Trying to squeeze the experience of a violent war, a high-speed chase, or a frenetic space battle into the confines of virtual reality isn’t always ideal. But there is one experience that fits perfectly: Standing in a roughly 10-by-10 foot cage and smashing stuff with a blunt instrument.
That’s exactly what happens every year (roughly) at Smash Party, a Los Angeles gathering held by animation company Titmouse, the studio behind Metalocalypse, Son of Zorn, and more. And it’s what you do in Titmouse and Viacom Next’s virtual reality game, Smash Party.
“Now is a great time for it, right?” said Titmouse co-founder Chris Prynoski. “Smash out your frustrations.”
“I remember turning to one of our other employees who was next to me, I was like, ‘We’ve gotta get a roof on this thing next year.’”
At the studio’s most recent Smash Party in Titmouse’s West Hollywood parking lot last month, guests signed a waiver as they entered, regardless of whether they’d brought something to smash. Some wandered over to the food trucks, others got a drink or mingled with local celebrities, and some got in line to participate. When their turn was up, they entered the cage surrounded by bleachers, donned safety goggles and gloves, and picked up their weapon; a sledgehammer, or a metal baseball bat. Then they smashed something — whatever they brought from home. TVs, appliances, statues, effigies, art, treasures, junk from the side of the road — the Smash Party has seen it all.
This year, for the first time, there was another line; to try out Smash Party, a VR game simulating the experience they were attending. Players wearing HTC Vive headsets and wielding motion controllers used a virtual bat (wrapped in barbed wire like The Walking Dead’s Lucille) to wreck a China shop’s worth of dishware and other inanimate prey. The art, all of it by Prynoski, resembles Titmouse’s show Superjail!, if it was 3D, life-size, and you were inside it.
At one point, a wall of the cage falls over so an octopus can hurl cups at you. The moon is smoking a blunt, a very Titmouse touch you won’t notice if you fail to look around in Smash Party’s psychedelic virtual world.
“[Virtual reality] is in this kind of like, wherever you put the sensors, but like a 10-by-10 or like a 12-by-12 kind of area that’s enclosed, and you have these controllers that sense your motion,” Prynoski said. “And I was like, I think a Smash experience would work well, because that’s like the real-life mechanic of this party, right? You’re in a cage that’s enclosed and you’re swinging around something with your arm. It is what it is!”
A short history of smashing stuff
Smash Party — the real one — began in a New Jersey garage owned by Prynoski’s friend Jody Schaeffer, now an animator at Titmouse. “We just would bring a bunch of stuff and smash it in his garage and it was really unsafe, you know, everybody got really drunk and there was none of this like, safety stuff going on,” Prynoski said.
At one point a wall of the cage falls over so an octopus can hurl cups at you.
He and Schaeffer kept the tradition going after they separately moved to LA. Prynoski and his wife Shannon formed Titmouse as a t-shirt company in 1999, eventually opening a small storefront in West Hollywood. “We’re like oh, we could probably do the smashing party in the basement, which is a horrible idea,” Prynoski said.
Prynoski was introduced to the VR developers at Viacom Next at a dinner in San Francisco earlier this year. They had dinner again a month later, and Prynoski pitched them the idea for Smash Party.
“We saw the opportunity to work with Chris as like, a no-brainer, like, let’s totally do this,” said Rob Ruffler, Viacom Next’s senior director.
The developers had never attended Titmouse’s actual Smash Party, but they did bring their own smashing experience, David Liu, the company’s creative director of virtual reality, said. “One of our team members actually, the designer of the experience, he has smashed televisions before, so that was a helpful skill set,” Liu laughed. “He and some friends go out in the country, they’re like, ‘Oh we got an old television, let’s smash it!’”
Like the real Smash Party, Smash Party the virtual reality game is just fun. The virtual bat feels good and responsive, the world is bright and colorful, and the physics are floaty enough for you to swat mugs out of the air, but still feel satisfied by it. In its simplicity, it sidesteps many issues larger, more ambitious VR games face, like risk of motion sickness, complicated control schemes and a lack of accessibility for non-gamers. It is, if nothing else, a fun little party game.
“There’s like this cave man part of you that you don’t get to exercise in society,” Prynoski said. “Smashing the shit out of something is something that’s frowned upon by society, but if you could do it, like, you really get that. It’s a real visceral kind of [catharsis].”
The benefits of VR smashin’
The game has at least one advantage over the real thing: it’s much less dangerous. Prynoski had plenty of cautionary tales from over the years, like when (back in the days when the party was held in a basement) a drunk guest punched through a TV screen and approached a woman in a nurse costume seeking first aid. (He later admitted it was his fault for getting too drunk, Prynoski said.)
Then there was the time, years later, when a thrown axe almost landed in the crowd. “Building the cage [in the parking lot] was good, and then we put the fine mesh screen around the edges so little bits and pieces don’t come out,” Prynoski said. “But I remember somebody like, hurling an axe at a TV and it bouncing off the TV and — initially we didn’t have a roof to the cage, so it bounced off and it’s spinning around, and everybody kind of looked up like [gasp], like thinking it might go into the audience. And then it didn’t, it landed on the ground, and I remember turning to one of our other employees who was next to me, I was like, ‘We’ve gotta get a roof on this thing next year.’”
Those experiences all added up to the waiver guests sign when they enter the party. “We had to compile a lot of things from like, you know, skydiving, skiing, paintball, looked at all these things that are like dangerous things,” Prynoski said, “and basically had to compile a lot of legal language from those to make this waiver happen.”
You won’t need to sign a waiver to play Smash Party when it releases later this year on Steam. Because if you’re going to destroy a bunch of old TVs, furniture and kitchen appliances, you might as well save some paper in the process.