Return to Kitty City

Also: Moebius, 1-bit horror, and the "shut up" button.

Return to Kitty City

EX is a research report about where culture is headed. You can learn more here. This week: modern successors to Cyriak, Eric Andre, and Wario Land.

1. Revisiting Cyriak in the age of AI

Last week, a YouTube animator named plasticity posted a video that'll stir up strong memories for anyone who spent the late 2000s and early 2010s wandering "the weird part of YouTube." The "certain visual style" plasticity mentions in their tweet is that of Cyriak, a web animator known for mutating found footage into body horror. His videos — e.g. "Baa," "Welcome to Kitty City," and his 2014 music video for Flying Lotus' "Putty Boy Strut" — use dizzying fractal patterns and distended anthropomorphic shapes to uniquely nauseating effect. If plasticity's video seems familiar for other reasons, too, that's because its source material is this iconic "jumpscare" video from 2006.

The thing is, plasticity might just be onto something. Cyriak's style was initially striking because it incorporated After Effects and Photoshop editing techniques that were still relatively novel at the time, especially in the realm of experimental animation and comedy. (Cyriak's work started appearing on Adult Swim in 2011, during the apex of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job's popularity.) He attracted a viewership by leaning into the surreal and unnatural effects of then-cutting edge editing software; for a while, his YouTube channel was the place to visit for the latest in mind-bending animation.

Now, a decade or so later, we're at a similar moment with AI-generated videos. Technologies like Midjourney and DALL-E haven't yet escaped the uncanny valley, creating bizarre visual oddities that can inspire either laughter or horror. Looking back, Cyriak's work was portentous of our AI-infested present, a reminder from a similar era when emerging creative tools had the capacity to both impress and disturb.

2. The internet’s busiest pizza man

Pizza Tower came out all the way back in January, yet even after a year stuffed with high-profile releases, Peppino — the game's protagonist — is still everywhere. Recently, a 3D modeler named Peppermint modded Peppino into Sonic Robo Blast 2, a Sonic the Hedgehog fangame. Fans added both Pizza Tower's character models and Peppino's movement mechanics to Garry's Mod; others modded Peppino into Bomb Rush Cyberfunk, another throwback hit from earlier this year; and Pizza Tower's dev even collaborated on a mod that adds Peppino to the indie fighting game Rivals of Aether. The video above — compiled by variety streamer Vinny Vinesauce — collects even more examples, including mods for DOOM II, Mario Kart Wii, and Left 4 Dead 2.

Peppino's sustained popularity across the gaming internet is, to some degree, unprecedented. Though Pizza Tower was a breakout success upon release, it was the debut title from a developer who was largely unknown prior to this year. It borrows heavily from Wario Land, a series of platforming games that, while considered critical successes, don't necessarily resonate with other popular genres of the moment (the “2D platformer renaissance” loosely bookended by 2010’s Super Meat Boy and 2018’s Celeste has since slowed). Perhaps
Peppino himself deserves the most credit for the game's lasting popularity; Pizza Tower’s frenetic, hand-drawn look makes him one of the most expressive video game characters to enter the shitposter's lexicon as of late.

3. Danny Brown returns, dressed as a robot

Danny Brown, arguably the greatest rapper alive, has announced his long-awaited new solo LP Quaranta with a typically dense, hyper-online new video. Quaranta is technically his second album of the year, after the dizzying JPEGMafia collaboration Scaring The Hoes, but it’s his first solo record since 2019’s U Know What I’m Sayin?. The album’s true predecessor is even further back: it’s intended as a sequel to the rapper’s 2011 breakthrough XXX, which heralded the arrival of a talent whose linguistic verve was matched only by his death drive. (Both album titles reference the age at which he recorded them; mortality looms large.)

The newly sober emcee comes out swinging, stranger than ever, on first single “Tantor,” his flow open and confident and peppered with phrases that pop out of the speakers (like the instantaneous “Got a Mexican homie named Chinese Mike”). The video, by the design agency Uncanny, finds the middle ground between Eric Andre and 964 Pinocchio, decking Brown out in cardboard cyborg prosthetics and sending him stomping through the boring dystopia of modern Los Angeles. Brown seems to occasionally glitch into a Dreamcast-era hyperspace to do battle and download new bars, and, lest the monstrous, unvarnished loop confuse you, yes, this is an Alchemist beat. (That’s Al, dealing floppy discs at 1:04 in the video, too.) The track ends as it must: the Anakin scream. The full record drops November 17. Upgrade your mental hardware accordingly.

4. Checking in on the Balenciaga AI guy

Demonflyingfox (162K subs) is one of the rare AI video channels that kept some momentum after its breakout hit (“Harry Potter by Balenciaga” in March). The channel stays in its wheelhouse: giving franchises (Star Wars, Harry Potter, GoT) a non-Hollywood spin (“in Japan,” “in Italy”) using Midjourney gens that do a bit of blinking, head-tilting, and talking thanks to face-stretching D-ID video software. The creator’s touch here is in their curation of images — you have to sift through a lot of trash to get semi-consistent styles or character faces with Midjourney — and the moments they adapt. The channel feels like the last survivor of a YouTube AI era that ended years ago, but was actually like five months ago.

DFF’s latest video is actually a remake: “Breaking Bad in Japan” reworks the account’s very first video, made back in the dark fantasy haze of January, when the images were fuzzier and didn’t try to talk. The addictive never-quite-right output of image generators seems to draw people into the repetitive creation of very specific fantasy worlds; for this guy, the fascination seems to be yakuza-fying movies.

