Thursday, 21 June 2007

Under the shadow of the Behemoth: On PvP

PvP is one of the most referenced webcomics, both in and outside the diffuse boundaries of the webcomics scene. The product of the artistic style and cunning, nostalgia-fueled sense of humor that is the trade mark of Scott Kurtz, PvP follows the daily lives of the staff of a game magazine, called "Player versus Player", or "PvP" for short.

More than meets the eye

Now, contrary to what this setup may have you believe, videogames take a back seat to the real meats of the story: the interactions between the characters, resolved in a style very reminiscent of classic 80's sitcoms.
The staff of this magazine comprises a wide variety of stereotypes, all worth taking a close look at:
First, there's the gentle boss and enthusiastic Game Master, Cole Richards, generally calm and understanding, the eye of the storm of wackiness and madness that takes place around him. He is, under most circumstances, the straight man, there to react to the bizarre antics of the rather deranged staff, and to voice the author's opinions and frustrations from time to time.
Secondly, there's Brent Sienna, Cole's long time friend and resident snarky mac user at the office. My best guess is that he is the art director or some such, but it's not like we ever see him working (I know this gets asked a lot, but... what do people in sitcoms do to earn their wages, exactly?) To his credit, he does attend a lot of meetings, but still...
Skull is the office... troll. It is unclear whether he is a figment of their collective conscious or if he is real. But, since he works as much as everyone else in the office (meaning nothing at all), he is welcome with open arms by everyone. Except for Brent, who treats them with the scorn he reserves to... Actually, he just treats everyone equally badly.
There's Francis, the eternally fifteen year old intern. The stereotypical teenage boy, as shallow as a puddle, and as cutely insecure as a wet puppy. He probably is the physical embodiment of Mr. Kurtz's inner child.
Francis should be in love with Marcy, PvP's teenaged desk girl, but he is way too much of a doofus teenage to handle real emotions, so he replaces them with a mix of stumped empathy, misguided care, angsty pleas for attention and raging jealousy. Oh, to feel again the awkward charm of first loves, am I right?
There's also Jade Fontaine, whose character swings wildly between The Girl Brent Wants To Bang Oh So Badly and The Common Sense Voice In A World Often Gone Completely Nuts. And deaf, apparently, because no one ever listens to her.
And then, there's Lusty Jade, also known as Miranda Fontaine. Unlike her sister, her mood dial seems to be stuck in the The Girl Everyone Wants To Bang position, since her entire personality seems to be built around this trait. She's currently on a relationship with the token black guy, Reggie.
Reggie is... Well, black. And blind. Something about him just screams "silent minority" Well, except for the fact that he isn't a mute. Not that he couldn't be, mind you, he doesn't talk all that much. He doesn't even work in the company, just hangs around from time to time. He is a long time friend of both Cole and Brent. Apparently, he is based on a real person, a friend of Scott Kurtz.
And finally, there's the villain. Well, not a villain exactly. Lets call him the pompous winner for the purposes of this discussion. Max Powers is good at what he does, and he knows it. He has that aura of success that is so difficult to resist for those around him. Of course, the fact that people can't resist him doesn't mean that they like him. For example, in a recent storyline, Max Powers buys PvP to save it from bankruptcy. Still, he is as naive as he is fortunate, it seems, because he is bullied by the very people he has helped.

I walk a path most perilous, following the laws... of sitcoms

Now, remember the starting point: this is a videogame magazine. They are a complete staff, with art director, editor, writers and even an adorably incompetent mascot. However, no one is seen writing, going to events or doing anything remotely resembling work. And don't even get me started on finances. Firstly, in the sitcom world of PvP, finances move at the speed of plot. However inevitable it may seem that the company has entered the maddening spiral leading to bankruptcy (you know, with no one working and all), there's always something that saves the day at the last possible moment. Secondly, money is no issue. Seriously, you need to buy a supposedly popular magazine? Forget that boring paperwork, just sign a cheque for a couple million to the right guy and you have climbed the first rung of the ladder towards your very own information empire.
And this is a videogame magazine, people, for crying out loud, at least play videogames. You don't even need to talk about them, just grab a controller from time to time. Take screenshots or something! Well, I may have been a bit unfair, I guess Brent and Jade did play Everquest. That one time. And that was just because they had fallen out of love, and they realised how much they missed each other through the miracles of fan service, in an epic story arc spanning a whole year. In which they played Everquest together... Let me think... Once? Maybe twice? Seriously. They probably decided they didn't like videogames all that much, anyway.
By the way, Brent's character looks a lot like Max Powers because Kurtz was playing with the posibility that Jade's long distance lover was him instead of Brent. My guess is that he didn't decide until the last moment, but I don't really know.

Reach for the stars

In any case, enough with the gentle prodding, PvP is a worthwhile strip. It may have all the little quirks of a traditional TV sitcom, but for me, the real selling point of the comic are the characters. They may not be original, they may not be even likable, but it is clear Scott Kurtz cares a great deal about them. Cole, Brent, Francis, Skull and Jade are characters he feels a deep conection to, and he has a lot of fun writing for them. From the self-referential parody moments, to the all-out ridiculousness, their relationships and conversations are handled with exquisite care.These are aspects that you can tell just with a mere casual look over any strip. There's a lot of childish innocence in it, a lot of slapstick thrown in for good measure, and the almost inevitable pop culture references peppered through the strips, but they don't deter the enjoyment of the strip. Quite the opposite, they really add a flavor to the PvP recipe.
Still, while PvP may have some interesting interactions and dialogues, it won't blow your mind with amazingly groundbreaking ideas, nor will it ever follow the basic rules of economics. Instead, take it for what it is: a relationships comedy in a fairly new and refreshing setup, featuring all the characters you have come to know and love through probably way too many more hours of TV than is advisable for a healthy childhood. If you ask me, that's as good as it comes.

Damn the man

Just some final words on Scott Kurtz himself, because he certainly merits them. He is the official troublemaker of the webcomics community, second in his drama-creating skills only to D.J. Coffman (I shit you not, that is his real name, more on him in a while) Myself, I can't understand why, because he seems an all around nice guy, maybe a bit aggresively idealistic sometimes, and a bit too suspicious of other's success, but it isn't something you can really hold against him. But when the whole thing with micropayments blew over, he was one of the most combative parties, along with Jerry Holkins (Penny Arcade), Jonathan Rosenberg (Goats) and Scott McCloud (I have no idea what he does. He is important, though. For some reason). Maybe one day I'll share my thoughts on the issue.

Tomorrow: Standing on the shoulders of giants: On Ctrl-Alt-Del

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