this happens all the time. They all have ADHD. They haven’t been in school in like four years, and they haven’t had responsibilities, so their brains are fucking mush, bro. . . . It’s just like we pick teams for fun all the time.” 

clearly something about the attention economy has short-circuited many brains in a profound way, especially younger people coming out of pandemic lockdowns. TikTok is especially saturated with cutesy armchair diagnosing and prognosticating of various illnesses, especially for disorders like ADHD that feel like a direct result of this phenomenon. as an app based around short-form video content, TikTok depends on delivering constant quick pleasure hits to keep users engaged with their platform. and this sort of distracted behavior feels more and more common to existing in our current experience of reality in general, in whatever fragmented form it takes. it's truly alarming the many new and innovative tricks that have been employed to draw eyes on and squeeze that next hit of attention from users, or how markedly it's had a malignant effect on people's attention spans in the last decade or two. it's even more alarming how commonly these hyper-connected tools are now utilized as surveillance technology - like, say, by unhinged helicopter parents seeking to control all aspects of their child's existence. it's become harder to feel as if the normalization of siphoning attention into various walled content gardens isn't a parasitic squandering of human potential and a gross invasion of the concept of personal privacy. and all of this terror is inflicted on us mostly for the sake of extracting another buck.

but there's always a built in sense of self-justification to this disturbing universe, a sense that being distracted feels almost necessary to navigate to be able to parse a fragmented social and cultural landscape. in a world of narrowing possibility, the dream of still hitting upon massive virality and influencing the public in new and unpredictable ways means tons of people are willing to brave this space for the small hope of large visibility. if you are a serious creator on an online platform, you must be constantly aware of hundreds of different threads, ready to abandon your current place and jump to a new one at a moment's notice. it's a principle my friend David Kanaga called "a speedily transmogrifying entrepreneur of the self" in a video we did together in 2015. it's our duty to be distracted, and to consume distractedly. this has become even more important as platforms like TikTok and youtube appear to constantly change how their algorithms work. and this feeds whole industry of advice-mongers selling you five easy ways to tweak your creative output for more visibility, preying upon people's larger insecurities about finding an audience for their work. the result is a landscape of content creators who are constantly hedging their bets by gathering multiple revenue streams, especially from selling their own merch. this is not a choice most of the time, but an obligation to engage with this landscape. all of this is simply just what you have to do now: there is no other way.

this kind of race to the bottom has, unsurprisingly, started to garner really significant pushback from creators who don't want to have to constantly navigate impenetrable online ecosystems to stay afloat. TikTok has provided cover for the major labels at the center of the music industry to offload all the actual work they might have used towards talent development in the past to the magical whims of the algorithm. many high profile musicians have spoken out about how demoralizing doing musical promotion and waiting for a viral hit on these platforms are. the more labels engage in this process, the more users feel suspicious that any videos or songs that do go viral do so not for any reason of inherent quality, but because they have been paid for in some way or another. this is part of what fed an obsession with users unearthing so-called industry plants as labels flocked to TikTok in the wake of the viral success of artists like Lil Nas X in 2019. not to mention the explosive social impact of TikTok in the past five years may now be waning even outside the threats of a US ban both due to the platform's public feud with Universal Music Group over song royalties, and also the sudden explosion of DIY micro-ads from creators hawking various products that are now clogging up the platform (which New York Times music journalist Jon Caramanica calls "QVC in your pocket").

later in his Harpers piece, Swanson gets to the heart of why these online creator platforms inevitably fail to offer real freedom to their users. after one the young male members of the house, Brandon, claims that the increasing political influence of TikTokers was making people in power afraid, Swanson observes:

I can’t help thinking of Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Benjamin suggests that fascistic governments aim to maintain the status quo by providing citizens with the means to express themselves aesthetically without reforming their lives materially. Thus the aforementioned government that Brandon thinks TikTokers have scared shitless actually, as Benjamin writes, “sees its salvation in granting expression to the masses—but on no account granting them rights.”

perhaps Brandon's opinion appears to have been granted a bit more legitimacy at this particular point in history. in the past six months, so much legacy media here in the US and Europe has steadfastly towed the line in their commitment towards providing cover to the Israeli government's endless atrocities against the Palestinian people. in contrast, it's hard to avoid the brutal and obvious cavalcade of endless Israeli war crimes plainly out there on social media for anyone with eyes and ears to witness. the wide userbase of platforms like TikTok or Twitter have actually created a paradigm shift in how images of these sorts of conflicts reach the public - something that people in power clearly still do not know how to account for. this has no doubt fueled the escalating panic of the US political class and their rapid rush towards attempting to ban TikTok altogether, but this odious drive towards mass-censorship resoundingly fails to comprehend what has already taken place. we now have a much greater understanding of how those on the ground experience being the target of a genocide firsthand, in real time. this is a fundamentally new way to experience human events, enabled by social media... even when all of this just increases a feeling of powerless to actually affect change and stop what's happening.

but while that is unfolding, the creator economy has also helped provide an excuse for people in power to decimate other industries. online news media is collapsing due to flagging views and bad management decisions. the music industry that depends so much on TikTok virality is struggling to break new artists, as musicians across the board are struggling to receive fair pay from digital ecosystems and make ends meet in a landscape that feels increasingly hostile to artistic expression. even the videogame industry that boomed resoundingly in the early pandemic years has now been backsliding at an alarming rate with massive layoffs in the past year or so. much of this is due to the era of low interest rates that fed the 2010s tech startup boom ending, but there is no doubt that the online content economy and the rapid increase in funding towards the development and application of AI and machine learning tools are helping provide cover for doing this.

and while whole industries are being decimated in real time, the social impact of youtube alone has grown ever larger. in an increasingly atomized world where loneliness is an epidemic, and parasocial relationships have replaced in-person relationships as a default mode of social connection, it only makes sense that these online creators play an outsized role in culture right now. that online video platforms like youtube and TikTok now dominate the cultural landscape feels quite surreal, and like it hasn't really sunk in. many of these older youtubers especially were once outsider fans, and yet now hold monumental power and leverage over many artists and creators. with regards to how this affects the videogame industry, game journalist Jonathan Holmes recently put it this way: "It used to be that the (game) devs wanted to create, the critics wanted to review their creationrs (sic), and advertisers wanted to get their ads on sites with critics with credibility. But now the lets players are making the content people want and the devs need them to advertize their games"

any and all culture that comes about on the internet serves as potential raw fuel for this new personality-based content creator class to exploit and make money off of. artists are often castigated for their lack of hustle in failing to channel virality in their work, while content creators who need the work of others to exist to continue to supply content to fans are celebrated as populists. and, to me, any ecosystem that celebrates the person who reacts to and comments on culture as a brave truth-teller, while subjugating the person who actually brings culture into being as whiny and entitled, is an ecosystem of parasites. the many creative people who struggle to fold themselves and their work around this reality, who increasingly feel like sell-outs who lack the opportunities to establish real integrity in their work, have good reason to feel tremendously resentful. 

you can bet your ass i'm resentful too! i could get far more visibility from repackaging my own critical work in the form of a youtube video essay right now that ever hope to get from writing right now. it's certainly not as if i hadn't considered the thought of doing video essays for this reason, especially given that they seem to be the one place now where videogame criticism (or whatever you could call the bastardized youtube video essay iteration of this anyway) appears to be actually broadly celebrated. but i also have no interest in spending years of my life grinding inside an ecosystem with the hope i'll eventually win the lottery and it'll pay off. for every successful 500k+ subscriber channel there are many other people laboring over multi-hour epic video essays in complete obscurity. does this mean their essays are necessarily worse than the ones that net millions of views? no, not necessarily at all. like on TikTok, virality does not coorelate with quality. even independent of these massive disparities, i just have real fundamental problems with the idea that presenting my work in the form of a four hour youtube essay is more culturally valuable or important than presenting it here on my blog. maybe some of us don't want to play the lottery and subjugate ourselves to an ecosystem that feels totally arbitrary, and that no one knows how long it'll stick around anyway. maybe it's more valuable to not further feed this beast if we're able to.

it's easy to forget that photography was invented only about two hundred years ago. cultural archetypes like the pop star and the movie star that feel codified to humanity at this point are products of 20th century rapid technological expansion. even relatively small 20th century events like David Bowie's performance of his song "Starman" on the Top of the Pops program in the UK in 1972 could be a watershed moment for an entire country's culture because of their profound newness. suddenly any young burgeoning queer outcasts and freaks that never saw anything of themselves represented on national TV before had an icon to connect to - feeding the massive cult around the idea of celebrity entertainers. subcultures that developed in isolation now all having the means to explode into everyone's view at any moment was and is still a very new concept for humanity. and a lot of events in recent history have spawned out as a result of that, both good and bad.

the social media influencer is just another iteration of the same phenomena. the personality-based content creator ecosystem thrives off of being a space where people appear to be allowed to embody ideas and expression that have not normally been allowed to be expressed by other aspects of our culture. many young people are experiencing their own Bowie in 1972-style moments online as we speak. but there's always a paradox in how this historically unprecedented freedom of expression offered by new technology masks the larger mechanisms of social control undergirding them, as Swanson observed in his Harpers piece.

