We all have our own formative movies and TV shows, stories that we watched at an early age that spoke to us or, in more extreme cases, helped us define ourselves. For me, the most significant cinematic bildungsroman was probably Say Anything, the story of the far-too-mature-for-his-age Lloyd Dobbler and one of the sweetest, simplest high school romances of all time. However, before that, before I was at that age where one starts grasping around for meaning or building who one wants to be, I was a middle-schooler that hated everything. And if there were such a genre as the pre-bildungsroman bildungsroman—the foundation for pouring the foundation—the perfect fit for it and my middle school angst would be “Arby ‘n the Chief,” a YouTube Machinima series recorded in Halo 3 that frequently stars action figures. What?
A quick step back for context. For those of us that weren’t nerds in the ‘00s onward, “Machinima” is any sort of movie, music video, or show produced with recorded footage from gameplay in a video game. So instead of people standing around being filmed in live action, it’s a bunch of characters in video games standing around being filmed from someone’s PC or game console. This term, also, is not to be confused with the company named “Machinima,” who do publish machinima from many content creators, but are also soul-sucking exploitative vampires.
The rise of movies made in games can mostly be attributed to the increasing ease of capturing game footage and growing online video communities such as YouTube throughout the 2000s. Games becoming more and more mainstream didn’t hurt, either. After Red vs. Blue and Rooster Teeth, one of the most influential and successful Halo machinimas was Arby ‘n the Chief in 2008.
Besides the weird culture around it, what actually is Arby ‘n the Chief as a story? The premise, once you get over the meta-ness of it, is dead simple. The main characters are Master Chief and the Arbiter, action figures of characters from the first-person shooter, Halo 3. They live together as an Odd Couple-style of roommates in their owner’s apartment. They’re both voiced by Microsoft text-to-speech programs—Master Chief is voiced by Microsoft Sam and Arbiter by Microsoft Mike. Chief is a nearly illiterate, sexist, immature character with the temperament of a toddler and a sailor’s mouth, and Arbiter is a more even-headed, articulate surrogate for the show’s creator, Jon Graham. Together, they bicker and play video games. That’s it. Between the simple premise, the crude handheld live action footage of action figures moving around talking (totally not with a hand off-screen), and the rudimentary voice acting of Microsofts Sam and Mike, there’s a charming gaucheness to the entire production.
Now, for reasons that are only known to my ass of a subconscious and God himself, I got into the mood to rewatch the entire original three seasons, as I still giggled hysterically remembering certain scenes. I was not surprised to see parts of it hold up very well. Other parts—well…
Arby ‘n the Chief, more than ever, strikes me as an artifact of its time—late ‘00s Xbox Live culture—and as created by a man who is smarter than he is capable of articulating at the time as he experiences growing pains both as a director and as an early adult in his 20s. And those growing pains—that fuzzy grey area between childhood and adulthood, and all the insecurity and uncertainty that comes with that—those are what give the show its surprisingly resonant emotional core and its funniest, most endearing moments, what led to its widespread success.
Sure, there are several scenes and plots dealing with “gamer culture” or the nuisances of playing games online (screaming internet trolls, lag, etc.), but at its heart, Arby ‘n the Chief is a college roommate comedy, where much of the conflict comes from Master Chief trying to appear more mature and adult than he really is as Arbiter either helps or hinders him (it really depends on the mood he’s in). The illiterate Master Chief of Arby might be an iconic early internet meme because of saying such perfectly awful phrases as “my roflcopter goes SOI SOI SOI” in that ridiculous Microsoft Sam voice, but he’s also a tender embodiment of the internet at its worst, not because it’s just that stupid or malicious, but because it’s just that immature. Chief makes homophobic dick jokes about the Arbiter nearly nonstop, but also always constantly seeks out his approval. He’ll wear a condom like a hat after having mistakenly called it a “sex balloon.” Is it any wonder that Chief resonated so much with the primarily younger audience of Arby ‘n the Chief, the middle schoolers and high schoolers who wanted so desperately to fit in and grow up? Who unknowingly empathized with Chief’s plight while simultaneously treating him like a scapegoat of stupidity, someone who is certainly more clueless about sex than they are? (As clueless as some kids are, they’ll never use a condom as a hat or dunk an entire bottle of deodorant on their pits… right?)
This youthful anxiety, the lines between child and adult being blurred, permeates the entire show and leads to most of, if not all the most memorable and funny scenes: Master Chief pretending to be drunk like a freshman at his first house party, drinking from a water bottle crudely labeled “BeR” with a sharpie, going, “Oh maaaaaan I’m so wasted”; a kid playing Grand Theft Auto IV online with an offensive-as-fuck fake “black from the streets” voice only to be dragged screaming from his Xbox by his father; Chief rolling up Lucky Charms cereal in a paper towel and attempting to smoke it like a joint and going “I’m so high”; two adults getting married in an online game of Halo 3 as “Here Comes the Bride” plays over a tinny headset (after the “priest” pesters his roommate to start playing the stereo, of course); the list goes on.
We can see a similar anxiety in the creator himself, Jon Graham. When Arby ‘n the Chief was first created, Graham’s online name was “Digital Ph33r,” something he himself constantly lambasted both within the show and in commentary tracks. In commentary, he points out he chose that Xbox Live name when he first started playing at a much younger age and keeps it around for name recognition only; in the show, Master Chief himself mocks Graham—“Look at me, I’m DIGITAL PH33R, I have 3s in my name!” There’s even a plot in one of the “movies” where Chief is brought to LA to make a movie thanks to his machinima (the producer thinks it’s ironic), and then unceremoniously booted because it turns out he’s crap. Tell me there’s not a little insecurity there about being an aspiring filmmaker working in video games. By later seasons, however, he altered his persona to “Jon CJG,” a much more professional sounding handle. The later seasons also traded in heavier topics as well, trying to discuss internet tolerance and the controversy surrounding Resident Evil 5’s portrayal of the African continent.
But then, anyone who disagrees with the Arbiter (Graham’s obvious writer surrogate) is immediately called “a fucking douchebag.” And therein lies the rub with Arby ‘n the Chief.
See, part of that anxiety of high school—fitting in and trying not to be eaten alive as an impostor by your peers—is viciously tearing apart others so you’re not next. It’s not just fearing for yourself, it’s ripping everyone else a new one. And we see this effect in full force in Arby ‘n the Chief. Many of the show’s subplots trade in making fun of the most idiotic and toxic members of the Xbox Live community. That’s fine—considering this was made in 2008/2009, that toxicity, dumbasses and 10 year olds screaming “faggot” and “retard” through their mics at all times, is reflective of Xbox Live at the time. But I take issue with these low-hanging pieces of comedic fruit being mauled, not just because they ought to be mauled, but to make Jon Graham seem clever. I hope, and assume that’s not the case—hearing him speak outside the show, he’s clearly very passionate about making online communities a safer, kinder place. In the work itself, however, it’s very easy to assume otherwise. Many episodes follow this format—Chief or some online troll do something stupid and hateful, and Arbiter either talks some sense into them or burns them in an eloquent, well-articulated rant. Master Chief’s character is a tender and empathetic representation of the internet dumbass within us all; the Arbiter is the high-handed aloof judgmental guy within us all. It’s easy to seem smart or clever when the people you’re talking about are as stupid as Xbox Live. And yes! Xbox Live can be that stupid! But that doesn’t make the revolving door of idiotic adversaries in Arby ‘n the Chief any less annoying. Graham is right, but he is not clever.
It’s no coincidence that the episodes that fall the flattest are these “serious” episodes—it’s not because Graham is wrong, or because we’re all immature assholes who just want Chief swearing. It’s because Graham’s direction and writing feel so much more energetic, emotional, and alive while writing immaturity than platitudes. Certain plotlines and certainly, Master Chief, come from the heart—Graham’s arguments, however, feel far more detached and intellectual. When Chief is being an idiot, Graham is making fun of internet culture, but also embracing how he is a part of it. When the Arbiter speechifies, however, he clearly considers himself above it. Another example of this is the later characters of Todd and Travis. Travis is the idiot, Todd is the Jon Surrogate 2.0. Travis is stupid in the most blunt, obnoxious, unclever ways—he sucks at games, he swears, he wants to shoot up strip clubs while playing Grand Theft Auto IV. Todd, on the other hand, is even less alive—he’s reasonable. Therefore, in the universe of Arby ‘n the Chief, he’s boring. He is given nothing to do but be a foil to Chief. Even Graham himself admits that he hates the characters of Todd and Travis. As he well should—they’re Arby and Chief again, except without the actual conflict and character moments. They are pure didactic id.
