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It’s Not That Deep

There's no need to galaxy brain Palworld's popularity. It's a new generation's take on a trend as old as time

Pocketpair

Ever since last Friday heralded the dawn of a new era – The Age Of Palworld – games industry pundits have feverishly sought to explain the game’s record-breaking launch. What brain-scrambling alchemic reaction produced this outcome? Which trickster god re-knit the fabric of reality overnight while we mortals snoozed haplessly, expecting to awake in the same world we briefly departed? Sorry to say: It’s not that deep. This has happened before, and it will happen again.

Palworld is the second – or third or fourth or fifth – coming of Happy Tree Friends, the edgelord series from the early internet days in which cutesy, Care Bears-inspired mascot characters tore each other to bloody ribbons. It’s one of a near-infinite number of Newgrounds videos and games that saw Mario decapitate a bunch of Koopas or, more to the point, Pikachu blow his own brains out with a gun. It’s the slickest yet version of the cycle that produced Five Nights At Freddy’s, which married those edgelord inclinations to what was a zeitgeist-y genre at the time (horror) and the not-yet-ubiquitous-but-already booming content creation cycle. It is, on a fundamental level, a child’s imagining of what a grown-up version of Pokemon would look like, just as Happy Tree Friends was for Care Bears and so on.

Those series also became huge in ways the pundits of the time failed to predict. Happy Tree Friends grew from a 1999 internet series into a multimedia franchise with a TV show, multiple games, and a Fall Out Boy music video long before that band fell off. FNAF produced too many games and spinoffs to count, as well as books, Halloween costumes, and a movie that – a decade after FNAF mania began – somehow still managed to surprise mainstream critics with its popularity. 

Where Palworld is concerned, FNAF is probably the most apt point of comparison, because we’re still living in the world that produced FNAF. Little has changed in the way this style of game achieves popularity, even if many more of them are now able to do so at a faster rate (sorry, Luke). The ingredients remain the same: Palworld marries the genre of the day (survival-crafting) to an edgy set of mechanics (guns, factory labor) in a way that produces a novel font of possibilities for content creators. With FNAF, it was scares followed by lore and fan theories, both of which the YouTube algorithm gobbled up at the time. With Palworld, it’s shock – holy shit, I just murdered that clear Meowth ripoff with a shotgun – that can cut through the noise of today’s interconnected, endlessly-shrieking online ecosystem. In other words, easy fodder for virality across platforms.

Palworld’s particular brand of edginess also fits the contours of its time, just like the significantly gorier violence of Happy Tree Friends and the lore-heavy undercurrents of FNAF. Sure, Palworld has guns, but it takes hours for them to land in players’ hands, and they don’t produce fountains of blood or anything like that. Again, as with FNAF, the violence is more about vibes – a pervasive sense that something’s not quite right even as things appear more or less normal at the game’s outset. 

Beneath Palworld’s shock and schlock lies a sticky morass of calculated substance: Finely honed gameplay loops that have kept players coming back for more in countless other survival-crafting and creature-battling games ranging from Ark: Survival Evolved and Valheim to a long lineage of Pokemon clones that Nintendo notably did not sue out of existence. Meanwhile, players have grown tired of mainline Pokemon games, which have adhered closely to a stale formula for decades. The game series is long overdue for this exact type of modernization, to cater to the new generations that are growing up with Pokemon as a larger cultural juggernaut. 

Palworld’s long tail, if it manages to produce one, will probably resemble that of other games in its genre: Popular creators across Twitch, YouTube, and TikTok making their own fun with friends via both in-game building systems and fan-made mods. The game leans into the forced labor angle as its systems unfold and you gain the ability to work your Pals harder. You, the player, discover that its world is a deeply unkind place through your own actions, a perversely satisfying reward mechanism. But the game is nonetheless proudly on the nose: At the apex of capitalism, during a time when younger generations are more aware than ever of the unfairness and inequality that fuel it, Palworld is about cute little guys being subjected to the most basic, bone-breaking depictions of those systems. 

I say all this not to make the claim that I’ve cracked the code, that I’ve uncovered the hidden depths that explain this viral trend, but to reiterate that it’s not that deep! A new generation of young people is experiencing the tension of constant, unavoidable exposure to the adult world while adults – whether parents, authority figures, or companies – tell them they’re not ready to live in it yet. Their imaginations are bigger than the sanitized playgrounds with which they are presented by the likes of Nintendo, so they welcome opportunities to explore taboos and societal ills via other, still-familiar outlets like Palworld. These outlets don’t need to be deep or uniquely novel. That’s not the point! That, in fact, runs contrary to the point.

Over the past few days, I’ve witnessed a stream of unease about how Palworld and Skibidi Toilet and whatever signal that a new video game industry, a new internet, and a new world have arrived – that this revolution crept up on the adults in the room, and they’ve been caught with their pants down. I just don’t see it. I mean yeah, a lot of us are getting old! And the particular shape that echoing trends take shifts from generation to generation, in a way that leads them to grow less recognizable over time.

But Palworld is just a slightly slicker version of something we’ve seen dozens of times before, built on a foundation of things old heads fear they don’t understand, like Steam (where they’ll tell you that either big-budget, proper games have been supplanted by viral YouTube fare made by nobodies or that big-name games are running all the smaller games out of town – neither of which are true) and AI (which is not capable of producing a game like Palworld and, at best, could only aid in limited, glaringly obvious ways). In reality, there’s just a lot more happening in the world of video games, all of it coexisting, with the new feeling like it’s on the verge of supplanting the old even though it has yet to demonstrably do so.

People are projecting so much onto Palworld when, in reality, it’s just a video game that’s like a lot of other video games. If you skipped to the bottom of this piece and only read that last line, good. Don’t worry about the rest.

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