You Can’t Go Home Again: The Legacy of the Angry Video Game Nerd

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Permit me, if you will, to take you back to the past. Way, way back a dozen years ago — before major gaming sites made comedy a key part of their video strategy, before most sites even had a video strategy. Before PewDiePies and Game Grumps and ProJareds and Dunkeys. Before the concept of YouTube stars. Back in the mid-2000s, things were simpler: we had a man. A rant. An Angry Video Game Nerd.

Today the entertainment value of someone struggling with a difficult or frustrating game is almost taken for granted — it’s an entire genre of YouTubers. But the Angry Video Game Nerd, created and portrayed by James Rolfe, was one of the first. The series launched on YouTube in 2006, though Rolfe was privately distributing episodes on VHS tapes amongst his friends as early as 2004. The early episodes were built around a simple premise: a man so upset about decades-old games that he filmed his diatribes in hopes of preventing others from playing them. Sporting a white collared shirt with a chest pocket stuffed with pens, a pair of glasses and a Rolling Rock beer, the Nerd cussed his way into early YouTube stardom when his episode on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles NES game went viral.

So Bad It’s Good

Fittingly, Rolfe came from a film background, a media in which the concept of the media object “so bad it’s good” has a long history. After all, Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered back in 1988, and appreciation of the B-movie genre goes back even further. Rolfe’s love of genre film is no secret, and later episodes of AVGN began to feature the kinds of schlocky effects and over-the-top narratives common to the form.

But games aren’t films, and the idea of a game that’s so bad it’s good doesn’t cleanly translate across mediums. For one thing, most games deemed “bad” by general audiences are frustrating experiences marred by bugs, poor design, or technical flaws. If a “good game” is defined by the fun and pleasure it brings its player, then a bad game is by definition an unenjoyable experience.

Enter the Angry Video Game Nerd: Rolfe merged film and games, the equivalent of handing your friend a controller and making them suffer. Suddenly the painful element is out of the equation, and an unpleasant experience has been transmuted into a pleasurable one. Rather than struggle furiously ourselves, we witness Rolfe stumble over the same counterintuitive, unfair, or simply difficult games, all the while cursing up an over-the-top description of the scatophagic experiences he’d prefer to indulge in given the choice.

Masochism and History

There’s a specific kind of pleasure at play here: a voyeuristic enjoyment of the performer’s pain. And yet Rolfe’s character never relents. Initially, the character was framed as having a duty to warn the world of bad games — something of a ludic sin eater. As time went on, this device took a backseat to more outlandish, psychosexual themes: characters such as Bugs Bunny, the Joker, and even ROB the Robot emerge into the Nerd’s reality, inflicting pain and physically restraining him in order to force him to play their games. The theme of masochism — initially subtextual — gets foregrounded in these episodes, with shots of the Nerd in controller wire bondage featuring prominently.

Rolfe’s character is subjected to intense punishment — not merely psychological, but physical as well. With an increase in production values in later episodes, elaborate fight scenes become more and more common. These scenes leave the Nerd beaten, bloodied, and broken — sometimes even dismembered and killed — literalizing the pain of the experiences he puts himself through.

But what is this pain, precisely? Is it merely a kind of consumerist rage against “bad games?” Incipient elements of this are certainly present in the Nerd’s character, but a more generous reading might consider the focus on “classic games” rather than currently-marketed titles.

These are games the audience — likely around the same age as Rolfe — is presumed to have played in their childhood, games which may even have delighted and entertained a young player who didn’t know any better. Before critics, before the internet, before an unstoppable deluge of ludic content, we may have experienced genuine pleasure with games we wouldn’t touch today. Or, finding ourselves stuck with a subpar game for a few days or even months, we may have convinced ourselves that there was something worthy in its broken code.

Yet upon returning to these worlds, that spark isn’t there: the magic’s all used up. Experiences we associate with the comfort, simplicity, and warmth of childhood wither under the critical eye of adulthood and inevitably fail to transport us back to that carefree state. You can’t go home again. Our attempts at a return are painfully rebuffed by history. Try as he might, the Nerd simply can’t take us back to the past.

And yet we can’t help but try, over and over, to recapture our childhoods. We obsess over classic games, we clamor for new “retro” titles, we immerse ourselves in media franchises produced for children. But it is a losing battle: like Achilles in Zeno’s Paradox, the harder we struggle, the further history recedes from our grasp.

The Angry Video Game Dad

Rolfe is, of course, no exception to the endless flow of time. Games he reviewed in the early days of the Nerd are now thirty-something years old and likely hold no emotional resonance for many of his viewers. Perhaps as a concession to this, newer AVGN episodes have occasionally moved away from games of the 80s and 90s, focusing on more recent titles in the bad game canon, such as Big Rigs: Over the Road Racing, Planet of the Apes, and Charlie’s Angels. These episodes represent a diversion from the original premise of the character, which becomes especially jarring in the two-part episode on 2006’s Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic ’06, as it’s commonly known, is widely derided as one of — if not the — worst Sonic titles in history, and yet watching Rolfe criticize it as the Nerd is an odd experience. In between describing the game’s many technical shortcomings, he balks at the strangeness of Sonic encountering human characters (a concept that’s been around since 1998’s Sonic Adventure), questions the necessity of a storyline, and bemoans the inclusion of a large supporting cast.

