Three years ago today, on May 4th, 2015, visual media took another step forward in its evolution, with the beginning of one of the great comedy series of the 2010s. Two young brothers had been working for several years at Polygon, what can be best described as a Nerdist-esque website with a video game emphasis, and were charged with revamping the video department, taking it into experimental directions you wouldn’t find at any other video game website. And so they began those efforts with the gift that is Monster Factory.
These two of three McElroy brothers, the oldest, Justin, and the baby-est, Griffin, have recently left Polygon to better balance their family lives with their careers in the podcast empire business. As these two begin a new chapter in their lives, with the promise that this series will still be updated on occasion, I have chosen to commemorate what they accomplished with Monster Factory.
My best explanation for the basics of Monster Factory, for someone at any level of knowledge and experience with video games, is that the brothers take the system for designing and customizing your own character within a game, and push it to its absolute limits Each entry in this series is, in one way or another, and often more than one, devoted to “breaking the game”.
If you don’t consider yourself a Let’s Play person, that’s totally understandable, but it is worth keeping something in mind about this series. I think the best way to look at Monster Factory, and maybe even the broader appeal of Let’s Plays in general, is by recognizing that they share DNA with Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The experience of actually viewing the film being shown, or playing a game, is secondary to a distinctive work of comedy based in personas of the people you’re watching and their use of language.
The laconic drawl of Joel and the hyperactive egomania of Crow T Robot dynamically clash and still work together perfectly to create a specific language of examining and uprooting this monster movie or that sci fi action flick. Justin and Griffin’s dynamic, as two well-meaning West Virginia boys who push at and provoke each other in different ways, works similarly. In both series, we go past simply watching someone watching a movie or playing a game, moving into the subversion of the game’s engineering, its world, and its narrative, and ultimately shifting into the creation of new micronarratives are both built on and removed from the media that was started with, like the cops who are READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL in Laserblast or the beautiful lycanthropic high school romance of Werewolf.
I almost included an episode even older than this one to better establish a baseline, but…fuck that. This episode provides what should be an excellent starting for Monster Factory for several reasons: being a great example of how they began to create their own stories within the games’ frameworks, without relying on modding the game as they will in the future, and the sheer extremes to which they take the unassuming starting place that is a wrestling game’s customizing system.
In its earliest days, namely the first year or so and especially the May to December 2015 stretch, Monster Factory established a few trends that characterize and in some ways define this series. Out of the first thirteen videos the brothers released in that 2015 stretch, more than half were based in games from one of two developers: FromSoftware, known for the Dark Souls trilogy and its sister game Bloodborne, and Bethesda, with the fourth and fifth Elder Scrolls games and third and fourth Fallout games. These dark, high-fantasy action-RPGs reach a sweet spot for what can tenuously be called the Monster Factory formula in just the same way the genre films that Joel and the bots tackled would click. The games maintain an aggressive gravitas that can easily be pushed into absurdism, while their fantasy settings provide ample opportunities for delightfully bizarre character choices, like a pale blue, big-eyed, towering turtle man or using excessively bright eyes to suggest an unholy fusion of feline and machine called CYBERGARFIELD.
The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion video is one of if not the best among this particular run of entries in this series. It holds up, still making me laugh as I return to it again and again, it has some of the best results of Griffin’s game breaking/reality warping in the whole series, and it’s a big step forward in the series’ evolution, with the first climax for one of their constructed narratives. And of course, it demonstrates the difference between a Gregory and a Marcus.
What takes Monster Factory truly into the level of sublime comedy is not the pushing of a video game’s engine and designs to their limits and beyond the point of breaking, or references, or delightful wordplay, or the sheer level of ultimate affection the brothers have for their monstrous creations. It’s in these micronarratives crafted within the confines of these games’ limits, slowly coming together into more and more tangible entities. Chiquita Dave and his clone army are addicted to fighting and utterly hate the king they serve, Grandpa Piss. The Pebble is desperate to please his master, Dwayne Johnson. And what came next after these entries, as the storytelling and editing qualities at work began to develop, was quite simply the peak of Monster Factory. The brothers’ loves of reality warping and wordplay and crazy voices coalesce into the singular creation and accomplishment that is Pam. The three episodes that make up Pam’s story, from November and December of 2015, were a massive step forward from the brothers on par with their best work from The Adventure Zone. If there’s any one part of Monster Factory that must be seen to understand and appreciate it as a cultural entity, it’s this trifecta.
