Nightmarish monstrosities, arena battles, spontaneous communal creativity


“Zoofights is an ongoing mission to determine the true king of beasts through increasingly abstract and horrific arena battles.”

In real life, forcing animals to fight each other for the amusement of a cheering crowd is unethical, cruel, illegal, and a bad idea all around—just ask Michael Vick.

On the internet, however, one can freely indulge one’s baser creature-combat instincts. Ever wanted to watch “a top quality crocodile with the arms of a top quality octopus and a range of free wrecking tools” take on “a gang of raging lions, pulling a giant railgun named Prejudice?”* You can!

Zoofights is an online event that has been held annually at the Something Awful forums for five of the past six years. Essentially, it is a free-form role-playing game with aspects of a communal art project. The people running the game present various nightmarish monstrosities (hereafter, NMs) with illustrations and humorous descriptions and stats. The Something Awful forum members take on graphical personas and banter and argue about which NM would win in the fight, and then the people running the game narrate and illustrate the resulting battle. The victors advance in the bracket to the next fight, rinse (well, they probably don’t rinse), and repeat, until the Zoofights champion is determined.

Organized and written primarily by a man with the nom-de-post Major Failure, but utilizing the skills of an ever-increasing number of volunteer artists, Zoofights has been growing increasingly elaborate each year. Zoofights III, the first to prominently involve illustration, was also the first with an overarching story, and generally ramped up the complexity significantly: it was set in an alternate 1870, with loosely steampunk NMs, and ended with the various NMs having to team up to counteract a threat to them all.

Zoofights IV, while it maintained the 19th century mob spectacle vibe, featured NMs drawn from every corner of space/time (the Zoofights Corporation forced Nikola Tesla and H.G. Wells to invent time travel for their twisted purposes, you see)—a truly marvelous exhibition. And now Zoofights V takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the Zoofights Corporation has emerged from their underground shelter as soon as humanity seemed sufficiently recovered to be interested in betting on terrifying arena battles again.

Here is the Zoofights V introductory video, which gives a decent sense of the content and tone, as well as the quality of the “official” art: amateur but dedicated. And here is the Zoofights website, where previous years’ battles are archived and the official match-ups and fight descriptions are re-posted shortly after they occur on the forums—a new addition to this year’s festivities which should allow more people outside the Something Awful community to enjoy the carnage.

Zoofights appeals to the “which-would-win” impulse, the sort of drive which inspired Suvudu’s recent Cage Match, the Alien vs. Predator franchise, and all manner of other contests that pit fictional combatants of various types against each other in duels to the death. But there’s something unique about Zoofights. The medium is clearly imperfect. There’s nothing professional about the presentation: to participate, you have to contend with forum ads, broken images, constant scrolling, and skipping past the boring people to get to the good stuff. You can limit the thread to include only the “official” posts from Major Failure (and this year, the non-forum website makes it much, much easier to only see the “official” stuff), but that deprives you of all community content and doesn’t let you follow along in real-time. There’s no perfect way to experience this.

And yet, this is an event that couldn’t occur in any other medium—it’s interactive, without a linear story, so a novel, comic, or movie would miss much of the point; there are too many participants for any sort of live-action or tabletop game; it’s too free-form and creativity-focused to actually be a massively multiplayer video game. And a simple arcade fighting game would be a terribly underachieving use of the idea.

I feel like somewhere in here is an idea that could be professionally presented, though I wonder if that might eliminate some of the amateurish charm—and the knowledge of its mass production would eliminate the feeling of being part of a one-time “event” that Zoofights currently has. The compromise Major Failure appears to be considering at this point (from this interview) is to keep holding the events, but to produce the results in a format that lends itself to graphic novel production after the fact… which seems a fine idea to me**.

So while the inconveniences mean that I may be enjoying this as much conceptually as experientially (though absolutely, much of the art and narration is a blast), nonetheless I feel like the project deserves wider attention. The whole enterprise just involves an awesome mass of favorite tropes smashed together, with a solid helping of bizarre absurdity and just a tinge of the genuinely fantastic.

And if you meet me in the crowd, maybe you could buy a guy a drink? I lost my last post-apocalyptic barter token betting on STING KONG last round…

*Get it?

**I was amused and impressed to realize that this aligns quite well with some of fascinating author and blogger Robin Sloan‘s ideas of the future of media (“Bet on events!”). Zoofights is an annual event that is “also an act of creation: things come into the world that would not have otherwise.” And indeed, as Sloan wrote, “[the event’s] urgency—its live­ness, human vital­ity, and, frankly, its risk and unpredictability—is what makes it more than just another link in the stream.”

Joshua Starr assures you that no nightmarish monstrosities were harmed in the making of this post.


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