    The Nostalgia Critic challenges the Angry Video Game Nerd

perhaps there is no better way to illustrate the inherent limitations of current online platforms than by taking another trip back to 2008. as we officially slid into the Great Recession, internet video started to turn from vlogs and insular parody videos to something much more mainstream and consequential. this year, Barack Obama was elected president thanks in part to campaign strategies that relied on mobilizing young people like me online to cast votes for him. it's the year the independent game market blew up with the surprise success of games like Braid and World of Goo, no doubt helped by the popularity of online flash games and hobbyist development communities like TIGSource, permanently altering the videogame landscape. it's the year the up-and-coming musical agent Scooter Braun signed the 13-year old Justin Bieber and made him a massive star based on his youtube performances.

it's also the year two popular internet video personalities took their fake online beef to a videogame store in Clifton, New Jersey. "The Event", as one could call it now. you all, of course, know what i'm talking about: it's when popular online movie reviewer personality The Nostalgia Critic (aka Doug Walker) confronted even more popular online videogame reviewer personality The Angry Video Game Nerd (James Rolfe) in the flesh and challenged him to a fake duel. the resulting fight in the parking lot of the Clifton, New Jersey game store is an awkwardly mimed slow motion battle. neither party seems to know quite how far they're supposed to be taking the bit. this event was clearly done for the sake of their respective fanbases, and embodies all the goofy nerd tropes of the time that fed their popularity. as much of a bizarre non-event the actual "fight" was, it may have also been the Big Bang for the current youtube-based reality we now find ourselves in. so many worlds spun off from the intersection of these two men.

Doug Walker was a pioneer in many ways, most of them accidental. as The Nostalgia Critic he boldly offered plot summaries on top of clips of various old blockbuster movies while offering minimal sarcastic commentary in between the footage. this approach certainly signaled something new about the internet generation's cavalier attitude towards copyright. this kind of commentary served, along with James Rolfe's even more popular and influential AVGN series, at the time as a blueprint of entertaining personality-based media criticism in video form. it's what formed the basis for the current video essay industrial complex of youtube today, along with popular web series that dunk on old bad media like RedLetterMedia's Best Of The Worst. that all of this emerged from two average-looking guys just fed the growing myth of the internet as a new great equalizer for culture.

also in 2008, Walker's videos became the online media production company Channel Awesome's flagship series under the name "That Guy with the Glasses." unsurprisingly, the inevitable copyright claims netted by his work pushed him off of youtube and onto a service called that eventually shut down in 2015. Channel Awesome introduced several figures into the greater online consciousness that went onto have significant youtube careers, like the former "Nostalgia Chick" Lindsay Ellis (who now only makes videos for the service and pop music reviewer Todd In The Shadows.

Channel Awesome produced a series of hastily done movies from 2010 to 2012: Kickassia, Suburban Knights, and To Boldly Flee. all of the various personalities in the Channel Awesome roster (who include later morbid subjects of the online rubbernecking ecosystem JewWario and Spoony) gathered in suburban Illinois to act out barely coherent plots strung together by their various channel personas. most of the action throughout happens in a series of nondescript empty fields and poorly lit rooms. competent cinematography was clearly not the focus of these movies. i presume they still did their job and were nonetheless entertaining to watch for young fans deeply invested in the That Guy With The Glasses extended universe in the early 2010's. but, and i know this might be a shock to hear, they're a bit hard to parse for anyone outside of those spaces today. 

these movies have now become far more infamous for their inexplicably brutal working conditions involving various allegations of heinous abuse and mistreatment endured by cast members from Channel Awesome company leadership. the contrast between their brutal, abusive working conditions and their shoddy, tossed-off nature feels a bit absurd. why were so many people willing to suffer so much for such shitty art? this experience has inspired an idea i've half-seriously decided to define as "The Nostalgia Critic Principle", a philosophy that i believe is central to art in the social media age: you must sacrifice yourself under the worst possible working conditions in order to make the shittiest possible art. the art must be entirely constructed around what your frothing fanbase demands and nothing else. the art must therefore be the most insular, the most ephemeral, the most dated to its very specific moment in time. as long as you still have a career, you will be forced to make it forever.

shortly after the last of these films in 2012, Doug Walker decided to quit performing as the Nostalgia Critic to focus on his new foray into more serious filmmaking called Demo Reel. fans of the Critic hated this series, and by early 2013 Walker un-retired The Nostalgia Critic in his video "The Review Must Go On". he continues to perform the character to this day. Walker's failure to pivot to legitimate artistic filmmaking serves as an illustration of The Nostalgia Critic Principle: it's a warning sign to any successful youtubers hoping for a real career pivot outside that ecosystem. the curse of the internet content creator is being forever bound to making work in whatever realm and platform you initially became popular for doing so, even when your moment of relevance passed long ago. in a predictable twist of fate, the content creator ecosystem often feels like a cruel and indifferent machine that even its most notable successes appear in some way victimized by. James Rolfe also fell down a similar path of having to continue to perform the same character in videos of dwindling quality, even when he was a bit more successful than Walker in realizing his movie-directing dreams

but The Nostalgia Critic's 2019 review of the film adaptation of Pink Floyd's The Wall from 1982 (beautifully unpacked by Dan Olson of the Folding Ideas youtube channel) is really the true crystalized monument to The Nostalgia Critic Principle for me. the Critic's review is a so-called "comical" critical reading of The Wall whose main stance is weirdly bullying, but done from a completely confused and incoherent perspective. the review is cynical way for Doug leech off of a famous piece of culture (certainly not a new concept to his work, or online video in general) while spouting a bunch of half-conceived bad faith readings. it's outsider art where you can witness none of the joy of expression of most outsider art. it's interchangeable internet content: but it is way too labored over and weirdly off-putting to actually adequately work as pure content. and yet somehow, in spite of everything, the entire project is disingenuously packaged as a fan labor of love. the soundtrack to this video version was even sold on bandcamp, before it was taken down. (if you want to experience an actually funny The Wall parody, i recommend the Scharpling and Wurster bit "The Newbridge Wall" from The Best Show, by the way.)

something is illuminated when one makes a piece of work that shows such a profound, cruel laziness in all the important places, but such a high amount of effort in all the wrong places. Doug Walker somehow found a way to synthesize and embody all of the sins of internet culture so deeply in Nostalgia Critic’s The Wall. it, and his work in general, is what happens when Content is forced to endlessly perpetuate itself. it's the McMansionization of the mind, of quickly slabbing various ill-fitting pieces and parts together and trying to hold it all up on the power of your personality alone. it's about hitting the notes you've already hit a billion times in ways that nonetheless smacks of lots of effort to your fanbase. there's a sort of beautiful trainwreck quality to how well it distills to an entire generation of online creators of what paths not to take. this is no doubt why the failures of Doug Walker have also now been mined to death by the gawking, drama-hungry internet content creator ecosystem. 

at some level, nothing about Doug Walker is actually that interesting at all - at least not beyond his early power and influence in the online video space. but his work is a reflection of the culture of the internet in its most grotesque and ill-conceived form. it's the bottoming out of cultural expression for the sake of always having perpetual slop ready for a niche audience with narrow and hyper-specific expectations. it's another iteration of what subcultures like the dubstep community, which long ago was built up by the creative flourishing of online spaces, has now become: a rigidly derivative zone that habitually snuffs all the life and energy out of itself in order to continue to be a viable commercial enterprise. even without the direct influence of the market, i watched the same trend happen in the music of my online community in high school as it gradually pulled itself towards settling into an implicit - but nonetheless rigidly defined - sensibility. 

and so i wonder: is part of why so much current media feels like it lacks surprise or mystery due to the boundaries between real life and fantasy becoming so porous on social media platforms that rigid boundaries are almost an escape from that now? is part of why so much cultural output feels like it's aggressively what it purports to be on the surface due to the feeling of mystery and ambiguity now being too close to the discomfort evoked by endless scrolling that it must be instantly cognitive dissonanced away? have we become so afraid of what might be lurking under the surface from the darkest reaches of the web that shutting off the unknown immediately becomes a priority? is this why there's almost an entire industry devoted to harassing and mocking any bit of culture that might deliver unexpected or unexplained moments as a weakness? (now that's a Cinema Sin *ding*!)

now we have yet another cultural space that perpetuates a model of celebrity that never allows its subjects to grow or change, either as people or as artists. too many resources are invested in them existing exactly in the form we know them as, and there is very little any of them can do to escape that. audiences retreat into idealizing the media they've formed emotional bonds to in various fantastical and absurd ways to deal with diminishing feelings of possibility in the outside world. the fantasy worlds need to be almost too coherent to make up for a reality that is increasingly hostile and lacks coherence. and of course, this is not exactly a new problem: these are dynamics inherent to capitalist economic models. the need to form a more tangible personal connection to culture you've enjoyed is what has traditionally driven the business of so many creative industries. but it does feel undeniably cruel how these online spaces that were sold as a way out of the demands of an oppressive monoculture feel, by contrast, almost designed to snuff out creativity in favor of conformity.

