Thursday 4 September 2008

Red vs. Blue

A while back I reviewed the game Halo, which ripped off Half-Life, Larry Niven and/or Iain M. Banks and Unreal Tournament but wasn't as good as any of the originals. Nice vehicles though. I also mentioned that the game inspired a web-based comedy series called Red vs. Blue. Since the number of people anxious to know more was rapidly approaching one, I thought it would be a good idea to expand on what Red vs. Blue actually is.

Red vs. Blue is, arguably, the most popular example of what is called 'machinima'. Machinima is based around the notion that modern computer games have graphics that even just a few years ago you'd need a computer the size a house to render in real-time, so by just recording a game session and getting the players to 'act out' scenes with their characters, accompanied by a voiceover track, you can create your very own movies. Naturally, most of them suck, gamers generally having the patience of a hypersensitive gnat suffering from Tourettes and not being able to agree on anything. Plus a lot of these movies involve guys running around shooting one another on Counter-Strike maps whilst overusing the phrases "Pwned!" and "LOL!" until you want to actively kill yourself. Or, y'know, just go do something else, suicide is probably a rather extreme and unnecessary action to take in that situation.

Anyway, Red vs. Blue is one of the exceptions. Created using the Halo multiplayer mode, it features two teams (you can take a wild guess at their colours and names) guarding their bases at opposite ends of a box canyon. Occasionally it is suggested that they should be trying to kill one another and capture the opposing team's flag, but the lack of any logical rationale why they should do this, combined with innate laziness, means instead they stand around most of the time making jokes about girls and vaguely insinuating the other characters are gay whilst moaning about not getting any reinforcements. It's a bit like a Kevin Smith-scripted version of Waiting for Godot but done as a Seinfeld episode. With guns.

Obviously it would be extremely dull if this is all that happened for 100 episodes (relax, they're only 5 minutes long), so the arrival of two rookies, the accidental death of one of the soldiers, the inadvertant capture of the Blue Team's flag and the deployment of special forces operatives to the canyon sparks off an incredibly convoluted storyline that eventually incorporates sentient killer tanks, Spanish-talking robots, aliens, body-hopping AIs and time travel (in an amusing visual joke, characters who travel into the future are converted into the Halo 2 game engine, whilst those who travel into the past end up as characters in the ancient FPS Marathon, Bungie's precursor to the Halo trilogy). The booming success of the series means that the rough-quality audio from the first episodes is rapidly spruced up, excellent custom-made music is introduced and the whole thing becomes more polished. The humour remains the same throughout and is based around the characters: the tough-talking Sarge, who favours ludicrously over-complicated plots in the vain hope that his nemesis Grif will be killed in action; the relatively sensible but easily-annoyed Church who can't shoot straight for love nor money; the psychotic operative Tex; Sheila the sentient tank; and Caboose, the deranged Blue rookie who goes through most of the series operating on another plane of reality to the others and is the character most people either love or absolutely loathe (he's the Kramer of this series, then). The humour is pitched somewhere around the level of, say, South Park. Well, maybe a bit higher than that with lots of riffs on SF movies and games. Actually, it's a bit difficult to describe. Luckily you can try it for free (see links below) to see if it appeals.

Some episodes are exceptionally funny, such as a time travel odyssey which explains most of the series' plot holes, or the episode which is set inside an actual Halo deathmatch and leaves the two characters present in a state of near-mental collapse at the level of insanity on display ("I have captured the flag! Behold its radiant countenance! I am as a god!"). A few miss the mark, but given how long this damn thing is (it would take you nine hours to watch the whole thing from start to finish) it's surprising how few dull instalments there are. The series became a huge success, and within a year of its launch it was estimated that there were up to 1 million people downloading each new episode. Several of the game characters made cameo appearances in Halo 3 as well.

Obviously all good things come to an end. But not Red vs. Blue, apparently. As well as the 100-episode original series (subtitled The Blood Gulch Chronicles), there are two short spin-off mini-series focusing on side-plots and secondary characters (Out of Mind and Recovery One) and, now, a fully-fledged sequel, called Red vs. Blue: Reconstruction, created using the engine Halo 3. Reconstruction looks an absolute million dollars, as you'd expect in HD, and benefits from apparently using special tools to get dramatic camera angles and freeze-frame effects not available to the average gamer. Luckily, the writing and humour remain consistent with the original series, and benefits from a somewhat darker and more dramatic direction than the original series.

You can view all of these thanks to the power of YouTube, starting with the very first episode here. Reconstruction is being released with one new episode a week and can be viewed here. That link also takes you to Rooster Teeth's website, where they have tons of other stuff available such as DVD box sets of the entire series and so on. But to watch this all you really need is YouTube, a sense of humour and some spare time.

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