We eat your words

A History of X-Strike Studios: The Indie Video Game Filmmakers

I was asked to write this article about six months ago, and have been piecing it together since then. This is by no means definitive or a “tell all.” This is instead the barebones story of an independent video company/comedy troupe in Western NY from my point of view. I’ll be referring to former members Tim, Ben, Steve, Rory, Rich, Darrin, and Chad. And I’m Juese.

X-Strike Studios, LLC ran from 2003 to 2014. The word “independent” can be swapped with the phrase “no-budget”. I used to say “low-to-no-budget,” but it soon became clear that low budget was expensive. This was guerrilla filming on a little Mini-DV camera, everything made in-house except for music (and even some of that was).

Our specialty was in the very niche category of live-action video game comedy, as in everything we produced pertained in one way or another to specific games by way of parody or reference, or the wider net of gamer culture. Although we did make two documentaries, they were still sort of comedies. We dabbled in animation, puppetry, and podcasts, so I guess mostly live-action. We made five feature-length parody movies, two documentaries, five or so web series, multiple podcasts, a couple Let’s Play-type game runs, one-off sketches, some video blogs, and were a constant presence at video game and anime conventions along the east coast.

Let me skip to those two documentaries briefly. The first, MAGFest 2.0, was a doc about a convention called the Mid-Atlantic Gaming Festival, later renamed the Music and Gaming Festival. That was the main point of the piece, but the spine was X-Strike going to, experiencing, and coming back from their first convention to premiere their first movie, River City Rumble. The other documentary we made came out in 2009, the same year our last feature parody was released, and was called Sidequest Has Left The Party.

This was an 8-part series on a movie that was never meant to be. Even though the company was still going for five more years and released some its best work then, I like to think of these two documentaries as company bookends in a way, from bright-eyed optimism to bright-eyed defeat. All the problems that Sidequest Has Left The Party lists can be applied in one way or another to the studio on the whole, resulting in X-Strike’s inevitable closing, with some of its remaining members moving on to form the podcast network Fat Gatsby.

We all have different takes on the forming of X-Strike. From my perspective, it all came together in an elevator at the college of Fredonia in 2003. Tim was up visiting. He had been working on a script for an adaptation of the NES beat-em-up River City Ransom – which would become River City Rumble – as well as different ways to present it. Chad and I were about to graduate, me with a video and film degree and Chad with media arts. And Ben still had a year of school left but was dying to throw money at a highly risky investment. To me, that’s where everything came together. On April 20th we put a barebones website with just the RCR teaser trailer and poster up and officially became X-Strike Studios, LLC six months or so later when the paperwork was set. Through two loans we bought a then-powerful Mac, the camera, and various other out-of-pocket equipment.

From April until the end of 2003 we: filmed the River City Rumble teaser in the spring and the movie itself  in the summer; shot a teaser for our upcoming Silent Hill spoof, Silent Horror, to show at that MAGFest (where we made the previously-mentioned documentary); were prepping and I believe filming on my first movie to not see release, Ninja Storytime; shot and released the first episode of our web series Off Campus (more later); and might have even filmed the teaser for the movie Nth Mile.

Being a game with a loose narrative, the fun of River City was poking fun at what was in the game in live-action while trying to justify how the story fit together – with plenty of room for whatever Tim wanted to throw in – all while somehow being a light-hearted romp about high school gangs. The actors were our funny friends, many from our college improv group, and many of which would star in lots of our work, creating a troupe feel.

It wasn’t yet a world accustomed to fan videos and/or fan service, and getting to make direct references like coins springing from enemies garnered a big response. I played a heavy named Mojo. It was the first time I grew a full beard (two really, depending on which scene), a now-staple of my face.

This was, of course, a very exciting time. MAGFest 2.0 is an odd time capsule; watching now, I see long-time friends who we were just meeting or wouldn’t for years to come, as well as a wee baby of a convention at 300 people. The last one as of this writing drew attendance over 17,000. Also, we were doing something no one else was. Mega64 started out around the same time we did, but they always specialized on shorter-length comedy while we were movie-sized. History has shown that clearly we had the right idea.

River City Rumble

If I mentioned everyone we’ve worked with, we’d be here forever. But I wanted to mention the video game remix community, which we tapped for music from RCR on, be it specific remixes or original genre parodies. It’s all fantastic, and we had plenty of moments of “crap this is way better than we deserve we need to step this up.” Getting visual art was as exciting as getting music, be it posters, DVD art, concept art, promotional or any other kind. Always a rush. I’m linking the Silent Horror soundtrack as composer Dale North recently put it up on Bandcamp.