is it the greatest transgression, then, to simply defy expectations in whatever way possible? is that the greatest insult to this landscape? in many ways, the internet of Doug Walker and James Rolfe is a one of unfulfilled promise and broken dreams. it's a space where everything is flattened and you can reach far greater numbers of people than you could ever dream of. but what you do for that massive audience will likely be ephemeral by nature, unable to be parsed outside of its specific time and place, and ultimately disposable. 

is there no alternative? surely the internet can produce culture that goes far beyond formulaic reactions to media designed to pander to fanbases. surely the dream of unlocking fundamentally new modes of human expression still is alive in venues that the internet has enabled to exist. like in... say... the Let's Play.

shot of Paul's avatar attemping to capture Care from Petscop

Petscop is a web series by Tony Domenico in the vein of a Let's Play, but for a game that is entirely fictional. Paul, the host of the series (who is played by Domenico), found a disc of an incomplete PS1 game from the late '90s that had been passed around within his family for years. upon playing it, the game appears to be a sort of top-down 2.5D puzzle game where the sensibility is colorful, playful and a bit off-beat - perhaps in the experimental vein of something made by Love-De-Lic. in the first episode, Paul explores what's there in the overworld of the game. the main stage is an area called "the Gift Plane": a street block surrounded by a blindingly white void that only leads to one enterable area - a building complex with a garden at the entrance that's called "Even Care". once in Even Care, readable signs placed in the room happily greet the player by suggesting different pets they could adopt. the various colorful rooms inside of a house resemble a sort of nursery, except they contain a lot of strange shapes in hidden within the textures of the room and in the background of the world. there are also abstract 3D collectable pieces the player can pick up in each room, though what they do is unclear. most rooms in Even Care contain discrete puzzles that the player can manipulate to capture these "pets", sort of like how you'd capture Pokemon. 

Paul initially walks us through all of the areas in Even Care he can reach, and completes all the puzzles that he's able to in the first Petscop episode. after this, he follows the instructions he discovered included with the disc and inputs a secret code while in a particular room of Even Care. once the code is entered, a strange noise is heard and the music suddenly stops playing. upon exiting Even Care he finds that he's entered a mysterious dark realm underneath the default world in the game (later known as the "Newmaker Plane"). the Newmaker Plane is a dark expanse of grass, and looks as if something from the unnerving abstract looping overworlds of Yume Nikki. at first, this world appears to just be an infinite expanse of nothing, but eventually he finds a door leading into a basement somewhere far out in the plane. sometime later during the recording, the door opens by itself - setting the events of the series proper into motion.

i first saw Petscop when Patricia Hernandez did a write-up for Kotaku in 2017 when the initial videos came out. the (at the time) mystery of the creator, and the exact nature of what the story was trying to tell (and if the project was intended as an ARG or not), received a ton of speculation and is responsible for its initial surge in popularity. many popular youtube channels such as Pyrocynical and The Game Theorists poked into the deeper meaning of the series after the release of the first several videos, no doubt exposing it to a much greater audience than it would have reached normally. many of these videos analyzing lore and unpacking the hidden meanings of Petscop also have an unnervingly far greater viewership than the actual Petscop videos themselves, and are no doubt responsible for some of the misreadings and misunderstandings of the larger series' narrative.

that such a large dedicated audience for a series like Petscop exists right from the outset is clearly a product of specific aspects of internet culture. much of it comes from the popularity of another long-standing internet trend called a Creepypasta. the term "Creepypasta" comes from "copypasta", a term for viral copy and pasted strings of text. Creepypastas are kind of a modern version of old wives tales made to spread virally over the internet, often with the intent of fooling the reader into believing the events of the story were true and frightening them. a common trope of Creepypasta stories involve dark secrets buried deep within a piece of technology that could spring out and haunt the reader at any moment. movies like popular Japanese horror film Ringu and the also popular Hollywood remake The Ring capture the early iterations of this viral phenomenon effectively.

a famous earlier Creepypasta that utilized videogames was Ben Drowned, which involved the popular fictional notion of the narrator character receiving a personalized copy of The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask where various creepy glitches and unsettling moments happen. most of this story unfolded through long strings of text and not gameplay footage, however. the story grows more elaborate from there, involving an ARG that spans a bunch of different locations and forms of media. eventually a large amount of lore about some sort of cult called "The Moon Children" is revealed. unless you were deeply invested in the Ben Drowned lore, it's not something you'd necessarily be enough into to understand all the twists and turns. so if you're like me, you'll probably look up a youtube explainer video like this one to get the gist of where the series goes. this makes channels that can effecitvely explain insular internet phenomena to a large audience a really powerful force for internet culture.

the appeal to me with Petscop is that it's much more simple in its form than Ben Drowned - it is, at the end of the day, just a Let's Play series with a finite length. there are no secret ARG elements that require a complex series of tasks where, if you completed, you can better unlock the true nature of the narrative. all of the fan projects based off of it like Giftscop, while very nice, are unofficial. while the tone of Petscop is deeply unsettling in a way that can easily get under your skin and give you nightmares, there are no jumpscares or easy tricks used to get cheap reactions from viewers. the sensibility is charming and unique throughout, even when it's deeply unsettling. while the series goes many places, it does so in a way that's very economical and tasteful. the story is not overexplained and remains ambiguous to the end, even when much story is revealed further into the series. the entire series is also consumable in about the time it would take to binge a season of a streaming TV show. this all makes Petscop into a definitive piece of Let's Play cinema to me - and one of the great works of the internet age in general. Petscop is a bit like an Eraserhead of internet video: a DIY work from an unexpected place that impressively synthesizes a lot of ambient fears in the collective unconscious of culture into something wholly unique and memorable.

this was not apparent, of course, in the two years while the series was still ongoing. to me, the narrative proper doesn't really kick into gear until Petscop episode eleven. and many people in its early surge of popularity were looking for pieces of the puzzle to connect, especially when the series took a six month hiatus between the release of Petscop episodes ten and eleven. the most unfortunate part is the story's connection to the deeply disturbing real life events of Candace Newmaker, a child who was murdered by an adopted parent who forced her through some kind of extreme alternative medicine "rebirthing" therapy. many at the time speculated that the series was simply retelling the events of this story. it only later emerged that this was simply a reference, one that Domenico ended up feeling ashamed about and apologizing for, as the story later grew into something else. only once it becomes apparent that Petscop is its own universe and doesn't simply exist to re-tell horrific real life events can we truly appreciate all that the series is trying to do.

Domenico was actually an indie developer, and had made some under the radar projects in the TIGSource era of indie games (where he was a poster) since at least 2007. most of them were cryptic puzzle games that involved utilizing strange unexpected leaps of logic in some way to solve puzzles. all of these share an off-beat cartoonish visual sensibility like Petscop, and some involved some of the behind-the-scenes metafiction used by Petscop like the fake game company Garalina (though they're not considered canon to the Petscop universe). i'd compare these early games a bit to something like the late '00s increpare games, the La La Land series or SuteF (my game Problem Attic came a little later but is in a similar sort of mold of cryptic puzzle solving). you can view a playthrough explaining Domenico's game Nifty from 2013 here, and his old website containing his early games is still up here. the Let's Player of Nifty coincidentally saw the game from a thread from Something Awful in 2013, bringing the Petscop universe back full circle into the universe of original Something Awful Let's Plays.

other than some positive comments on TIGSource on his work and an interview from the time (which i promise does exist but i can no longer find), none of these games were particularly known at all. i certainly hadn't heard of them, as someone who was somewhat around and paying attention to indie games at the time. presumably at some point Domenico decided that pursuing professional indie game dev was not for him, and that he was most interested in using what he had learned of game development towards making a video series. Petscop is clearly made by a creator who understands how to use game design at a fundamental level to convey feelings, but it has a much more substantial and human story at the heart of it. of course, it's not a fully functioning game - we only see what we're shown in the videos. but what we do see is very fleshed out and multi-faceted world: one that goes to places and suggests things that either commercial games or online videos rarely, if ever, go.

eventually, as the events of the series get stranger and more inexplicable, Paul becomes more unreliable. it's not really clear who the videos are actually intended for, and if they are being posted with his full permission. he becomes less of a narrator to what's going on and starts to become singularly obsessed with unlocking all of the secrets of the game he feels must be there behind the surface. he is increasingly trying really strange and elaborate strategies that sometimes can confound the viewer. eventually he starts being mysteriously absent from videos altogether, as they appear to break chronology and veer off into their own strange new kind of storytelling between the characters that seem to play out by themselves. we're introduced to new areas we've seen before without Paul's direct guidance - like the deeply unsettling school which we see straight-on from a sort of third person/first person hybrid view instead of from a top down perspective like the rest of the game. the hallways of school are a dissociative white void shrouded by dark reddish fog and contain deeply unsettling droney music. we can feel quite profoundly that this is a place where bad things happen - a bit like a nightmare version of my own middle school. and it's almost as if Paul has become lost in the story, in the same way Laura Dern's character Nikki Grace becomes lost inside the universe of the film she's acting in in David Lynch's Inland Empire. the boundaries between fantasy and reality have forever blurred.

