The Webcomic Overlook #135: Virtual Shackles
It’s the dream of every little gamer to want to grow up to be a video game programmer. That’s because they don’t know about the 20 hour work days and the suffocating deadlines and the bucketloads of shovelware that needs coding that makes you eventually want to give it all up and take a job selling mattresses. No, when you don’t know any better, programming is all about seeing your imagination come to life on a video game screen and, to a far lesser extent, dreaming of the a chance to date Playboy model Stevie Case.
Jeremy Vinar and Mike Fahmie are two such programmers. Both have worked around the gaming industry, toiling on illustrious content like High School Musical 3: Senior Year DANCE! (XBox 360, PS2, Wii, and PC), Tomb Raider: Underworld (Nintendo DS), and Superman Returns (Nintendo DS, Nintendo GBA).
While their computing efforts may not exactly make them candidates for the next PC Gamer “New Game Gods” feature, these two do stand a chance at making their mark on webcomics with Virtual Shackles, with Vinar doing the art and Fahmie doing the humor. Some of the strips look like they’re based on their their experiences, since the two protagonists, Orion and Jack, also work as video game company employees. Of course, as with all video game comics that part’s just window dressing for the multitude of parodies and caricatures of popular characters, the life blood of the video game webomic industry.
What’s that? You haven’t heard of Virtual Shackles? Perhaps it’s because the webcomic was founded relatively recently in 2009, making it a baby among video game webcomics. But, take it from me, the readership is impressive. When I checked the stats this month, Virtual Shackles gets some 180K readers a month according to compete.com. While it’s never going to touch Penny Arcade (640K readers), Virtual Shackles gets more readers than prominent video game webcomic stalwarts like PvP (88K) and Dueling Analogs (130K). It also got a higher readership than VG Cats (124K) and Ctrl+Alt+Del (170K), though admittedly I caught those last two on an off-month.
I’m enamored by that title: Virtual Shackles. That’s right, let it roll off your tongue. It’s as if the medium that brings joy and thrills to gamers can be imprisoning and confining. It’s bittersweet and almost poetic. I hope that’s what Virtual Shackles refers to, and not to, say, English economist G. L. S. Shackle. Otherwise, I would look quite the fool.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Virtual Shackles is, panel by panel, a shameless Penny Arcade clone. And I don’t mean like how Ctrl+Alt+Del gets called out for being a clone because it also features two guys sitting on a couch and talking about video games all day. However, the the characters are distinctively bug-eyed and slack-jawed, so at any point you never, ever mistake one comic for the other.
On the other hand, Virtual Shackles is nearly indistinguishable for Penny Arcade. If you stacked one strip next to the other, you’d swear that they were from the same webcomic, with Orion and Jack playing the Coy and Vance to Penny Arcade‘s original Bo and Luke Duke. It’s enough to make a guy want to adopt a sleeping dinosaur logo and say things like “Cerebus Syndrome” all the time.
The similarity in character designs is uncanny. Virtual Shackles goes above and beyond the gamer comic house style, which starts with the solid colors of a Flash-rendered design and ends with something that looks like it was spawned from video game/comic book icon Steve Purcell. Vinar is almost aggressive in his devotion to create an imitation Penny Arcade. Orion, for example, is drawn with the same kidney shaped head and noodle-thin neck that you’d find on Penny Arcade‘s Gabe.
The humor is pretty familiar territory, as well. I mean … yeah, this is a video game webcomic after all, so of course you’re going to get poo-piles of Halo, Mario, and Link references. Incidentally, there’s also a higher than average amount of Mass Effect jokes, which is only right as Mass Effect 1 & 2 are, like, the best video games ever.
No, I mean even beyond just the standard video game parodies, Virtual Shackles seems to rarely ever deviate from the Penny Arcade formula. Do you think there will be whiny political commentary about how the media feeds on negative perception of gamers? You betcha! Will there be a tiresome tendency towards telling dick jokes? Yup! Do we do some special Wintereenmas strips? Wrong webcomic. But yes. And speaking of which, will there be obscure Buckley bashing? Oh, you have work a little to find it, but it’s there.
Incidentally, I tend to agree with the critics who point out how some Penny Arcade strips are undermined by the use f-bombs. There are times when the obscenities seem shoe-horned, as if Krahulik and Holkins were so unsure about the punchline that they had to throw an f-bomb in there to get some nervous giggles out of the 13-18 crowd. Foul language, though, is often pointed out as one of the greatest touchtones of the webcomic format, where it’s often spoken in the same sentences as enthusiastic phrases like “so edgy,” “artistic freedom,” and “this is why webcomics are better than anything you’ll find in the funny pages, boy howdy!”
Like I said, Virtual Shackles does very little to deviate from the original recipe, and it tosses out unnecessary obscenities at metered intervals as well. Fortunately, to writer Mike Fahmie’s credit, these don’t feel quite as awkward or as forced as Penny Arcade’s.
Naturalistic cussing in webcomics! Will wonders never cease?
However, while Virtual Shackles gets zero points for originality, I have to say that otherwise I enjoyed reading it. It’s a Penny Arcade clone, all right, but it’s a good Penny Arcade clone. Part of it is due to good pacing, like this strip where Starkiller from The Force Unleashed gets unwelcome advice from Yoda and Darth Vader. And sometimes it’s from making gags that are fairly clever, like pairing Kirby with 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Above all, though, I found myself laughing a lot. Oh sure, there are duds, like one about video game characters dealing with the BP oil spill, that, I swear to God, has been repeated in every single video game webcomic in existence. (Did I miss “Everybody Draw BP” Day or something?) But a good number are good for a chuckle. I very much enjoyed the one strip commenting on the absurd video game physic of how every breakable object seems to contain some sort of reward. And, well, the dialogue and the expressions in the comic where two guys in Halo suits duke it out just makes me smile.
Plus, the art’s generally top notch. Unlike other gaming webcomics out there, there isn’t some sort of gradual improvement to the point where the art gets passable. Artist Jeremy Vinar was already there. Mr. Vinar is the proud holder of a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Illustration. He also, for some godforsaken reason, has a whole website devoted to his illustrations of fat superheroes.
So … yeah.
Anyway, there are a few glorious times when Mr. Vinar decides to go all Bill Watterson on us and breaks the limiting three to four panel format to hit us with his mad art skills. There might not be much of a punchline about Link making out with Samus, but little do we care since the point here is not the joke but the lovely artwork. The same thing about an epic artistic sequence that plays with scale and perspective where an ant climbs Jack in an homage to Shadow of the Colossus. It brings the art, it brings the funny, and together, it’s a tasty, tasty biscuit.
(Oh my God. Shoot me.)
Penny Arcade is still better, by the way, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Mike and Jerry are getting old. Gradually, they might be getting too old to do commentary on a medium that is skewed towards adolescents and college students. Today, it’s a comic moaning about having to play XBox Live with those damn teenagers. What happens when these guys turn 40? 50?
Virtual Shackles turns back the clock, bristling with the same enthusiasm from Penny Arcade‘s early days, albeit with better art. There’s still a way to go before the student becomes the master, but for a webcomic that’s only been out for a year, it’s off to a great start. Who knows? Some where down the road when a “New Game Comics Gods” feature gets written, there’s a good chance that Virtual Shackles will be on there anchoring the Mike linebacker position.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)