• The Masculine Issue

    Even Car Boys Have Soft Bodies

    The Masculine Issue
    3 web

    Even Car Boys Have Soft Bodies

    What happens when players undermine a game’s intended boundaries? The Youtube series Car Boys mine the glitches and misbehaviors of simulated bodies.

    Under the water there’s a whirlpool, and under the whirlpool there’s a tunnel. If you fall into the tunnel you keep falling, down and down forever, while multicolored rays of light swirl around you, while galaxies and nebulas and whole oceans whiz by, until you fall through the edge of the visible world and start plummeting through a grey void with no limit and no bottom, no tether to time.

    Car Boys, a YouTube series set inside the driving simulator BeamNG.drive, ends there. The only indication that the hosts are even still playing a driving game is the blue car at the center of the frame, mangled by water pressure, with two dark spikes that used to be its tires jutting out infinitely in opposite directions. From the first episode, Nick Robinson (who controls the game) and Griffin McElroy (who watches through Skype from the proverbial passenger seat) strive not for the biggest possible crashes or the most impressive vehicular stunts, but for the bizarre image-making allowed by a readily glitchable physics engine.

    Though advertised as “a realistic, immersive driving game” whose “soft-body physics engine simulates every component of a vehicle in real time,” BeamNG.drive allows players to push beyond realistic car crash scenarios into chaotic, frenzied play at the very edge of what its engine can render. Out of the box, the game itself allows a certain degree of absurdism: There’s a cannon big enough to launch a school bus and a level with giant concrete half-pipes that invite you to drive a hot rod around like a skateboard. But the thrust of Car Boys, what makes it rewatchable beyond the vast majority of Let’s Play gaming videos, is the ongoing attempt to break free of the simulation’s intended boundaries – to glitch the game beyond recognition and find something human in the cracks. 

    Though advertised as “a realistic, immersive driving game” whose “soft-body physics engine simulates every component of a vehicle in real time,” BeamNG.drive allows players to push beyond realistic car crash scenarios into chaotic, frenzied play at the very edge of what its engine can render. Out of the box, the game itself allows a certain degree of absurdism: There’s a cannon big enough to launch a school bus and a level with giant concrete half-pipes that invite you to drive a hot rod around like a skateboard. But the thrust of Car Boys, what makes it rewatchable beyond the vast majority of Let’s Play gaming videos, is the ongoing attempt to break free of the simulation’s intended boundaries – to glitch the game beyond recognition and find something human in the cracks. 

    In the first episode, Robinson describes the program as “a vehicular body horror simulator.” As the series progresses, that description becomes more and more apt. By episode five, the boys try to wrench a bus driver free of his bus, only to find the two are indivisibly connected: The driver is part of the bus and the bus is part of the driver, and while you can break both you can’t separate them from each other. In episode six, a standalone crash test dummy (nicknamed “Busto” after the Mythbusters dummy) invites new dimensions of play across the body-form. He quickly denatures when dragged too hard with the cursor, transforming into an unstable mass of polygons McElroy dubs “god trash.” 

    God trash is chaotic and unpredictable, and by experimenting with it, the players guide Car Boys into some of its most sublime moments. When Robinson accidentally spawns two dummies on top of each other, they shake, twist, and convulse until they break out of their bodies and engulf the entire playing screen. Orange, black, and green triangles block our sight of the map; when Robinson moves the camera, he moves it through a vast field of fragmentary color that jumps and glitches at random. The players may break the cars, but once provoked, the crash test dummies break the world. From his first appearance in the series, Busto wields agency within a game designed to permit him none. After Robinson glitches him out for the first time, a truck in the background spontaneously catches fire and flies across the screen. “We shouldn’t have tormented him, Griffin,” Robinson says. “We didn’t know his power.”  

    The appeal of ragdoll games like Garry’s Mod or Stair Dismount, in which the player tosses lifeless bodies around spaces designed to maximize harm, derives from the feeling of total power over a powerless object. The ragdoll never fights back. In Car Boys, that premise gets flipped on its head: The ragdoll, once he’s been tortured enough, attains subjectivity and acts independently of its torturers. The boy wakes up and he’s mad as hell. 



    That Robinson used the term “body horror” to describe the series before he ever spawned Busto illuminates how the genre relies more on instability of form than traditional horror signifiers like blood and guts. Body horror doesn’t necessitate the presence of a body – though there are human silhouettes in Car Boys, there’s no flesh, no viscera, only metal, glass, rubber, and plastic. What it does require is a subject that is mutable and prone to chaotic change. Games like The Void, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, and the Silent Hill series fall under body horror not because of the violence done to bodies onscreen, but because of the unstable boundary between “body” and “not-body.” Silent Hill’s monsters ooze through walls or wear rusted metal shards for heads; in Amnesia, mutilated stalkers chase the player into rooms contaminated by disembodied boils. The enemy isn’t limited to the human form, but can transmute into anything and everything in sight. 

    From Carpenter’s The Thing to Cronenberg’s Videodrome, body horror almost always infects the male body in the popular canon, rarely the female (Silent Hill with its myriad feminine monsters being a notable exception). That bias is displayed clearly in The Void, a surrealist game whose non-player characters are either model-thin women or hideously deformed men. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine women as victims than as monsters; perhaps the cis female body is already monstrous enough as it is.  