it's never clear exactly what Paul's role in this game is, or how exactly it captures the events of his own life. but by the ending, we're left with the overwhelming impression that this is a series about the effects of cycles of family abuse and trauma, and the role videogames and nostalgia often play in the commodification of childhood. the current moral panic over child exploitation by shadowy elite cabals that has fueled QAnon and its various offshoots says something about our culture's bizarre fixation with  the purity of childhood. this usually comes at the expense of the children, a shield for abuse and trauma that happens within families every day, in every city, in every country. Petscop brings that sort of abuse to light in a way that is deeply strange and ambiguous, but still deeply real.

i spoke more in detail about the series with the overseer of one of the best lore-based youtube channels who analyzed Petscop and other works like it, David Stockdale of the youtube channel Nightmare Masterclass, on my old podcast in early 2020 if you're interested. yes: you, the person reading this. a more recent, still in progress video series called Valle Verde also explores its own fictional videogame universe and directly comes out of the lineage of Petscop and its unearthing of a deeper darker stories that exist beneath a colorful, unassuming surface. a recent work like the Doom wad "My House" (which became a bit of an internet phenomenon last year) takes this idea of an unnerving fractured narrative of family trauma unfolding underneath a more banal and unassuming surface, and brings it into the design of an actually playable level of an existing game.

works like Petscop are in the strange situation of being very popular and beloved, but not necessarily taken seriously as a form of art that exists outside of the lurid internet content machine. this might seem like no big deal to many online natives, because this lurid machine has allowed this kind of work to exist and proliferate in the first place, after all. Petscop was lucky enough to get a write-up in the New Yorker around its first set of episodes as well, so it's not exactly escaping attention from legacy media. but a lot of art made by outsiders in the internet age doesn't have the benefit of stumbling upon virality and reaching that large of an audience. part of what inspired a piece i wrote for Vice (RIP) about the 2012 Doom wad A.L.T. was a realization that a work of art that is so imaginative and multi-faceted, that effortlessly explores so many different ideas, could literally come from any corner of the internet. but just because the internet gave it the freedom to exist doesn't mean it will be received for what it is doing at all. if anything, unique work will often be castigated for its failures to fit into whatever dominant aesthetic or modes of expression exist in the space it's from. this makes this kind of work hard to find unless you're invested in one particular online community or another.

online communities can often feel threatened and confused by work that achieves what it sets out to do in an unexpected way. the collective identity of being a member of these communities means certain kinds of work is more often than not overwhelmingly highlighted and broadcasted, while other kinds of work is not. this doesn't necessarily have any bearing on the inherent quality of a given piece of work, either, especially to people who might want to experience work outside the expectations of those communities. spaces built from fan appreciation and run by volunteer efforts (or even more profoundly by those who have a vested economic interest in their community operating in a specific way) are often simply not adequately equipped to pull apart the threads of more complex work that might come about within them. 

i felt this in my online community in high school, where many of the best artists on the site to me were also some of the most obscure. with unique artistic vision often comes an unwillingness or inability to engage with more popular categories and genres in a way that easily tracks. the internet is so vast that so much new and unique work constantly risks being thrown in the digital trash-heap and languishing in utter obscurity. and there are not necessarily the dedicated audiences to dig in and find the work that is deeper and more worthwhile in the longer term. you might think popular youtubers are positioned better than anyone else to break this trend and highlight obscure works born from insular internet communities. but the complete unreliability of algorithmic engagement means the biggest youtubers usually tend towards safer topics, which further reinforces whatever dominant discourse already exists. even when youtubers with big audiences do engage with more obscure works, these youtubers are often just fans who are not exactly the most informed or in-the-know people capable of educating a large audience about a particularly dense or challenging experience. to me, A.L.T. became a personal symbol of these greater problems - the same problems the enable the internet to pump out endless Doug Walkers while ensuring the culture is constantly creating new Van Goghs or Nick Drakes who only achieve any sort of broad recognition or acclaim after death.

to me there is a fundamental paradox at the heart of internet culture. if you grew up in online communities pre-social media - particularly in places where you could post creative work - the default aspiration was always to prove that what you were doing was more "real" and legitimate than just some fan thing. your work was merely a stepping stone to greater things that could unfold elsewhere, if your work was anything at all. a lot of online forums had very idiosyncratic sensibilities, of course. but it's almost like this weirdness was unintentional a lot of the time, or at least embarrassing to a lot of people involved. while a kind of deeply weird amorphousness is inherent to internet culture, it also was a liability for anyone who wanted to shed this baggage and prove they were above the fray of internet cringiness - if there was any possible way for them to do so. prove that you're better than just some loser poster, prove you're serious and good enough to be doing something real outside the context of whatever community you're in, and you've crossed the rubicon into a more elevated form of posting.

shots of SOD, an experimental 1999 Wolfenstein 3D mod by the net art collective JODI. image from a slide presentation by Molleindustria

while any given online community required you to understand its dynamics and implicit rules to exist within its walls, if you took any community too seriously you could easily risk being deeply embarrassing. these were ultimately spaces for fun, not venues where it was appropriate to challenge the existing order. the best thing you could be is someone who is a bit stand-offish, who spends time around there for fun and amusement, but has one foot out the door: ready to abandon post at any moment for a more fulfilling real life. i think that is part of where the lolcow culture comes from, and what a lot of people might not understand when they idealize the wacky aesthetics or the quaintness of the pre-Web 2.0 internet. in these spaces, anything that reminded people of being a loser online, anything that was too weird or out there or didn't read as respectable IRL had a tendency to be mocked or mercilessly bullied. the last thing you wanted to be was someone who had to take refuge in this space because you had no other option, even though that's exactly who you were and exactly what you were doing most of the time. you simply couldn't really acknowledge your current place in this ecosystem. it always has to just be a temporary stepping stone, the temporarily embarassed millionaire of online forums. deep down you know that you're not really crying, you're actually just laughing about it all.

even on the hyper-monetized web of today, the dominant form of art and culture is mind palacey and messy. everything is "outsider art" at one level or another, placed outside of any real social context once it reaches a large enough audience. random out-of-context things frequently achieve visibility that are quickly forgotten (especially on a platform like TikTok which emphasizes quick attention hits), their creators still altogether anonymous. most cultural output we experience online gets sucked under the umbrella of larger internet lore, even if it was never intended to be such. the internet liquefies all this work down into one powerful potion and pours it into a big beaker that, when consumed, makes us believe basically whatever we want to. we can say the author is now dead. we can say that the internet has revolutionized art, and thus made old modes no longer relevant. we can claim that technology holds the key to unlocking all the secrets of human consciousness, and that online culture is inherently better or more magical than other kinds of culture. we can delude ourselves into thinking what we're doing is outside the context of time and history - that this is the new forever future.

this romanticization of internet culture also allows for us to now sanctify an age that existed once, when the internet was still fun - before the tech CEOs came along and ruined it all. we can extol the virtues of a now lost era of weirdness generated by the internet of the late '90s and '00s, when real life possibilities were being rapidly foreclosed on but the possibilities of virtual spaces were still brand new. 

and yet at some level it's all bullshit: because these virtual spaces were always, always hamstrung by this sort of self-imposed conformity. they were rarely very radical, and certainly not positioned to take on the dominant cultural order. even when movements like net art (represented by work like the above abstract Wolfenstein 3D mod SOD by JODI) flirted with radicalism, they either were quickly absorbed into the establishment or they just disappeared into the ether. and that always, always made it extremely difficult to be more self-aware and, from the bottom up, collectively ask the bigger questions.

in the second episode of The Shock of The New, a BBC series from 1980 about the development of modern art, host Robert Hughes opines on how the sense of new cultural and political horizons in art was lost by the end of the 20th Century:

“It seems obvious, looking back, that the artists of Weimar Germany and Leninist Russia lived in a much more attenuated landscape of media than ours, and their reward was that they could still believe... that art could morally influence the world. Today, the idea has largely been dismissed, as it must in a mass media society where art's principal social role is to be investment capital... We still have political art, but we have no effective political art. An artist must be famous to be heard, but as he acquires fame, so his work accumulates 'value' and becomes, ipso-facto, harmless. As far as today's politics is concerned, most art aspires to the condition of Muzak. It provides the background hum for power.” 

this is not a new critique - the idea of mass media society reducing art into a passive commodity has been a cornerstone of discourse around art in the past hundred years. it's something German philosopher Walter Benjamin observed in 1935 in the passage quoted earlier in the piece by Barrett Swanson of Harpers with regards to TikTok. railing against the passive spectacle and the professionalization of mass media is the core premise the Situationist Manifesto from 1960, which proposed a new decentralized form of art where everyone could now be an artist. British philosopher and fellow blogger Mark Fisher went much further in his influential 2009 book Capitalist Realism, observing how the inescapability of capitalism creates an "invisible barrier constraining thought and action" over all venues of life, not just art. capitalism can easily contain anti-capitalist ideas and practices so long as they are internal expressions of belief and morality that are never truly externalized by larger outward action. this phenomenon occurring in art is just one symptom of a much broader problem.

