Crowbcat, The Kuleshov Effect, and Insincere Games Criticism
This is an article about one particular YouTuber, but I don’t really want it to be; it’s easy to miss the forest for a single tree, just as it’s easy to talk about a single person when you’re really talking about an entire subculture. All of this is much bigger than Crowbcat, who would cease to be of any consequence if the culture of gamer outrage surrounding them gracefully evaporated. But Crowbcat is functionally an onboarding mechanism into gamer outrage, so I think debunking it’s worth as a tool for valuable rhetoric is an important thing to do.
For the few who are thankfully unaware, Crowbcat is a YouTuber who makes montages, in the purest form. Their videos follow a particular format: clips from disparate sources edited together to tell a kind of story, almost always about the downfall of a video product launch or franchise. An example of the basic form these videos take would be a clip of someone at 343 Industries saying that they’re working on improving the matchmaking in Halo 5: Guardians, immediately followed by a clip of someone getting angry because they’re still having matchmaking issues: the intent of the video is to showcase a belief that the developers are incompetent and didn’t do their job.
Probably the most important detail in understanding these videos is that Crowbcat doesn’t talk, and has never, as far as I know, actually contributed their own unique voice to any of these opinions in a larger format than the words afforded by a video title or description. The videos are pure editing, with a vague thesis statement typically given in the brief text surrounding the video itself. However, it would be a mistake to say that Crowbcat isn’t in the videos; editing is its own language, and one that has more than enough words to string together a sentence. The choices you make in the editing process, and what you try to convey using montage, is an incredibly telling thing. So before I talk about anything else, I’m gonna break down how these videos actually work.
There’s an important bit of editing theory called the Kuleshov effect, which you’ve seen in action hundreds of times even if you’ve never heard of it; it’s foundational for truly great editing, especially in film. To briefly summarize, it defines the psychological meaning-making that occurs when two shots are seen in a sequential order — your brain works to fill the empty space, creating meaning to do so.
In Lev Kuleshov’s experiment, he edited a very short film in which a man’s relatively neutral face is cut between a bowl of soup, a girl in a coffin, and a woman, with viewers raving about the man’s acting: his hunger and grief and lust. The trick is that the man’s face never changes at all, you just think it does. Your brain draws a parallel between the man and the girl in the coffin because that’s just how the human brain works: we draw connections, then fill the empty space with meaning.
This is the language that cinema operates on, but it’s not always used for good. The Kuleshov effect is common in any kind of video editing, and though it’s always a kind of storytelling technique, it’s not always being used to tell you a true story. Your brain does lie to you! When the lies are conducive to deriving meaning from sequential editing in a fictional movie, like the face in Kuleshov’s experiment, that’s great! But when this same trick is applied to, say, creating false meaning in something “real,” that’s when there’s a serious problem. Using the Kuleshov effect for malicious intent is really common in everything from awful quack documentaries to outright propaganda. That’s why it’s really important to understand how this stuff can unconsciously trick your brain.
If you understand the Kuleshov effect, you can see that every video Crowbcat produces is purely built on its effectiveness. Crowbcat doesn’t talk in these videos, but they do talk. Crowbcat says one or two sentences, leaves the room, and then leaves you with a 10–40 minute montage that “proves” the basic opinion they’re sharing in the title and description. This doesn’t seem insidious, until you consider that these videos don’t just work to prove a single basic premise: they work to build dozens and dozens of connections between cause and effect, consequences and blame, choices and outcomes. A video about Cyberpunk 2077 doesn’t just work to prove that the game had a pretty botched launch, it works to place blame; it works to show you that the people behind the product are incompetent or liars or both; plainly, it works to tell you how disappointed you should be.
But at the same time, it doesn’t tell you that. Crowbcat doesn’t say anything! He just says that the game is bad or underwhelming or released in a disappointing state, which is technically their opinion, but is a generally unanimous one. You’re not watching their video on Halo to learn that the last decade of Halo has been pretty rocky; you probably already thought that. Wherever you choose to place that blame and how you choose to place it will invariably say something about you personally, and that’s where Crowbcat comes in. They place a bunch of edited, cherry-picked clips down and seemingly substantiate whatever negative opinion or preconceptions you already had — as Crowbcat says, you “draw your own conclusion.”
