[A note from your friendly neighborhood writer-man: I challenged myself to not participate in social media while writing this essay. I did so with the full knowledge that I am a procrastinator with a full work schedule. It took longer than I expected… and I snuck and did a little Snapchatting. The overall experience was difficult, but hopefully the end result was worth it.]
A few nights ago, I walked into a theater with my head down frantically thumbing at my phone while dividing my attention, trying my best to hold a conversation with a friend in the real world before the movie began. It was very rude of me (Sorry Brian!). This movie could not have shoveled more crap back in my face if it were a disgruntled shovler at a shit factory (not my best metaphor). Ingrid Goes West brought to light the obvious truths that everyone with a smart phone and an internet addiction are burying in our backyards. The problems we have with that person we see in the mirror everyday, but refuse to look any deeper into.
In the movie Ingrid Goes West, our main character, Ingrid Thorburn (played by Aubrey Plaza), has an unhealthy obsession with the life loving, prayer hands hashtagin’ Taylor Sloane (Elisabeth Olson) who she follows on Instagram. This obsession leads her to pack up her things and move to Los Angeles with the sole aspiration in becoming her instacrush’s new BFF IRL. Through stalking and other questionable acts, she achieves her goal, lives her #bestlife and sees what the world is like behind the curtain of a social media aficionado… before things start to landslide. She finds herself fighting to maintain her position as ‘best girl’ in the eyes of her beloved when Taylor’s coked up brother and super model girlfriend come into the picture. Chaos ensues from beginning to end.
This dark comedy is a different kind of animal. I found myself sent on an emotional rollercoaster of a journey I was not yet prepared for. There were scenes that were laugh out loud hysterical and others that poured on tension so thick, you couldn’t cut through it if you were the destined, uniter of realms, wielder of Excalibur, Arthur, the one true king himself. Speakin of knights and shit, did I mention that O’Shea Jackson Jr (Straight out of Compton) is in this movie? Did I mention that his his character in this movie has a Strong affinity for Batman? Because he does. Bruh, I swear you could watch this movie just off the Batman references alone and have a good time. There was a part in the movie when O’Shea was explaining why Batman was so important to him, me and a stranger I was sitting next to in the theater just nodded our heads in solidarity.
Writers David Branson Smith and Matt Spicer did a phenomenal job telling a story so air tight that I never found myself questioning why characters made the choices they did. With Aubrey Plaza (MVP) taking the lead role where she is predominantly the biggest character in terms of screen time and character development is no small feet. She also produced the damn film! She absolutely rocked this roll as a believable stalker who just wants to be loved. Big ups!
You get pulled into these characters’ lives and you can relate to them. Oftentimes they are extreme versions of us, and thusly they go to extremes and tred beyond boundaries we do not dare tred, but at the center of their motives lies a gooey chewy humanly genuine desire or desperation or fear that we all face in this modern age. The true identity and perception of ones self is muddied by the mostly pointless, ever constant wall of “feeds” and “stories” that have rooted homes in our lives; reshaping how humanity interacts, and morphing the very core of our culture. This is a movie with a protagonist that could effortlessly be Darth Rita Repulsa who burns down Angel Grove while slaying younglings just by shifting the perspective. However, because we do see through the eyes of Ingrid, we can half-celebrate in her tiny victories as she crawls her way into somebody’s life and watch in dread when she makes the decisions that get her neck deep in uncomfortable situations that we can’t envision progressing amicably. We see that Ingrid herself is on the lengthy list of people she is hurting to get what she wants, and we brace for impact when her Jenga tower of lies start catching up with her.
There were a few times in the movie where they showed montages of Ingrid going on Instagram benders. From sun up to sun down. She just scrolled and liked picture after picture on her feed until there was nothing left to scroll. And then, she pulled the move that I knew all to well. The move where you drag your thumb from the top of the feed to reveal a loading wheel to refresh your wall and produce the most recent posts. But there was no more content. So she kept dragging her thumb over and over again. This reminded me of some dark times.