    In Lars von Trier’s 2009 film Antichrist, Charlotte Gainsbourg’s character indicates that women have historically been scapegoated for evil because of the mutability of their bodies. Under patriarchy, cis womanhood is defined by the ability to menstruate, get pregnant, and give birth; cis women swell and shrink and overflow with little direct control over the automatic movements of their bodies. Body horror imagery, then, can be read as a feminization of the cis male form. The man loses agency when his body takes over; he bleeds and is emasculated; his consciousness is forced into the passenger seat while his corporeality drives. The mutated body holds both the feminine and the masculine inside it at the same time. While most body horror films and games depict that intermingling of gender as a death sentence, or at the very least disturbing, Car Boys paints it more as a kind of transcendence. 

    “This dude’s on some Akira shit,” McElroy says in episode seven. He’s referring to the climax of the anime and manga, where the character Tetsuo is no longer a teenage boy but a swollen mass of chaotic flesh threatening to grow and destroy everything in its path. Busto, too, grows cancer-like through the playing space, bigger than any building on the map. His body juts out twin pyramids from the nucleus of his human torso. He’s out of control, more powerful than the player inhabiting the god’s-eye view of the scene; god trash overpowering god.  

    Though it works the same way as traditional body horror, Car Boys, through Busto, finds catharsis and relief where a game like Silent Hill only finds unease. Busto is a threat to the players (a few interstitial skits in the series depict him traveling like a virus between computers and then breaking out into the physical world), but they also marvel at the shapes his body makes when loosed from its sterile male scaffold. “This is erotic and painful and...beautiful,” McElroy says, watching two Bustos spasm into each other. Later, after Busto’s body has stretched out to the size and shape of a mountain range, Robinson says, “He wants to be free.” 

    While neither Robinson nor McElroy identifies as queer, their interpretation of bodily chaos as an expression of freedom and power echoes certain gestures toward queer liberation. Some Car Boys sequences evoke the explicitly queer body horror work of artist Jesse Kanda, whose music videos also focus on chaotic eruptions of the body-form. In the music video for FKA twigs’ song “How’s That,” a feminine form deflates and then glitches over the screen until the frame of reference is confused and the body is more environment than body. The video for Arca’s “Front Load” pans over Kanda’s own body in close-up and soft focus, confusing genitals for the underside of a tongue and pomegranate seeds for teeth. The camera gets disoriented, unsure what it’s looking at, just as Robinson and Griffin wander confused through Busto’s exploded body wondering which overwhelming shape is his ass and which one is his dick.  

    In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam reads queerness into another straight male duo pursuing vehicular shenanigans: Jesse and Chester of Dude Where’s My Car? “While the film’s queerness cannot be located at the level of identity, we can argue for queerness as a set of spatialized relations that are permitted through the white male’s ... disorientation in time and space,” Halberstam writes. Robinson and McElroy chase disorientation throughout Car Boys, and find it especially when Busto’s frame shakes loose from its human proportions, creating whole landscapes with its newfound freedom. Through accidental, spontaneous narratives, the players eschew standard patriarchal models of gaming – compliance with rules, production of virtual wealth, banal repetition applied to the pursuit of winning – and fall into failure. They fail. The game fails, often crashing to the point of needing to be rebooted. They chase after failure, and all the wild and unexpected forms it can take.  

    Watching Car Boys as a trans person – a person whose body is its own kind of failure – offers me an unexpectedly visceral relief. Since puberty, my body has done things I never asked it to. It’s grown in places I don’t like, it menstruates, it ages, and it hurts. I’d like it to map onto a more masculine shape than what I’ve got, to recede in certain places and elongate in others, but it won’t, not on its own. When I dress the way I like, there’s always too much of me to fit properly, an excess that’s dismissible on good days and painful on bad ones. I overflow from the avatar I’ve envisioned for myself. This is, I think, what’s called dysphoria, itself a subgenre of body horror. The body plagues the subject inhabiting it by being too much and not enough all at once.  

    In Car Boys, that excess becomes beauty. I recognize it even on a crash test dummy – a nominally genderless form that’s still gendered male enough that its use in accident testing has resulted in the deaths of women, who on average are smaller than the dummy’s frame. Robinson and McElroy immediately recognize Busto as “he,” another boy in their universe of boys where masculinized toys erupt into new, feminized, and unrecognizable shapes.

    The fear that body horror exploits – and that Car Boys inverts – is that even the cis male body is mutable. It ages, gets cancer, grows breasts, loses limbs and teeth, all without the permission of its subject. Patriarchy smooths over this fear, attributes chaos and malady and even death to women, but the body continues its misbehavior unabated. In a different world, the boundary between the body and its environment wouldn’t be so fiercely guarded. Through Car Boys, Robinson and McElroy offer a glimpse at a masculinity that pulses, decays, and explodes in sync with the world. Their boys, who are almost never called men, don’t triumph over the chaos around them. They feed it and fall into it, seeking change not as death but as freedom. 


    Update: The day after this piece was completed, Nick Robinson was let go from Polygon for a history of inappropriate behavior toward younger women. I hope my fascination with and analysis of his work does not translate to an endorsement of creeps. Don't be a fucking creep.

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