A week after Gamescom kicked off with Opening Night Live on August 23, it’s pretty clear that the unexpected hit of the show on social media was High on Life from Rick and Morty creator Justin Roiland’s Squanch Games. Set for release on December 13 for PC and Xbox, it’s a first-person shooter wrapped in the same kind of darkly-comedic weirdness seen in Roiland’s previous games like Trover Saves the Universe and Accounting. Squanch Games’ creative director Mikey Spano describes it as “Bladerunner if Jim Henson did it,” and compares the bounty hunting gameplay to Metroid Prime. Tonally, it’s an acquired taste, and honestly it wasn’t on our Gamescom bingo card of games we thought we’d be talking about right now.
A week after Gamescom, on IGN channels alone, content about High on Life has seen over 33.5 million video views, and a staggering 77.6 million impressions (“impressions” are a measure of how many people have seen posts about the game in their social feeds.) By comparison, Dune Awakening – the next most popular title we covered – saw just 8.6 million impressions.
High on Life wasn’t an exclusive or a world premiere at Gamescom. When Microsoft announced it at its Xbox and Bethesda Showcase back in June, it performed moderately well. In the two months since, the trailer has gradually accumulated 348 thousand views on our YouTube channel. It’s been on our radar, for sure, but it’s hardly been leading the charge when it comes to potential hits this year. If you had asked anyone “what’s going to be big in Q4?” no one would have said “High on Life.”
When new gameplay footage, featuring a very verbose boss fight, dropped during Gamescom’s Opening Night Live show last week, it did OK out of the gate, and after a week it has managed to claw its way past 100 thousand views on IGN’s YouTube channel. It certainly wasn’t the most successful showing of the evening. That honor fell to Pinnochio-themed Soulslike Lies of P which quickly cracked a million views on the same channel.
On August 24, IGN executive news editor Joe Skrebels got to play High on Life at Gamescom and posted 25 minutes of footage (included above) for a hands-on preview that showed the gameplay leading up to the boss fight showcased in the trailer. This further demonstrated how dense with Roiland-isms the game’s dialog would be. The footage – which was completely raw with no voiceover, just game audio – was watched 1.3 million times on IGN’s YouTube channel.
From this we clipped out segments that we posted on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram, starting with the introduction of “Knifey” – the loudmouthed knife/tether creature that sounds like Australian Rick as he screams that he “needs more stabbing!” That clip has now been watched 7.6 million times on TikTok, and was initially met with enthusiasm for its obvious Rick and Mortyness. There was some understandable grumbling that it wasn’t coming to PlayStation, but the initial response was generally positive.
Then things took a negative turn. Roiland’s approach can be divisive at the best of times and, as with the discourse around Rick and Morty, people soon complained that the humor was predictable and crass. Some griped that Roiland’s approach is starting to get old. Chief among the criticism was that talking weapons are annoying, and comparisons were drawn to talking guns in the Borderlands series. It’s worth pointing out that talking companions in general have been the ire of some players since Navi frequently updated Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Paimon – a similar character – appears perhaps too often for some in Genshin Impact.
On August 26, we clipped out another High on Life scene from the gameplay footage to show how meta the humor gets as a reply to a comment from an enthusiastic fan. The scene, which shows a cycloptic-child-alien-thing daring you to shoot it while your gun, Kenny, berates you, saw another 4.7 million views on TikTok, and 6 million on Twitter. “Normally, killing children in games isn’t allowed, but he’s dead. We killed this kid,” whines the goop-shooting Kenny. “There goes our E for Everybody rating!” That single tweet saw 28 million impressions over the next three days. The discussion wasn’t about the “joke”, it all just came down to gaming Twitter finding Roiland’s work incredibly polarizing. 9Volt summarized the sentiment perfectly, saying “we have managed to make a game even more annoying than Borderlands,” a tweet that quickly saw 116 thousand likes. Kotaku’s Patricia Hernandez called it “the epitome of cringe.” The more people declared it “unfunny” though, the more Roiland’s fans showed up to defend it. As this was happening, Google Trends, which measures how many people are searching for a given keyword or topic, showed search interest in High on LIfe was spiking to its highest levels ever.
— IGN (@IGN) August 26, 2022
A day later on August 27, Spano and executive producer Matty Studivan spoke with Max Scoville on our Gamescom live show to explain that the game wouldn’t actually be as chatty as this early look would have us believe. “It could feel like it’s just blasting at you all the time,” Studivan explained. “In this level we’re trying to teach you a lot of stuff so we have to tell you a lot, but as the levels open up it’s been important to Justin and Mikey to find the moments of quiet, where you’re exploring and…where you can take in just how ridiculous the game is.”
Interestingly, while we saw more people seeking out information on High on Life, watching video, and talking about it across all of the places we post, it’s unclear if any of this changed anyone’s mind about wanting to play it when it comes out later this year. While Gamescom had a huge impact on what people were adding to their Wishlists on IGN Playlist, High on Life didn’t make it into the top five for the week. The most wishlisted game was (predictably) Lies of P, followed by Dead Island 2, Atlas Fallen, Dune Awakening, and Where Winds Meet.
Ultimately, the reason High on Life was able to steal Gamescom had very little to do with it being a video game. It’s a testament to the ubiquity of comedy – and perhaps a reaction to Rick and Morty’s particular brand of humor. Anyone can have an opinion on whether something is funny, but the discourse around a game like Lies of P requires an understanding of whether it might play like Bloodborne. The challenge for High on Life, just like for Monkey Island, Goat Simulator, The Stanley Parable, Psychonauts, and others before it, is to find a way to satisfy gamers’ needs while being accessible enough for those just looking for a good laugh.
John Davison is VP, Publisher at IGN. Follow him on Twitter.
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