My mom told me once that I had seen a therapist when I was little. Not necessarily because I needed to talk to one I don’t think. I’d assume it was like going to the dentist to get your teeth cleaned. I don’t remember it at all, but my mom said that the therapist observed that I had a hard time dealing with change. That kind of makes sense to me. I haven’t seen a therapist since, but I know that I have some problems. I experience high levels of anxiety which keep me from doing tasks as simple as meeting new people, answering my phone calls or making appointments (or I dunno… finishing articles on time). I also, and I don’t know what the technical term for this would be, but I seem to have a sort of love blindness (let the record show that I am in no way a therapist). To put it more simply, more times than not I can’t tell whether or not someone genuinely cares about me or if they have ulterior motives (which maybe seems like a ‘duh’ kind of thing because I don’t know if anyone “knows” if another person is on your side or not, but let me keep explaining).
It’s like that cliche thing that Scarecrow does to Batman (O’Shea knows what I’m talking about) where he makes you think everyone around you is some kind of monstrosity attacking you and I know it’s an illusion, but I can’t find where my friends are. So I keep everyone at arms length. And that doesn’t mean there aren’t those that I know are my friends and I have people I that care for deeply. It just takes me sooooo long to build up the courage to let anyone in. I’ve just been building this wall so high for so long that it’s hard to open up and let them know that I appreciate that they’re apart of my life; that I love them, like properly. Because even if they don’t have a cartoonish scheme to rope me in, like my subconscious suggests, there’s a good chance that they’ll leave one way or the other. And this fear of loss, fear of the inevitable, leads me to live a life that is mostly solitudinous. A life, that until recently, hasn’t changed. Where I’m comfortable and safe. I was living a life where I had the illusion of being in control. I do have friends and I have loved ones, but I don’t think I’ve ever been 100 with anyone, myself included. And I’ve been bargaining the notion that loneliness is a small price to pay.
So when I went online to use Facebook, it was to feed my anxiety demon. The part of me that “can’t even”. I paid the minmal cost for small, cheap interactions and it gave me the same feeling you get when you eat birthday cake exclusively for diner: a fleeting burst of joy and amazement followed by the long weighty after taste of feeling slothful and depressed. I rarely post anything close to the chest. I post funny things here and there, but I’m coming to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter if I find the funniest things first. I am rediscovering that I don’t need likes on a posts to feel loved or supported and vice versa. Being online from the times of MySpace has skewed my perception of what it means to feel valued.
See that? If it bleeds we can kill it.
I’m just a dude who spends too much time online. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc are all different fronts for our operations away from our day to days. Social media has allowed us to be the curators of our lives. We get to choose what the world gets to see from us which has put us in a predicament. It’s extremely easy for those of you, like me, who fed off the little spikes in dopamine through likes and shares to get addicted. This new age of internet has mutated a new strain of vanity that can easily be masked in a false vale of humility (#blessed) and therefore goes unchecked and a lot times, or even rewarded. There are many, like Elizabeth Olsen’s character in the movie, who make a living by sharing their lives on Instagram. Being “influencers”. Not knocking it, you do you boo-boo. It’s so crazy to think that we live in a time where there’s no such thing as overexposure; there is no over sharing. We can give everyone and anyone access into our lives just by simply accepting a friend request.
I just finished this article and I’m not gonna lie, I can’t wait to get back on Facebook. There’s just so much I feel like I might be missing out on *Tyrone Biggums neck scratch* Bout to hit the like button on so many cute animal videos. You have #noidea. Social media isn’t all bad either. You can connect with so many people and keep in contact with friends that before you could only call. And knowing my anxiety, that means I’d never see y’all again. That’s what got to me the most about Ingrid Goes West. It identified the problems and insecurities I have with social media so accurately that it made me take a step back from all of it. Do I dare go back into the dark underworld of madness, mimosa brunches, and fail videos? I take a deep breath… and open my 20+ notifications. Alas, who is Batman without a Gotham.
