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.
"The folks at Maxis are fans of our show and asked us to help them demonstrate the game", Root explains. "It was a good fit. Our show is nothing but short-form madness, and Galactic Adventures lets players create their own short-form missions that can get as bizarre and as crazy as you want to make them."
While none of the Robot Chicken writers helped with the design of the expansion itself, they did play a role in the development of its missions. "After a day at EA learning the game, each of the writers came up with 10 one-paragraph pitches for possible adventures," Root says.
"Each list of pitches got winnowed down to one or two missions to be fully scripted. One writer, Hugh Sterbakov, had the poor foresight to write an entire trilogy, so he ended up writing twice as much as the rest of us. I think we ended up with about 10 total missions, but they might still be slogging away on Hugh's trilogy."
The experience wasn't as easy as the video here would have you believe. While good comedy is good comedy, regardless of the medium, the Robot Chicken writers ran into some unexpected obstacles (unless you're in the games business) when trying to write for a video game.
"I think I bent my brain in half trying to figure out ways to keep the player on track and experiencing the story the way I envisioned it", he says. "Plus, I also wanted my missions to be fun and have some repeat playability. In my mind that meant loading the levels with characters to murder. The problem was, the more murder-able characters I added, the more dialogue I had to write."
"When I look back at some of the games I've played in the last few years, like Grand Theft Auto IV and Fallout 3, I have a newfound appreciation for how impossibly freaking hard it must be to write games that epic and make them not only actually work but also make them kick ass."
So having tried their hand at games writing, could there be a future in the business for Tom or any of the other Robot Chicken writers? "I personally think helping out with in-game dialogue or gags in a game or two could be fun, but I don't have the attention span to spend years and years developing a single game from the ground up", Root says.
"I have no doubt that our other writers could do it, though. Some of the sketches Mike Fasolo writes have the kind of epic scope that could only be captured in video game form. He's always writing things like the Earth splitting in half, then an asteroid splitting in half and the asteroid halves blowing up the Earth halves. Come to think of it, that sounds like a pretty good game."
A lot better than this one: "I wish we could take the Left 4 Dead framework and replace the heroes with Seth Green, Breckin Meyer, Doug Goldstein and Hugh Sterbakov [Robot Chicken producers/writers]. How hard could that be? The engine already exists! Doug and Breckin would end up ignoring the zombies, arguing about which one of them wrote our 'Emperor's Phone Call' sketch and shooting each other. Hugh would keep threatening to use his shotgun on himself. The possibilities, people..."
So Robot Chicken features video games. The writing team love video games. They now have video game design experience. So I ask, what are the chances of us ever seeing a Robot Chicken game? Surely the show's sketch comedy format is ideally suited for, say, a collection of mini-games spoofing popular gaming series or characters?
"Funny you mention that!", he says. "One company came close to pulling the trigger on just such a game, but as of yet, no luck. We're definitely open to the idea, though. And by 'open to the idea' I mean 'dying for it to happen'."