Crowbcat uses the Kuleshov effect in its most weaselly possible form. Because the videos lack statements, they often lack explicit misconceptions or mistakes or outright lies. Inclined viewers create their own narrative, one that’s often quite vitriolic, self-serving, and filled with holes. Crowbcat very obviously enables this; it’s the conceit the whole business of being Crowbcat is built around. Unlike other outrage YouTubers, Crowbcat doesn’t have explicit statements to tie them down. It’s all ether that means whatever you want it to mean, whether that meaning is “Back 4 Blood is a bad game” or “Turtle Rock Studios are a bunch of disreputable scam artists with no talent coasting off another company’s work.”
If I were to compare Crowbcat to anything else on YouTube, it would be CinemaSins, which is a less anonymous venture that kind of lays the entire grift bare. CinemaSins is a series of really, really bad videos going over perceived storytelling or filmmaking “slights” and errors in various popular films. The videos are bad because they are, above all else, utterly disingenuous; sincere-sounding complaints, often based on misconceptions or mistakes, slotted between “complaints” which are clearly just stupid jokes. Of course, it’s often hard to tell what is serious, with the channel’s creators alternating between treating the entire thing as a comedic farce and treating it like a serious vehicle for their opinions. Which is which clearly just depends on reception: complaints that get a negative response from viewers are jokes and complaints that people agree with are actually serious. Regardless of which turns out to be which, CinemaSins is never accountable for their own shoddy work or uninformed opinions.
The same goes for Crowbcat, because Crowbcat is an outrage merchant; they sell you the ability to be angry and let you choose where to convey it and how. What Crowbcat, the person, ultimately thinks doesn’t matter, because they’re just as likely a pure dilettante whose entire business is built strategically around the fact that gamers are just… a very angry demographic. They’re already dispositioned to getting irrationally mad, and Crowbcat stokes the fire without facing the same scrutiny they’d face with lies or factual errors. They’re not participating in the mob, nor are they endorsing that mob, they’re just presenting the facts! In other words, they’re selling torches to the mob and collecting a suspicious amount of money from their outrage. It’s an insincere grift. You can’t tell if Crowbcat is a person or a group of people because Crowbcat separating themselves from their content as much as possible is conducive to the grift. It’s just as likely an explanation for why the channel has no social media accounts… Except for, at least at one point, a Patreon.
The reality is that Crowbcat’s grifting has consequences, with most of their videos having well over a million views. This stuff contributes to the already immensely toxic and confused culture surrounding games, having been built to enable the most unreasonable, annoying people you’ve ever met. To lay the detritus of this solely on Crowbcat would be wrong. Crowbcat is just the metaphorical war profiteer, selling loaded guns of shitty rhetoric to folks who are marching off to other parts of the internet. The videos are difficult to debunk by design, mixing the agreeable and reasonable in with the absurd and ridiculous. They are an incredibly bad way to decipher the creative decisions, considerations, and compromises that go into creating a video game. Just as actual film directors don’t like CinemaSins, game developers don’t like Crowbcat; gamers do, because Crowbcat reaffirms their unique misconceptions about game development, whatever they might be.
To end this article, I want to look at Crowbcat’s most recent video. It’s a side-by-side comparison of the original Resident Evil 4 and the recent remake. Its obvious intent is to refocus the remake as a heartless, soulless cashgrab. The video is unique in that it shows a rare amount of personal investment from Crowbcat, who seems fairly insulted by the remake’s mere existence and doesn’t have much paratext to distort for the purposes of the usual scheme. In some ways, it’s the total breakdown of the format — a complete self-report for the kind of person Crowbcat is, and after viewing it, I’m utterly convinced they are a single person. The video is just joyless, sweaty montage filled with clips of the remake with muted sound contrasted with the original’s otherwise untouched audio, an endless cavalcade of meaningless comparisons, and an entire section dedicated to the fact that the remake removes the ability to get a reaction from Ashley Graham by looking up her skirt.
The video description told viewers to, as always, “draw their own conclusions.” So they did. They drew the conclusion that Crowbcat was a weird, embarrassing asshole who was misleading viewers while being incredibly petty. So Crowbcat changed the title and description of the video to this, completely changing its meaning to agree with the most popular sentiment surrounding the game in a few words.
Draw your own conclusion.