On Thursday, it wasn’t absolutely easy to get the conversation going. Nazis, evil and aesthetics riled us up more than a clearly written, helpful, accessible manuscript that articulated our role as design critics. It wasn’t easy to keep the conversations in class because most comments about the reading were compliments to the writer followed by someone else saying, “I agree.”

We decided to critique a flash based game produced by Adult Swim called Robot Unicorn Attack.

The game:

The song:

I discovered Robot Unicorn Attack through my friends on Facebook. They would take screen shots of their scores, comment and compete against one another. I tried the game out myself, loved it and shared it with Rob, Matt and a few others. Matt showed it to Sam(antha) who simply did not and maybe even still does not understand why this game is funny.

Below are points from our conversations and my specific criticisms on this deliciously, mechanical, prancing, animated, rainbow horse. I will look at Robot Unicorn Attack Jeffrey Bardzell’s 4 lenses: the creator, the artifact, the consumer and the social context.

Creator

Popular internet meme merges unicorns and 90s film Robocop in the context of absurdist humor. Adult Swim producers are actively referential in their creative process.

Adult Swim Creators likely referenced 90s pop brand Lisa Frank.

Adult Swim (producers) developed this game referencing an existing internet meme that merges Robocop and Unicorns. The humor of Robot Unicorn is centered around a few concepts. Anna mentioned several 90s media uses of unicorns that were taken quite seriously as wonderful, mysterious characters. The creators are also absolutely referencing Lisa Frank brand 90s school materials. The creators are likely the types of guys who had little sisters with these folders, pencils and stickers that at the time were, for lack of better words, completely lame. The humor in the game is the references to these things that exist in our media. Adult Swim absolutely targets a demo that will catch Lisa Frank and Robocop references. The player is greeted with directions to follow their dreams (by jumping through rainbows and stars).

The game is impossible to beat, however. The speed increases and there is no way to win the game, only to gain a higher score. That being said, it is impossible to ever make your wishes come true. Just immediately before beginning the prancing session, small, glittery purple text says “you will fail.” This dark, desperate humor is exactly Adult Humor creator’s style.

Artifact

Rainbows and massive explosions help game players empathize with both the delights and pains of a robot unicorn lifestyle.

The inevitable failure is absolutely related to the artifact of the game itself, as Matt mentioned. He also said that part of the absurdity and ridiculousness of the game is embodying and empathizing with the unicorn. The game requires an intense amount of attention and the 80s song that was especially popular gay communities is edited to be trancelike. The game is seamlessly produced. Technically, it responds smooth, the music is on perfect loop. Even between wish sessions, the track continues to loop rather than restart.

This maintains the continuity and motivates the addictive quality of the game. The game requires the user to only press “z” or “x” on their keyboard. It’s easy to follow and automatically restarts the game unless you close your window or decide to share your scores. The aforementioned continuity of the playing experience, again, helps the user embody the experience of being in a unicorn’s natural environment. The crashes are excessively destructive and the prances are excessively magical. A mature, adult, entranced by a this game takes the absurdity one level higher.

Consumer

In 2004, Google searches for Erasure were highest (B) around media coverage of lead singer's fight with HIV. Again in summer 2010, when Robot Unicorn was released, searches for the Erasure song were at a high. Credits to Lee Beckwith for the idea to search Google Trends.

Searches overlay for Erasure (red) and Robot Unicorn (blue). Holy cow.

Social
The social context was the richest part of our class discussion. While half the classroom was, indeed, absolutely entranced, humored and nearly addicted to the game, certain peers absolutely could not understand the humor until it was teased out.

First, Matt played the game to introduce it to the entire class. Ammar, who had never seen, heard or played the game, nor understood the references said that watching our reactions and experiences helped him understand the tension points and part of the reasons why it was funny for us.

Whereas Samantha had seen the game months ago and did not understand what made it funny. We invited Corinthe to play a few rounds after part of our discussion. In teaching and explaining the game, it helped us understand how, essentially, no two people we design for are the same.

The game is not targeted at everyone. The humor is deeply embedded in a specific demographic. It merges what we traditionally consider to be feminine and pop homosexual themes: rainbows, magic, unicorns and a song performed by openly gay singer Andy Bell as part of Erasure. This, merged Robocop, a traditionally pop macho theme is the crux of what makes this game so funny. Essentially, the player is likely to be saying in their head “I cannot believe someone actually made this and how much fun, how addicting and how much I love this prancing mechanical, one-horned rainbow horse.”

Summary
Robot Unicorn Attack is an inside joke. It’s created that way and spread virally. The game is not a hack, it is carefully produced and technically well developed. I think critiquing a game like this, that we often would look, laugh and move on with helped our class understand criticism better. We did not just look at an iPad or a highly controversial Nazi film but something that often drifts in and out of our news feeds and does get mentioned any further than the catchy song or a high score.

The song has been quietly wafting in the background as I wrote this post. I need crash through a few stores before I move onto the readings.

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