Whether they are true to life or imbued with the magical qualities of a revered fantasy saga, video game worlds often teem with wonderfully bizarre flora and fauna. It’s no wonder, then, that documentarians are embarking on virtual expeditions to capture the awe and mystery of these digital realms, and the curios and cynosures that inhabit them.
For example, did you know that an arcane colossus resides deep in the abyssal, oceanic recesses of Titan in Destiny 2? Or perhaps that the largest species of moth in Destiny's world inhabits the chasms constituting the Moon’s underground? In terms of more realistic documenting, Red Dead Redemption 2’s ecosystems exist in a perfect state of flux, with bear cubs learning to track their first stags, and wolf packs singling out bison who have strayed from the herd.
Sonny Evans, who goes by “8bitsonny” on YouTube, is one such filmmaker. Although Evans documents the natural wonders of a variety of games, his channel mostly revolves around Rockstar. “Two years ago, as a spoof, I created an in-game documentary about the different kinds of players active in GTA Online,” Evans tells me. “I found it funny to call these players ‘Creatures of Los Santos’ and write some David Attenborough-esque commentary about their day-to-day life and habits.” As the series progressed, it felt natural to divert his attention to Rockstar’s latest colossus, Red Dead Redemption 2.
“For Red Dead 2, I simply fired up the game and started traveling around,” Evans explains. “That's the beautiful thing about Rockstar's open-world games — and Red Dead Redemption 2 in general. You don't need to look for adventure, adventure seems to find you. Writing documentaries seems to happen on its own.”
Meanwhile, Lotte van Ginkel, or “Kimber Prime” on YouTube, has always been interested in the minutiae of video game worlds. Her background in zoology only furthered this, resulting in an ambition to pore over the curious fauna of Destiny 2. “It started with noticing one tiny frog after I heard its croaking noise nearby, and from there I kept finding more and more creatures,” she explains.
Although Prime was originally only invested in seeing how many different species she could discover roaming the planets of Destiny, she eventually decided to document her findings. “Initially the plan was to just make a list of the critters you could find, like a 'Top 10 creatures in Destiny' list,” she explains. “As I found more, I decided to delve deeper into what I could find and turned it into a full-fledged nature documentary.”
Various processes are involved in making in-game documentaries such as these. In Evans’ case, he already knew he wanted to make his Wild West documentary before he even booted up Red Dead 2, and already had an idea of the tone he was aiming for. “I often blend facts with fiction and humor,” he tells me. “So when I talk about cowboys and their life, I make sure some of it actually makes sense or there are some interesting facts, often found on my good friend Wikipedia. But the vast majority is utter nonsense and just there to make people smile.”
In terms of uncovering material for his documentaries, Evans traversed the virtual plains of Red Dead in search of action. Whenever he occasioned something sufficiently interesting, he’d start recording and worry about writing a complementary script later on.
On the other hand, Prime decided to ask some pals about whether they knew about any undocumented fauna in Destiny. “I looked online for any animals others had noticed, and then I spent a couple of days exploring every area on every planet to try find all the creatures I could,” she explains.”
“I always loved watching nature documentaries so I based the script on David Attenborough ones; informative and realistic, but with a little fun thrown in,” Prime continues. “Creative writing is something I've always loved, but haven't done much of recently, so this was a great time to continue with it.” She notes that the limited tools available in-game necessitated some minor tweaks to the script during filming, but only one section needed a major overhaul. Both Prime and Evans got friends involved to handle narration.
Evans notes that he tends to favor games that are aesthetically pleasing, specifically mentioning Battlefield 1, PUBG, Fortnite, and GTA. Each of these games is also equipped with a suite of in-game editing tools, hearkening back to Prime’s concern about restrictive in-game recording capabilities. “Any game with actual editing tools like the Rockstar Editor or Fortnite's replay mode, I'd look into for sure,” Evans says. “I’m still waiting patiently for the Rockstar Editor for Red Dead Redemption 2. I'd love to actually be able to get the camera close to the animals to showcase the work Rockstar put into their behaviors. In a game like Red Dead 2, there's just so much detail we tend to overlook because we’re always on the go.”
Prime is more specifically inclined towards in-game fauna, mentioning a natural attunement to virtual wildlife and citing Resident Evil 5 as an example of something she’s recently been captivated by. However, although she’d like to revisit this documentary-style filmmaking within game worlds in future, she also wants to explore “other forms of cinematic projects,” both in Destiny and beyond. “I have some ideas for Destiny, but without a camera mode and all the easy no-gun glitches I know about having been patched shortly after I finished my documentary, it will be a challenge to keep making more,” she explains. “I love Destiny though, so I will keep trying to find a way while also looking for other games to work in.”
The question remains: why do these filmmakers specifically hone their craft in virtual worlds as opposed to our real one? “Seeing people interact with my videos, seeing that I made people laugh or seeing the people who are hurt on a deep spiritual level because I didn't fact check most of the information in my documentaries (spoiler alert: I don't) makes me very happy,” Evans tells me. “But mostly, the community loves documentaries created in video games they enjoy and content that makes them forget about what's happening in the outside world for a little while. Especially nowadays.”
Prime says her Creatures of Destiny documentary was originally a passion project undertaken to test her video editing skills. “I've been making videos for a while but never something like this where I needed to write a massive script, figure out precise shots that actually were possible in the game, and get other people involved into the process rather than it being a solo project,” she says. “The community feedback was very positive and I’m happy so many people enjoyed it — it's definitely inspired me to keep making more cinematic videos.”
“I would be keen to see other people take my concept out for a spin since everyone thinks so differently and I'd love to see where someone else could take it,” she adds. “I'd be so happy that I inspired this type of format if others decide to tackle it.”
Obviously, however, documentary-filming necessitates a rather strange way of playing video games, which results in some bizarre scenarios. Prime recalls filming a scene for her documentary mid-Raid. “I spent a couple of minutes just crouching around a certain crystal, staring at moths that spawn on it during the encounter,” she explains. “One of my friends had to solo fight all the giant monsters I was supposed to be helping with. I could just hear his Guardian yelling off to the side as he took damage and was dying while I just sat there as if nothing was happening, dead to the slaughter around me.”
“He did really well, too. Hats off to him.”
However, as well as being indicative of how some people play games in obscure ways, practices such as these can often remind us of what’s so special about these worlds in the first place. “If I can give players one piece of advice while playing their favorite games… just slow down,” Evans explains. “Take your time exploring, don't fast travel. Just try to truly enjoy what the devs of video games made for you to enjoy.”
“I made a video, a ‘documentary,’ to see if it's possible to walk a bowl of stew across the map in Red Dead Redemption 2,” he continues. “Playing Red Dead with a stupid, made-up objective that forced me and my friend to slow down and just enjoy the scenery was one of the best experiences I’ve had in gaming. Doing that video gave me a newfound appreciation for video games, and also hours upon hours of fun — or mind crippling torment.”