Alexander (Axx) McAlister
Recently, Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) released an article explaining that they’re going to make more conscious efforts to add more LGBTQ characters to their written adventures. The effort is being pioneered by actual gay employees (it’s crazy that this even needs to be mentioned) who are making sure that the content is realistic and tasteful. Upon release, the article riled up the usual suspects: those who see no issue with the change and those who think that expanding representation into their fictional landscape is a horrible idea.
The battle being waged is an important one, and of course it was contention that WOTC expected. They’re firmly planting their feet on one side of an issue, as they have in the past with similar topics. The D&D Players Handbook sprinkles in some support to the historically disenfranchised by mentioning gender fluidity at one point and by portraying the “Human” racial choice with a fully clothed black woman. They clearly have good intentions. But honestly, much like most straight white culture businesses, WOTC misses the mark by a mile.
Dungeons and Dragons is set in a world of fantasy based in and around the world of Lord of the Rings. A classic title in the world of western fantasy that is also heavily rooted in sexism and racism. Although D&D has changed small features throughout the years to change or eliminate those aspects, the core of those principles are set in the European fantasy setting.
“So this game has knights and castles and dragons and elves in it, like King Arthur or something?”
“Yeah like that, but with more gay people.”
The method taken results in underrepresented groups seeming like an afterthought, instead of a core value of the world itself. Although it’s a move of good faith by WOTC, it feels the same way J.K. Rowling makes us feel when she “peppers in” new liberal-friendly facts about characters she wrote 15 years ago.
“Dumbledore was gay y’all! There’s nothing in the story making that an open fact, so it didn’t matter until I said it, but he’s super gay! Support my work forever! Maybe one day I’ll retroactively fix Cho Chang!”
Speaking of, the same issue exists with race. A group of white kids can gather around the table, see that the staple human used in the PHB is a black woman and tote her around for a few games, but it helps nothing. It’s a pat on the back for the player, but it doesn’t actually do any justice for the people you’re trying to market to. It’s a “hey look, we know black women exist,” head nod. Meanwhile:
Tieflings feel like a poor attempt at WOTC giving players a chance to feel like a disenfranchised PoC.
“To be greeted with stares and whispers, to suffer violence and insult on the street, to see mistrust and fear in every eye: this is the lot of the tiefling. And to twist the knife, tieflings know that this is because a pact struck generations ago infused the essence of Asmodeus—overlord of the Nine Hells—into their bloodline. Their appearance and their nature are not their fault but the result of an ancient sin, for which they and their children and their children’s children will always beheld accountable.”
Choose this, and be judged by society for the history of your lineage and physical appearance!
It would take a very skilled DM to make that choice something informative, accurate, and fun for the party at large, without pandering to some liberal white savior fantasies. I would pay good money to watch someone pull that off. But I digress.
Wizards of the Coast make some of the coolest bits of fantasy I have ever seen. And watching people play the game and use the tools given to them in such creative bursts of genius… it’s one of my favorite things in the world. I’ve written before about how tabletop RPGs have this unique power to bring people together, and to deal with real life issues through the depth of real conversation and conflict. But I hear diversity and see very little.
I go from Twitch channel to Twitch channel to watch games run by WOTC staff, Geek and Sundry, and many others, only to find a group of white folks playing out a white culture fantasy. I check out the pictures of production staff, writers, conventions, and gatherings, and I see the same thing. The lists of guest stars on these shows are fairly expansive, but follow the same trend.
They make some of my favorite content, ever. But as I wander through the D&D community, both in person and online, I see PoC waiting in the wings. We nod to each other and maybe geek out together for a while, but many have the same feeling:
This wasn’t made for us, and although we are free to join in, why does it also feel not-so-welcoming? If there aren’t already people like me there, there must be a reason.
The D&D community is playing out a living fantasy. One where white men (and thankfully women) can have games, a few incredible shows, and tons of convention space to be themselves. And a great deal of them are totally okay with any other type of person coming in and joining their adventure. It’s a welcome space, where they feel that anyone can feel comfortable and accepted.
But Matthew Colville once said, as advice to DMs out there, “Think about your campaign setting. What does it say to players who aren’t like you. Your fantasy is in there. Is theirs?”
