The Video Games Issue 2021

How an online improv group became the MST3K of video games

Yes, and...

Paige Mehrer

What if we were wrong about Mr. X all along?

Sure, Resident Evil 2’s indomitable zombie stalker is built like a brick shithouse with a bottomless appetite for flamethrower ammo. He’s also a big fan of bludgeoning you to death, and frankly not much of a conversationalist. But if he could talk, what would he say?

The minds behind SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub suspect he’s not such a bad guy after all — just a small-town librarian trying to do his job under stressful circumstances. In one viral clip from the group’s YouTube channel, Mr. X tries to track down protagonist Claire Valentine, but the ruthless library truant nimbly eludes his grasp thanks to some top-level video gaming.

“This is so far beyond the books you need to return now,” the beleaguered Mr. X exclaims. “You just lit a librarian on fire.”

Mr. X will collect those overdue book fees from Claire, or there’ll be hell to pay.

This type of quick-witted comedy doesn’t come easy. Penny Parker has been doing real-time dubs of video games over Discord since 2018, accompanied by a rotating cast of dozens of voice actors, streamers, and content creators. The performers go in cold — no scripts or rehearsals. Everything’s done in just one take.

“The moment you get out there, you have to start doing something,” Parker tells Inverse. “You have to find a sense of flow and cohesion in an inherently incohesive environment.”

Working with pre-existing footage makes the process even trickier, but those constraints can also act as a kind of comedic pressure cooker, creating wonderfully unexpected results.

“The dynamic of having to time your improv to existing footage makes it so different, and sometimes so stressful,” she says. “It’s your job to figure out what to do and what to say as your character, but it’s not your job to figure out when to do it — which is a weird position to be in.”

Penny Parker in dub mode.Photo courtesy of Penny Parker

This “Mystery Science Theater 3000 meets video games” premise has led to some truly memorable and meme-worthy moments, from the unlikely portrayal of Resident Evil 2’s Mr. X to a Sonic the Hedgehog character getting called out as a “beta cuck.” The series’ off-the-wall humor has drawn nearly 50 thousand followers to SnapCube’s Twitch channel, as well as more than 390,000 YouTube subscribers. As a whole, the series has amassed more than 30 million views.

SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub represents a budding supergroup of streamers, content creators, and voice actors. They’re scattered across the globe — New York City, Georgia, Toronto, Texas, and Kyoto are just a few of the places they call home. Inverse spoke to Parker, co-creator Charley Marlowe, and six frequent collaborators from the streamer collective ClownHouse — Chase Young, Mar Katoto, Red Van Buskirk, Joy Charlotte, Sophie Armstrong, and Ryan Mitchum. All eight share their thoughts on the creative process involved in making the dubs and where they see the project going next.

The Video Games Issue is an Inverse celebration of retro favorites, forgotten gems, and the latest and greatest in interactive entertainment.

Gotta grow fast

Telltale Games’ Tales of Monkey Island was Marlowe’s first foray into fandubs.Telltale Games

Before teaming up with Parker’s SnapCube, Marlowe created Real-Time Fandub in 2016. It centered on a group of voice actors attempting to replicate dialogue of TV shows and movies from memory alone, while on a live group call. Gaps, flubs, and omissions were inevitable, which allowed for improvisation to alter the script with often hilarious and bizarre results.

The project stemmed from inglorious origins — a botched Let’s Play of Tales of Monkey Island where the game’s audio had to be overdubbed owing to the technical limitations of the time. (Skype circa 2016 wasn’t as functional as modern-day Discord or Zoom.) The second time around, Marlowe had planned to focus on Gravity Falls, but they couldn’t find a copy with subtitles. Instead, they invited amateur voice actors who could memorize an episode and shared some basic improv rules with the group as a guideline.

This workaround proved more successful than anyone could have imagined.

“We did four episodes in the first recording session,” Marlowe says. “By episode 4, people had stopped trying to get the lines correct because the improvised parts were so fun. We accidentally became an improv troupe.”

