Part Worlds Chat, part Broken Reality, theclub.zone is an intriguing exploration of the strange wacky side of virtual worlds, but one that has been done better- kind of.
Primarily known for their comedy collaboration with Rick & Morty creator Justin Roiland, developer CrowsCrowsCrows recent entry into experimental digital media is a little more up Rebind’s alley than their usual fare.
It’s hard not to draw immediate comparisons to WizMud, the prototype MMO-Pseudo MUD that found itself going briefly viral in 2017. That is somewhat of a compliment, it really feels like CrowsCrowsCrows has managed to capture a much more immediately accessible slice of the atmosphere that WizMud (which we’ve written extensive thoughts on) cultivated, yet this is a double-edged sword that leaves the experience feeling a little shallow compared to it’s indie peers.
That’s not to be harsh, “The Club” drips with trademark charisma rare in an experimental art title outside of say, Arcane Kids catalog of culturally challenging digital dadaism. And while it’s no Bubsy3D or Sonic Dreams, Club is still an effective nostalgic snapshot of virtual worlds gone-by, be that Second Life for some of us, or even the more recent VRChat for others. However, virtual worlds are more than just wacky memes or trash-porn artistic endeavors to see how far you can push the idea of taste, they’re also home to a uniquely vivid and wild digital utopian culture that feels like a much needed reprieve from the dour mood of our modern online commons.
That comes off as the main criticism to leverage against The Club, it feels like the sort of interpretation that laughs at virtual worlds instead of laughing with them. WizMud was an incredibly earnest pastiche, trying to genuinely embody the loving sense of community of a virtual world while tastefully ramping up the wacky aspects, a longstanding tradition of avant-garde forerunners in online social spaces. Then there’s Dynamic Media Triad‘s Broken Reality (which our friend, Chris “Campster” Franklin does an excellent analysis of) which is a sort of single-player deconstruction of both virtual world’s tropes, internal power-struggle, and the innate hauntography endemic to internet culture at large. Likewise with Heather Flowers’ (@HTHRFLWRS) exploration of deserted digital locales in “DARK FOREST VIRTUAL CHAT ROOM“. These attempts to look back at Internet history have all had some sort of central subtext to convey to the user, to impart a lesson even if the only thing passed on was biographical sentimentality.
The Club’s problems are further compounded by the inability to produce raw text output for chat, instead letting the user pick from a predetermined “SpeedChat” style list of cheeky responses, no doubt a winking nod to “safe” social MMORPGs like ToonTown that restricted user output to maintain a family friendly atmosphere. While it has precedent in the genre, it feels like a cut corner instead of a comedic recreation, an excuse for CrowsCrowsCrows to utilize multiplayer without really addressing or commenting on the issues of moderation, toxic behavior, or the role both heavily played in shaping the culture of the metaverse. It’s a safe design choice with some historical value, and… that’s the problem. Virtual worlds were anything but safe, and that risky digital “anything goes” frontier vibe was part of what made them refreshing, something you can’t synthesize while trying to play it safe. It’s a reductionist approach that leaves the user feeling like they’ve been picking through hyperconsumerist detritus washed ashore, the discarded leftovers of a world that never was instead of a sculpture made from recycled pop cans.
The Club has comparatively little to offer past it’s initial short lived fanfare, and maybe that’s OK? Not every riff on a source material has to offer a rich critique or tribute to its influences, nor should we ever feel entitled to such offerings.
CrowsCrowsCrows history of collaborating with Rick & Morty Creator Justin Roiland does give some pause and likely leaves one wondering: is this a fun joke to lighten the mood, or yet one more cynical extension of the nihilistic humor his work represents?
Too late to innovate, but just in time to capitalize on “cringe” or referential nostalgia. Do works like these seek to exploit our deep seated self-doubt that leaves us clinging to those with aloof detached mannerisms, hot takes, and dark humor? We’d personally like to give CrowsCrowsCrows the benefit of the doubt here, they’re no Arcane Kids, nor do they have to be. The Club is still worth some of your time and certainly has a very bangin’ soundtrack that strikes me as one of my favorites in recent memory, and we’re certainly looking forward to see what they produce next. If nothing else, it has left me wondering how much mileage there truly is left in this new wave of mini-virtual worlds that call back to the hauntological pastiches of past-futures that sort of were but never will be.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice