Dead Pixels, from Channel 4, brings comedy to gaming with a series written by Jon Brown (writer of Fresh Meat and Misfits, and ex-games journalist) based on the “Avatards” Comedy Blaps series for the Channel 4 website. Mixing the real world with images from the world of Kingdom Scrolls, it goes through the trials and tribulations of a three person “1337” guild as they battle though to the end game.
Two things are needed to make a good sitcom – a solid set of characters to either laugh at – or with – and a comprehensible reason for them all to be in a situation to let the jokes flow through. This is something that Dead Pixels manages to get very right, especially on the people-front as it has an intentionally minimal cast to work with.
The core group are Meg (played by Alexa Davies), a regular office worker whose personal life revolves around gaming and acts as the narratives’ main viewpoint; Nicky (Will Merrick), the more serious gamer and least socially functional of the group, and Usman (Sargon Yelda), a 30-something American who spends his time at home ignoring his wife and putting the “gent” into “negligent parenting”. Acting as disruptor to the guilds-focused game progress is Russell (David Mumeni), Meg’s co-worker who she invites to the game in the hopes of shagging him and then discovers that he’s noob enough to want to play the game for fun; Meg and Nicky’s housemate Alison (Charlotte Ritchie), who leads a normal life and gently tries to encourage the gamers to do the same, and Russell’s mum (Debbie Chazen), who is just lovely. There are a couple of other speaking parts per show, essentially NPCs in the MMO of life, but there is enough depth of writing and talent amongst the cast to carry the show with this simple setup, even with most of the action being executed via headsets whilst looking at a computer screen.
The majority of group activity happens within the game, in a charmingly rendered set of animations made using Unity (a favourite of game developers), and that world is almost perfectly crafted to get across the authentic feel of MMOs without having all the visual clutter that would both overload and intimidate a “casual” audience. Game mechanics are almost totally untouched upon, features that developers would kill to introduce (and then be promptly killed by Community Management for ever considering) are shown to their full comedic potential, and the game has the kind of utterly incomprehensible and overly filigreed background that are regularly used in the real world to hide the fact that the product is a carefully presented Skinner box.
Clichés are played upon, both for giggles and ease of communication, and you can start to see why the main trio have decided immerse in this bit of digital heaven to avoid the challenges of the less colourful and more complicated real world. But Real Life is a powerful enemy, and leads the players through such difficult missions as “Having a new player join the team!”, “Dealing with a party!”, “The realities of pro-streaming!” and “How to explain your hobby to your parents!”. And here is where the show starts to waver, because for all it’s character warmth and attempts at making everyone seem like a real person (they all have moderately involved jobs for a start), a lot of the gags end up being on the theme of “gamers have no life.”
This is mostly funny when the gamers are making the observations, but it gets a bit heavy and obtrusive when its being made at the gamers expense (especially with the charmingly played but annoyingly, effortlessly perfect Alison waltzing her way through an apparently blessed life). Essentially you are left being unsure if the show is trying to laugh at or with the gamers, even after you accept that the basic premise is gaming addiction, and that indecision makes for an uneven ride.
The few times that things start to get serious about the topic, it backs off far too soon. This is especially frustrating on the multiple occasions where interesting questions about virtual world being viable spaces for human interaction and honest fun start to be asked, and then the script suddenly remembers that any kind of positive answer will kill the series dead. There is also a moment about fake gamers and the appropriation of geek chic-delivered by Meg to a random female stranger, that would probably have been uncontentious the other side of GamerGate but now just feels needlessly aggressive. However, it is somewhat forgiven for its forced edginess by having “You ever shit in a bucket?” as the scene’s cold open.
The series clearly knows its subject matter, and does pay reasonable homage to the culture of its premise, but no amount of homework is going to hide the tired clichés at the edge of everything. The writing is good, but there is a sense that it could be better if it let itself be as smart as it could be. It’s not a bad watch; each episode has moments that are laugh out loud funny and the cast doing an amazing job of being likable, whilst being limited by being sat down at a keyboard and staring intently into a screen.
If it can find decent quest line for the next expansion then it could be an absolute gem, but at the moment it’s easy to lose interest in its series of checklist achievements.
Dead Pixels is available online at channel4.com and is currently showing weekly on Thursdays at 9:30pm via E4.