The Canadian sketch comedy group Loading Ready Run has been using its talent for gamer-skewed humor for good causes recently. Back in November, their Desert Bus for Hope charity challenge earned $70,423.79 for Child’s Play. And starting in January, they started a public service for the video game industry by exposing awful “cut scenes” — game-controlled video game sequences which tie shoot-em-up sequences into full-length video game narratives and are sometimes, tragically, Unskippable.
An on-going web series featured on The Escapist (also the home of the renowned Yahtzee’s video game reviews, and thus a reliable source for intelligent and hilarious video game commentary), Unskippable won its weekly slot after coming in first in the site’s first-ever film festival challenge. Perhaps the series was able to win over the audience because its approach is directly based on an earlier icon of geek culture: Mystery Science Theater 3000.
There’s absolutely no effort made to distinguish Unskippable as anything other than an appropriation of the MST3K format. But instead of mocking crappy B movies, writer/performers Graham Stark and Paul Saunders are skewering dialogue-heavy scenes of exposition and awkward attempts to give 3-D animated characters 2-D personalities. Stark and Saunders know video games and they know funny, and as a result their commentary is easily on par with the best of MST3K in its heyday — full of pop culture references (including at least two Wizard of Oz jokes) and sincere critique (seriously, the makers of Two Worlds thought it’d be a good idea to repeatedly use the word “taint”?).
The one element missing is the cutout overlay invented by the MST3K team to show the commentators in action, which turns out to be surprisingly key to the experience. Without some visual reminder of their presence, Stark and Saunders are just disembodied voices snarking over the action, which creates a disconcerting detachment to their commentary. Perhaps there are legal reasons for not including it, or perhaps it was deemed unnecessary, but being physically able to see the people mocking the action on screen (even in silhouette) created a sense of authorship, and made the show’s voice more cohesive. Without that element, Unskippable resembles the experience of listening to your friends banter while waiting for their chance to kill more things — just as fun, but not quite as cohesive.
While the caliber of talent writing video games has improved dramatically in recent years (professional screenwriters like Bruce Feirstein and Rich Wilkes) are frequently hired these days) the fact remains that many of these sequences are flat-out bad and deserve this mockery. However, in the world of video games, a bad cut scene may be a flaw, but it doesn’t ruin the experience on the same level that poorly designed game play or a bug-filled final challenge might. Without a critical voice taking on the Unskippable, there will be no improvement, and thus I wish Stark and Saunders a long and prolific run. Because right now the video game industry might not embrace this sort of commentary — but if video games are going to advance as an art form, then it’s definitely necessary.