Car Boys Told Us Everything About Friendship And Ourselves, or; Some Sort of Digital Heaven Is Where We Deserve To Be
The inside of the virtual car was complete nonsense. It was a wet crumbling brick of nightmare Sun Chips in there. Despite our capacity to witness miracles and imagine magic, we are mere God Trash for the universe, and we must be afraid of this deadness, and we must love each other. It is ridiculous if we do not.
- Not Tim Rogers
“Nihilism” is hot right now. “Nihilism” is to American TV right now what “deconstruction” was to anime 1–5 years ago (cf. Re:Zero, Madoka Magica) in that the way People talk about “nihilism” is only sort of what’s actually going on. We’re talking Rick & Morty folks. We’re talking Bojack Horseman. We’re talking life is meaningless and critical acclaim when a show confronts that. So, let’s get it straight first. Rick & Morty and Bojack Horseman are nihilistic insofar as they’re fables about how nothing objectively means anything so you’re free to pursue your own meaning. Hey! That’s not really what People are saying though, especially when they’re taking a swing, which has more to do with an idea that they’re ultimately cynical shows (and the gooey sock stink of masculinity that sticks to cynicism’s friend, feelingslessness.) It’s easy to be cynical. It isn’t easy to make something that means something to someone else. Especially if that someone else is a stranger. Especially if that someone else is a lot of strangers.
“Nihilism” is the Ice Cream Paint Job on BeamNG.drive, a video game. There’s no point to this game except the point you make. (Like this essay.) The show Nick Robinson and Griffin McElroy made about it could not be any further from cynical.
What primed us for this? When I say the words “Weird Twitter” you’re allowed to roll your eyes just once. Referencing Weird Twitter when talking about successful internet content is a cliche now, but the parallels seem obvious. In the Past Times we had this thing called an “anti joke.” It was a joke without a punchline. “What do you call a tomato riding a bike? Refrigerator.” That sort of thing. Anti-jokes don’t exist any more because structure stopped mattering as much as tone. I got a feeling this is part of a cultural shift broader than Weird Twitter that involves a generation of comedy reformists reared on like, Stella and Tim & Eric and Mr. Show, meat-ground through the improvised, hyperbolic cinema of Will Ferrell Et Al., but Weird Twitter is a handy example. There’s no point to these jokes except the point you make.
How the heck else do you go from Seinfeld to shoving amiibos in your mouth to hundreds of thousands of viewers?
Self-reference becomes the whole deal, then. Self-reference is how you create the universe. The universe is Car Boys.
When Nick Robinson and Griffin McElroy turned the key on Car Boys in August last year, nobody knew how this was going to end. 12 episodes in it was already big enough for New York Magazine to cover it. Before, it was a show about two boys playing a car sim, but a quarter way into the series it’d developed heroes, villains, and an emerging fictional world for them to strut around. That positions Nick and Griffin as the post-modern idea of god as a sugar-jacked toddler in a sandpit, not building for the good of its creations, but creating and destroying for its own amusement, without any kind of plan.
“BeamNG.drive is rare in that it attempts to model soft-body physics, every single bump you hit or point of contact can alter the appearance and performance of the vehicle. Hitting a bump at the wrong angle can turn your car into a heap of twisted virtual metal. It’s a complex system which ensures that nothing happens the exact same way twice.”
And this is what Nick was saying by the 12th episode:
“The idea that we would’ve wound up where we are today is so weird because it’s not the same show anymore. I feel like everybody who watches Car Boys was misled — including me and Griffin — that it was going to be a thing about cars crashing in slow motion, and that is not at all what it is anymore.”
Nearly 30 episodes later, things had got way weird.
Nick Robinson is smart and funny as hell. Griffin McElroy is smart and funny as hell. Let’s talk about them separately before we talk about them together.
Before Nick Robinson, Polygon (the site that Made All This Possible) had made a lot of good out of reexamining how to operate as the gaming press. When it debuted in 2012, the mission statement was focusing on the people who made the games and not the games themselves, humans over mechanisms, machinations over machines, but even their more granular criticism was hot stuff. Bankrolled by Vox, one of the bigger new media players in the game; soft-launched through their already captive audience at The Verge with recognisable names poached for the masthead; and positioned as a voice of integrity for the changing face of gamers, Polygon did everything right. They were a target of Gamer Gate when that whole mess started, but were also one of the first publications to make a proactive commitment to being transparent about their reporting and reviewing process. (That didn’t make Gamer Gaters any happier (it was never about ethics in video game journalism.))
We were all awaiting the apocalypse in 2012.
Around the same time, Revision3 launched Rev3Games. Revision3’s roots stretch back to the late 90s with ZDTV but the relevant part here is Adam Sessler — a presenter on the shows that led to the creation of Revision3, and hired to front Rev3Games at its launch — took a shot on a baby games journo to be one of the presenters on the new channel. When Rev3Games folded in 2014, Nick said this:
“I don’t really know what I’m doing next. I haven’t really figured that out. All I know is it will probably involve the same goofy, nerd bullshit that I love so much.”
