The founders behind the web series 8-Bit Philosophy have a simple mission: to reach a modern audience with classic philosophical concepts. By breaking down geek-friendly franchises like Rick and Morty and Fallout — they started the series analyzing games, but have recently moved to television — they deliver on the premise in the most entertaining way possible. It’s a simple concept, but thanks to their knowledge and sense of humor, it’s an engrossing conversation.
Jared Bauer (co-creator of Wisecrack) and Alec Opperman (writer of 8-Bit Philosophy’s “Rick and Morty” episode) believe that the intent of something like Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland’s Rick and Morty itself is as important as what the show has come to symbolize: a philosophical and funny look at cosmic horror and nihilism.
Earlier this week, I spoke with Bauer and Opperman on the phone.
Tell me about what 8-Bit Philosophy does. It seems like a great combination of mindless entertainment and deeper questions.
Jared Bauer: We’ve been experimenting with the show’s format, looking for different ways to get people interested in philosophy. Lately, we’ve been using the text of the game or TV show that reflects whatever concept we’re trying to talk about.
So why Rick and Morty?
JB: It’s just so good! I don’t remember who watched it first, but as soon as we both did, we geeked out for a period, and then decided to tackle it.
Alec Opperman: We always address this question: Are we reading too much into this? But I don’t think that’s the right question to ask with this show. Authorial intent is one thing, but it doesn’t really matter if the writers on Rick and Morty are consciously using ideas like existentialism in their work. The text speaks for itself. Whether they’ve read Camus or not, the angst we see expressed through Rick is in line with his ideas.
You mention Nietzsche’s madman in your analysis. Is Rick that madman?
AO: I don’t want to definitively say that, but there’s something Übermensch-y about Rick. I don’t think Rick is the madman really, but he does display an absence of values. I talk about this in our video, but Rick is straddling the line between active and passive nihilism. One part of him is just that “Nothing matters, let’s go watch TV” mindset, and the other part seems to really feel something. He does things for his family, and takes part in some intergalactic, political resistance movement. We don’t know he’s trying to create, but he does seem like an active nihilist. He recognizes the universe’s meaningless and wants to push through it somehow. He’s also hedonistic.
You have a ton of episodes about video games, which is interesting to me. So much of life is trying to derive meaning and make progress, and gamers do this in this fake, small scale. How would you use philosophy to describe what gamers do?
JB: I’ll start by saying that I believe gaming is becoming the next frontier for creatives, considering the Oculus Rift and virtual reality. Eventually, I think games will become so complex and engrossing that we may see a mass exodus to the virtual world. I can imagine an entire class of people who prefer the digital reality, and then we have to play that paranoid Philip K. Dick-style game, examining the divide between people who have faith in organic reality and those who want to live entirely in a virtual space.
But, on a more elementary level, my opinion is that video games are the most exciting art form to be in right now. Truly experimental, avant-garde games find themselves really successful. Of course, movies were my original love, but I think more games are worth talking about today. You don’t have as many academics working in gaming studies, but I think that’s probably changing everyday. I see creative minds gravitating toward video games because they’re able to do more, to innovate.
You mentioned avant-garde games that receive surprising popularity. Which are you thinking of?
JB: Braid, Flower, and there’s this game with a kind of specter-like figure who runs through the desert. There’s also the Stanley Parable, Super Meat Boy or the Binding of Isaac. These are games that are not your traditional Call of Duty shooters, but they have huge followings. Their styles either focus on creating an immersive experience, or they’re doing thematic work, or they’re invoking a feeling in the player through their aesthetics. These games do extremely well on Steam.
AO: That reminds me, have you heard of That Dragon, Cancer? It’s by this guy whose son had cancer and was in the process of dying and making sense of it, so he made a video game about the whole process. It’s like, how do you make a playable game where there’s a baby’s crying somewhere and there’s no way to make it stop.
JB: Right, that dread. So many great games aren’t even classically fun; they’re intellectually stimulating and meant to start conversations.
These are heavy topics for cartoons and video games to get deep into. I know you’ve told me that you’re literary deconstructionists, so you think authorial intent limits useful analysis, but how aware do you think creators are of this stuff they’re using?
JB: Well, I don’t think there’s a blackboard in the Rick and Morty writers’ room with “existentialism” written on it, with a plan to use cosmic horror in the show’s opening theme animation. But more and more people are aware of this kind of thought. Whether or not Morty’s horror at playing the Roy game is attributed to the original thinkers who developed concepts of reality vs. non-reality, the ideas are still being played at there.
AO: Right. The real question isn’t whether Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland know about philosophy, it’s: What can we learn from the things we love?
Well, I love that you guys have delved into television lately. What do you have coming up?
JB: Quite a few things. We’re tackling the philosophy of The Walking Dead next month, and House of Cards after that. We also have some ideas in development on the concept of awards shows, and on Donald Trump.
AO: And the Final Fantasy franchise. I’m excited about that.