“We accidentally became an improv troupe.”
Charley Marlowe at their home recording setup.Photo courtesy of Charley Marlowe

But any initial similarities to Mystery Science Theater 3000 were strictly coincidental.

“I love MST3K and everything else we've been compared to,” Marlow says, “but I've only made that association because the viewers did."

In early 2018, the show spawned a video game-focused spin-off led by Parker. The pilot episode, which focuses on one of Sonic Adventure 2’s dual storylines, known as the Hero Story, has more than 4.8 million YouTube views. The irreverent, weird humor — Eggman talks about how much he misses his wife out of nowhere, and there’s a running gag of calling the yellow Chaos Emerald a “pissrock” — had fans coming back for more.

The group revisited the franchise with Sonic Riders in 2020 but has also branched out to other major video game releases, such as Marvel’s Spider-Man, Resident Evil 2 Remake, and Until Dawn.

“Rude mountain”

The dub of Sonic Adventure 2 was an early success for SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub.Sega

Making dubs hasn’t changed much since 2016 — the collaborators still improvise their assigned characters over Discord while watching game footage.

Still, each new episode brings new lessons. “There have been plenty of times where I’ll be in my own head during a scene, thinking this is the least funny I’ve ever been in my entire life,” Chase Young tells Inverse. “Then the end product is completely fine. You need to let something rest before you can go back and judge it.”

The production process has been streamlined since the early days. One workaround has been sourcing game footage in-house, rather than finding pre-recorded gameplay elsewhere. Newer games also tend to have audio adjustment features that make them easier to stream with commentary, which makes the dubbing process less daunting.

“SnapCube has had a profound effect on my life.”

Recording game footage in-house has also introduced new avenues for creativity. The group goes through each game in its entirety, which yields far more footage to pull from. It also allows the team to engineer more off-the-wall moments for the actors to riff on during the dub.

“We definitely fit in unexpected jokey behavior during footage recording, in case it leads to something good,” Parker says. This is what inspired the now-famous Mr. X scene in the Resident Evil 2 dub that involves a peek-a-boo gag using a door.

Still, Parker concedes she’s often playing games as if she was “presenting the footage at E3.” It’s a fine balancing act between the cinematic nature of a thrilling playthrough and the sometimes clumsy intimacy of a Let’s Play.

That’s why the dub of Until Dawn required multiple takes of certain scenes — characters kept getting killed off. This gameplay mechanic keeps the stakes high for normal players, but for the SnapCube team, it meant replaying scenarios until no one was left behind.

“It’d be super unfair if part way through a dub someone’s character just died and they wouldn’t have anything to do for the rest of the game,” Parker says. “So for the sake of morale — and also for good improv setting reasons — we decided that everybody is staying alive in this playthrough.”

That approach paid off. The SnapCube team considers Until Dawn one of its most well-executed dubs, while it hasn’t matched the runaway success of the Sonic Adventure 2 videos, it’s closing in on 500,000 YouTube views since January 2021. A second installment is coming “soon,” according to a May 2021 teaser trailer.

“Early on, I say something along the lines of, ‘What is this, rude mountain?’ It became the entire basis we built from,” Mar Katoto recalls, “It was so, so good — I can only thank my friends for building off what I thought was just a nothing line.”

Elsewhere in the dub, a new character walks into the room and demands to know “which one of you has been throwing off the vibes?!” Unexpectedly, every actor in the dub names the same character as the scapegoat. Joy Charlotte says that moment “really speaks to the synergy we all carried into that experience.”

Yes, and...

Key art from Until Dawn, the 2015 survival horror game that’s SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub’s latest project.Supermassive Games

While SnapCube’s dubs can seem freeform and spontaneous, everyone taking part is well versed in the fundamentals of improv, which brings order to the outward chaos.

“If someone introduces an idea, it’s not your job to refuse that idea, it’s your job to take it and make something out of it. It’s very collaborative,” Parker says. ”It’s not your job to look good, it’s your job to make your scene partner look good. If everybody else is making sure everybody else looks good, then everybody is always gonna look good.”

