Polygon’s Unraveled and How to Answer Stupid Questions, by Ethan K. Poole
When you think of video game content on YouTube, there are probably a handful of genres that come to mind. Maybe you imagine let’s plays, reviews, or over-the-top analysis of absurdist questions about popular game franchises.
Or maybe you think of Polygon, a popular gaming media outlet, YouTube channel, and subsidiary of Vox Media. After the well-known McElroy siblings left, Polygon was on the lookout for new talent to fill the void. Ultimately, they found musician and sketch comedian Brian David Gilbert (BDG) and hired him as a video producer, a role that later landed him a gig as the host of his own show.
Unraveled, as the web series was titled, was in the classic style of faux intellectual deep dives into gaming trivia and lore à la MatPat or Vsauce3. Because of this it faced an obvious problem at its inception: how to distinguish itself from the myriad of other comparable shows? Having the weight of a popular brand like Polygon behind it certainly helped, but the show still faced the very real risk of getting lost in a sea of similar content. Luckily, one thing the series had going for it became evident in even its earliest episodes: its host.
BDG had experience as a comedian, writer, and performer coming into this role, and he had to put all of those skills to the test if he wanted to succeed at standing out from the crowd (and even more so if he planned to stand above it). Luckily, this former theater kid, with a pension for placing a witty energy into everything, was more than capable of capturing the attention of his audience and holding it, developing a large following.
Performers evolve over time, though, and over the two years that Unraveled was released, Brian altered his persona in some key ways. He portrayed himself as more manic as the series progressed, having more pronounced emotional reactions, more ambitious ideas, and an increasingly wild look in his eye. Overall, as the series found its footing, it became more and more clear what type of character Brian was playing to helm the show, an almost mad scientist type armed with the will to see each challenge through, the intellect to riddle out the answer to each question, and the Icarus complex to occasionally cut him back down to size. A loveable character to be sure, and one who captured the hearts of countless fans as the series went on.
BDG was not the only important figure to make the show happen, of course. There were guests, camerapeople, co-writers, editors, and many others who had to come together to make a show like this work. And work it did, consistently garnering millions of views per episode and becoming a mainstay of that era of Polygon’s history.
The show tackled a wide range of questions over the 28-episode run of the series. From “What is the sexiest Castlevania monster?” to “Can I read and review every single Halo novel ever released?” to “Why does Nintendo hate Waluigi?”, each episode offers a unique insight into the games you love. The show’s style of answering questions was distinct and recognizable as well, very categorically driven as most episodes followed Brian’s attempt to perfectly define a concept or categorize a series of things into clean, theoretically understandable ways.
This logic-driven approach definitely helped to keep even the most vague, out-there questions grounded, like using the Hero’s Journey to predict the end of Kingdom Hearts 3 or trying to perfectly define and encapsulate how Hideo Kojima names his characters.
Some episodes broke this formula, though, typically to great effect. Examples of this include using math to determine at what age Mario will have enough money to retire or a herculan test to figure out what Kirby was actually supposed to be. The show prided itself on “putting a lot of research into things which have very little meaning” (to quote Brian’s own mother) and never lost sight of the journey for the sake of the destination.
The show distinguished itself by the community which popped up around it. From countless collections of out-of-context clips circulating around YouTube, to the always active conversations in the comments of his most engaging videos, to people learning and performing the Perfect Pokèrap, an eight minute rap song that contains the names of over nine hundred pokèmon (all existing pokemon at the time of the song’s release). The community around Unraveled was a fun and inspiring example of strangers on the internet coming together to be excited about their shared interests and just generally being kind to each other, something especially rare in the gaming space.
Unraveled was just a series about analyzing video games to a comically absurd degree, but it was also so much more than that for a lot of people, myself included. Something that can bring people together and create something simply fun to watch with no strings attached is, in my opinion, an incredible achievement for just another video game web series.