Ctrl+Alt+Del by Tim Buckley, reviewed by Matt Trepal
There are some subjects, common wisdom states, which should not be brought up in polite company. Religion and politics are two of the biggies, but as of late, computer operating systems and gaming platforms seem to be flowing in the same vein. The sheer amount of energy invested in the holy wars over gaming platforms is impressive, and more than a little puzzling to the outsider. Regardless, there seems to be no shortage of webcomics willing to jump into the fray with their BFGs blazing. Ctrl+Alt+Del, created by Tim Buckley, is one more pixilated soldier trying to wade through the slavering bad guys, hoping to find that Secret Area where the popularity power-ups lie.
The title is an obvious reference to the combination of keystrokes necessary to reboot a Windows-based personal computer, but Ctrl+Alt+Del covers – and lambastes – all forms of electronic home gaming, from the PC, to the platform, to the handheld. It also lampoons gaming, Internet, and computer culture in general.
Buckley is smart enough to realize that he is hardly breaking new ground with his strip – the first few strips, in fact, acknowledge this, and parody other well-known gaming comics. Even with this acknowledgement, however, Ctrl+Alt+Del still centers around roommates Ethan and Lucas, who spend an inordinate amount of their time sitting on the couch playing video games, insulting one another, and complaining about one game/game company or another. And how much mileage can this device get anymore, really?
At least, not enough for mainstream audiences. A hardcore gamer may know what it means to camp at a spawning point, or what the big deal about a Radeon 9700 is and why it's bad (And just what it is. A sound card? A video card? A really tasty sandwich?), or why a gamer may defend to the death one platform against and above all others, but the general Internet public doesn't. Now, gaming comics are hardly the only webcomic genre to fall into the trap of requiring Secret Knowledge™ to get the jokes. Hardcore geek strips (technology-, rather than gaming-related) do it; furry strips do it; in fact, any strip that targets a specific Internet demographic runs the danger of doing it. This may work within that given demographic, but makes it difficult for the strip to appeal to potential readers on the outside. As presented in the above examples, Ctrl+Alt+Del falls into this trap, too.
Which doesn't mean that the audience to which these jokes are directed aren't all ROFLMAOed, just that the appeal may not extend beyond that group. Ctrl+Alt+Del does much better from a mainstream perspective when it comments on gaming culture rather than on the games themselves.
These are instances where the strip moves beyond being a series of one-shot gags towards more integrated storylines. Stories such as when Ethan and Lucas have to find jobs in order to pay the rent, or when Ethan attempts to woo Lilah (the gamer chick upstairs), add a depth and breadth to both the characters and strip that the single strips can never achieve.
Of these, the best storyline by far occurs when Ethan decides to develop his own video game, a grand synthesis of every other type of game, and strong-arms all his friends into slaving on the project for him. Like the game Ethan hopes to create, this story brings together the best elements of the strip: Ethan’s monomania regarding video games, Lucas’ devotion to his friend, and Lilah’s clear-headed outside perspective. It operates not only as satire of the video-game industry, but of industry in general and of the danger of working for your friends, and the whole storyline ends with a Lord of the Rings parody. Because there is less reliance on jokes specific to a game title or system, which may be dated within a month or two, these "longer" stories are the strongest part of the strip. And while they are more common later in the archives than earlier, they do not yet occupy enough of the total run to counterbalance the volume of the issue-specific strips.
The art of Ctrl+Alt+Del is generally rendered in the fat-outlined tradition of the genre, and usually consists of the characters sitting or standing, while they comment on whatever game they happen to be playing. Ctr+Alt+Del is very definitely a "talking head" comic. This is understandable, of course, since the strip is about video games, and playing and commenting on them don't require a whole lot of action shots or dramatic camera angles. But a look at one of the Art Pages that Buckley has included on the site shows that he has the talent and ability to draw more than just talking heads, and by incorporating more varied camera placement might both increase the visual variety of the strip and add a greater element of visual humor.
As a non-hardcore gamer from way back (my family had a Pong system, and I remember the Atari 2600/Intellivision/Colecovision feuds), I recognize the appeal of gamer-specific humor – and there are a lot of people who play video games. But the willingness of Ctrl+Alt+Del to narrowly target a particular subset of them, the ones who get worked up into froths (angry or ecstatic) over a few pre-release screenshots, means that the larger potential audience might be rebuffed.
If you fit into the hardcore gamer subset, then you will likely find something that appeals to you (unless you dislike the systems that Buckley champions). If you've only briefly glimpsed the Secret Knowledge™, or have never even entered the temple, then you might not be able to figure out what the big deal is all about, and may prefer to reboot your way towards something less encryptic.