As RCR was done filming and post-production was entirely in Tim’s hands, we looked to the future. Rory had had a Silent Hill movie bouncing in his brain since probably high school and a script came together. Meanwhile, I was intent on X-Strike not being locked into video game movies as to leave a door open and to confuse everybody. So we decided to make a ninjas versus pirates movie pulling ideas from our college sketch show. For a structure, we aped that of the anime Ninja Scroll, which let us create a large stable of weird characters.

“No, we’re not making a Ninja Gaiden movie.” – our response, a lot.

From ’03-’05, X-Strike’s home (our home) was in Fredonia, NY, where most of us had either graduated or were still going to school. Seven or eight of us, all of which would be or were X-Strike staff, shared a rowdy duplex in the college town. This made it easy to film – a lot, often and everywhere.

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Ninja Storytime was the most efficient movie we shot, finishing principal photography in just months. However, there were problems. Some shoots weren’t as fun, and it showed. Ultimately we felt the movie didn’t work as a whole and decided not to distribute it. The biggest part NST played in released form was as a plot device in Off Campus. We had a flaming axe, a Muppet Babies nanny sensei, a whole Legends of the Hidden Temple section with a giant stone head called O.G. and we set Ben on fire. Worse things have come from abandoned projects.

Silent Horror ended up a lengthy production, getting caught in post-production limbo, ultimately released in 2005. Cast-wise I played one of three sweater vest-clad zombies inspired by the wrestling team The Mean Street Posse. Make-up was applied near my eyes (which I hate) and we attempted a routine out of South Pacific (which we nailed). As one of those responsible for editing, I snuck in a LiveJournal quiz joke, and luckily people still take dumb tests online so it’s totally relevant.

Chad had wanted to make a Parappa the Rapper movie for aeons, and that manifested into the 8 Mile-meets-Kids movie P. Rappa’s Nth Mile Dilemma: A Ghetto-tastic Rap-venture after Silent Horror. This was our first and only musical (although Rich tried to get a Maniac Mansion musical off the ground for some time). Chad also took editing duties, and in that time moved from Fredonia to New York City. Chaos ensued, and P. Rappa wasn’t released until ’07.

X-Strike Studios

Cast-wise – aside from being stabbed in the eye with a Yu-Gi-Oh pyramid, I played a crazy homeless guy by a dumpster who we think was labelled “OTHER GUY” in the script. There was a sentence or two description if that, but it was otherwise improvised. As he was unnamed in the script, when we did the poster (spoofing the cover to Snoop Dogg’s seminal Doggy Style) and my character was drawn saying his name, I was asked to name him. So he is, now and forever, NASA Weedfoot McQuack.

Meanwhile, the rest of us were trying to stay busy. We were making full-length movies on DVD with no money to help speed up the process, so aside from the people who saw us at conventions, it was rare for fans to be able to see anything new from us about a year at a time aside from trailers. Three years before YouTube, that meant they had to know to go to our website in the first place. So, Tim and Ben created a show called Off Campus, which was intended to be the easy thing while we worked on movies.

We initially made only two 30-minute episodes, telling you how easy it turned out to be. On Off Campus, we played a version of ourselves – first run being Tim, Ben, Chad and I then on its return swapping Chad for Rory after Chad was revealed to be a hermit crab (moved to NYC). In a way it played like The Aquabats! Super Show! or the Beatles films, where the artists you know go through a surreal version of their lives. In our case, we had things like Life Force (game), Transformers the Movie (the real one) and the internet manifest in the real world.

I didn’t even notice until I passed this article around for fact-checking, but everything mentioned so far happened in the first year and a half of X-Strike’s existence. Not that there isn’t a lot more left, but that’s considerably front loaded.

Somewhere in this early period we also made a few shorts. Tim made a “Monster in a box” Christmas short that became infamous years later when we found the viewership for this skit was much larger than anything else, and we learned that we had made a video catering to the vore fetish. Rich made a Rampart skit and A Date with Eternal Darkness skit which apparently should have had more women being eaten by inanimate objects.

We also became podcasters along the way. We started a semi-regular news/infotainment podcast, TripleRaidio, and ran four episodes of a noir detective series in a Captain N-like all-encompassing video game world called Vic Tokai. This was the only project I got to be the lead in, so I like it. Rich created it, and I liked it so much that I ended up writing two of the four episodes. We’re currently working on a new season of Vic at Fat Gatsby, where of course we continue TripleRaidio as well as an improv podcast (Robot Brains in Robot Bodies) started under X-Strike, and many others.

By this point I had started a script for an RPG movie called Sidequest. This was a script I spent multiple years on, and to skip to the end we made a documentary mentioned earlier about how it crumbled. It’s depressing! Needless to say, I’m still proud of the final draft and the documentary, and the actual filming when not swatting at doom flies. The Sidequest torch has been passed to my friend Steffan Chadwick Harris in Scotland who is in the process of adapting the script into a game.