Coming off what remains to this day as the biggest hit of the entire Monster Factory series, with more than two million views and the fairly widespread agreement among fans, that the Final Pam Saga were the best episodes yet, Griffin and Justin faced the dilemma of how to immediately follow up such an event capping off their first calendar year. They proceeded to indulge in an especially body horror filled episode that was my original introduction not only to this series but of the McElroys themselves back in the summer of 2016, by the lovely Penny B, who some of you may not have gotten the chance to meet in their fairly irregular presence here. This video will always hold a particularly special place in my heart for sparking an insatiable affection and passion for the brothers and their works. It also provides a sort of platonic ideal of Monster Factory without any of the pretensions around it that I love to focus on. I advise you to stop short on this one, because its post-creation section in the beta world of a game no one remembers anymore is as disengaging as the character creation section is wonderful.
2016 rolled on to be a pretty great year for Monster Factory to continue exploring its playground, expanding the variety of genres for the games they played, returning to some games previously played, doing more multi-part episodes, and for a particular extended period in late summer, Griffin almost drove himself, and me, insane with how broken Will Wright’s Spore is. They weren’t matching the heights of ambition represented by the Final Pam Saga, but it quickly became apparent that they had no intention of trying to recreate its magic. Some things are indeed better left untouched, and the brothers moved on from it well, updating the series fairly consistently and hitting home runs with new beloved characters like the Toss Team Randy Johnson and Pan Pan, or Turbovicki, Wii Sports Resort‘s ultimate athlete, whose name isn’t short for Victoria, it’s short for Victorious, and whose family is in a vicious rivalry with the family of former US Vice President Dick Cheney. The Turbovicki episodes were a particularly satisfying set for the series to end 2016 on, recorded before certain events cast a shadow over the end of the year.
A darkness hangs in the air at the start of their next episode, as Griffin sincerely hesitates over the work they do, but he, and we along with him, are reminded that there is still much to appreciate in life. He proudly announces that he is a father now, and it gives him a joy that he and Justin wish to instill in their audience in these times. The simple beauty at the heart of the entire McElroy clan’s line of work, from which so much springs outward, is the goal of joy, of making people happy. Justin and Griffin delivered on this goal in particular with this two-parter about a superhero called Knife Dad, which ends with a delightful demonstration of the community that the brothers have built up to this point around this wonderful, silly little series. Just a whole bunch of people together acting in love and celebration and a lot of goofiness when they needed it most.
As Monster Factory continued to push through 2017, passing its two year anniversary and entering its third year, and it repeatedly went into longer and longer hiatuses, the question became whether the series was finally past its glory days. And the answer, to some extent, was yes. These two wonderfully creative and very busy guys were no longer on the same streak they were for 2015 and 2016, and were unlikely to recreate it. However, that doesn’t mean the series has completely lost its magic. Any given entry in the recent times has certainly been enjoyable, with the occasional breakthrough effortlessly matching up to the classics, like a recent trifecta from WWE 2K18 telling the tale of the world’s oldest wrestler and fast food mascot, Arby the Meathead McDonald. Rather than choosing one of those as the final showcase for this article, I have selected an entry from the Just Like Art miniseries that ran last fall.
Just Like Art returns the brothers to their familiar stomping ground of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, from one of their very first episodes, with a totally new narrative framework being applied: navigating the sophisticated art world that they really did, whether they know it or not, manage to stumble into in some ways. With this serie,s the brothers were able to effectively take their evolution as creators and the series’ evolution full circle, using their tendency towards constructing new narratives to effectively comment on the journey they went on from starting the series to its explosion into a niche phenomenon, capturing the magical essence of their “needlessly confrontational” absurdist pop-art in perfectly sized short bursts along the way.