Archive for viral videos

Jay, Conan, and the Downfall Meme

I’ve been a fan of the “Downfall meme” for nearly two years now.  Because righteous indignation and mock outrage are such common idioms on the internet, the Downfall scenes depicting Hitler in a fit of rage–resubtitled to comment on anything from not getting Billy Elliott tickets to the Taylor Swift-Kanye West feud–is incredibly pliable. Now with the Downfall meme taking on the Jay-Conan late night war, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog got in touch with Downfall director Oliver Hirschbiegel and found out that he is a big fan of the meme, even though it seems like a fairly irreverent take on his movie.  Hirschbiegel commented that he had seen nearly 150 versions of the meme, named some of his favorites and added that, “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality….I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like….If only I got royalties for it, then I’d be even happier.”

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Thursday Links: Netflix, Indie, Hulu Notes

Yes, I should be working on my syllabi.  But a few recent news stories keep distracting me (and I’m not even ready to start thinking about that Apple tablet thingie):

  • A number of people have reported the story that Netflix and Warner have made a deal that would significantly expand Netflix’s ability to offer streaming versions of Warner films in exchange for delaying rental of Warner titles until 28 days after they go on sale.  This gives Warner a short retail window that might allow them to boost DVD sales while providing Netflix with access to more streaming content.  As NewTeeVee points out, it’s much cheaper for Netflix to stream videos rather than distributing them on DVD by mail.
  • Wired Magazine has an interesting article about The Asylum, a low-budget studio “specializing in shamelessly derivative knockoffs that are not-so-affectionately dubbed ‘mockbusters.'”  I’ve seen a couple of their titles, I think, at my local Blockbuster (including Snakes on a Train), but although the studio made approximately $5 million last year, they typically are ignored when we talk about “independent filmmaking,” one presumes because their films are perceived as schlocky or derivative.  But, as the Wired article astutley points out, there is a long history of this sort of practice, and given the glut of indies out there playing one or two festivals, we might benefit from thinking about studios like The Asylum, and how they fit into narratives of independent cinema, because they do make films that get relatively wide video distribution.
  • The most recent comScore analysis shows that viewers watched 31 billion online videos in November alone.  Google sites (i.e., including YouTube) accounted for nearly 40% of the total.  The nearest compeitior, Hulu, clocked in at 3%.
  • NewTeeVee also has some interesting, if somewhat odd, notes on Hulu’s audience, as compared to attendance at a number of blockbuster films.  I’m not sure what we learn from seeing that 42 million people saw a video on Hulu in October while nearly 20 million attended New Moon on its opening weekend, but the comparisons are worth a look.

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Hamlet in the Kitchen

You may have heard of Hamlet in the Streets; now, here is Hamlet in the Kitchen, with Shakespearean actor Brian Cox teaching a young boy Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy.  Cox’s reaction to the child reciting Hamlet’s lines is priceless.  Warning: the video is dripping with cute, so please take all necessary precautions.  This would have been so much fun to show my students when teaching Hamlet earlier this semester.


“A Dollar Book Freudian Gag”

Cool find of the morning.  For years, I’ve made reference to the interview with Orson Welles where he dismisses the “Rosebud” elements of Citizen Kane as a cheap plot device.  Now here on YouTube is the video of that interview, which I’d never seen until now (via Kottke and Film Doctor).

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Panic Attack and YouTube Discovery

One of the underlying narratives associated with Hollywood mythology is the “discovery story,” the idea that a talented newcomer emerges by chance, out of nowhere, to become a Hollywood “star.”  Lana Turner was  discovered, so the legend goes, on a barstool at Schwab’s drugstore.  Now, as the tools of filmmaking and film distribution have been democratized, those discovery stories have expanded to filmmakers as well.  And although it is the case that such stories can be read ideologically, it is also true that YouTube and other video sharing sites still offer us the opportunity to be astonished by the talents of an aspiring filmmaker.

One recent example is the story of Fede Alvarez, a post-production and visual effects specialist working in Uruguay.  Alvarez posted a short four-minute film, “Ataque de Pánico,” which depicts an attack on the Uruguayan city of Montevideo by a series of ginat robots and airplanes.  Major buildings in the city are reduced to rubble as fearful residents watch with a mixture of horror, fear, and excitement.  In addition to producing convincing visual effects, Alvarez successfully creates a sense of foreboding as we anticipate the attacks.  And he even throws in an allusion to the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin for good measure.  In short, it’s the kind of moment we all hope for when talking about the possibilities made available by cheaper production and distribution tools: it is visually breathtaking and narratively compelling.

And thanks to the internet buzz over the film–the version I saw was posted to YouTube in November and has already been viewed over a million times–Alvarez is walking into Hollywood with a deal with Mandate Pictures  to support a $30 million film. As Patrick Goldstein points out, film festivals are now being eclipsed by YouTube as a site for discovering (and even nurturing budding filmmaking talent): “Today, the fastest way to spread the news is on the Internet,” adding that much of the early buzz about “Panic Attack” was taking place on Kanye West’s blog, of all places.  Goldstein also points out that Alvarez’s promotion has taken place largely outside of the major studio system, which has become less adept at discovering new talent.

As Goldstein cautions, a four-minute film tells us little about whether Alvarez will be able to deliver a feature-length story; however, the “buzz” surrounding his video already serves as an early form of marketing forthe film once it’s made.  In Goldstein’s words, Alvarez’s overnight success is just “another fascinating example of how Hollywood has gone viral.”  I’m looking forward to following this story as it unfolds in the coming months.

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Movie Title Compilation Video

Via Anne Thompson, an amusing little video that compiles scenes from movies where characters mention the movie’s title.  Pretty fun in a fannish, film geeky, sort of way.

In other news, I’m hoping to get back into a regular blogging schedule soon.  My attention has been pretty divided lately for a number if reasons, but I find that when I’m writing for the blog, I’m also somewhat more likely to be writing for longer formats such as journal articles and such.  Michael Z. Newman has an interesting discussion of this topic in a recent post on the ephemerality of Twitter posts, but unlike him (and many other scholars), I find that blogging helps me to engage and signals that I am more–not less–focused on my scholarship.  I’ll admit that I’m likely unusual in that regard, but the lack of blogging (and even Twittering lately) has been keeping me from sifting through some new research.  Mike’s post does offer a cool reflection on the implications of the ease with which Twitter posts disappear from view.

Update: Just wanted to add that I had a recent conversation with a colleague, I believe at the eCitizenship conference I’ve been attending, about what it means that responses to blog posts have been increasingly migrating to Twitter and Facebook.  It seems possible that those comments, which were often valuable to me in completing my first book, will now be more difficult to track down given that they are not in a single location and that they are often posted to sites that make it harder to archive and find older content.

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More Apple-Political Video Mashups

I haven’t written as much lately about political mashups, in part because the 2008 election cycle has passed.  But two recent ads by the Democrats have sought to exploit the rhetoric of some of the Apple ads to support Democratic candidates for Senate and the House:

The GOP Plan, by the DSCC, offers a relatively standard take on the Mac-PC ads featuring John Hodgeman and Justin Scott, attempting to identify the Republicans with “old” ideas. Republicans in Congress uses an iPhone ad touting the product’s applications to identify Republicans with a number of negative behaviors suggesting that there “is a rep for that.”

Both ads seem to work well enough, especially for politically-informed viewers, but I’m intrigued by the degree to which the relationship with the Apple brand seems so flexible.  As a number of commenters on Daily Kos (where I found the video) noted, the Justin Scott character often comes across as relatively smug, something the DSCC ad tries to dilute.  The “iPhone ap” ad has itself become the source of parody in a Verizon ad (“there’s a map for that”).  Not much to add right now–it’s very late on a Saturday night–but interesting to see these memes continue to evolve.

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Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment

Here’s a quick pointer to an article I co-wrote with Richard Edwards for the journal, First Monday, “Political Video Mashups as Allegories of Citizen Empowerment.”  The article focuses on three modes of political mashup: advocacy, protest, and commentary through three videos that commented on the 2008 election, Vote Different, Imagine This, and Godfather IV, and was itself born through a conversation that began online soon after Vote Different appeared in 2007 when Richard and I wrote articles for In Media Res and Flow, respectively.  It’s the first time I’ve co-written a peer-reviewed article, and I think it turned out well (and was definitely fun to write).

Comments Interview

Here is the English translation of an interview I recently conducted with Luciano Trigo, a journalist for the Brazilian website  Luciano is an astute observer of some of the changes taking place in the film industry today, and it was especially beneficial for me to learn from him about how these changes might be felt differently outside the United States.  I’ve included the English transltion of the interview below the fold.

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Mocking Cameron, or How I Learned to Love the Downfall Meme

Via Anne Thompson, a look at the most recent update of the “Downfall Meme,” the long-running video mashup technique, in which a video creator takes an iconic scene in the movie Downfall, in which Adolf Hitler, as played by Bruno Ganz, has a complete meltdown, and substitutes new subtitles, creating the effect that a hapless Hitler is complaining about the fall of the Republican Party or Sarah Palin’s resignation from her position as Governor.  When I first encountered the meme with the famous “Hillary’s Downfall” video, I felt somewhat conflicted, admiring the creativity while ambivalent about any text that equated an American politician with the Nazi dictator. But as the meme has continued to evolve, the use of the scene now seems increasingly abstracted from the original history being depicted, and it has become a powerfully funny way of commenting on any number of issues.

With that in mind, I really enjoyed “Hitler Learns that the Avatar Trailer Sucks,” an incredibly clever take on the backlash against James Cameron’s expensive and, potentially overly obscure, experiment in 3D storytelling, Avatar.  As Kristin Thompson points out, the entertainment media and fan reaction to the film has sparked debate about whether 3D is “over,” whether it is a viable direction for the future of cinema, and  more tellingly, how 3D fails to achieve perceptual realism. The maker of “Avatar Trailer” shows a keen understanding of movie publicity practices and demonstrates a principle articulated by Nicholas Rombes, Bill Wasik, and others that we are all media theorists now, that the act of self-conscious theorizing is becoming a crucial part of our films and TV shows.  In this particular video, Hitler complains (in subtitles, of course) that Cameron “has taken the Hollywood opiate of putting technology before story while being surrounded by yes men, trivializing the 3D age as a pet project,” attacking not only Cameron’s notorious reputation as a bit of a bully but also the celebration of technological novelty that has become a crucial component of Hollywood’s marketing of high-concept films, a reading echoed in one of Hitler’s later remarks in which he complains that “all these old masters have lost their minds in the depth of a hard drive.”  A cutaway to a crying woman shows a second woman consoling her: “Don’t cry.  Cameron will never make that Spider-Man treatment.”

The video parody is loaded with references to Hollywood insiderism–script treatments, online fanboy cultures, and transmedia texts–some of which are funnier in context, so I won’t reveal them here.  Whether the video truly “goes viral,” recieiving millions of views (or whatever measure you’d choose), it would be easy to dismiss it, using Wasik’s language as yet another nanostory, a disposable moment of culture doomed to be forgotten soon.  An it’s likely the case that such a topical video will disappear from our memories soon after Avatar finds its way to the DVD bin at your local big-box mart.  And yet I’m tempted to see something else here: a compelling reading of the hype associated with Hollywood blockbusters.  The parody remains affectionate.  The videomaker would presumably love to see a well-made film and embraces the best elements of entertainment culture but fears that Cameron has finally become too immersed in the special effects that once served the story rather than overwhelming it (that being said, I still think that Titanic sucks!).

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And Then There’s This

Because of my interest in viral videos and political discourse, I was incredibly curious to read Bill Wasik’s And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture, a book that promises to diagnose the transformation of narrative in the age of viral media and to address the implications of those changes for public culture.  Wasik, who was responsible for the creation of flash mobs, a briefly popular phenomenon in which urban hipsters would briefly show up in a designated public space, perform a mundane activity, and quickly disperse, proves to be an effective observer of a number of viral phenomena and even offers–in a number of places–a useful vocabulary for talking about these transformations. Wasik reads these changes as having the potential to damage political discourse, as journalists (and audiences) clamour to find the next big thing.  In this context, I am less convinced by Wasik’s arguments about the implications of these new media; however, for those of us concerned about the effect of social media on political and entertainment culture, Wasik’s arguments (which stand, in part, as a useful corrective to Malcolm Gladwell’s bengin celebrations of viral “tipping points“) are worth addressing.