the question of whether art can challenge the existing order in some fundamental way appears to have been settled long before many of our lifetimes. it's become a secondary concern. it's merely an accepted fact: art ultimately serves as a personal, inward expression that can be used to sell towards whatever audience it reaches, in whatever context it comes from. but lately it feels like a lot of art even fails to clear that bar. since the onset of the Trump era in 2016, some artists i knew appeared to disavow art in general as a kind of complicit bourgeois indulgence far secondary to the urgency of broader activism. even as late-2010s mass activism failed to change the existing order and plenty of worthwhile art was made in the time since 2016, the belief in art as a powerful transformative force in society has been extremely diminished. 

it's hard to question the premise that art hasn't served the purpose of mostly reinforcing power for most of the last hundred years, or that personal expression is an acceptable and adequate substitute for broader mass action. but perhaps the fact that we so resoundingly take this fact as a given explains why it now seems so much like there are no real horizons in culture. forces in power seem uniquely unequipped to meet the current moment in every way, and uniquely devoid of imagination. but we've no longer allowed ourselves the luxury to entertain the imaginary as anything but passive entertainment created for consumption. art is no longer permitted or accepted as a real space to fight back against this, even as many will still defend the importance of free expression. films like The Zone of Interest are made to address our current moment in incredibly explicit fashion, but so many people are so numbed to the idea of something like it having any substantial impact that its effect is muted.

i often think of Luis Buñuel's 1930 grotesque surrealist satire L'Âge D'or, a film that scandalized bourgeois audiences at the time and mobilized far-right groups to throw ink at the screen and to shut down screenings, eventually leading to the film being banned altogether. this film came out of the context of post-World War I avant-garde movements which attempted to fundamentally reimagine art for the modern age. how does new technology fundamentally change human consciousness, and help us deal with the true horrors of the modern age? T.S. Eliot's modernist poem The Waste Land from 1922 (which only recently had its one-hundred birthday) is a very famous work that attempts to synthesize the increasingly fragmentary nature of modern life into an apocalyptic nightmare vision of worlds to come. this intuitive forecasting of the collective unconscious that connects various historical threads together came out of a time where there was still a broad belief that art could be a vital window into the future of humanity. art's power had not been fully subsumed by capital, so its role felt more ambiguous and potentially revolutionary: a way into unlocking totally new states of being. less of a clear deliniation existed between the arts and sciences, as well. perhaps these works of art offered a vital new view of human consciousness that helped unlock further discoveries about the universe at large? these questions were still very much up in the air.

from the perspective of your average citizen of the zombie neoliberal capitalist world of the early 21st century, one could say that, in hindsight, this one hundred year old optimism about art's revolutionary role was predicated on some amount of magical thinking. in the wake of World War I's meaningless horrors there had been violent shifts in society and technology most people just didn't know how to process, and there wasn't a clear answer to how to understand them. but perhaps our dismissal of their creative impulses is also predicated on its own sort of magical thinking. a belief in the absolute unimpeachability of a settled material and social science as we know it at this precise moment in time says more about the current hegemonic power of our institutions than anything about the inherent capabilities of human consciousness, or the complexities of the universe. there is simply far too much we don't know as a species, and probably will never know. and far too many institutions exist right now primarily for reasons that have nothing to do with any good faith attempts to attain further knowledge or insight. obsessive jockeying for power and influence creates a thick cloud of dust over this whole process, and opens the door for a massive medley of conspiracy theory grifters who sell easy answers to those unable to cope with the contradictions of their current reality.

maybe this is always what made me bristle about Mark Fisher's observations on the lack of new cultural horizons. it's not simply that new modes of culture aren't springing up - it's that they have existed deep on the margins. they have not been allowed to become a larger cultural force outside the context of spaces that are designed to beat them back down into conformity. there is always some latent utopian grassroots energy ambiently existing in an unmanifested form. capital is simply nowhere near powerful enough of a force to completely destroy any latent resonance that exists in human artistic expression. to believe that it is grants it far too much power it simply doesn't have. capital skates over top and tries everything it can to obscure the possibility of other realities. but there are always nuggets of something else underneath - existing in the sorts of work Mark Fisher spent more time with in his posthumously released book The Weird and the Eerie. and beyond the context of 20th century art, i believe there is still something more revolutionary that is latent within aspects of internet culture. new forms of art like Petscop only uneasily sit within our current order, but haven't really been successfully absorbed beyond the context they exist in. the all-encompassing order held by neoliberal capital that could normally digest these works into mainstream consciousness and co-opt them simply no longer can do it like they used to, as that order has started to break down into a sort of reactionary neo-feudalism.

established institutions increasingly feel like a cosplay of class and career aspirations meant primarily to maintain order. as class mobility worsens, institutions are increasingly defined by all the elements of existing culture they have to exclude in order to still maintain a notion of hegemonic cultural authority. even when that idea is more about outwardly performing based more on what a past idea of the job was supposed to look like than trying to come up with any kind of new archetype. it is simply too bothersome and might step on too many powerful toes to make any sort of good faith attempt to actually synthesize the complex cultural landscape of today in an honest way, which is why so few are capable of doing it effectively.

the tech world offered a solution to this by marketing itself as an alternative world of infinite imagination and creativity. but as we know - the internet real estate has been bought up, and is now filled with aspirational grifting. the many lifestyle influencers of today look eerily like Sandra Hüller's Hedwig Höss from The Zone of Interest: wowing her guests with the majestic world she's created to escape into in her backyard garden while she actively ignores the shrieking people being exterminated just over the fence. in an increasingly online universe, Hollywood and other industry structures might still exist, but they only appear to be possibilities afforded by the richest and the luckiest. art is something only done by old guys like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. perhaps art is something for academics insulated deeply in their class bubbles - safe and protected from ever having to have a real interaction with or influence on larger culture. everyone else out there is just making Content.

so, for those of us not just interested in futher posturing: is Let's Play cinema? should a work like Petscop be screened within the context and history of film, and be considered as such? or is this sort of work a separate category, forever bound to the culture of the internet? many existing institutions feel uniquely unequipped to tackle these kinds of questions adequately. it's easy to dismiss something like the Channel Awesome movies as disposable prouducts of time and place. but what of works born out of internet culture that actually take substantial artistic risks? are these tensions between old and newer forms of media simply incompatible and unresolvable, and we must break with history? is the internet too fully mired in being a direct product of consumer culture to ever really compete with works from the past that came out of a far less fragmentary landscape? it often feels as if there is a concerted effort to keep cognitive dissonancing these issues all away.

from the Mystic Cave Zone episode of Let's Play Sonic 2: Special Edition

Marjorie Perloff, author of The Futurist Movement: Avant-Garde, Avant-Guerre, and the Language of Rupture, has said that the reason many avant-garde movements fail is their lack of ability to engage with history or understand that many of the things they're doing are not fundamentally new. internet culture often finds itself relitigating basic debates in art against the forces that wish to destroy art as a whole in a of battle of diminishing returns. the idea of reaching far back seems far too grandiose and, dare i say, pretentious. but something about internet art really does channel the avant-garde in its embrace of new forms of expression enabled by the ecosystem of the internet. we can see it in work of many popular short-form animation youtubers like PilotRedSun. so can the avant-garde hope to still truly exercise power today in our current landscape? 

a series which i consider the best pure Let's Play of all-time is also a great work of (perhaps accidental) avant-garde art. as an extended internet troll designed to languish somewhere on a forum, it nontheless stumbles into more profound points about cultural memory and the nature of waste. the work's appeal far transcends its original context (and low bitrate quality), but it never tries to resolve any of the greater issues it introduces. it is ultimately yet another product of late '00s Something Awful forum culture that produced the Pokecapn posse's Sonic 2006 Let's Play from 2008, even as it moves far beyond that. it is docfuture (aka Topher Florence)'s Let's Play Sonic 2: Special Edition from 2007.

