What I like the most about video games is how well they work for goofing around with your friends, whether you're trading in-jokes while blasting zombies or trading blows in kung fu. That's why Halo, Xbox's top title, is so massively successful: the designers realize the importance of group play. There's nothing more fun then getting the whole crew on one couch, talking trash while you blow the shit out of each other.
Since much of this enjoyment comes from its casual spontaneity, it's amazing that anyone has managed to capture it. Enter Rooster Teeth Studios, which has done just that with Red Vs. Blue, an online cartoon that's downloaded by over a million people every week. Not bad when you consider they didn't have to draw a single frame.
"It's more like storytelling," explains Jason Saldaña, who voices Pvt. Tucker, "Our talents are in talking shit - not drawing."
Red Vs. Blue is a machinima, which means it was animated by recording and remixing actual video game footage, in this case action taken from Halo. It follows the misadventures of two opposing groups of space marines who are stuck together in the deserted valley of Blood Gulch. But it's really a character-driven comedy built loosely around elements of actual gameplay, with Halo as just one jumping off point.
"Our characters will say things like 'What's a Warthog?' (Halo's all-terrain vehicle) and then get into a debate, saying, 'It looks more like a puma,'" says Matt Hullum, a series writer and director as well as the voice of the ridiculously gruff Red leader, Sarge.
"That's an actual conversation we had one time. And a lot of the jokes are just things like that - friends' talking, making fun of each other. It all ends up being dialogue."
I met up with Hullum and Saldaña along with Dan "Donut" Godwin when they left their home in Austin, Texas, to attend last August's massive sci-fi and gaming expo at the Metro Convention Centre.
"We write all the scripts ahead of time, and the actors act them out," Hullum explains, "but then, to create the video portion, the director controls the "cameraman,' which is one dedicated Xbox showing the point of view of one character, and we feed that into a computer and record that footage. Then the other characters, the actors, are joined up through system link through Halo. Sometimes we call it puppeteering."
Together, the writers and actors inject their puppets with life that's miles away from the dry sci-fi epic roots of the original game. I was never a fan of Halo's lead character, Master Chief, the green, shiny-helmeted faceless soldier, so bland he doesn't even have a name, only a rank. Onto this blank slate, Rooster Teeth projects the demented antics of Caboose, the gun-obsessed female mercenary Tex and the pure jackassery of Privates Grif and Simmons.
The fact that Halo's creators left the helmet blank is what allows players to invest so much of themselves in the gameplay. Anyone can be underneath it even you. It's also what inspired Red Vs. Blue's originators, allowing their series to be made in the first place.
At the convention, I can barely squeeze in my questions as the Red Vs. Blue table is swarmed by shy teenage boys, cute raver girls, even a father and son who watch the show together. "We think our humour is going to appeal to everyone," Saldaña says, stripping the plastic off the next DVD to be signed. "What's more shocking to us is that we have fans who don't even play Halo at all, who say they hate video games but they love our series. That's cool for us, and it happens quite often."
They've even managed to pick up a few celebrity admirers, including local hero Ed Robertson.
"He wrote to us to say he's a big fan. We were shocked," Saldaña says. "He said he wanted to work with us. That was a big boost for us. Now, on their last two Barenaked Ladies tours, we've made cut scenes for them that appeared between songs. So it got shown every night they were playing."
Not surprisingly, the dream of many Red Vs. Blue fans is to take it back to where it all began and play a little one-on-one with their heroes. But if they ever do, they're in for a shock.
"We're so bad at Halo that it's always disappointing for fans," says Saldaña. "The only thing we're good at is bobbing the heads up and down, so if you want us to do that, we can. Otherwise, we're awful!"