Think for a moment on the characters that are looked at with the most disdain by Arby ‘n the Chief. They’re all either blithering idiots or posers or shameful in some way. There’s Craig, who claims to be MLG, but isn’t really, and camps the most powerful weapons while jacking off. He is shamed for not being as good at the game at he claims to be, and for making the pose in the first place. In this faux-high-school environment, full of people with impostor syndrome, those most harshly punished are the actual impostors. There’s “Assassin Ninja 4827”, a 39 year-old man who is way too invested in his Halo 3 armor sets, and is mockingly called “Ass Ninja” by the Arbiter nonstop. This one is interesting. He’s an object of derision because he’s supposed to be an adult by now—not caring about this stupid video game. Graham, as a guy in his 20s clearly struggling with this same sort of thing, tears this character a new one because he’s just as critical of himself, and sort of displaces onto the character, as if to say, “You’re way older than me, YOU of all people should have your shit together and be an adult by now.” Graham even pokes fun at his own fan base, in a fun way, but one that also reveals his own insecurities about just what kind of entertainment he’s making. In a very meta episode, a lobby of Halo 3 players get stuck together when a match glitches, only to bicker about which Halo machinima creator is the best, including—you guessed it—Jon CJG. Yet the characters who advocate for him are clearly 10 year old children who slobber and froth over every little personal detail of Graham’s life, and cackle at Chief saying “my roflcopter goes SOI SOI SOI.” Heck, another character chides them, saying, “enjoy your stupid dick jokes,” to which they simply scream, “We will!”
That assessment is not too far off, at times. Arby ‘n the Chief is funny, but it is incredibly crude and blunt, to the point that South Park looks like an Aaron Sorkin script. Most of this crudeness comes from, surprise, Master Chief, as he spouts “faggot,” “retard,” “gay,” “fuck,” “bitch,” and all sorts of mom and gay jokes left and right. A more modern episode from season 8 has him saying “cuck.” While this is a conscious decision, and another example of a time capsule, it’s still hard not to cringe a little bit at points. Graham is smart, but not quite on top of his social-political awareness enough to earn a character who talks like this—especially in the context of 2018. The language, in general, is just super blunt and foul like a middle schooler. Even Arbiter, the smart one, the sort of role model, frequently resorts to just calling people “douchebags” and “assholes.” There’s a random gay alien rapist—why? And this is what I meant earlier when I said Jon Graham seemed like he’s too smart for how well he can articulate his stance. Like teens, his characters have a nuanced sense of the world, but they can’t express them properly. He has moments of eloquence through the Arbiter, and he comes off far better outside the show, but the best way he can articulate his issue is to have a character annoy him in some way and then call that character a douchebag. Or Ass Ninja. When he’s feeling a tad cleverer.
If it sounds like I’m stretching this theme of anxiety about adulthood too far, consider that almost directly after halting Arby ‘n the Chief for a spell, (Machinima was working him into the ground,) Graham went on to create a shorter-lived series called One Life Remaining, a dramedy about a recent high school graduate trying to figure out life after school. I remember enjoying it at the time, but the question has to be asked… why Halo 3? The simple answer is, yes, the channel was all Machinima and Graham was used to working in Halo 3 and could probably work on a larger scale within a game than in the real world. But what about a post-high-school dramedy about low-key adult conflicts really demands the use of Halo 3 instead of just filming in real life? Halo fans aren’t happy, Arby ‘n the Chief fans don’t have enough cock jokes, and the rest of us are wondering why this is in such a limiting medium. You often see Graham pushing the limits of both the medium and what his audience will accept, and in this case he pushes it too far.
Still, that a fucking Halo 3 machinima can inspire this much thought is an achievement in itself. Also, it is, for the most part, funny as hell—I will always remember Chief wearing a tie that envelops his entire head saying, “I haz 2 l00k liek @ bisnismann.” But it works best as an embodiment and an embracing of the more immature, insecure parts of ourselves, and whenever it tries to look at our youth from a distance while still occupying it, the show becomes a maddening post-modern nightmare in a thematic sense and hollows out some of its power. It is a show about Halo action figures playing Halo and living in the same house as the guy making films as them—but it works so much better as just two oddball roommates. And one desperately wants to grow up, like we all have. He never will. But we do. Not when we try to close the gap between our young and adult selves—but when we learn to celebrate and embrace that gap.