Wasik’s most useful contribution is by creating the concept of the “nanostory,” in which a story, whether a political narrative, a rock band, or a funny video, briefly becomes immensely popular (as measured through page views, blog mentions, etc) before fading quickly into obscurity. These “transient bursts of attention” (7), Wasik argues, become enticing, even addictive, in a new media climate (here Wasik draws on his own experience of trying to create viral content for The Huffington Post’s Contagious Festival, a monthly competition organized by Jonah Peretti (93).  And although I’d imagine that creating a successful meme or viral video could be enticing, Wasik is a little less clear when it comes to the pleasure of consuming such material, of explaining why people watch (and share) viral content.

Related to this desire for notoriety, Wasik identifies four traits common to viral culture: speed, shamelessness, duration, and sophistication.  It’s worth noting that two of these definitional terms have to do with time.  Throughout the book, Wasik expresses his “desperate desire to stop Internet time” (71), worries about “the dilemma of disposability” (183), or describes his concern about what Linda Stone calls the “continuous partial attention” (cited in Wasik, 41) that characterizes our multitasking, distracted, viral culture.  As I read these passages, I found myself thinking about Walter Benjamin’s arguments about the fragmentation of attention in early 20th century culture and wondered whether this characterization of internet culture as distracting is significantly different than past forms of entertainment and communication (or how one would measure such a thing).  Whether it’s true or not that we have access to more “inputs” isn’t quite clear to me (186), though it’s probably fair to say that the nature of that information has changed.

However, Wasik is much more persuasive when he traces the sophistication of many of the people who produce and consume viral media.  In some of my own work (forthcoming here and cited above), I have discussed how skilled producers of viral videos use intertetual cues, references to films, TV shows, and music, to introduce compelling commentary on political culture.  As Wasik observes, the Internet has become a site for countless forms of “cultural experimentation,” and savvy users are attentive to the ways in which viral media spreads.  In addition, in the best cases, meme-makers such as Lee Stranahan and  Andy Cobb (my examples) illustrate the ways in which the internet democratizes “cultural monitoring” (14).

More often than not, however, Wasik emphasizes the ways in which viral media, enabled not only by blogs but also by a voracious 24-hour news cycle (and, on cable news, a blurring  of the line between news and entertainment), often deal with “irrelevant foibles” (146) or “narratives that the facts cannot support” (151).  Wasik is right to be concerned about these issues, as only a quick glance at the health care debate indicates.  Days that could have been used to focus on creating meaningful reform were instead spent engaging rumors about death panels, ratined care, and other non sequitirs (not to mention BS rumors about Obama’s citizenship).  Although the “deathers” may no longer distract us, they dominated the news cycle, and the (manufactured) controversy derailed the legislative process and gave cover to those who were opposed to the public option.  And yet it’s impossible for me to see these nanostories as entirely frivolous or meaningless.  At the very least, it becomes crucial to “fight the smears” (182), if only to avoid the fate suffered by John Kerry uring the 2004 election.  But, in other circumstances, the “self-awareness” of viral media can produce the positive effect that we become more sophisticated viewers of the media we consume (and produce).  And, in the best cases, viral texts can provide sincere dialogue about important issues (I’d argue that the circulation of the George Allen “macaca” video did this, if only because it reminded us of how the political game has changed) or at least entertain us.  And yet, despite these reservations, I am generally persuaded by most of Wasik’s claims: short-lived, briefly popular, generally disposable videos have become a newly dominant genre and that, no matter what, these videos constitute a new way of talking about or narrating our daily lives.

