YouTube’s professional gaming star PewDiePie is readying himself to make even more buckets of cash in 2016 with his upcoming show Scare PewDiePie. A joint venture between The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s Skybound Entertainment and Disney’s Maker Studios, its premise is simple. PewDiePie — real name Felix Kjellberg — is placed in “terrifying real-life” scenarios modeled after the very horror games he’s dedicated his career to cracking. The first taste of his “completely authentic experience” hit the web last night:
Early marketing materials have presented the show to the public as an original idea. It’s not. British illusionist Derren Brown did this over ten years ago. His brand of faux-reality pranking began in the early 2000s. Two stunts in particular focus on the exploitation of ubiquitous horror tropes. He often claims they’re designed to provide insights into the human mind; the audience is nothing but suckers.
The second season of his UK TV show Tricks of the Mind included a segment wherein he hires developers to create a zombie shoot-‘em-up arcade game called: The Waking Dead (!!!). The cabinet is installed in a regular pub and Brown and his team wait for a customer to play. Here’s what happens next:
Manipulation is Brown’s forte. Every one of his events is orchestrated to elicit a response that he purports to be genuine. Whether or not you believe that to be true is your prerogative; was that drinker really fooled into believing he was firing at actual zombies? The audience is assured that what they’re watching happened, with CCTV and sketchy night vision shots piling on the authenticity.
You know, as opposed to top-end cameras capturing the “spontaneity” as it occurs.
If the zombie arcade game bit was remade today, it’d probably pack a heftier punch. Luckily, that’s exactly what Brown realized when he made Apocalypse, a two-part TV special which functions on the same fundamental premise with a bigger, bolder plot. A regular guy is selected in advance, and over the course of several months his entire life — family, friends, work colleagues, and even his social media — is manipulated to foreshadow a major apocalyptic event. A meteor hits Earth, the zombies are unleashed and he’s got to buck up and unleash his inner Rick Grimes.
On the other hand, Scare PewDiePie starts out self-aware. That’s not the only hurdle. As part of a lineup of new premium content created specifically for YouTube Red, it doesn’t come for free. The hope is that Kjellberg’s sizeable fanbase will cough up the $10 monthly fee to watch their favorite gamer in peril, as well as watch all their favorite YouTube videos without ads.
YouTube doesn’t seem fazed. “Our top creators have built huge, devoted fanbases,” says YouTube’s global head of original programming Susanne Daniels. “Original shows like Scare PewDiePie give our biggest stars the chance to fulfill even bigger creative ambitions on the platform where their fans live.”
Aiming for something new is great, I just don’t think it’s going to have the impact YouTube expects. How will his public react to an idea that forces responses from him as opposed to his natural knee-jerk realism? Watching a person’s genuine reaction is a different experience to that same someone lying in green goo being prodded with a scythe by a guy in a mask. Both Brown and his participants underwent major public scrutiny after each televised broadcast. Was the whole thing “fake”? That depends on how you define fake. Were his unwitting members of the public actually actors? Probably. How much did they know beforehand? That remains uncertain. Kirkman and Kjellberg forgo any mystery. Hell, the guy knows he’s shooting a show; “PewDiePunk’d,” this is not.
If Brown’s forays into scare design taught us anything, it’s that suspension of disbelief requires participation from both sides: the party watching and the party genuinely having the living shit scared out of them.