Let's Play Sonic 2: Special Edition, much like Let's Play Sonic 2006, originated as a thread on the Something Awful forums. the idea behind the thread was to show off a supposedly unreleased game for the Sega CD 32X (a combination of the Sega Genesis, Sega CD, and Sega 32X, of which there were a few games actually released for) called Sonic 2: Special Edition. this game was supposedly an unfinished remake of Sonic 2 meant to take advantage of the increased processing power brought about by the utilizing of that unholy combination of consoles together. docfuture supposedly obtained this game because of his "uncle that works for Nintendo" - cuing you as a viewer in that the premise of the series is mostly a joke not meant to be taken seriously. for the first few moments, effort is made to make you believe that some kind of alternate version of Sonic that was never really released could exist, at least if you ignore docfuture's obviously trolling "uncle who works for Nintendo" comments. but things are already a bit strange: docfuture starts out each episode with a colorful prayer asking for help to proceed through this next stage of the game. the prayer almost functions as a sort of collective act that is helping to conjure the stages we're about to see into existence. 

there is a reason why Sonic has become such an important focus point of chaotic internet culture. Sonic is simultaneously a symbol of '90s cool alternative and hip-hop culture while in many ways also being an embodiment of cringey, embarrassing furry culture. the Sonic games span some of the most beloved high points in videogame history, as well as some of the videogame industry's worst, most pandering excesses. these contradictions are important. while Mario's image of bland affability and his games' general consistent quality is tightly controlled by Nintendo to the point of suffocation, Sonic's inherent messiness is open-ended and multifaceted. Sonic exists in a bizarre extended universe that rarely makes much sense. and so Sonic wields a powerful influence on the weirdest internet ephemera, from the endless supply of bizarre Sonic fanart you can find online, to many cursed trophies of internet cringe such as the Top 10 Hottest Female Sonic Characters video, to direct attempts to comment on this culture like the Sonic Dreams collection (tho i personally prefer Bubsy 3D Visits The James Turrell Retrospective) and far beyond.  

the announcement of one of the most bizarre games in the Sonic pantheon, the Nintendo DS roleplaying spin-off game by Bioware based in the Sonic universe from 2008 called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, is directly what initiated docfuture's Sonic 2 Special Edition. Sonic's deep weirdness is an important foundation to the existence of this series. the videos serve as almost like a shaggy dog story where Sonic is our central point of navigation into the wastes of old pop culture. it's like strange psychedelic journey into cultural trash pile. regardless of what craziness we're going to see throughout, docfuture is always there to comment on it in a deadpan voice. it's as if  he's conveying to us that this is all simply just a normal part of the Sonic universe - and that Sonic is an interesting and bizarre artifact of '90s culture.

by the second proper episode - the Aquatic Ruins, the pretense of watching a plausible Let's Play of a real game quickly goes out the window. after docfuture plays an aquatic-themed stage from what is obviously Sonic Advance for the Gameboy Advance and not anything that looks like a Sonic game from the '90s, we experience the first interlude of a surreal mishmash of different old TV ads - many of them involving retrograde and sometimes problematic depictions of black culture. soon enough we'll see footage from random Sonic fan games, bizarre moments from old TV shows and commercials, and long forgotten internet memes mashed up in a more profound way. and conveying the exact nature of this experience becomes increasingly difficult, in part because i honestly would have to be a walking encyclopedia to recognize all the different threads of pop culture sampled in the work of docfuture. it's almost a recursive level of complexity applied towards what pieces and parts of waste are used that it's really overwhelming to try to and pull apart the various threads. 

but the overwhelming effect somehow feels like it brings you into a strange new way of experiencing culture. it's something implicit: a sort of ambient sailing on unconcious vapors buried deep within culture. it also comes from a different universe of DIY internet content: it's only available in an extremely crunchy lo-res, standard definition quality with often quite poor audio. this is before the age of youtube really defined the bounds of what you could and couldn't do online. but this only really enhances the experience. these videos bring me back to my childhood in the '90s in a more profound way than anything else i've ever watched. perhaps that's because it does so in a way that is truly in tune with the era's sometimes deeply off-putting weirdness. it manages to make some kind of ambiguous but deeper implicit statement about culture as a whole: one that says the past was always a lot weirder and more complex than you remember. all from a series obviously meant to troll and piss off your average internet forum user in 2007.

my favorite episode is The Hilltop Zone - the fourth proper episode. it starts with an extended psychedelic opening sequence where we travel through various galaxies inside the eye of a man, and eventually see the scene of Jim and Pam from The Office kissing (who docfuture confusingly calls "Tim and Dawn", the couple from the original UK Office). at some point during this extended intro the higher pitched voice of a strange British man - who identifies himself as none other than Sonic's buddy Miles "Tails" Prower - suddenly pops in on the commentary over top of docfuture and ominously declares that "something big went off". after this, we enter a scan of a brain, which serves as the overlay for some sort of new script of Knuckles and Doctor Robotnik threatening each other that takes place as their static sprites sit on the screen. eventually the sprite of Knuckles dies in a nuclear explosion and we see that this was all a nightmare, as a teenager wakes up from bed in a state of panic. but an old couple appears to be watching this all unfold on a TV (at this point docfuture's narration says "for some reason they wanted to be big on meta-commentary here"). 

eventually the TV changes to a series of color bars and we see the actual Hilltop Zone "level" - it's some kind of kind of darkened, blurred out Sonic-themed sidescrolling beat 'em up game that's running at about two frames per second. docfuture's voice is weirdly distant here, and the mic hiss that is present throughout the series is more pronounced here. his audio throughout the video is overlapping into two different tracks he recorded which say variations on the same thing. over top of this, the increasingly distorted voice of Tails keeps butting in on the audio and overpowering it with strange, unhelpful advice that gradually grows more luridly obsessed with the superiority of Metal Sonic, the level's boss. docfuture ocassionally comments on this unsettling advice, but seems generally pretty nonplussed by it. throughout this segment, random occurances also happen in the background - like an animation of a woman in a polka-dot dress dancing with a guitar, or the old Snoop Dogg "Drop It Like It's Hot" animated gif pop up in the background. later, the colors of the stage suddenly become brighter, but the screen blurs and there's an overlay of some old TV show on top. this is all just presented as part of the game and largely goes without much comment from docfuture. 

the stage appears to wrap up with a battle between Knuckles and Metal Sonic - but not before a confusing Game Over fakeout at what initially looks like a successful completion of the boss that confuses docfuture. this leads to a quick run back through the extended intro sequence, this time fast-forwarded and with more random out of context old pop cultural clips added in for good measure. by the end of the video, the audio has become even more incoherent, as two different iterations of both docfuture and the strange British Tails voice comment on what's happening on top of each other in impossible to understand ways. watching this whole ten minute episode is a bit of an exercise in patience because of how hard it is to understand what we're exactly supposed to follow here. eventually there's a nuclear explosion in the background upon the second completion of the Metal Sonic battle and text comes on the screen that says "Thread Over?" the joke here is, perhaps, that this series has reached its total breaking point? how much farther can docfuture really take this joke without it becoming totally unrecognizeable and unwatchable?

on the next proper episode featuring the Mystic Cave Zone, Sonic moves through what appears to be Sonic 2's default Mystic Cave Zone stage except the background is an empty white image with "insert background here" scrawled on in black MS Paint text. the character sprite of Sonic seems to be replaced with to various bad MS Paint drawings of characters from the Sonic extended universe that take up a significant portion of the screen and randomly switch up for no real reason. during this whole section, the music appears to be a home-made acapella arrangement of the Mystic Cave Zone theme made by docfuture himself (something he has revisited in later videos) with the game's sound fx also imitated by the voice of docfuture. at the end of this segment, docfuture declares that "this game runs on a belief based engine, and apparently not enough of you watching this video actually believe this game could exist" and we see a segment from an old live-action TV adaptation of Peter Pan where the actor playing Peter asks the audiences to please believe so that Tinkerbell can be saved from death. docfuture then asks the audience to clap to see a custom character from the Sega 32X game Knuckles Chaotix, while footage of a man speaking to an audience and holding a toy microphone that measures loudness level plays. 

as a way to get the audience to clap, we now hear a very mid-'00s sounding hip-hop track performed by docfuture (something he'd return to in future videos as well) about the universe of Sonic 2: Special Edition, with all the curse words replaced with very creative substitutes in the rap's onscreen subtitles. this rap's verses serve as docfuture's metacommentary on the whole series. once the necessary loudness level is reached and we see footage of various audiences clapping uproariously, we're rewarded with default Mystic Cave Zone featuring Espio the Chameleon from Knuckles Chaotix but with the music replaced by Journey's "Any Way You Want It." the stage's eventual boss fight appears to be a M.U.G.E.N. battle between an anime maid character named "Yve" and docfuture's Espio character. he loses to Yve easily and we're shown footage of young blonde Japanese woman eating a cake played backwards before re-entering the Mystic Cave Zone. this time around, the default background of the stage appears now to be poorly keyed out and replaced by an episode of '90s sitcom Family Matters where Urkel and Carl Winslow watch in horror as awkward puppet versions of themselves perform in front of them. presumably this is a reference to Urkel's actor Jaleel White famously voicing Sonic in many different Sonic cartoons.

even conveying the density of the strange mishmash of sources Topher Florence borrows from feels like a lost cause. while it's clear throughout that this whole series is an escalatingly bizarre joke on the audience, the overwhelming sensory experience has a strange sort of power on the viewer. this is a video series where all belief is real. anything and everything you could imagine of this fictional Sonic game could happen, and it does happen. while nothing he's done since quite reaches the lightning-in-a-bottle mania of Sonic 2: Special Edition, Topher Florence would continue in this vein in future Let's Play videos such as his joint playthrough (on an alternate youtube channel) of cute chibi-style 2D platformers Tryrush Deppy and Super Tempo for the Sega Saturn where each episode's commentary has a different gimmick to it. the first is narrated quite admirably in the style of Maya Angelou. yet another alternate channel of his themed around the character Skeeter from the TV show Doug features Florence anxiously unloading to a therapist over footage of a Game Boy Color adapation Disney's Doug as if the events of this game are the contents of his disturbed dreams he's trying in vain to unpack.

