Grandpa's power increased

Also: Star Fox survivors, grass-making secrets, and tavern jams.

Grandpa's power increased

EX is a research report about digital culture. You can learn more here. This week: white noise, vaping like a Nord, and unremarkable places.

1. A Skyrim short that gets it

Low in fidelity yet high in emotional resonance, this YouTube Short captioned "Playing Skyrim at 3am" captures a feeling that's intimately familiar to anyone who's experienced the early morning hours while clutching a controller, illuminated only by the glow of their television. Sitting at around 5.4m views, the video's comments section (13K entries) is full of users who write that the video spoke to them, revealing that a lot of people turn to open-world games like Skyrim as a form of comfort. Its creator, @personalnature, exhibits an overall appreciation for similar games that enable leisurely exploration and digital hikes (e.g. this Jedi Survivor Short).

Another video with this message — “open world games are profoundly immersive and invite self-reflection” — could drift into r/im14andthisisdeep territory. But @personalnature sells it with a distinctive style that mixes crude green screen effects with creative editing, drawing on a deep catalogue of game footage to mix up their angles and backgrounds. The video ends with @personalnature offering Elder Scrolls regular M’aiq the Liar a hit of their vape. This lighthearted but introspective tone is a theme of some of their other videos, including "Getting lost in the Halo 2 menu music" and "It's 2001, and you're exploring the Halo rings."

2. Country boy car channel torches Ferrari

Car guy YouTube crossed over into regular YouTube this week when a video of WhistlinDiesel (6M subs) and his crew destroying a Ferrari went viral (6.6M views). The video begins with host Cody Detwiler racing the car across a harvested cornfield as the wheels get gummed up with dry stalks and debris; then the car, the field, and a rental van catch on fire as the boys try to put out the flames with Red Bull.

The fire may have been unplanned, but the Ferrari was not long for this world anyway; the channel previously uploaded a video called “I bought a $400,000 Ferrari just to destroy it.WhistlinDiesel is famous for wrecking expensive vehicles with trollish “durability tests,” including Toyota Hiluxes, Model Ts, fire trucks, and an R32 Skyline, the last of which seems to have earned him the undying ire of some car enthusiasts. Many of the channel’s other biggest videos are about fitting crazy types of wheels onto vehicles or building their Monstermax pickup (“Monstermax Drives in the Ocean” reached 24M views).

3. The Vampire Survivors-likes sub-genre is maturing

After “bullet heaven” innovator Vampire Survivors caught fire on Steam and mobile platforms in 2022, it inspired a wave of clones. More recent descendants, like Halls of Torment and Whisker Squadron: Survivor, have moved the genre forward from its top-down, playable-with-one-thumbstick roots. Whisker Squadron is a new vaporwave-flavored “rogueflight” game that moves the camera behind a Starfox-inspired ship as it blasts alien foes, but it retains Vampire Survivors' addictive roguelike upgrade system.

Halls of Torment is an interesting contrast: it’s found success in paring down and refining Vampire Survivors' core systems. In doing so, it’s uncovered the essence of what makes the genre great: an elegant ratio between overt and hidden math, between demanding precise control from the player and enabling self-generated action. It’s a genre defined by making incremental adjustments to stats and ratios, watching on-screen integers grow in the hopes that they’ll become large enough to whittle down the HP bars of late-game enemies. Other common denominators include an aesthetic steeped in visual noise and themes that reference other, older games (e.g., Castlevania is to Vampire Survivors as Diablo is to Halls of Torment).

4. A YouTuber who dives head first into the unremarkable

YouTuber Any Austin (134K subs) does close readings of unassuming spaces in classic games. He’s spent a lot of time in Skyrim, reviewing its poorly run restaurants, shoddy furniture, and local economies. But his “unremarkable and odd places” series is maybe his best, as it allows him to use minor level design details in Nintendo titles to launch into broader theories about the nature of game spaces and why we remember them.

Seeking out the mundane and the ignored is a time-honored critical technique. Ray Huang’s 1981 history classic 1587, A Year of No Significance, for example, dove into the commonplace details of a uneventful year for the Ming dynasty, revealing the character of the time and the roots of decline through unremarkable ritual and procedure. A discussion of an in-game sign about Mario’s fingertips may be even more insignificant, but as likely to contain the seed of a larger truth.