As Parker points out, this comes down to trust and knowing when these rules can be broken, and how. It’s vital that no one in the cast feels stepped on or unappreciated.

“That’s where I have to put my trust in the rest of the cast,” she explains. “I trust that nobody is coming with the perspective of ‘I’m gonna go in and I’m gonna be the funniest person in the room.’”

“I can only thank my friends for building off what I thought was just a nothing line.”

Sophie Armstrong, one of the newest streamers to join ClownHouse, says the chemistry and camaraderie between the actors is her favorite part of the process.

“The editing in that show is just so ridiculously fast-paced that not a single person was capable of getting a word in,” Armstrong says, referencing a recent Twitch practice broadcast of the Great British Baking Show. “But Chase managed to pull the whole dub together with a genius narration angle he took. Every time the camera would pan to an opening shot, he would just immediately crack out something hilarious. We all agreed it was objectively a terrible dub, but I don't think I've laughed that hard in years.”

To Ryan Mitchum, the best part of the experience is stumbling upon moments that will resonate with others in real-time. He affectionately recalls Eggman’s monologue in the Sonic Adventure 2 dub, which culminates in the character “pissing” on the moon from outer space.

“Being in the call for that is something I’ll never forget,” Mitchum says. “The entire scene beforehand was a hilarious crescendo that was already absolutely destroying us. I was begging to pause the feed so we could take a break, but I am very glad we didn’t.”

Red Van Buskirk says getting into improvisation has helped their confidence and self-esteem, both as a performer and in everyday life.

“If you try to take the time to think, you're going to miss your chance to say anything at all,” they say. “I've gotten much better at trusting my instincts. My time with SnapCube has had a profound effect on my life. I really do think I've become a better person by spending time with everyone here. I wouldn't trade it for the world.”

Facing the unexpected

A fan-made animatic of the team’s “beta cuck” moment from the Sonic Adventure 2 dub.

Back in 2018, Parker was cautiously optimistic that SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub could lead to bigger things, but she still hasn’t gotten used to seeing nearly 10 million views for some of the videos.

“I get frightened looking at the view counts,” she says. “That’s a number I can't even comprehend. I didn’t expect it to get this big. I was proud enough to know that people would respond to it but never to this level.”

The project helped Parker move out of her parents’ house and start living independently.

“My YouTube channel doesn’t quite meet the threshold of being a supportable kind of income, but it made a difference,” she says. “It changed things for me.”

Understandably, the team behind SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub has found the last year challenging in more ways than one. Parker admits the pandemic did a “big number” on her motivation to produce the show. Young’s also found it difficult to be lighthearted and funny given the circumstances.

“Which one of you has been throwing off the vibes?!”

“I’ve definitely become a lot more neurotic during lockdown,” Young says, “and that’s 100 percent affected my ability to be funny. That said, the dubs are always a good highlight of the season. Since they come out over four or five months or so, it’s a welcome landmark in marking the passage of time.”

Still, Parker envisions a bold and bright future for SnapCube’s Real-Time Fandub. The Until Dawn episode featured an original song she wrote and sang, inspired by a music production class she took at the beginning of 2021. It’s the first of several new ideas and format tweaks — like title cards and more deliberate pacing — that Parker plans to roll out in the months ahead.

As for what the future holds, the “next couple of dubs” are already lined up, with Shadow the Hedgehog coming after Until Dawn. Parker also floated the idea of an in-person Real-Time Fandub live show. But until then, her primary goal is to keep pushing SnapCube in a creatively satisfying direction.

“I don’t have specific plans in terms of how we are going to execute anything past the next couple dubs,” she says. “It’s gonna come down to what is the most fun and interesting way to do this. Those are the two biggest questions of the show from the get-go. As long as I can keep answering those two questions with something that’s exciting to me and exciting for the audience, that's where I want to keep going.”

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Mr. X from Resident Evil 2 hard at work in the library.Paige Mehrer
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