While Sidequest was on its first attempt, Darrin spit out a script seemingly overnight for Project Snake: Low Budget Espionage. This was our Metal Gear Solid parody released in 2006. Snake stands out for being Darrin’s love letter to the Zucker Bros., balancing a lot of the craziness of Hideo Kojima’s original with stone-faced delivery in a silly silly world. I got more screen time in Snake than I did the other features, playing both President Baker (whose orange tanning make-up was nothing but complimentary), and also many masked genome soldiers.

As Nth Mile had wrapped filming by the fall of ’04, Snake would end up the last released X-Strike feature I was involved in. Not to keep saying “that’s crazy!”, but that’s crazy. Sidequest mach 2 (3 or 4 really) came after Snake was done, and somewhere at the end of that came Rory and Tim’s sequel to Silent Horror, Resident Horror.

Work prevented me from being on one single shoot for Resident Horror. RH went heavier on the action, as it played more off of Resident Evil than Silent Hill. On the plus side for me, it was really fun to see one of our movies just about completed without seeing hardly any non-cut footage. On the flip side, filming RH seemed to put people in good spirits after the ever-present Ziggy cloud of Sidequest, which was my last flick.

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It’s worth pointing out that with all this content and work, all the conventions and scattered articles (Nintendo Power, 1up.com, and The Escapist amongst others), we never had a big audience. We currently have 461 likes on our Facebook page and our YouTube channel never got any attention aside from vore enthusiasts. But, the fans we did have would be and remain fiercely loyal and vocal.

Resident Horror didn’t get released until ’09. As you might notice, this is where we decided to concentrate on web media versus physical in an attempt to raise our viewership and lower costs. Steve wrote a 6-part Fallout 3 series called The Wasteland Survival Guide which I got to edit; we had a 4-part Borderlands series called Banditlands about, well, the bandits. Tim and Rory made an Alan Wake series. Rory did an animated Metal Gear Solid series. There was a puppet Street Fighter skit and a A Boy and His Blob short. And we did two shorts as commercials for the return of Off Campus, which we labelled as season 1.5.

To slightly backtrack, after Resident Horror we went to a still-burgeoning platform called Kickstarter to raise money to make Off Campus, and to upgrade our camera and aging equipment. It was a success thanks to that small-but-amazingly-generous fan base, who, under pressure, exploded with money. Physics!

We were able to do seven episodes of the new Off Campus with the aforementioned cast changes. Season 1.5’s plot centered on a crazy millionaire wanting to buy Ninja Storytime from us and led down some internet-ish tubes. Off Campus was always a good time, and there were a million ideas for future episodes that never came to be. This was the last large-scale project we finished.

Off Campus

Part of the Kickstarter rewards was a “custom skit/parody” tier. For many reasons we just couldn’t get most of them done, which hung over us. Some were horror-themed, and we decided to incorporate those into what was to be our next series, Eternal Horror, a finale to the Horror films by way of a 9-part web series. EH was Tim and Rory’s baby, but I ended up writing two episodes, one of which being the only episode filmed. It was about Resident Horror‘s worldly British adventurer, Sir Edward Lindsey, being trapped inside his own mind and having to break the spell. The episode was maybe 80% filmed and rough cut for showing at a convention to a group of lucky individuals – lucky because they were the only ones to see it before the hard drive crashed and lost half the footage. Yup.

That seemed the final final nail in a many-nailed coffin. We just weren’t getting the viewer numbers we wanted on the online content – even though we felt everything from Resident Horror was our best stuff – and other general life things led to X-Strike Studios dissolving.

Oh, the day after we had our meeting to kill off X-Strike? We got a Cracked article saying River City Rumble was a better movie than Scott Pilgrim (the opinions of Cracked and the opinions of X-Strike Studios may or may not align) which, as of me looking it up to link, has almost a million views. So of course we reprinted a short run of the then out-of-print RCR (then and now, sorry). It’s something we had wanted to do for a long time but it never made financial sense before. It was a nice last hurrah.

River City Rumble

Well that doesn’t come close to summing up eleven years of my life, but it’s a start. To let everyone know we were shutting down, Tim wrote this which does the best job.

I was asked to write this since I’m guessing a perspective on an indie company from the inside might be interesting, not as an advert, but the best way to honor X-Strike is to go watch something, preferably ours. You can do so on YouTube and Silent Horror, Project: Snake, Nth Mile and Resident Horror are still available on DVD at x-strikestudios.com. We continue to have boxes and boxes of movies taking up space in Ben’s basement, as is tradition.

We wanted to make better video game movies than we were being fed by Hollywood at the time, and we did. Although Uwe Boll lasted longer than us, his YouTube temper tantrum almost feels like we posthumously won. If we had anything to do with that – you’re welcome.

All images sourced from the company’s Facebook.

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