An extra mild Christmas

Also: faceless suitors, jump scares, and deep-space burgers.

An extra mild Christmas
via Luckyrick.

EX is a research report about where culture is headed. You can learn more here. This week: we try to avoid anything spicy in our discussion of BookTok, the Game Awards, and the worst painting ever.

The Vampire Survivors clone wars may have a winner

It is the twilight of the Vampire Survivors clone era. Gamers have laughed, lived, and loved their way through all possible variations on the “bullet heaven” theme, from the bone bro comedy of Boneraiser Minions to the potato bro comedy of Brotato. But at this late hour, when the one-joystick concept seems almost completely tapped, a miraculously good late entrant has arrived: Picayune Dreams, an addictive indie that feels like blasting your way through a Flying Toasters Pro screen saver.

Picayune Dreams drags the bullet heaven back down into bullet hell with screen-polluting bosses and jagged sheets of psychedelic enemies like deep-space fish, ghostly toys, and accusing fingers. YMMV on the dark Yume Nikki-inspired story bits. But when a run really gets going, the breakcore’s blasting, and a wave of pursuing burgers (?) starts collapsing on you, you’ll believe in the magic of a $5 game again.

“Crank Dat,” Soulja Boy - FL Studio - Any% 0:17 [WR]

@prodrobtmb on Tiktok

TikTok user @prodrobtmb specializes in "speedruns" where they recreate famous beats in FL Studio, a DAW (or "digital audio workstation") that's popular among bedroom hip-hop producers. This week, they posted a sub-17 second speedrun of "Crank Dat" by Soulja Boy, complete with the LiveSplit timer favored by gamers. Elsewhere, they jokingly refer to their speedruns as playing "FL Studio ranked." They're not the only person attempting FL Studio speedruns, either; the "Crank Dat" world record previously belonged to a producer with the handle @simonservidamusic.

This isn't the first instance of someone appropriating speedrunning language for an elaborate joke. People have been making "Discord ban WR" videos for a couple of years now, while things like the "goofy ahh beat" trend have turned DAWs into meme generators in the past. However, @prodrobtmb's videos seem like an extension of the growing accessibility of music-making software and the way it’s explained online. YouTubers who make production tutorials often use SEO-friendly titles like "How To Make a Travis Scott Type Beat," "How to Sample Like Kanye West," or simply "How to KAYTRANADA." These videos treat production styles as replicable sets of software techniques, teaching viewers how to mimic a musician’s sound as quickly as possible.

Medium-defining masterpiece Mario 64 finally gets shotguns

When Nintendo released Super Mario 64 in 1996, they packed it full of secret passageways, surreal low-poly landscapes, and innovative ideas about controlling a camera in three dimensions. One thing they didn’t pack into it was a shotgun, a deficit that has at last been remedied thanks to a ROM hack by Dan-GPTV. A few decently trafficked videos on YouTube (86K for Bathaniel Nandy, 241K for Vinesauce Joel) detail the surprising level of craft in the project. The shotgun blast modifies Mario’s movement, allowing him to double-jump while retaining his vertical or horizontal trajectory, and successful shots result in a variety of different interactions, sending Koopas spiraling, furniture into slats of wood, and most other enemies into puffs of smoke. You can even breach doors like a CoD operator. For people who have the game memorized — like the speedrunner Bubzia — it’s clearly a source of delight finding new ways to break the game (and its inhabitants) wide open. If you’re interested, you can play the hack in-browser here.

Huge thing spotted in distance

A huge new friend of yours from the Light No Fire trailer.

Much of the conversation since this year’s Game Awards has centered on the ways it short-changed developers in favor of advertisers and Hollywood blather. But the show also did undeniably put the trailers on the screen. Viewers may have noticed a common thread in many of these previews: huge things looming in the distance. While game ads once showed you far-off mountains and promised you’d eventually climb that mountain, trailers today increasingly spotlight mountain-like enemies and NPCs. At the Game Awards, we saw:

Huge things in games aren’t new. But giant bosses in JRPGs and action games of yore often served more as platforming sections or elaborate skyboxes. AAA games of the last generation, like God Of War and Death Stranding, appeared to strain under the weight of their colossal setpieces; in contrast, newer titles like this year’s Armored Core VI and Final Fantasy XVI seemed eager to flex the giant-generating capabilities of ninth-gen systems. Along with denser crowds and ray-traced lighting, huge characters seem likely to go down as one of the graphical hallmarks of this generation of hardware. Or at least this generation of trailers.

The game that lets you parry nukes just got a demo

V.A Proxy — the game that went viral a few months ago after a GIF of the player character parrying a nuke got over 240k likes on Twitter — released a demo last week. Fans have been champing at the bit for this one, posting tons of original art and even recreating the nuke parry with TF2 characters.

After all the hype (which might owe something to the popularity of movement shooters like Ultrakill and Turbo Overkill), the demo feels rough but promising. The player explores an open environment studded with abandoned power lines and rotting skyscrapers. Robots dot a grassy meadow, mimicking fauna; giant android birds are the first real threat. Between fights, you slide, glide, and air-dash your way across sullen landscapes.

The game’s kinetic character action gameplay and post-apocalyptic setting recall NieR: Automata, while its dizzying sense of scale and hands-off level design echo Shadow of the Colossus. As you’d expect, parrying is the cinematic focus of its combat encounters. Successful parries trigger time-halting animations, building and releasing tension throughout difficult duels. The action sometimes feels less responsive than it should, but it’s difficult to pass full judgment until players can start parrying nukes and buildings themselves.

BookTok and BikeTok are a match made in the romance aisle

@5fngrnklcrdr on TikTok

Last week, Twitter user @grovymango discovered that BookTokers and BikeTokers have spent the past couple of months using TikTok to spin erotic fiction into reality. As their names suggest, #BookTok is TikTok's catch-all hashtag for users interested in literature, while #BikeTok is for motorcyclists. Users on both sides have enthusiastically supported the trend, using it as an opportunity to fish openly for partners. These videos tend to evoke a not-so-subtle dom/sub dynamic, bearing captions like "The booktok girls belong to biketok boys end of discussion [sic]." The trend is so popular that it's inspired at least one IRL meetup; meanwhile, "MaskTok" has thrown its hat into the ring in a bid to win the BookTok girls over.

BookTok has ballooned into an enormous community. Last year, The New York Times reported that data provider BookScan credited BookTokers with generating 20 million print sales throughout 2021. While there aren't any strict boundaries around genre or subject matter, BookTok tends to elevate erotic fiction and romance, which explains why so many "BookTok x BikeTok" fantasies involve troubled men who refuse to show their faces. The trend is reminiscent of last year's beef between "pipeline wives" and "bucket bunnies," another instance of users defining their romantic preferences and sexual identities via TikTok subcultures.

YouTube Thumbnail of the Week

Chilling and Playing Oblivion” by Majuular.

Chum Box

That’s it for this week. Next week we’ll be speedrunning our writing process and air-dashing out of the office.