The elephant in the room here is the dubious and uncanny effect of using AI to change an actor’s race. Oddly, this is also common with DALL-E 3/Bing, which has a built-in diversity/debiasing protocol that seems to accidentally remix the races of famous people (like if you ask it for John Wayne, it may generate a black John Wayne). The simplest answer to the thorny questions here is that AI just shouldn’t generate pictures of real people. That would be bad news for demonflyingfox, as well as the current Wild West era of meme image generation.

5. Father of Smash Bros. meets father of Let’s Plays

Smash Bros. creator Masahiro Sakurai, who started a YouTube channel last year (564K subs), posted a three-part collab with “the father of Let’s Plays,” Shinya Arino. Arino has hosted the charming low-budget Japanese TV show Game Center CX since 2003, a couple of years before the term “Let’s Play” started showing up online. In the show, the comedian attempts to beat various soul-crushing retro games and kusoge with the occasional help of his ADs and producers. For this YouTube crossover, Sakurai invites Arino on to play arcade games made from 1978-1987 in a gaming history lightning round, dispensing a lot of coin-op grandfather wisdom along the way.

Modern LPers and streamers owe a lot to Game Center CX, which pioneered the “man stuck in room until he beats game” format. Viewer messages and donations — snacks and bad games people wanted him to play — were a huge part of it. The real meat of the show always came from the moments when Arino (a pro at comedy, not gaming) got hardstuck in a game like Castlevania III or Ghouls 'n Ghosts, and he and an AD had to haul out a whiteboard and map out a strategy for when to jump and how to move — a self-programming process familiar to anyone who’s worked through really tough 2D games. Periodically the show’s narrator would break in to talk over an animation of the plan or say something like “His smile and optimism: gone.” Arino’s oft-stated goal was always “to see the end screen,” which was meant to sound quaint. But it’s the same reason streamers still hurl themselves at games like Only Up! or Jump King for days on end.

6. Scavengers Reign is a crash course in the Moebius aesthetic

Streamers have bankrolled a lot of high-budget, high-concept sci-fi — Foundation, For All Mankind, Raised By Wolves, all the Disney stuff — but the new animated series Scavengers Reign may be the best of the crop, in large part due to its much-needed sense of calm. Don’t get it wrong: The show is a violent and biologically upsetting tale of survival on an alien planet. But it unfolds with a blissful deficit of lore, letting the richly designed world do much of the talking.

It is also the latest and most direct descendent of the French comic artist Moebius, whose chunky machines, newtlike faces, and sumptuous pastel landscapes grow more influential by the year. Last year’s Sable bordered on copyright infringement in its evocation of the late artist’s soft blue skies and rusty, sun-bleached oranges, but you can also see the influence of his penmanship in games like Panzer Dragoon, No Man’s Sky, and Citizen Sleeper; proto-cyberpunk texts like Blade Runner and Neuromancer; even the album cover of the stoner-metal classic Dopesmoker. (It can be argued that a single panel of The Long Tomorrow inspired both of the Gravity Rush games.) Moebius is a moodboard classic, which is why it’s a kick seeing his imaginative style flower so bizarrely in the graceful narrative of Scavengers Reign. The first three of 12 episodes dropped on Max yesterday.

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YouTube Thumbnail of the Week

Monster Jam INSANE Racing, Freestyle and High Speed Jumps #25 | BeamNG Drive | Grave Digger” by Mace Mace TV, “the ultimate channel for Monster Jam monster trucks.”

Chum Box

  • There’s a talking flower buddy in Super Mario Bros. Wonder, and there’s also a toggle in the options menu that makes it shut up. This makes Wonder the latest game to give you a chatty companion but also build in an “I hate this” button (see High on Life, Forspoken, and Cyberpunk 2077).
  • If you want even more talking, a new Baldur’s Gate 3 mod allows every single companion to chime in during every conversation, even if you left them at camp.
  • The Biden campaign has joined Truth Social, the only Twitter successor worse than X. It is a concession not to the reach of the platform but to its irrelevance; they have nothing to lose by posting pro-Biden Fox News clips to the platform, because its influence is zilch outside of a few mega-posters.
  • Emulator lord WULFF DEN took a look at retro game stores in Japan and found mostly tourist traps.
  • They made a movie called Dracula’s Dog in the ‘70s. It wasn’t good.
  • The first GeoGuessr World Cup took place last weekend; Dutch player Consus took home the grand prize of $15,000 and a Mission Impossible-themed travel package. Social media geolocation king Rainbolt (see our July 28 post) was there as a play-by-play commentator.
  • The latest gamer punching bag is the poorly animated Skull Island: Rise of Kong, which launched earlier this week. Like Gollum before it, you can expect to see a few streamers play it ironically, picking it apart for the funniest lo-fi animations or bugs.
  • Don’t Scream might just be the title to herald the era of nauseatingly realistic Unreal Engine 5 horror. Sporting blurry and suspenseful “found footage” visuals, the game listens in on the player’s microphone and restarts the level whenever they scream.
  • If you don’t have a tiny catgirl sitting on your barrel to help you reload, then buddy, you need a better gun.
  • Analogue, makers of best-in-class retro-gaming design objects, have announced an N64 console. Many details forthcoming, but they have released shadow images of a button that will one day be available for resale at sneaker-culture markups.
  • The recent Steam Next Fest collected lots of playable demos of upcoming games, including the RoboCop game we featured last week. By far the most played game, in terms of hours, was the fantasy survival game Enshrouded, which has garnered rave early responses from the survival game community. It has the potential to be a Valheim-style sleeper hit.
  • The long-awaited, 1-bit indie title WORLD OF HORROR escaped early access this week. RIYL: Junji Ito, old Macintosh interfaces, tentacles.
  • This Tiktok of a Mortal Kombat kid playing “International Love” through a crunchy mic is the coolest that Johnny Cage or Pitbull have ever been. (via KYM)

That’s it for this week. We’ll be spending next week traversing Dreamcast-style environments.