Sonic 2: Special Edition, and the early Let's Play work of docfuture in general, exists in an alternate timeline where Let's Plays became a legitimate venue for artistic expression. they suggest to us that, from mainstream culture to niche internet culture, the boundaries between different forms of media are far more porous than we'd like to think they are. we're confronted face-to-face with how the old media that so often fuels the "gold old days" nostalgia industry of today embodied by the kitschy Rachid Lotf art is far more weird and grotesque than many would ever like to remember it as. there is a profound connection between culture from vastly different places and contexts that reveals weird undercurrents about the dream worlds we construct as a society. unfortunately much of Florence's work (outside of his very funny video "ASMR Role Play - Caring and Supportive Funky Kong Gives You A Ride Home From The Airport") is still not widely known on the internet today. we are still not living in the docfuture world. and, i'd argue, we're much worse off for it. i also interviewed Florence back in 2016 (though the audio quality is maybe fittingly a bit poor), if you wish to hear it.

snapshot from Hbomberguy's Donkey Kong 64 fundraiser twitch stream from 2018

perhaps the days of Let's Plays as a relevant phenomenon might have been numbered regardless. they popped up in the small window of time before live streaming became fully viable and embraced, but video on the internet was nonetheless easily accessible - in the late 2000s and early 2010s, basically. by 2007, the streaming service (which later became Twitch) had recently launched. but streaming video was still not widely done outside of specific situations: and the quality of video most could watch livestreamed wasn't comparable to pre-recorded videos. once the promise of interacting with a game's player in real time became more acceptable and viable for most people, it changed the entire dynamics of how games are collectively experienced and marketed. 

the impact of Twitch streamers helped break Fortnite as a global phenomenon in 2018 and the popularity of "live service" games that offer perpetual content updates in general. this streaming culture has unleashed bizarre hyper-capitalist enterprises like the 100 Thieves Cash App Compound forever into the public consciousness, many of these empires built around streaming these live service games. live service games, especially of the free-to-play variety, now very contentiously exist at the forefront of the game industry, often criticized as being filled with exploitative transactions that prey upon vulnerable users. Ross Scott, creator of the machinima series Freeman's Mind and my favorite youtube game review series Ross's Game Dungeon, is one of many who has declared war on games as a service as a result. 

but in the first two years of the pandemic, there were moments when it seemed like Twitch could become the future of culture. we saw the ascension of VTubers as a venue for more creative expressive characters utilized by livestreamers, and virtual concerts which could offer way out for struggling musicians due to Twitch's incredible surge in userbase. concerts were held in Fortnite for major pop stars like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott during this period, taking advantage of this potential new venue. but only a few years later, this promise has appeared short-lived as massive company layoffs and streamer burnout have led to what Patricia Hernandez has called "the natural progression of an unsustainable system."

perhaps the peak moment for Twitch happened in December 2018. popular lefty videogame/politics youtuber Hbomberguy (Harry Brewis) had announced a Twitch fundraiser stream for Mermaids, a UK trans charity. this was partially as a way to strike back against the unhinged public career shifts towards vehement transphobia of comedy writer Graham Linehan and, of course, JK Rowling. these celebrities were beginning to have a really tangiable negative effect on the lives of trans people, particular in Brewis's home country of the UK. Brewis's fundraiser featured himself playing through all of Donkey Kong 64, a notoriously long 3D platforming game filled with a lot of tedious item collection released for the N64 in 1999, to full completion. 

the stream channeled the sort of exhausted gradual descent into madness of Let's Play Sonic 2006, due in part to the myriad frustrating and time consuming mini-games featured in Donkey Kong 64. but the difference is that this was all happening live in a high profile charity stream. as news of the stream spread, an odd confluence of online personalities and celebrities were rolled up into its orbit and materialized on stream as well-wishing guests. these included various game makers like Night in the Woods developer Scott Benson, fellow "breadtuber" lefty personalities like Dan Olson, Donkey Kong 64 composer Grant Kirkhope, recently-elected US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Chelsea Manning. something profound had happened between 2008 and 2018. this was not a bunch of self-deprecating forum goons spouting insular nerd jokes into a mediocre mic in a room conspicuously lacking silverware. this was not even The Nostalgia Critic challenging the Angry Video Game Nerd to a fake duel in the parking lot of some game store in New Jersey. this was a consequential real life cultural event, happening in real time, on some guy's goofy videogame stream.

i remember watching parts of the stream at the time and feeling a strange sense of FOMO as a few different people i knew online showed up as guests. there seemed to be a concerted effort on the part of the stream's organizers to get notable trans people to appear, and i kept feeling like maybe i could have gotten in on the action if i tried a little harder. i'm a vaguely clouty online lefty trans person in videogames - surely i could have pulled the right strings! i'm somewhat nonplussed to admit that this kind of online posturing is how i managed to interview Contrapoints that previous year. but the more i thought about doing this, the more i became annoyed at myself for just wanting to attach myself to something just because it was popular. i already felt really burned by how the mechanisms of online clout had been used and abused by many in the trans community at that point. and the online left had grown so big so fast in the wake of the Bernie campaign in 2016 in a way that was really beginning to grate on me. i ended up turning off the stream and left for a friend's Christmas party, hoping to put the whole thing out of my mind for good.

it's now difficult for me to think about this stream as anything but a very short-lived moment where the victory of young left-wing optimism in the US and UK felt inevitable - before the failed election campaigns of Jeremy Corbyn in late 2019 and Bernie Sanders in early 2020 crushed everyone's spirits soon after. the massive show of support on Hbomberguy's stream against the hateful agendas of Linehan and Rowling certainly couldn't have forecasted the many way cultural forces have decided to collectively declare war on trans people and drive up anti-trans sentiment in the west in the past several yearsperhaps this is only appropriate: trans people expose the ambiguity and arbitrariness of a lot of modern life - one that only became more prominent once the pandemic hit. part of coming out as queer or trans is a realization that categories of being are not so discrete, that there are many forces invested in keeping up the illusion that they are that way. stepping through the looking glass into the unknown is tremendously frightening, even when it is often necessary. this opens the door for the targeting of the people who most outwardly expose this fear in the public consciousness.

perhaps the biggest reason that 2008 will forever be a pivotal year for me is it's when i started transitioning. and it became apparent to me very quickly after what becomes apparent to many trans people once they come out: you can feel that you are the same person you always were beneath the exterior, but your role in society changes violently. you suddenly have a completely new set of social expectations thrown onto you, and are pressured to quickly throw away the old ones you carried with you. this is all very necessary to adequately function in normal society. this introduces a bunch of internal contractions that some trans folks can navigate and pass into the role they are expected to perform, but many are not able to do to a degree deemed respectable by much of society. and a critical mass of people occupying ambiguous roles with ambiguous interests means a crisis for the market - our ultimate arbiter of power. these kind of rapidly changing roles challenges the power of pre-existing categories of identity. a person who transgresses is a person in between states - unable to be tracked or understood in an easy way, and thus unable to be seen as a human being in the same way. this will perhaps change as the social categories for trans people become more codified and established. but these sorts of ambiguities hitting a critical mass will always risk a crisis in the existing power structures that create a violent backlash.

arabs and muslim people expose the international order's ongoing moral hypocrisy in a different but related way. in the past six months, the US has sacrificed any claim to be an arbiter of moral authority in its ongoing support of Israel's genocidal campaign against the Palestinian population. the Biden administration's Middle East policies are not particularly different from Trump in spite of Biden's theoretical revoking in 2021 of Trump's "muslim ban" which attracted mass protest in 2017. and Biden is now considering a similar "asylum ban" against immigrants entering the US using the same statute Trump used as the basis for the muslim ban. you also can't be a country that has military bases in at least 80 countries across the world and drops an average of 46 bombs a day and still claim that your ultimate goal is to maintain peace and democracy. even many of the people most previously patriotically indoctrinated by empire rarely seem to believe this anymore, so many in power have given up even trying to pretend it is so. whatever combination of lies, half-truths and cognitive dissonances defined the idea of post-World War II 20th century liberal democracy are not functioning anymore.

the hyper-nationalism that existed at the turn of the 20th century that fed various transformative political and cultural movements does still exist, though, but more as a weapon of personal expression to obsessively wield against the people you hate. nationalism is ultimately just another signifier, another veil, one that feels like a deeply abstract idea in a world so globally connected. we now have the freedom to decide which camps we hate in a way that far transcends old ideas of nationalism. these categories can constantly be changing. 

in these new modes of reactionary thought, behind every new reality revealed there's always another secret reality. at some point so many subsequent realities are revealed behind the veil of other realities and the whole fabric of reality starts to break down. entire worldviews are formed out of images in two mirrors reflecting off each other endlessly, and refracting light off into a hazy imperceptible darkness. it often feels as if we all are being pushed further into that darkness. the ability to perceive something as it is completely breaks down and billions of unique mind palaces dot the landscape. basic media literacy breaks down and reality is defined by a retreat into micro-categories of every type and size imaginable. everything is a projection, but the projection is now everything. massive earthquakes are happening in society, and yet reality outside appears to still function semi-normally. the laws of physics still work, and people still get sick and die. but very few can pretend things of consequence haven't happened, even while at some level it feels like nothing has really changed. the facade of normalcy must be maintained even though no one really believes in it. in other words: it's hypernormalization.

