Webcomics have been happening since basically the beginning of the web itself, but it wasn’t until the dot-com boom of the late 90s that the medium began to attract attention and grow in a significant way. The “build it and they will come” optimism of this period made the majority of web content completely unbearable, and webcomics were no exception; much like how every asshole with a half-baked business model thought the internet would make them a millionaire, suddenly there were dozens of mediocre dudes who thought that the world wanted to hear their video game opinions.
I don’t know which one was the first, but we all know which one was the worst. The prototypical slacker gamer comic is, of course, Penny Arcade – both in that it’s the most prominent example and in that it inspired a thousand imitators. Ctrl-Alt-Del, PvP, VG Cats, Mac Hall, and countless nameless others arose during this period, and the reason I’m reviewing them all together is that they’re basically exactly the fucking same.
You may have heard this one before: two dudes, one couch, 5 million video game references passed off as jokes. But there’s actually quite a few comics that don’t fall into that particular cliché, while still clumsily leaning on video games as the basis for their appeal without being able to write a joke, or a woman.
These comics target the same demographic that video games do in general: white straight cis dudes with disposable income. This audience is comfortable at the top, used to being catered to and unused to challenging ideas. They don’t like things like “feminism” or “critical analysis” or “different perspectives”, so appealing to them is strictly a lowest-common-denominator affair: give ’em a topical video game opinion, a meme, and a set of boobs to leer at and they’ll be happy – as long as the video game opinion matches the prevailing sentiment, otherwise god help you. This is why the content of Penny Arcade hasn’t changed since the very first strip.
This also explains why the writers of these comics seem to have no idea what humor is: they don’t need to. Simply setting a scene with some video game characters talking about something out of character is enough to trick their target audience into laughing. Other joke substitutes these comics employ: racist comment; misogynist diatribe; use of the word “re**rded”; Our Hero Is Yelling And Swearing About A Thing; A Woman Is Fed Up With Our Hero’s Shit.
Of course, they’re not really all the same. I actually feel a bit bad even name dropping Mac Hall here, because its creators abandoned it almost ten years ago to make a much less slackery-gamery comic called 3 Panel Soul. But while its creators may have seen the error of their ways, PA’s Krahulik and Holkins are infamous for doubling down in the face of criticism. Misogyny is a hallmark of the slacker gamer comic, but Penny Arcade takes it above and beyond, pulling shit like responding to the backlash against a rape joke in their comic by printing and selling t-shirts referencing the joke.
Meanwhile, possibly to escape the legacy of the loss.jpg meme, Ctrl-Alt-Del rebooted to be… even more bland and generic than before somehow! Gone are the characters with, well, not personality per se, but at least they had… names? Now instead the cast is a bunch of color-coded non-entities called “player 1” “player 2” etc. I guess continuity was too much work for ol’ Buckley.
(PvP and VG Cats, on the other hand, are still grinding out the exact same shit they’ve been doing for the past 12-18 years. If you were wondering. At least PvP tries to have a story.)
Anyway, it brings me some comfort to know that even if the slacker gamer comics from yesteryear are still going strong, at least no new ones are being brought into this bruised and battered world. In fact, they seem to be giving way to something new: an evolution of the genre I’m going to call the “depressed gamer comic”, which is similar to its slacker progenitor, but without the obligatory dudebro attitude. Represented by titles like Blaster Nation and Clique Refresh, the depressed gamer comic looks deeper into its characters’ desire for escapism, has actual female characters, and often deals with mental health issues. The two I listed above even have queer characters? And female creators?! What’s this world coming to.
The verdict: Yeah, yeah, I play video games too, but I cannot come up with a single compelling reason to read some dude delivering his utterly milquetoast video game takes through his screaming avatar. You’re better off doing like, anything else with your time. Hell, just play an actual video game.