… to re-opening the black box

If there’s three things the internet is good at, it’s snark, porn and nostalgia.  Any one of the three is usually enough in itself, but mixed together it’s often a potent, popular combination, regardless of your digital generation.

Throw in video games for good measure, and you’ve practically got a full house for internet bingo.

With that in mind, in February 2017 Consolevania returned.

When Consolevania came to an end in 2008, with a melancholic eulogy both to the pioneering web series and to games reviewing itself, it seemed to mark the end of an era.

The final two episodes — a rolling series of skits and reviews on Youtube later collected together into a single episode, followed by the Consolevania Christmas Carol – had given the demise of Consolevania a drawn out feeling.

It followed on from the odd third series of videoGaiden, a web-exclusive season that fell somewhere between short and long form and that was bolstered by three half-hour shows broadcast on BBC Scotland.

Ryan Macleod and Robert Florence
Macleod and Florence in Consolevania episode 1. Respective portraits in their attics not pictured.

And that seemed to be that.  Robert Florence and Ryan Macleod, the faces of both Consolevania and videoGaiden, moved onto other things.  After five years, the axis was ended, something emphasised by an acrimonious spat between the pair, at one point played out publicly on social media.

Florence built on his two previous sitcoms written with Iain Connell with the sketch show Burnistoun, landing alongside Gary: Tank Commander and Limmy’s Show to create an acclaimed triumvirate of comedy series for BBC Scotland, coupled with stints working with Frankie Boyle on the panned Tramadol Nights series for Channel 4, and even writing for Hogmanay telly favourite Only An Excuse.

He, Connell and Joanne Daly also launched a production company, Bold Yin, which began making short videos for Channel 4 and the microbudget horror film, The House of Him, although curiously that company was wound up in September of last year

Macleod kept a lower profile, working behind the scenes in TV production, but also launching his own online video games review show – Chuckiedregs, which put him alongside some of the up and coming names that had attempted to fill the space Consolevania left.

The announcement on Hogamany 2015 that videoGaiden was returning caught many by surprise, not least because of the split between Macleod and Florence.  It returned, as the third series had been, as a series of online-only episodes with a TV special thrown in for good measure.

Since the third series, though, the nature of TV consumption had changed — iPlayer had launched, BBC Three had moved online, and the idea of web exclusive content no longer felt awkward or thrown away.

That fourth series of videoGaiden was a curious beast.  Shot partly on location at the set of Glasgow soap opera River City, it’s linking material tacitly addressed the fallout of their falling out, and the dissatisfaction with reviewing that Florence had expressed at the end of Consolevania, along with drawing on the ‘trapped in a fiction’ meta-narrative that they’d employed at the end of Consolevania’s run.

It was definitely a more mature show — not only benefiting from TV resources and their various experiences in production since then, but also from the fact it had been nearly a decade since the last series. It felt more considered and mature.

As they said in an interview to mark the show’s return, “It’s quite interesting for two old guys to be doing it. It’s nice to still love games but be able to look at them a bit differently.”

But while the episodes garnered tens of thousands of viewers on YouTube, and presumably a similar amount on iPlayer, there seemed no sign of a follow-up. Which perhaps made the return of Consolevania as inevitable as it was initially surprising.

Unlike the previous runs, or indeed unlike Macleod’s own Chuckiedregs, this new series was to be a subscription only project on Patreon, with Florence and Macleod being joined by now regular contributor Gerry McLaughlin – host of, among other things, the Consolevania-esque Re:Loaded for Manchester’s late lamented Channel M back in the mid-00s.

Watching the first new episode of Consolevania in nearly ten years is a curious, somewhat sobering experience.  But what’s notable is how samey it feels.

One of the great things about Consolevania at its peak was that it felt innovative. The ongoing narrative games, the progression in production quality and confidence.  Even the notorious black episode, a surrealist experiment that, coupled with the Limmy-featuring C episode, felt like early steps in an ARG, years before that kind of narrative fluidity was commonplace.

So much of the new Consolevania feels like a homage to the show gone by. It could comfortably be any episode from the show’s second season, soundtracked by some obligatory blue-eyed soul.  The T2 parody at the end smacks of ‘hey, everyone loved the Ken Loach’s Halo spoof, we need to do something similar’.  End of Level Boss is resurrected.  Even the coathanger mic is back, not seen since about 2005.

Consolevania: End of Level Boss and Mid-Level Sub Boss
End of Level Boss and Mid-Level Sub Boss. Things you didn’t expect to see in 2017.

It opens with a chop-up of the Nintendo Switch promotional videos and some bukkake porn games, takes in reviews of Dogchild (a terrible looking game), The Flame and The Flood, and Resi 7, and chucks in some skits in between.  All familiar stuff.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the return of Consolevania.  It’s comfortable. It looks exactly like people remember how it used to.  But it’s hardly the stunning return to the internet that the creativity and output of those involved had promised.

It’s hard to know what Florence, Macleod and McLaughlin hope to achieve with the new show, other than getting some money in. The Patreon-exclusive format limits the audience for the return (although it’s already achieved north of $4000 per episode).

In some ways this return feels like fan service — something being produced for old school viewers of the original episodes. Yet Consolevania always felt like a labour of love — the people behind it producing something for themselves that they passionately enjoyed and that we as viewers were lucky enough to be able to enjoy with them.

Robert Florence, Ryan Macleod and Gerry McLaughlin in Consolevania 4.1
This is, indeed, how most podcasts are recorded. Especially at Gogo Studios…

And yet… it could yet turn out they’re throwing us a dummy.  The Consolevania Podcast segment features curious nods to Rab and Ryan’s feud, and to Rab’s previous resistance to using crowdfunding for productions.  Making a show trading on nostalgia, for coins, doesn’t feel like their style.

It may be all a deliberate act, a slow unfolding of a storyline the way they tried before.

Or perhaps they’ve just got old and decided they needed the money.  Because, on the internet, people don’t often go bust trading on snark and nostalgia.

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