Robot Chicken is pretty damn popular. And it got that way by poking fun at popular culture. Movies, books, comics, TV shows, even action figures. But what happens when Robot Chicken crosses paths with video games?
In case you've never seen the show, Robot Chicken is an animated series that runs on Cartoon Network (and other channels across the world). It's a sketch comedy show, which uses stop-motion animation to portray parodies of characters and settings from recent popular culture.
To find out how strongly gaming runs through the heart of the show - and the show's creators - we spoke with Tom Root, producer and occasional voice actor on the hit Cartoon Network series.
"I think most of the Robot Chicken writers have multiple consoles, and we're just as likely to be playing some sunshine-spewing Wii game as we are some grim, apocalyptic first-person shooter" he says. "Personally, I like to mix it up. I finished Fallout 3 and then moved on to Lego Batman, then the latest Tomb Raider, then Tiger Woods golf. I'm pretty scattered."
While everyone involved in making the show may be a big gamer, do they ever worry that not everyone watching the show might be? "I think we rarely worry about whether viewers recognize the references we're making, as long as WE recognize the references we're making", he explains. "Our philosophy has always been, 'If we find it funny, other people will find it funny', so that's all we worry about. Making it funny. To US. Heh heh heh."
Which leads us to wonder; as games grow increasingly popular, does he think in the future, they could take pride of place in the next generation's version of a show like Robot Chicken? "Our popular culture is getting so fragmented and niche-y, I really wonder what "pop culture" is even going to mean in 20 years", he says. "There are so many entertainment options that our shared experience as a culture is getting pretty tenuous."
"For example, can you imagine Johnny Carson's ''Tonight Show' audience understanding a Pac-Man joke?" Root continues. "Sure. Can you imagine Jay Leno's 'Tonight Show' audience understanding a Niko Bellic joke back when GTA IV was the biggest thing in video games? I can't. So it's hard to say whether video games will dominate entertainment culture in 20 years. I think nothing will dominate because there will be too many entertainment options to have a clear winner."
It's no surprise that alongside skits based on movies, comics, TV shows and action figures, video games have featured repeatedly on Robot Chicken. The highlight? In our opinion, the Final Fantasy burger joint sketch. Root agrees.
"Our Final Fantasy VII sketch from season two is one of my favorites", he enthuses. "We were all such big fans of that game when it came out. I think when I pitched that sketch, I was playing clips from the soundtrack CD to help sell the moments I was making fun of, and the other writers were like, 'YES!' And then the animation and the graphics were so spot-on. I'm really proud of that one".
And his second-favourite? "Another one of my favorite concepts — which got cut prior to animation, sadly — involved the Needler weapon from Halo. Because everyone knows the Needler sucks. I'd rather fight the enemy with a pair of nail clippers than a Needler". This scene, while cut from the show, will be included in a rough form on the release of season four on DVD.
Aware of the writing team's openness towards video games, and of the similarities between the premise of Robot Chicken and what they were working on with Spore, Maxis and Electronic Arts recently teamed up with Root and some of the show's other creators and writers to create a series of missions for the upcoming Spore expansion pack, Galactic Adventures.