A few months later, Polygon picked Nick up to produce video content. A few months after that, Vox’s marketing team credited Nick as being “instrumental” in Polygon’s record-breaking reach on YouTube.
Griffin came to the scene as part of the McElroy Brothers. Since 2010, Griffin, Travis, and Justin have been changing lives with the podcast-turned-show My Brother, My Brother And Me. When Justin bounced from Joystiq in 2012 to be one of the founding editors of Polygon, the whole triforce, in varying capacities, came with.
In the year of our Lord, 2017, there are tens of thousands of words of fanfiction about Nick and Griffin. There’s a sense of predestination about the whole thing.
We Fucking Dreamed A Little Too Big, My Friend.
One of the reasons Car Boys was even capable of transcending its original premise is how effective Nick and Griffin are as improvisors. The characters that emerged were built because these two guys were so effusive about adding to the characters, and the production itself, rather than competing for some abstract sense of a win.
This thing workshopped itself. Here’s how a joke is born: In the third episode, driving one car into a dimension-tearing crusher, Griffin says “Maybe put Clair de Lune under this.” From that point on, Debussy becomes the theme for the show, and three different versions of the song (including one ft. Hatsune Miku) make it into the series. A stock model of a bus driver resembling The Stig is nicknamed Busto and becomes the default protagonist of the series until he’s flung through another dimensional tear in #27.
“Fucking see you, space cowboy.”
“It feels like he’s going to some sort of digital heaven… I think he just winked out of existence.”
They considered making that the finale of Car Boys.
In another early episode, a crash-test dummy becomes Busto 2.0, and when everything starts exploding horribly after they begin mocking it, they decide it’s evil. In a fanmade video Nick made canon, Busto 1.0 flies through the dimensional tear and ends in an infinite void, confronted by the massive, sinister figure of Busto 2.0. Self-reference becomes the whole deal. Self-reference is how you create the universe.
“We went from doing fun car-crash stuff, shooting a cannon into a car — that’s fun — to basically an ARG about a crash test dummy that wants to kills us in real life who is in every episode and ruins everything and is horrifying. And it’s hard to keep escalating that.”
- Griffin McElroy
One of the reasons Car Boys was even capable of transcending its original premise is none of the recurring jokes are pop cultural, and few of the jokes total are pop cultural. Car Boys defined its own comedic lexicon. Evangelion was referenced maybe once, extremely briefly, even though the fucked up geometry of spliced cars resembled your waifu Ramiel more than once. With time travel and parallel dimensions clutching to the wings, you’d figure maybe you’d get a “Time is a flat circle” (or a Temple of Time allusion like they did in Touch the Skyrim), but when it comes to the series’ clutch round, they build out an entirely new aspect of the world. References come in the form of musical cues (‘A Thousand Miles’, soundtrack cuts from Pirates of the Carribean, Gravity, Interstellar) but the Time Ring, Ball, the Ovo, the Blob, the Sun Chips Place, and every other memorable, head-clutching-in-awe moment of the series is sieved from the primordial soup of Nick and Griffin’s imagination.
You can check all this stuff out on the wiki. If Nick and Griffin brought the crayons and crete paper, the fans made sure it stuck to the wall. We’ve seen this fan-building before, from lonelygirl15 to Slender Man to Five Nights at Freddy’s, which just suggests it’s the difference between something that passes and something that endures.
“Due to its power, The Ovo has been very present throughout the Car Boys universe, and it was a crucial figure during the second season finale, where it allowed Busto 1.0 to break free from the prison bus and ascend to Digital Heaven.”
- Car Boys Wiki
One of the reasons Car Boys was even capable of transcending its original premise is childhood. Most of us had one. A lot of them involved video games. A lot of them involved watching other people play video games.
I’m not saying it doesn’t happen any more. Three Saturdays ago I watched my buddy Reahan play Far Cry 4 a few times in a seven hour window and sometimes he’d offer me the controller and I’d say “Nah I just like watching,” which I do. I’m just saying the last time it happened to me before that was three and a half years ago on a couch in an apartment in Brooklyn with a guy I think might still hate me. Man, I spent a lot of time on that couch. Man, I hope that guy doesn’t hate me. And before that it was probably 14 years ago in, maybe, Dromana, although truthfully I can’t remember exactly where my best friend had moved to from the house across the street.
One of the final reasons Car Boys was even capable of transcending its original premise is related to some of these memories.
