On Car Boys, Which Changed Everything

Polygon’s YouTube series Car Boys published its 38th and final episode almost exactly week ago. That the series even had a concrete ending felt jarring, in a way — by that point, its narrative was so focused on the infinite that it felt uncontainable. What began as playful, gently bizarre emergent comedy had redshifted into a deeply existential sideways epic in which outsized supernatural forces loomed and the show’s creators, Nick Robinson and Griffin McElroy, were at the center of unknowable ruptures in the fundamental logic of the world they’d engaged. Yet the ending itself, though its very existence felt impossible, was completely fitting for the material that preceded it: grand but abstract, ambiguous but poignant and resplendent with meaning.

Car Boys reached this point through a kind of extended Let’s Play on BeamNG.drive, a sandbox driving game somewhere between Forza Motorsport’s obsessive attention to vehicular detail and the endless customization and user-generated content base of Garry’s Mod. Where that game was a tech demo for Valve’s groundbreaking Source engine, BeamNG.drive is designed to show off an advancing physics simulation concept called soft-body dynamics, which allows for simulated objects to be deformed instead of replaced. For example, if you’ve played a racing game where the cars sustain visible damage after colliding, you’ve probably noticed how the car seems to switch instantaneously from intact to damaged as the game literally swaps the image of the unbroken car for the image of the broken one. On the other hand, the cars (and other objects) in BeamNG.drive are able to bend and contort, potentially allowing for more realistic depictions of their response to environments and stress.

But achieving something closer to realism than established physics engines isn’t saying much, and in practice BeamNG.drive is still a far cry from simulating anything close to authentic. Especially in earlier episodes of Car Boys, when the game (as of this writing still in Early Access on Steam) was in a much less sophisticated state, vehicles broke on a hair trigger and warped in strange, often buggy ways. McElroy and Robinson’s original goal for the series was to capitalize on this, staging increasingly ludicrous collisions using every tool at their disposal — other vehicles, cannons, terrain, environmental controls like gravity and wind, quirks of the game’s spawning mechanics, and direct manipulation of the cars’ articulation points.

Car Boys is part of a network of goofily experimental, consistently strong video game comedy shows produced by Polygon, alongside works like the series’ companion piece Touch the Skyrim, in which McElroy and Robinson tap the Bethesda RPG’s vibrant mod community in attempt to render the game unrecognizable; a pair of McElroy solo outings which explored unorthodox play strategies for Pokémon and World of Warcraft; Please Retweet, a social media experiment by McElroy and Robinson’s colleague Patrick Gill involving a doctored photo of Toad in an adult diaper; and of course the breakout series Monster Factory, in which McElroy and his brother Justin push custom character creation systems to their limits. Most of these shows are edited by McElroy, whose approach is graphics-heavy, kinetic, and often musically driven. It’s an effective style that’s fairly common on YouTube (and McElroy is particularly adept with it) but Car Boys stands out by contrast for its starkness. Robinson’s editing style is spare and almost aggressively understated, marked by relatively few cuts and unusually long stretches of silence. For much of the series there was only one music cue: Claude Debussy’s iconic piano movement “Clair de lune”, deployed at climactic moments of destructive beauty.

It was a even more fitting a choice than McElroy might have realized when he first suggested it in episode 3. Debussy’s signature compositional technique was to rearrange the musical components we Western listeners are used to into parseable and beguiling but unfamiliar shapes, and Car Boys, among much else, is certainly about unconventional methods of approaching and understanding a video game, but also a confidently exploratory plunge into the possibilities of YouTube as a platform and the Let’s Play as both an overall form and specifically as a comedic mode.

The show was always reaching for something other than the low stakes hangout feel that normally typifies Let’s Plays, but the catalyst came in episode 4, when McElroy and Robinson discovered that a school bus they’d been playing with contained a driver in motorcycle gear, and furthermore that this driver (whom, of course, they named Busto) appeared to be stuck in the bus, hands attached unyieldingly to the steering wheel despite all manner of assault and mutilation. They set out to free him, and all of a sudden Car Boys had mutated from free-associative antics into a kind of improv theater, where BeamNG.drive was both the stage and some sort of oversized, dynamic prop. McElroy and Robinson were still mucking around with a physics simulator, but Busto presented a clearly defined goal. He, along with some of the other objects discovered in the bus, became pieces of an impromptu, evolving lore, a lore which was torn wide open two episodes later with the introduction of “Busto 2.0”, a crash test dummy who stood free of a vehicle but, they soon discovered, was deeply unstable — so much so that his frequent glitches triggered cascades of other performance issues in the game. These moments quickly earned Busto 2.0 the status of a mischievous, supernatural being; by episode 8, an accident whereby two Busto 2.0s were set to spawn inside of one another resulted in an eruptive, inexplicable, and world-consuming work of glitch art.