5. The dungeon master's streaming platform of choice

Spotify has, over the years, become an insomniac's refuge. There are plenty of Spotify playlists that collect rainfall sounds, recordings of crashing waves, and all types of white noise from crisp pink to stormy brown. But it’s gone beyond the sleepless — there are now "ambiences" for cafegoers, aspiring cowboys, and committed dungeon masters looking to enliven their games of Dungeons and Dragons. In fact, ambience playlists that explicitly reference D&D are particularly commonplace, referencing a wide range of D&D scenarios like hanging out in taverns, traversing forests, or even doing battle. It's common for D&D "exploration music" playlists to contain covers from video game OSTs; this one, for example, contains covers of music from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and each entry of Baldur's Gate.

A possible explanation for this phenomenon is that games represent the only creative medium — aside from, say, theater or installation art — to make wide use of "background music." Modern open-world fantasy video games demand scores that can punctuate moments of discovery or conflict yet are also elastic enough to extend seamlessly into infinite loops. Both Elden Ring and TOTK, for example, use minimal scores occasionally disrupted by context-dependent musical cues, subtly framing the action on screen.

6. You wouldn’t download a YouTube channel

via @KennyLauderdal3 on Twitter

A recent post by vintage anime YouTuber Kenny Lauderdale (300K subs) posed the question: have you downloaded your favorite YouTube channel lately? Unless you’re surrounded by racks of hard drives in some kind of Ghost in the Shell hacker-cave, the answer is probably no. But the radical archivists are onto something. Important artifacts in online history now disappear every day due to changing copyright holders, account deletions, creators censoring their old work, or platforms just decaying. YouTube creators routinely upload alternate versions of their video essays to Patreon or elsewhere (this MMA channel, for example, also uploads to Vimeo to escape the UFC’s agents) due to shifting rules on their home platform. Someday you’ll find yourself searching for a video that doesn’t exist anymore, and your only hope will be that some cyberpunk elder who’s been saving everything to disk since 2005 has the same taste as you.

7. Bite-sized game-art threads make perfect infotainment

via @StylizedStation on Twitter.

One good thing on Twitter lately has been a string of insightful game-art threads by StylizedStation (27K followers). Run by a 3D artist named Thomas, the account has recently done solid numbers by demystifying the techniques used to create today’s best-looking games. One recent thread (4.7K likes) begins with a GIF of swaying grass from Ghost Of Tsushima before breaking down the way it’s tiled, animated, positioned, and populated based on character location. Other threads are similarly GIF-heavy technical explainers on water shaders, snow deformation, and procedural open-world design. StylizedStation posts similar work on their YouTube (409K subs), but it really pops on Twitter, where the straightforward technical analysis stands out from toxic gamer debates. The professionalism serves a business purpose, too: StylizedStation's explainers work as lead generation for online classes they sell to aspiring 3D artists.

YouTube Thumbnail of the Week

“Locked on ONE BLOCK But We're MUTANT MOBS With CRAZY FAN GIRL!” by @Omz-.

Chum Box

  • According to Bloomberg, Spotify's push into podcasting has had the inadvertent effect of algorithmically boosting consumption of white noise podcasts. An internal document estimated that removing the white noise tracks could increase the company's annual gross profits by $38 million. Concerned Redditors are watching their white noise playlists.
  • Remember Goncharev, the fake 1973 Martin Scorsese movie briefly willed into being on Tumblr last year? We're doing it again, only this time it's Zepotha, a forbidden '80s horror movie, and it's a viral marketing campaign for a horror-inspired synth-pop track (8.3 million views). Tumblr users think the whole thing is bullshit.
  • Rest Of World explored the game-design output of a group of Argentine prisoners. Publicly hosted on Itch and made using Twine and Construct, the games serve a creative outlet and résumé builder.
  • The artist Robert Beatty, who has created album art for musicians like Oneohtrix Point Never, U.S. Girls, and The Flaming Lips, kicked off an interesting thread about the pointlessness of animated album cover art on Apple Music and Spotify.
  • A group of journalists from Motherboard, the best of the old Vice websites, is launching a writer-owned, reader-funded tech website called 404 Media. They've debuted with a FOIA request for more details about that cop going down the slide.
  • This Addison Rae track from 2021 might be the first song to be retroactively likened to music from The Idol.
  • The “2 Phones” meme is a Tiktok format that starts with a woman denouncing an unfaithful man, then stitches in a montage of dripped-out anime character fan art as Kevin Gates’ “2 Phones” plays. Seems less about the battle of the sexes and more about showing off your Vegeta x Supreme image folder. (Via KYM.)
  • The pervasive dread of the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has now been translated into a multiplayer video game, and the mechanical implications are strange.

That’s it for this week. Next week we’ll be playing Starfield at 3 a.m.