Younger readers won’t know what it means to chip a console. It meant going to a shady old guy in a warehouse in Scoresby with fifty bucks and some blank CDs (or a friend with a soldering iron and the ability to decipher internet instructions (and an internet connection; this was dial-up era)) and then swinging by Civic Video to rent whatever game looked even moderately interesting. Kids, you’re downloading Blu-Rays in twenty minutes of a Fast & the Furious movie that came out a month ago; this is how we did piracy Back When. Hire a game, burn the disc, take the game back, and play the burnt copy on our hacked PS1s forever. Most of the time we didn’t know what the fuck we were getting. Every game company was churning out mascots in the hope of stumbling on something to rival Mario and Sonic. Remember Army Men: Air Attack? Remember fucking Chameleon Twist? (We didn’t pirate that one.)
I didn’t have a PS1, but my friend across the road did. He had tonnes of burnt discs too.
Plus, we were kids. We didn’t read the gaming press. I bought maybe three gaming magazines a year, when we’d go to the country and I’d cross my fingers that we’d pass a newsagency. We didn’t know anything about games before we played them. We just got whatever looked weird and fun.
Steam enabled Nick and Griffin to do basically that before they even realised it was going to be a show.
“This was kinda my first experience dipping into Steam reviews, and I saw all of the reviews for it were positive, so I downloaded it and messed with it for eight minutes and was kinda really disappointed and bored by it. I was like, ‘This game is so weird. There’s no structure to it. There’s no game part that I can find.’
And it wasn’t until a few days later when I wanted to show my computer to my roommate. So I loaded up BeamNG.drive and my roommate’s kinda this weird guy who just loves chaos…”
- Nick Robinson
Car Boys was always more than a Let’s Play because of that sense of discovery and it’s the common thread unspooling through Nick and Griffin’s most beloved projects. Touch the Skyrim, Sonic Dreams, Capsule Silence, Monster Factory, Car Boys — none of these experiences were predated by months or years of E3 keynotes, closed and open betas, pre-release gameplay footage and subreddit rumours. Where they’re going, they don’t even know what roads are. That naivete, like children to the world, is how Car Boys spiralled spectacularly out of control. They literally couldn’t have made this shit up.
None of this would resonate at all without the final hidden level secret boss reason Car Boys was even capable of transcending its original premise.
Are You Still In Here?
Car Boys is ultimately a story about eternal friendship. Alone, Nick and Griffin are plenty crushworthy, but it’s that love for each other that sticks a small city of people to a series about two boys playing with toy cars. The fear and desperation in Griffin’s voice when he shouts “NIIIIIICK!” and the awe in Nick’s voice when he half-whispers “Oh my god, Griffin…” when they discover something new and incredible is downright tender. And I think it’s why Polygon is so far ahead of the game here.
The economics of this stuff makes total sense. Nick and Griffin and the rest of Polygon’s video producers have an unbelievable amount of freedom. Polygon has faith in its talent. That’s kinda seemed like an antiquated idea lately but it’s always paid off. An outlet is only ever as good as the people creating its content, but I get the sense a lot of publishers don’t really understand that, so the paradigm over the past ten years has leant increasingly into an anonymised contributor base, promoting fast, cheap labour.
The dichotomy here isn’t deep vs cheap. Nick and Griffin have done plenty of long (by video standards (more than five minutes)) work, but you look at how good CoolGames Inc is and you can see how good fast and cheap can be. It’s about faith vs farming (humans over mechanisms.) Anyone going in for Nick and Griffin is watching all their shit because they care about Nick and Griffin. Once you take personality out of the equation, you get a YouTube channel that doesn’t seem any more valuable to the audience than any random vlogger.
I can only speak from my experience here: I’ve been in rooms with people arguing to replace decades of experience with undergrads and interns. But the more native advertising and brand partnerships replace banner ads and other click-dependent modes of revenue, the more I see this turning around. We’re kinda getting into the weeds here, but that strength of talent and personality is retaking ground from mountains of indistinguishable #content should be encouraging to anyone working in the media. Anyone just waking up to how important video is now should take notes. Tim Rogers just got drafted to do video at Kotaku, you know? It’s obvious.
To close this out sentimental-like: the friendship thing was obvious to The Boys by the end. There’s no getting past that some of the narrative tiles were arranged by the creators themselves, but it’s not something to get past in the first place, any more than you should get past Lana Del Rey having never grown up in a trailer park, more than you should get past Rick Ross not being a coke mogul. You inhabit the thing or you don’t.
“If we ever felt like it was time to end it or we were running out of ideas, we would probably just cut it off there. But the thing about this game is that it’s such a digital Ouija board where me and Griffin both put our hands on it and we have no idea.”
- Nick Robinson, 2016
“I think when folks see today’s Car Boys, they’ll understand why, when we were playing, we mutually agreed this was the finale”
- Griffin McElroy, 2017
What matters is it ended the only way it could: amid the shattered God Trash of the universe, stretching from nothing to infinity. Maybe none of it mattered or meant anything, to the people you go to school with, to your friends at the bar. But between August and May, to a few hundred thousand people, Car Boys had meant something, meant a lot of somethings, meant everything, everything, forever.