creative output gets refracted off into the void of differing images of reality. these differing realities cannot fundamentally sustain themselves if they accept the legitimacy of other realities. so whenever they intersect, chaos ensues. and chaos is always ensuing. the internet content machine runs off of people saying "get a load of this guy" about each other from all kinds of different angles. the energy emitted by the constant chaos created from intersecting realities fuels everything. it's what keeps the content engines running. this is the end result of an ecosystem that tried to offer escape from an oppressive meatspace into various siloed niche interests. you can't say "keep your politics out of my gaming" because gaming *is* politics... and everything that means, or doesn't mean.  

so if this is the reality that some people envisioned, why does no one seem to understand how to navigate it? if the tech industry has successfully remade the world in its image, why do so many tech CEOs seem so unhappy? was it really anyone's idea for culture to be in such a diminished state right now? the algorithmic nonsensical shiny slop, filled with random cruelty and constantly changing rules can't be what was really envisioned even in the most anti-democratic "dark enlightment" corners. those types of thinkers are just fantasy nerd cosplayers oversimplifying for the sake of another elaborate mind palace creation - another micro-market to capture for their work. a philosophy predicated on Rotten Dot Com and iceberg memes. the only adequately comparable vision to our reality exists in the ambiguous hysteria of dystopian fiction like The Waste Land.

our culture is the newer, shinier, more confusing, and crappier middle school. that old middle school in the center of the town by the public library that appeared to function just fine - that, in actuality, had to be torn down because it contained asbestos... could not continue to exist. there was an unresolvable, unlivable poison at the heart of it. it had to go. and now as a replacement, we get something bigger and more colorful, but less centralized and far harder to navigate or understand. a real life space that appears more as a concept rendered by a computer than something made for humans. the nightmarish plastic kindergarten hospital of nonsensical rules we must now occupy, whether we like it or not. a red fog descends over the halls of the school and we move around in a dissociated daze like Paul's avatar in Petscop, unsure of what exact horrors lie ahead. there will be no Kid A to listen to on the bus ride home from school this time: no attempts to synthesize the alienation, dehumanization, and sense of diminished possibilities of the present. no escape from the further fracturing into micro-markets and forever becoming lost inside that hazy abyss. no escape from the total commodification of all aspects of life.

screenshot from the Wolfenstein 3D mod The Untold Story, based on the Hong Kong category III film of the same name

in a world made entirely of our own image - where everything is content - is there any inherent distinction between art and everything else? if we are now using our technology to primarily exist as creatures of social media, could we just as easily use our newfound abilities to become creatures of something else? if the technology simply is a reflection of our own existing desire to extract and hoard resources with seemingly no end goal or larger vision other than seeking short term profit, can we really pretend it's the technology? in a world where the system must be maintained, but no one's really sure why... at what point do we boot ourselves out of this collective projection of reality? how can we, how should we see the world? perhaps nothing can be taken for granted - perhaps we must re-enter spaces that remained unmanifested hundreds or thousands of years ago. perhaps we walk the paths that many walked before, and our questions grow as art and science become re-mystified. maybe it's never over, maybe it never ends - we never really answered what we thought we knew. and regardless of what we think we know, we always will need an uncomfortable, indefinable window into another reality that can unlock further discoveries about the nature of humanity and the larger universe.

it's far too useless to blame meaningless escapist media as the primary symptom of the current rot. if you're so focused on the signifiers - the culture war elements, the "wokeness" or lack thereof: you're going to get a space entirely defined by that. the fact is: much media still contains a dangerous, transgressive aura - a snake lying in wait in the midst of the fluffy blankets of consumer kitsch. a new route that, once unlocked, cannot be paved over.

the fact is that there is something else captured to me in the kitsch art of Rachid Lotf that goes beyond cliché nostalgia. as a kid, a memory of playing a game takes on extra weight when you and your friend are both alone, in a separate room and everyone else has gone to bed. you're awake much later than you're supposed to be and everything else around you is quiet. the normal routines of life have broken down. time starts to work differently, and the rules of life could be anything now. you're deep down into some kind of rabbit hole. your actions expose how flimsy the social structures are that keep you afloat. the games are your window into another world through a screen. and while this screen is one of the things you're permitted to experience by the adults in your life, a thing encouraged by an economy drowning in products but with a rapidly diminishing investment in outside infrastructure: there's always a lingering feeling that if those adults fully knew about what was in the games you were playing, they might think twice about letting you play them. they're not just idle trinkets to be consumed and disposed of - there's something greater there than that. perhaps that's why so many adults with children are now so fully insistent towards overbearingly imposing themselves in the private spaces of kids today. there is something that is kind of dangerous, and weirdly undefinable there. there is a path into something potentially profound, but as-yet completely undefined.

we struggle to define these moments in any kind of logical way. the closet industries of interpreting and re-interpreting art have become so suffocating as a result: art as a masterclass and/or grindset lesson that can be brained to death. art becomes a content vessel for reinforcing dominant biases and keeping a cycle of diminishing returns going. but it never keeps going forever - it always collapses and is replaced by something else, sometimes in a frighteningly fast way. the digestion becomes more important than the thing itself, because there's something ambiguous and scary about just engaging with the thing itself without any kind of filter applied to it. the endless race to absorb risks completely painting over the truths that exist underneath.

Susan Sontag wrote "Against Interpretation" in 1964 as a protest against this tendency to rush to impose outside frameworks on art like we're slapping together bunch of jigsaw puzzle pieces of ideology together instead of attempting to engaging with the object itself. the popular form of the youtube video essay is perhaps the most guilty of this tendency to over-interpret. the many ambguities of a Petscop or Sonic 2: Special Edition are far overtaken by endless 101 Vox-style explainers translated to us by personalities that disengenously exist in their work as a supposed good faith attempt to educate the audience. and it's easy to say these glorified explainers brought to us by frustrated theater kids are necessary due to a rampant lack of context on the internet. it's easy to say we need this when arts and cultural infrastructure around us appears to be rapdily crumbling. but eventually people will grow tired of this desire to over-reduce and over-explain, and we'll be right back to where we started. perhaps that's why nothing feels really resolved at all since the age of The Waste Land or L’Âge d’Or.

in the late 1990s, a feeling of intense alienation and ennui had set in in much of the western world. this ambient feeling of unrest ended up being effectively captured in a lot of popular media at the time, from OK Computer to The Matrix to Deus Ex. these dystopian worlds clearly struck a chord in how they imagined a world that many felt existed under the surface but could not consciously express coherently when the surface scholarship suggested we were at "the end of history". a disenchantment with reality led to an obsession with the strange and esoteric. the digital world was at the forefront of the attempts to selling that kind of strange and esoteric escape into a new cyber world of possibility. but thirty years later, the digital world no more offers an escape, but a space you have to perform another version of your work self in. and in the real world, rents and food prices are skyrocketing while wages are stagnating without much sign of change of the existing order in sight. even when the virtual realm of the fantasy has been squeezed out and had of much the resources extracted from it, we still heavily depend on it to communicate it because we lack other equally effective and accessible venues of community.

all of this only further helps youtube, a space of immense cultural impact, be one of the several platforms that is helping hollow out the internet. right now youtube has been absorbed by all ages and used for any purpose you can imagine. eventually all these hopes and dreams will become absorbed into a mush and there will be nothing left to hollow out. eventually we'll be caught in an infinite spiral of diminishing returns. and people will get bored. kids who grew up aspiring to be youtubers and content creators will find a landscape much more hostile to what they want to do than they expected. the promise of virality never seemed to rearrange the powers that be, even when it created careers for people. for those of us who are young enough to have grown up on the internet but old enough to see the internet we grew up with be completely gone, it's a strange feeling. 

and yet the amount of waste we've created, even our virtual waste, at this point is simply too great to ever be rid of. even when you can easily wipe digital files, once entities like youtube became enough of a cultural force, they cannot ever be fully wiped from the collective memory. the social impact of large platforms cannot be banned away from public consciousness, regardless of what panicked US politicians want to try with TikTok to wildly flail around and protect their own interests. we live in a post-Let's Play, post-video essay, post social media world. we cannot go back. we're going to be living with the space that made figures like Jake and Logan Paul celebrities forever. it's everyday, bro.

all the culture born from the internet needs to be saved by the internet's endless eating of itself. this is something that must be done, but there is no easy way to do it. right now, most media that isn't directly a part of this problem is either too dedicated to ignoring it as a full-time job, or are too busy declaring its own time of death. people are afraid, horizons have narrowed, and much is being lost in the process. the internet is providing a venue for endless methods of further alienating and isolating people. shit is crazy, and it's so hot in here. this is what makes right now a pivotal moment in so many different ways - one that we must find a way meet precisely because the powers that be have failed so spectacularly to do so. at some point, unlike in my '90s childhood, we will need to find a way to reconcile the many things the internet introduced into public consciousness with the rest of human history. and one day - maybe not too long from now, we might need to escape the internet and start taking refuge outside once again.


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