XOXO plays out like a link blog come to life. For five years, XOXO co-creator (and pioneering link-blogger) Andy Baio recruited some of the web’s most fascinating creators to the Portland festival he runs with Andy McMillan, and the result is new attention for some criminally under-viewed projects.
Nearly everything I saw this year was something I wanted to share with a friend — you can check out the entire lineup here. Below are some of my very favorite things, any one which would happily occupy a weekend afternoon.
Simone Giertz. Known as the Queen of Shitty Robots, Giertz takes pride in making what she calls useless things — a series of absurd contraptions that happen to also be hilarious. You’ll wince at her alarm clock, which slaps her awake with a robot hand, and cackle at her cereal bot, which hurls Cheerios and milk all over her kitchen table as she deadpans. Giertz was recently featured on Colbert. (We also chatted with her in May.)
No one expects the lady code troll
Jenn Schiffer. "No one expects the lady code troll" — thus began Jenn Schiffer’s rollicking presentation about her series of Medium satires, which make absurd arguments about software development that bait men — and it is almost always men — into rageful fits of mansplaining. The essays are hilarious, and the responses are often sublime — although they also illustrate the toxic masculinity of many coding subcultures, as Schiffer noted in her talk’s powerful conclusion.
Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. This darkly funny take on children’s television took a turn for the extremely disturbing with its most recent episode in June — and it was pretty disturbing already. Every episode in the five-year-old (!) series is worth watching, but binge-watch the series in its entirety for a maximally unsettling evening. (During Q&A one audience member’s to the creative team was an exasperated "How?" The answer, from co-creator Joseph Pelling, was simply "Because.")
Ordinary Women. The latest crowdfunded project from Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency showcases remarkable women across time, cultures, and backgrounds. The debut episode, which premiered at the festival, offers a look at the anarchist Emma Goldman. A new episode is scheduled to follow each month through January.
Baman Piderman. A surreal, all but indescribable DIY web series about kindness, friendship, and two lead characters who look like, but are legally distinct from, Batman and Spider-Man. The simplistic animation style has evolved greatly over the show’s improbable seven-year run — at the festival, married co-creators Lindsay and Alex Small-Butera showed a clip from an upcoming Halloween episode complete with original songs and music. (It's a sequel to the episode posted above.)
"The first real video game mixtape"
Multibowl. The most-talked about game at XOXO’s arcade night was Multibowl, an insane and possibly illegal mashup of 230 different games from a dozen different platforms. Players compete in dramatically shortened versions of the games that take 15 seconds at most, with each game counting as a round in the larger meta-game. In a few minutes I watched Nintendo’s 1986 classic Ice Climbers transform into a bizarre log-rolling game into a chunk of 1992’s Sonic The Hedgehog 2. As Motherboard put it, Multibowl is the first real video game mixtape. Alas, copyright issues will likely prevent it from ever going on sale.
Manifold Garden. This forthcoming exploration puzzle game from designer William Chyr finds you exploring an M.C. Escher-like universe of staircases and shifting perspectives. You shift between planes at the touch of a button, progressively opening up new landscapes and the mysteries they contain. It's one of the most mind-bending explorations of video game space since Portal. I’ve never seen my boss, Dieter Bohn, look happier than he did after playing Manifold Garden — and I attended his wedding earlier this year.
Tumbleseed. Based on 1983’s Ice Cold Beer, the upcoming Tumbleseed finds you rolling a seed back and forth on a vine that is steadily climbing a treacherous mountain full of holes, enemies, and other dangers. But you can upgrade your seed as it progresses, giving you new powers and defenses. It’s highly suspenseful, and expected early next year to PC, Mac, and PlayStation 4.
The Foo Show. XOXO’s evening of storytelling kicked off with this wild virtual reality interview between Will Smith and Brendon Chung, founder of Blendo Games, inside a game Chung had designed. On stage we saw the host and his interviewee walking around in head-mounted displays; on the screen behind them, we saw their digital avatars exploring the virtual set of Chung’s 2016 game Quadrilateral Cowboy, which the show had rebuilt in VR. Watching a game designer explore his creation from the inside was one of the year’s more indelible moments.
Absurdist, artsy, and beautiful
The rollout of bots by companies including Facebook and Google this year has generally been underwhelming. But while tech giants work to determine how AI can become the next multibillion-dollar industry, a host of hackers are working to create Twitter bots that are absurdist, artsy, and beautiful. Some favorites from the XOXO bot meetup:
Sonic_sketches. Not a collection of Sega-themed hedgehog art — instead, a daily tweet featuring procedurally generated music clips created by Mark Wunsch. The same randomly generated number that serves as the basis for the music is also used to create the background for the track, giving the project a pleasing, hidden symmetry.
GoldenRatioBot. Images of the golden ratio diagram overlaid on popular images are often magnets for retweets. Brian Moore’s bot takes the same basic idea — and diagram — and smacks it on top of images taken at random from around the web. Much like the parodic takes on those historical photo Twitter accounts, the results are often bizarrely funny.
PikaChaplin. My Vox Media colleague Casey Kolderup presented this bot, which takes clips from old Charlie Chaplin films and inserts dialogue from Pokémon as title cards. As the tweet above shows, the results can be bizarrely compelling.
Correction, 9/12. This article has been updated to reflect that the festival styles its name as XOXO, not XOXO Fest.