4 min read

The Amazing Digital Circus's pilot

I have some thoughts on The Amazing Digital Circus. If you haven't seen the pilot episode of The Amazing Digital Circus yet, go watch it. It's strange and interesting and somewhat funny.

The rest of this post will have spoilers. You have been warned.

The heart of The Amazing Digital Circus is a question: How do you cope with being wrenched from everything you've ever known, including your own body, and trapped in a fetid cardboard box with no salvation but madness or death? It's compelling, because, from a charnel ground point of view, that's just life.

I find this question interesting on its own, but also because Circus not the first to ask it. A lot of stories lately seem to touch on variations of this question. For example, Yuppie Psycho trapping ordinary people in an office building with monsters where they slowly lose their grip on reality. Also, Doki Doki Literature Club, especially from Monika's perspective. She was never human, but she is trapped, and isn't fully in control. Thematically, it also feels a little like a time loop story.

A few specific things this has in common with some other stories:

  1. There is a magical world which is often digital.
  2. It sucks.
  3. The protagonist is an ordinary person.
  4. The protagonist is not there by choice, usually a human who got caught up in something by accident.
  5. You are not supposed to be able to leave it — but (optionally) oops you can.
  6. People trapped in the magical world go insane figuring out how to get out or how to cope with it.
  7. Themes of habituation. "This is just how it is, let's just hold on as long as possible and not rock the boat," vs. "let's get out of here."

But there are other fun things going on beyond the theme. There's the show's very distinct aesthetic. There's Caine. There's Pomni and Ragatha.

The Amazing Digital Circus has a very specific aesthetic. It's part video game, part software, part "children's show," and a hundred percent aughts. Even the "trapped in a game" premise feels aughts.

The entire world looks like a low-poly early aughts video game. The opening moments of the episode are the lowest-poly bit. I remember playing a 3D Dora flash game as a kid with roughly this level of fidelity. It reminds me also of Super Mario 64 DS.  After that, the edges smooth out a lot, but not completely. The world behaves like a video game, too, with hand-shaped cursors indicating objects of focus, the environment shattering along clean straight lines, objects clipping through each other when they shouldn't, the camera clipping through objects, and the camera taking on angles that I ordinarily expect to see only in video games. The camera for example looks down at Pomni from overhead during the barrel stealth scene—probably referencing top-down stealth games—and it's top-down again for parts of Pomni's "exit through the office" sequence. Said office also reminds me of the office from the video game The Stanley Parable, but maybe that's just coincidence.

It's got an aughts software vibe, too. In the hallway leading to the character's bedrooms, maybe a dozen different paintings hang, each showing different surreal scenarios involving clouds and geometric objects in a way that reminds me of Windows XP screensavers and the kind of 3D animations that played out on bowling alley score displays.

But beyond the computer-y elements, it also looks like a children's show. The main characters, except for Caine, look like cute, wacky little toys. Ragatha is clearly designed after Raggedy Ann. Their world is a funhouse of bright colors and toys. Besides Raggedy Ann, Pomni looks like a little toy jester. Kinger is a chess piece. Pomni hides from Kaufmo behind a barrel of monkeys, a toy I remember actually having (and not using much) as a kid. And of course there's Caine's Wacky Watch.

"Trapped in a game" feels aughts, too, though then it was I think more lighthearted. I'm thinking of that Scooby Doo movie but also Jumanji... which apparently was actually released in 1995 but I think playing occasionally on Cartoon Network in the early 00s.

Besides the aesthetic, there's Caine, and there's Pomni and Ragatha.

Caine in this first episode acts as an controlling, incompetent, negligent, and maybe abusive parent to the rest of the cast. He puts the cast through a silly musical number. When Pomni arrives, he rushes her around feeding her too much information too fast with no time for questions. He lays down the rules (mainly, don't go into the Void), gives her a name, and soon disappears to do who knows what. He keeps his eyes on the cast and tries to control their movements. As his way of welcoming Pomni to the world, he inflicts the gloinks on the cast which they then have to deal with, keeping them from doing too much he doesn't want them to do. When he learns Kaufmo's gone nuts, he "deals with the problem" and fixes Ragatha's and Pomni's glitches. But when I say he "deals with" the situation, I mean he just throws Kaufmo in the basement. He also makes a ton of silly jokes.

Ragatha gives Pomni a more caring introduction to the world, but we leave their relationship an awkward note. Ragatha wants to show Pomni around, help her settle into the world and keep her from going nuts. But she's attacked and Pomni abandons her, and neither likes it. Pomni is ashamed for having run out on Ragatha, and Ragatha is put out — but seems to want to avoid the issue to get along. You can see it in the way they look away from each other at the end, but it's probably also noteworthy that Ragatha doesn't sit next to Pomni at the closing feast — whereas at the beginning Ragatha probably would have sat by her to ease her into things of leaving Pomni between Jax and Gengal.

So, there's a lot of weird stuff going on in this pilot and I'm interested to see where they go with it. How will they explore the core question of coping with the charnel ground? What's the function of this very specific aughts aesthetic? Is Caine evil or just careless and impotent? How fucked up can Pomni's and Ragatha's friendship get?

We'll find out eventually, I guess.