That scene — which takes up the first third or so of the episode — is underscored throughout by “Clair de lune,” which is certainly amusing but also heightens the sense of the Bustos’ refraction as an aesthetic experience beyond pure comedy, or even pure entertainment. As a work of visual art, you could easily place it somewhere between the immediacy-as-meaning of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades and Jesse Kanda’s digital age updates of Mannerism and the surreal. There’s also a lot of reference points in post-digital art, like the hyperreal environments of photoshop artists like Terrell Davis and Pablo Jones Soler, which revel in the eerie, uncanny valley quietness of even busy and noisy simulations. This is a feeling that manifests all over Car Boys ; for a show so dedicated to two people causing mayhem, a remarkable percentage of its runtime is taken up by wide shots of objects hurtling across vast, barren spaces — a blue sky, an infinite flat grid, a plain white cityscape — often accompanied by nothing except McElroy and Robinson’s stunned silence. Despite its comedic tone, the show is more than capable of unsettling moments, sometimes even genuine terror — and, like the faceless, just-offscreen human figures that sometimes appear in Davis’ and Soler’s works, the most unnerving moments can also be the most clearly unreal: a herd of two-dimensional, loudly clanging cattle from episode 36, or the series’ final menace, a massive black inflatable mat referred to as “The Blob” that glistens, undulates, and implodes like something fallen from off a Dalí canvas.

Following an episode guest-edited by Mikey Neumann of Chainsawsuit and Gearbox Software, Car Boys’ musical palette began to expand; for one of The Blob’s key scenes, Robinson chose a selection from the score to Satoshi Kon’s Paprika which originally accompanied scenes of an unstoppable, literally nightmarish parade. Kon’s work, especially films like Paprika, Millenium Actress, and Perfect Blue, is also an important touchpoint for Car Boys, one which the choice of music directly acknowledges — like those films, in which characters’ personae in ostensibly unreal spaces begin to intrude on reality, the series consciously fosters an ambiguity of McElroy and Robinson’s position and stakes as actors in the narrative. As various forces in the game, especially Busto 2.0, seem to try to push against its boundaries and exert their powers directly on the players, so too do the players’ indications of their emotional and eventually even their physical, corporeal state relative to BeamNG.drive gradually shift from external to internal. This culminates in the final moments of the series finale, a gripping and gorgeous half-hour that hangs a hard narrative left every time you think you know where it’s going.

The sheer level of emotional investment McElroy and Robinson (to say nothing of the viewer) stake in these events is astounding given that, at face value, what we’re watching are glitchy interactions between few objects scattered around a plotless game. Like Dennis Cooper’s works Zac’s Haunted House and Zac’s Freight Elevator, novels told entirely in successive sets of curated and juxtaposed GIFs, Car Boys uses unique features of the digital medium to ask questions about how an audience (in this case both McElroy and Robinson and the series’ viewers) assign significance. Neither the novels nor the series follow anything like a traditional or rigid story structure (and, notably, both are directly inhibited from doing so by their chosen format — the novels by the looping nature of GIFs, and the series by its improvised structure and the unpredicted whims of the game), and Cooper and BeamNG.drive both present sparse worlds, but it is precisely this formlessness and sparseness that allows the violence and darkness in the novels to be impactful despite its cartoonishness and ambiguity, and that provides the space for McElroy and Robinson to craft such a compelling narrative.

Car Boys represents a powerful and fascinating step forward in its field. Internet comedy is by far one of the most exciting and innovative mediums today: platforms like podcasting and YouTube liberate film and audio content from the formalities and constraints of more traditional broadcast outlets; miniature formats like Snapchat, GIFs, a tweet’s 140 characters, or the now-defunct Vine push comedians to find creative ways of maximizing impact in a small space; searchability and a lack of gatekeeping allow for both tighter niches and ease of access to those niches; and developments like the meme interrogate the very fundamentals of comedy itself — how and why something can become a joke, and how a joke spreads and evolves. Taken as a newly complete whole, Car Boys — at once a broad farce of computational errors and a gothic drama of the virtual world — serves as a powerful positive avatar for all of this, if not progress towards its artistic apotheosis.