Finally, although I have emphasized Wasik’s treatment of how nanostories affect politics, it’s worth noting that he also examines the role of nanostories in shaping indie rock culture, specifically focusing on how the desire to discover the Next Great Band can result in a kind of churn that pushes other more established bands to the side.  Here, Wasik offers an insightful reading of the role of KEXP (still my favorite radio station on the planet) in serving as tastemakers for any number of indie bands.  I think there may be some useful points here in thinking about how movie tastes are constucted online as well, especially as online reiewers become more prominent and as DIY filmmakers seek out reviews for their films.  Wasik’s book is an especially valuable contribution to the literature on viral media, in part because he treats it with some skepticism, especially when it comes to the ways in which viral media and nanostories are (often) implicated in the logic of the market and the transoformation of social relationships into marketing opportunities.  Wasik, more than most popular cultural critics, recognizes that the internet is not only a “meme-making machine” (81); it’s also a machine for organizing social, political, and economic relationships and that we need to engage with these new narrative modes in responsible and sustainable ways.

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Sunday Links

Sundays are usually slow days in the blogosphere, but I came across some interesting reading and videos that I want to post before the work week begins and I get swamped by teaching responsibilities:

  • Mark Cuban is the most recent observer to weigh in on the Redbox phenomenon, and I think his blog post addresses a point that has been ignored, for the most part.  Cuban’s observations help to illustrate how Redbox imlicitly challenges the “black box fallacy,” the idea that all media content will be streamed to a single site within the family home.  Redbox, which relies on careful placement at convenient locations in grocery stores, seems to defy the conventional wisdom that everything will be delivered directly into the home (or that consumers necessarily want that).  He also implicitly challenges the notion that certain kinds of media change are predictable or inevitable.
  • David Poland offers his contribution to the debate over the “Twitter effect,” the idea that social media is speeding up the word-of-mouth around Hollywood films.  Poland challenges the conventional wisdom, arguing that Twitter and Facebook are not having a significant effect, especially when compared to the marketing machines of the Hollywood studios and industry-friendly reviewers such as Harry Knowles and the Ain’t It Cool News fanboys.  His most compelling argument is that the significant drops in revenue from Friday to Saturday have been increasing for some time independently of the growth of social media.
  • Tama Leaver has a compelling post about a panel in Australia on “the future of journalism” in which he was a participant.   Tama is especially attentive to the complicated relationship between bloggers and journalists and echoes Dan Gillmor’s famous claim that “journalism is evolving from a lecture to a conversation.”
  • Here’s the YouTube find of the day, courtesy of the Open Culture blog: footage of Annie Sullivan lecturing on how Helen Keller learned to communicate verbally despite being blind and deaf. The entire video is well worth watching.


Rainy Saturday Links

Now that my first day of classes are done and I can stop fretting over syllabi, I’ve been catching up on a huge backlog of blog reading.  As usual, I now feel like I’m about a month behind everyone else, but here are some of the reads that have been inspiring me to think lately:

