The funniest new show this season is not happening on your television screens. It's happening on YouTube, where gamers Nick Robinson and Griffin McElroy have been posting new episodes of their fantastic game-streaming show Car Boys every Thursday. Inside the robust physics simulation known as BeamNG.drive — a driving "game" that models soft-body physics, showing cars crumpling realistically — the Car Boys encounter sick stunts, warped gravity, catastrophes that defy expectation, and a demonic crash test dummy known only as Busto who exists outside of time and space.
The base-level premise of Car Boys is that Nick and Griffin just find heinous ways to wreck cars. For many of us, that's all we need to hear to be sold on the show. But there's more going on with Car Boys, starting with the "game" itself. In most driving video games, crashing a car results only in cosmetic damage, some dents, scratches, and maybe a slightly misshapen bumper. BeamNG.drive is rare in that it attempts to model soft-body physics, every single bump you hit or point of contact can alter the appearance and performance of the vehicle. Hitting a bump at the wrong angle can turn your car into a heap of twisted virtual metal. It's a complex system which ensures that nothing happens the exact same way twice.
The other beauty of BeamNG.drive is that it explains nothing. It's available on the online game market Steam in the "early access" section, which is for programs that are still in active development, but are also in a playable state. So while the physics calculations being made as the program runs are far more realistic than in other video games, BeamNG.drive is very rough around the edges. Controlling it seems like a nightmare.
Game play-throughs and Twitch streaming — the most popular genre of online video, in which game-play footage is paired with commentary or reaction — fall into one of a few broad categories: demonstrations of skill, tips and tricks, or, if we're being entirely honest, a hot person overemoting. Not only is BeamNG.drive a different type of game than most people are used to, but Car Boys is also a different type of show. Like in speedrunning, the players attempt to break the game, but the end goal is not better performance or faster time. It's to see what the hell happens, or make each other laugh. It is literally a ten-car pile up with a laugh track.
Watching Car Boys is watching organized chaos — a collection of what-if scenarios that never, ever play out how you think they will. What if we hit that sick ramp and then went into super slo-mo? What if we made the gravity super weak so everything floated upward and then super strong to smash the cars into the ground? What if we shot this bus out of a large cannon? And despite the freeform flow of the series, a true villain has emerged in the form of Busto, a crash test dummy that cannot be controlled by man nor god.
Over the course of 12 episodes and counting, the Car Boys have found new ways to make mischief, merriment, and unceasing terror from which they can never truly escape. The pair took some time out of their busy schedules to explain exactly what makes Car Boys so compelling, and why it's the video game that keeps on giving.
How did you find out about BeamNG.drive?
Nick Robinson: This was kinda my first experience dipping into Steam reviews, and I saw all of the reviews for it were positive, so I downloaded it and messed with it for eight minutes and was kinda really disappointed and bored by it. I was like, "This game is so weird. There's no structure to it. There's no game part that I can find."
And it wasn't until a few days later when I wanted to show my computer to my roommate. So I loaded up BeamNG.drive and my roommate's kinda this weird guy who just loves chaos —
Griffin McElroy: That's such a good way to describe your roommate.
Nick: He's a recurring character in my life who ... he just loves ... he told me once about this recurring fantasy he has where he stands in line at the grocery store and just throws a bottle of wine against the wall and then there's ten seconds of silence and everyone's looking around trying to figure out what happens and right when someone starts to speak, that's when he throws the second bottle. I think about that all the time.
So I was like, 'What would he like to see?' So I showed him just cars crashing into each other. I took a few slow-motion videos of it and over time I started messing with it more and more. I did one Twitch stream with it where we just started messing with it and seeing some of the weirder stuff in there. So I asked Griffin if he'd be down to record something and it was just going to be a one-off video. At a certain point, I said to Griffin, 'Can I just go back and re-brand those episodes Car Boys after the fact, and make a little logo for it in Photoshop and just try to see if we can make this a thing?' And that's what we did.
I was going to ask, how long did it take to come up with the name Car Boys?
Griffin: It took about four seconds.
Nick: Yeah, we had a whiteboard with about 1,000 possibilities on it. We both set aside a week and we flew out to the New York office of Vox Media and we just really hammered it, hammered it.
Right. It opens the door to the 'Boys' expanded universe. Plane Boys, Boat Boys ...
Nick: That's been an interesting thing, too. The idea that we would've wound up where we are today is so weird because it's not the same show anymore. I feel like everybody who watches Car Boys was misled — including me and Griffin — that it was going to be a thing about cars crashing in slow motion, and that is not at all what it is anymore.
When you guys sit down to record this, what is your goal? What are you trying to accomplish?
Griffin: Usually, we lose the goal in something like ... In the last video, Nick found a new area. It was like, 'Ok let's get in here and do some stuff.' And then we sat down to do it and while we were trying to do these dumb things on this big dumb ramp we found, we also discovered that we could adjust the gravity of the world. We're like, 'Well, that's the next three videos.' The game has been generous with ideas for episodes like that, because you find something like that and it's like 'Oh my God, of course. This is going to be everything now.'
Nick: Without giving anything away, I do have a text file on my computer with like five more ideas for features in the game that Griffin doesn't know about yet, that I'm going to show him, that we could potentially do some real dirt with.
Griffin: Every individual thing is so funny, because then we can go back and we know there are planes and cannons and bedeviled crash test dummies and all kinds of stuff in the game. So when you discover something new, like you can change the gravity, it's like, 'Well, now we have to go back and redo everything we've already done and see how gravity affects it.'
Nick: Yeah. Like we haven't done a plane in zero gravity yet. We haven't done the gravity smash on Busto yet which seems like a no-brainer. It's kind of the best sort of the ultimate emergent game-play game.
Griffin: And it's the perfect game for it too, because of the heavy emphasis on physics simulation. Everything that happens, no matter what, is going to be super funny to look at. That doesn't come from me or Nick at all. That is purely the game.
Nick: I think the other big half of that is the fact that it's a very mod-focused game. A lot of the levels we've been doing lately have been fan-made (not fans of us, fans of BeamNG.drive). These are people who just love racing simulation and physics simulation. So Busto, that model, came from a mod. We should honestly, Griffin, go out of our way to find those people and shake their hand and thank them because none of this would possible if it weren't for whomever decided that that game needed a crash test dummy in it.
Griffin: For sure.
Nick: To Griffin's point about getting distracted, something I've noticed is that a pretty major part of my job while editing the show is cutting out parts where me and Griffin say out loud an idea we should do, and then get distracted and don't do it. It happens like 15 times an episode.
Have you heard from the game's developer at all?
Nick: No. I've gone and looked at their Twitter I think two or three times over the course of this happening. I just want some acknowledgement from them, honestly.
Griffin: Part of me has to think that they know about it, right? I bought the game. As soon as Nick showed it to me, I was like, 'YUUUUP! I have to own this. It's the craziest thing I've ever seen.'
Nick: Yeah. One could make the case that maybe they as developers of a realistic physics-simulation game maybe aren't crazy about these videos that just highlight ... We really hone in on the small parts of the game that are broken and then blow that up into a 30-minute video. So it's almost anti-BeamNG.drive propaganda. We should put a disclaimer that's like 'This game is actually incredible. Super robust physics simulation. We're just playing it wrong. Please don't think that it's actually this broken.'
Griffin: This game is amazing.
I've been trying to figure out why I enjoy watching the series so much, and I feel like what I've settled on is that it's kinda like the opposite of speedrunning? In that you're trying to break the game, not to get through it faster but just for the hell of breaking it.
Griffin: I feel like playing the game and messing with it is what is enjoyable about the concept of simulators. There are so many simulators with varying degrees of granularity and seriousness. So there's, like, I Am Bread is a bread simulator where you're a piece of bread just like trying to fly around a kitchen, trying to get into a toaster.
Then there's a game called Spin Tires. It's all about driving Russian trucks through muddy, awful environments. But you're not drifting. You have to manually choose the torque going into each tire and it's absolutely insane. I think what's so amazing about that is you hear that and if you're into the genre you think, 'Oh good. Finally a game where I can drive these big Russian trucks through mud fields or whatever.'
But I also think there's a type of person that hears that and says like, 'Man, I bet with all the work that went into simulating all of these billions and billions of different aspects of the game the average player doesn't notice, I bet if you really look into it, you can find some pretty wack stuff to do with all of that stuff.' It's kind of an uncanny valley, right? The more realistic a thing gets, the funnier it is to break it. The funnier it is to absolutely ruin it. If this was just crummy 3-D models that exploded whenever you touched them and they didn't crumple and disintegrate like they do in this game, it wouldn't be as fun to look at. Because it's so real, it's so good to watch it explode because it's that much closer to it happening in real life.
Nick: That's something I'm trying to stay conscious of too, is that the further we veer into the supernatural stuff I don't want to lose sight of what made Car Boys great in the first place, which is there's something fundamentally satisfying about watching these cars super slowly, hyperrealistically crumple. There's something magical about this weird juxtaposition of the most realistic car crashes I've ever seen simulated in a digital space but they're happening on these weird gray, nondescript grids. It's simultaneously the most realistic and least-realistic-looking game I've ever seen and in the weird space in between those things I think it's fundamentally weird and funny.
Have you interacted with other BeamNG.drive players? Do you know what they do with the program?
Griffin: We need to read up on Reddit and see what they're saying about us.
Nick: Yeah, I have no idea. I think the extent of that for me have been in the YouTube comments, we'll occasionally get comments from people who have played the game and usually it's them pointing out an interesting or helpful feature. Griffin, there's so much stuff you don't know about yet. I'm so excited. I'm a little cagey about getting too specific with it because I think surprising each other with it is part of what's fun about it.
Griffin: I just did a Reddit search in the BeamNG subreddit and they have not mentioned us once, so I think we're still flying under their radar.
Nick: Somebody tweeted at me that they searched the BeamNG forums for Car Boys and there were zero results. I was trying to get a high-quality picture of Busto 2.0 so I went to where I downloaded the mod originally and there were like two comments there that were like, "this mod is famous now because of this YouTube show!" And we're not doing crazy YouTube numbers honestly.
The people who do like the show are super, super, super passionate about it and that's something that's very new for me. Seeing what the fandom thinks of each episode has been something that I've never really experienced before. And that's been fun too.
What has this burgeoning fandom been doing with it? Like, are you getting fan art?
Griffin: The big thing is people just grab stills from an episode, and it's the most beautiful modern art ever. If I was in a band, I would just load up BeamNG.drive and then just like, play for a bit, then screen-capture something, and that's the album cover. Especially when you get to the stuff of the models exploding into these infinite triangles, it's really beautiful.
BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (dir. Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
CAR BOYS (dir. Nick Robinson & Griffin McElroy, 2016) pic.twitter.com/o4fUDFKe9y
— ☢Rosedent Fieldvil☢ (@J_Rosenfield) October 7, 2016
Nick: Somebody did a really incredible side-by-side of, like, stills from the most recent episode and stills from Battleship Potemkin that completely blew me away when I saw it. It is nuts. And like people will take really tiny moments from an episode. Like there's one moment from this most recent one where Busto is kind of standing on the bumper of a car and riding down this rail.
Where would you like to see the series go in the future?
Griffin: It's hard to say because we have talked about how there's so much stuff we haven't messed with. I am worried we will eventually reach a breaking point. The hard part is that it's escalated every time. I ran into this with the Griffin's amiibo Corner, which is another series I do at Polygon where I got like, sucked into a virtual-reality game and lived in that for two episodes. Once you do that, it's hard to like, it's really hard to step backward and go back to doing the shit that you were doing. We went from doing fun car-crash stuff, shooting a cannon into a car — that's fun — to basically an ARG about a crash test dummy that wants to kills us in real life who is in every episode and ruins everything and is horrifying. And it's hard to keep escalating that.
Nick: Totally. I've done hand-wringing over that. I don't know how it keeps happening, but it feels like every time we sit down to record this, something even crazier than the week prior happens. And I never think it's going to be possible and it always has happened. I'm really cautious when making stuff like this of not overextending it and not making it go longer than feels right. If we ever felt like it was time to end it or we were running out of ideas, we would probably just cut it off there. But the thing about this game is that it's such a digital Ouija board where me and Griffin both put on our hands on it and we have no idea. You can't plan BeamNG.drive, you can't put it in a box, we have no control over where it goes, it just kind of tells us where to take it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.