The sitcom is hardly the highest form of art. It isn't even the highest form of comedy. Nor, for that case is Rooster Teeth Productions' pastiche of the sitcom, The Strangerhood, an especially funny program. It elicits a few chuckles here and there, but it's no Seinfeld (which may be a show that contradicts my two initial statements), but, then again, that may be the point given Rooster Teeth's "so bad it's good" approach to video production.
One thing is certain, however, the show is fascinating to watch, and, if not a great comedy, it, nevertheless, marks an interesting dovetailing of two media: gaming and television, using both to drive production and plotting.
The premise of the show is as ludicrous as any bad sitcom. In the first episode, "Why are you here?", we are introduced to eight strangers who awaken one morning to discover that they have been transported to the Strangerhood, a fairly average looking middle class, suburban neighborhood. The strangers are disoriented and confused, knowing that they are not at home but also not able to remember exactly who they are or how they got here. The cast is, of course, an assortment of stereotypical odd balls, including the main character, the nerdy, but affable Sam; the dimwitted stoner, Wade; the "wacky" foreigner, Tovar; a snotty debutante, Nikki; etc. In a nutshell, it's a Gilligan's Island-like crew of castaways. In the second episode, "The One With a Premise", we discover that the eight have been drawn here in some unexplained way by an omnipotent stranger that apparently intends to put these characters through their paces through a series of mundane activities and to observe their behavior enacting such activities.
Gamers out there might recognize this premise if only because this is exactly what you are expected to do while playing The Sims. What makes The Strangerhood a more fascinating project than it might otherwise seem is that the characters are, in fact, sims. The show was produced using PCs, a host of editing software, and a copy of The Sims 2.
In other words, the video game has provided the premise for the show, and it also provides the setting, actors, situations, etc. Or as Rooster Teeth describes the process, "We just write scripts and then use [video games] to act them out. It's a new style of animation that some people call machinima. It allows [us] to make weekly pieces of animation with a small group of people."
Rooster Teeth Productions is no stranger to this technique of editing in game footage to generate original content. In fact, the above quotation came from the web site of their other web-based video production Red Vs. Blue, which they have spent the last few years producing some 40-plus episodes based on video footage from Halo. The cult hit has become so successful for the team that they were invited to discuss the concept of machinima at the Sundance Film Festival.
While Red Vs. Blue is interesting, this newest production seems a bit more sophisticated and a bit more accessible than their prior effort. Red Vs. Blue suffers a bit from the more limited animation sets of Halo -- more clearly a combat simulator than a drama simulator. Characters always posed in full body armor with weapons at the ready are far less compelling than sims, whose incredible variety of social animations are used to great effect by Rooster Teeth. Additionally, the target reticle of the first-person camera from Halo is always intrusively sitting in the middle of the screen in Red Vs. Blue, and the panning of the camera has the stiff look of a first-person shooter camera. On the other hand, the third-person camera of The Sims 2 allows for no obvious user interface intrusion and more movie-like camera zooms, pans, etc.
The sitcom qualities of The Strangerhood also make it more accessible to a broader audience. While both games clearly riff on the premises of the games that they use to generate content with, the world of The Strangerhood and the jokes it is capable of producing are much like network television or your own middle class life. Red Vs. Blue's jokes about fragging and multi-player gaming politics are just not going to connect with your average joe.
That isn't to say that the show doesn't work particularly well for the gaming crowd. Part of the fascination of watching the show is seeing how Rooster Teeth uses the basic environments, objects, and animations of The Sims 2 to generate the events and situations. It makes one curious to know whether the game helps to shape the plotting or whether Rooster Teeth finds ways to make the game accommodate the plot (I'm guessing a bit of both). For example, when the cast is made to compete in a contest, the voice of their omnipotent director explains that the contest will consist of the two teams making and eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Given that that is one of the few meals a sim is capable of preparing, we are aware of what a cheap gag the contest is. Similarly, a scene in which the curmudgeonly Dr. Chalmers comments to himself that he needs to get a friend to play chess with (as he checkmates himself during a solo game), we know that this animation of him studying the chess board is one crucial to building a sim's logic skills.
It is this self awareness that serves as the best of moments for the production and some of the more interesting self reflectiveness of this new genre of machinima. In the second episode, as the omnipotent voice introduces itself, the characters become aware both of his observation of them and of the observation of a disembodied audience signaled by a laugh track that intrudes on the sitcom (along with other canned audience sitcom staples, like the audience's excitement over the appearance of a very popular character, or the knowing "ohhhh" as a romantic interest between two characters is revealed). The laugh track adds an authenticity to The Strangerhood as not merely a game, but as a recognizable sitcom. Ironically, authenticity seems to be the chief purpose of canned laughter -- it lets the viewing audience know that what's being said really is funny.
If television viewers needed to become aware of the community of observers around themselves and that it was okay to laugh (and the 70s and 80s fad of doubling this authenticity by announcing that programs like All in the Family and Happy Days were taped in front of a live studio audience, letting us know that the jokes were really, really funny because real people were really laughing at them), The Strangerhood chiefly reminds us of its authentic inauthenticity through its canned laugh track, artificial ensemble, and gags based on the finite set of actions and activities available to a sim. Machinima is, indeed, aptly named as it's based on mechanistic premises and artificial people, but, then again, this distance from reality may be more authentic in its honesty about being a simulation than any of the "real life" situations we usually see on the networks.
2 March 2005