  • As I mull over ideas for my proposed South by Southwest blogging presentation, I’ve been finding myself becoming more acutely aware of debates about film criticism practices.  With that in mind, I found Vadim Rizov’s discussion of Rotten Tomatoes’ (RT) effect on film reviews to be rather compelling.  Rizov cites a Daniel Engber analysis in Slate that tracks the tendency toward critical consensus around major Hollywood films (identifying Armond White as a key exception).  Engber concludes that even White takes a contrarian view “only” 50% of the time (a number that seems rather significant to me, especially given how far he is from the rest of the critics who were analyzed).  Rizov is probably correct to argue that RT’s “aggregate authority” may shape how readers of film reviews find recommendations and make decisions about what they will see, and I think the aggregation of reviews in general (one might also add the Netflix recommendation algorithm here) probably has had some impact on how people find movies.
  • On a related note: Anne Thompson points to Michael Sragow’s recent entry in the “Twitter effect” discussion. Although I expressed some skepticism about the role of Twitter in effecting box office totals (among other things), there is a case to be made that Twitter has sped up the process by which word-of-mouth on a movie spreads.  More often than not, the Twitter effect is seen as negative–Twitter killed Bruno–but one of Sragow’s key points is that social media can help smaller or lesser-known films, such as Robert Kenner’s remarkable documentary, Food Inc.
  • Via Rick at EyeCube, a couple of intriguing SXSW panel recommendations (and, yes, I’ll disclose that I’m one of the recommenations).  I’m especially interested in Peter Kim’s “Sponsored Conversations: Good Strategy or Spam.”  But I’d also like to recommend some panels and presentations featuring friends and colleagues, including the “Hacking the Ivory Tower” panel, which features several MediaCommons and FlowTV pals and Mona Kasra’s panel on the 2009 Iran election.
  • Ted Hope points to a YouTube video that argues that a social media revolution is taking (or has taken) place.  The video throws lots of mind-blowing statistics about the large number of Facebook users, YouTube videos, and so on, but while I have little doubt that social media is becoming a crucial part of our mediated lives,  I have to wonder exactly what else is being sold in the video’s techno-utopian logic.  In fact the video sets up a false binary with its driving question: “Is social media just a fad or is it the biggest shift since the Inustrial Revolution?”  In a post written for The Symposium for the Future, an event sponsored by The New Media Consortium, danah boyd has recently offered some compelling reasons why we need to be way of such techno-utopian arguments, noting in particular how they give technology an inevitable, almost mystical power.
  • Also from Anne Thompson: more analysis of the ongoing power (and market share) of video rental service Redbox.
  • The Film Doctor has links to a couple of interesting articles. First, an argument that new media technologies are reducing our attention spans and, therefore, hurting traditional formats, one that spills over into an argument for adapting various forms of transmedia storytelling.  He also cites Peter Jackson’s recent assertion that “anyone” can pick up a camera and make a film. As Scott Kirsner points out in the above link, this potential has been discussed for some time (recall Coppola’s famous utopian claim that a “fat girl in Ohio” would someday be able to make movies on an equal footing with Hollywood studios), which raises questions about why this promised democratization continues to exist as a future horizon, twenty or thirty years down the road, in Jackson’s estimation.
  • That being said, the IFC blog points to Marc Price’s extremely low-budget film and widely-acclaimed film, Colin, made for the very low price of 75 bucks.  As Rizov points out, Colin foregrounds its low-budget status, using that as a marketing hook and turning it into “a home movie that’s getting a UK [theatrical] release.”  These marketing hooks tend to work only when the material itself is good, as was the case with Primer, Tarnation, and others.  And, as the debate over the actual budget of Tarnation indicates, these extremely low budgets often require some fuzzy math.


Transmedia Pynchon

This is the epitome of cool.  Thomas Pynchon, author of The Crying of Lot 49, has a new book out, Inherent Vice, and he’s promoting it via a video trailer (!) posted on YouTube.  The writers at Open Culture speculate that the voice narrating the trailer belongs to Pynchon himself, but I have no way of guessing (although Pynchon did “appear” in an episode of The Simpsons, playing himself).

It’s a pretty cool way of promoting Pynchon, someone who has been attentive, thoughout his career, to the vicissitudes of popular culture, as well as the excesses of the California celebrity scene and counterculture, which seem to provide at least some of the subject matter for the book.  And it made me want to read the book Right Now.

Update: When GalleyCat asked Penguin Press about the identity of the trailer’s narrator they “received a sly ‘no comment.'”

Update 2: Snarkmarket has another “book trailer,” this time for Seductive Espionage: The World of Yuki 7, a “swinging ’60s” spy thriller with some great visual style.  Via Filmoculous.


Saturday Links

Two quick links to brighten your weekend:

  • This parody e-Harmony profile video on Funny or Die by Lindsay Lohan is pretty amusing.  Lohan does a great job of poking fun at her public image and reminds us of why she was, at one time, a likable comic actress.  It’s also a great send-up of the unrelenting sweetness of the e-Harmony ads themselves.  Spotted this originally on Ken Levine’s blog, which is a great read, mixing keen observations about entertainment with behind-the-scenes details about the many TV shows (Cheers, MASH, Frasier, etc) where he worked.
  • Boing Boing has a nice write-up on the end of the Matrix online game.  Apparently, rather than just making an announcement that the game was ending, the writers incorporated the game’s end into the show, changing the game’s graphics to appear as if they are decaying and degrading.  Cool idea.  More at Massively.