All of these elements of modern Sonic games have been criticized by other commentators, but watching the Nerd zero in on them is different — the object of his wrath has shifted from the previously-beloved childhood game to a decade-old, widely-panned Xbox title. When he asks what’s wrong with the simple premise of Doctor Robotnik turning animals into robots, he does so with all the anguished exasperation of a middle-aged man complaining about modern music. Whether this merely reflects the Nerd’s lack of interest in contemporary games or is inspired by Rolfe’s own reticence in this respect, it’s clear what has happened: the Angry Video Game Nerd has become a dad.

Nostalgia for Nostalgia

Rolfe himself is married and a father to two children. And yet his personal life rarely enters into his work online, separating him from the newer breed of YouTube families and vlogger celebrities whose personal lives are their cultural products. He was one of the first YouTube celebrities, and in many ways seems to have stuck to his roots. His channel has only recently begun to take on the standardized look of contemporary YouTube, with colorful title cards displaying the Nerd’s anguished face next to box art of the featured game rather than stills from the videos themselves.

In the current media environment The Nerd is a throwback. Rolfe stands alone even compared to other games YouTubers in many respects, notably including his positioning vis-à-vis his fanbase. Search “Game Grumps” on Archive of Our Own and there are over 3,000 fanworks — many of which are sexually explicit, pairing the personalities with other online celebrities or the reader herself. A search for the Angry Video Game Nerd turns up just 28. Rolfe exists outside of the modern fandom ecosystem — he’s more like a somewhat reclusive auteur than a beloved “good boy” of gaming or an object of desire.

A dozen years out, the Angry Video Game Nerd has himself become an object of nostalgia. But if the Nerd tapped into a nostalgia for childhood, then what do we make of nostalgia for him? Perhaps a recollection of a time not that long ago in absolute terms, but eons ago online: before platforms took over, before Google owned YouTube and certainly before the kinds of relationships we now have to social media celebrities.

We’re now encouraged to see YouTubers as our friends, to believe we have a two-way relationship to them even as they wield tremendous sway over their fans — a dynamic that inevitably produces abuses of power. Of course, similar abuses occurred in older systems of celebrity. But in the current environment, they are concealed behind the smokescreen of media democratization and the illusion of camaraderie with our favorite microcelebrities, all on platforms controlled by corporations who can revoke access on a whim. It’s not surprising that someone in their 20s or 30s might experience a kind of nostalgia for the freer, more chaotic internet of the mid-2000s on which the Angry Video Game Nerd flourished.

Slaying the Dragon

“I’m searching for my fountain of youth,” Rolfe begins in a 2010 video titled “The Dragon in My Dreams”, in which he describes his earliest memory — a nightmare of a dragon towering over him in the middle of a pool. The “fountain” turns out to be quite literal, as the dragon of his dreams had a counterpart in reality: a water fixture at a local park he visited as a child. Rolfe was haunted by the recurring dream of the dragon, yet also inspired by the terrible power of his own imagination to transmute the pleasant into the horrific. And so he began voraciously consuming films, telling his own stories, making his own movies.

“There’s something sentimental,” he muses on the car ride to the old playground, “about watching an old cartoon or playing an old video game.” He’s just turned 30. He steps out of the car, approaches. The camera pans across the playground, the dragon nowhere to be seen. And then, there it is: worn, eye sockets empty, paint chipping. A kind of overwhelmed joy plays across Rolfe’s face as he raises his hand to his mouth. He kneels before the dragon in a low-angle shot, surrounded by torn-up concrete. The playground’s being renovated, and had he shown up only hours later, this reunion would never have occurred.

“This is exactly how I remember it as a child,” he says. He runs a hand over the ancient surface, plucks off a chip of paint, considers the wyrm’s green scale between his fingers. “It’s time to say goodbye to the past. Time to move forward.”

Seven years later, Rolfe is pushing 40. He looks a little tired in newer videos, a little haggard, as one might expect of a father of two young children. He’s been doing this for over a decade. At the end of his Sonic ‘06 video from November 2017, he reflects on all of the hours thrown into the game, all of the torture of playing it. He might as well be reflecting on his entire oeuvre. “And now… it’s all over?” he asks, eyeing the game as sultry music plays. He nods, a smile playing across his face.

Fade to black. The sound of a whip cracking. Fade in to Rolfe tied to a slab, a hovering copy of Sonic 06 whipping his chest. “Give it to me!” he cries. He’s faced the pain, willingly sought it out, embraced it. And maybe that’s all we can do.