David “DC” Collins
When I was a kid growing up, my favorite super heroes were based on what cool powers or abilities the protagonist had at her/his disposal. As I’ve grown up and ventured through countless a hero tale, I’ve found the obvious truth: powers don’t make a hero great; it’s their adversity that makes all the difference. You don’t need to be smart or strong to be great. And you don’t even have to be great to be entertaining! It’s up to the writers/artists/directors to break down a hero and show you that they can be relatable, accessible, and interesting. For all intents and purposes, Hawkeye (at least one of them) sucks. However, sometimes the worst heroes make for the best stories.
Things that we like are cool for a reason.
They’re the colorful gift wrapping tied up with a shiny bow on the birthday present under the thanksgiving turkey because that’s the day your birthday happened to land on that year.
This effect works especially well in mainstream comics where customers (sometimes literally) can judge a book on its cover. But what happens when you get a gift covered in (my actual trade mark wrapping style) trashy newspaper and duct tape? The gift still gets opened, I mean it is still a gift after all and what’s inside might be something really cool. But odds are that it might get passed over a few times for the bigger, more presentable, Incredible Hulk shaped gift. He has no style, he has no taste and this Kong has a dull gimmicky skill. Ladies and gentlemen: Enter Clint Barton (the first of the Hawkeyes).
What does a nuclear monster man, radio-active spider scientist, flying bulletproof billionaire savant engineer, Fabio demigod from space heaven, and a super soldier man out of time that punched Hitler in the face, have in common with a guy that quit the carnival circuit? They’re all in a club above the law of mortals of this world to the protect the Earth from Super villains, planet eaters, and sometimes themselves, called the Avengers.
Clint Barton, the first of the Hawkeyes’, has no super powers. He has no money. He isn’t the sharpest arrow in the quiver either (see what I did there). Morally, he walks a line somewhere in the gray area. Thusly, most of the people in his life do not particularly like him as a person. His one and only notable above average trait is his marksmanship with a bow and arrow in a world where many other heroes and villains alike have accuracy as a secondary talent under their belts.
Later on writers made him 80% deaf in solidarity with a young comic fan who had written to marvel because he was hearing impaired, and representation matters. This for me was one his only redeemable qualities for a long time. But then he got his hearing back, so that depth was lost. And on top that, Clint’s earlier costumes were utter gutter trash. Purple is my favorite color and the way he has irresponsibly dressed himself over the years has made me question my own life choices from a fashion stand point. #JustSayin
If you have paid attention long enough to this article, one could probably deduce one of 3 things:
A. You are a friend (or frienemy) of mine whom I’ve asked to read this article.
B. You have good taste in literary stylings.
C. You may in fact care about heroes/stories, possibly even structure.
If the answer was C or the invisible D: all of the above, then get ready for some poorly explained heroes journey talk and why (in my personally biased opinion) Hawkeye usually gets away with fitting in the Marvel universe on the same scale and platform as literal world breakers.
Y’all familiar with the hero’s journey? The Heroes journey is in theory that most, if not all stories involving a protagonist are the same story. They all follow the same structure for the most part and they all have the same characters. These characters include: the Hero (duh). She can be average or larger than life, but in a good story she’s always relatable, and she overcomes an adversity to reach a goal or whatever. There’s the Herald, who doesn’t necessarily have to be a person, but changes the course of the story for the hero to enter the unknown call to adventure type thing. Next is the Mentor who guides the hero to help her make the right decisions along the way. And you can’t have an interesting story without friction. That would be the job of the threshold guardians, who want to stop the hero from crossing over to the flip-side of her journey. Then you have tricksters who are pretty self-explanatory they help keep things a bit on the lighter side, often being sidekicks or comic relief, but as implied in the name, can’t be trusted and can possibly switch sides. At the end of it all, there lies the big bad final boss that the hero must get through to reach her goal. These characters can also switch around and be more than one of these traits in the journey. We’d call these characters shape-shifters. Okay, you get all that? Or are you confused? Let me break it down a little simpler just in case.
In the Matrix (which isn’t a movie at all. It’s reality #Wakeupsheeple). Keanu Reeves plays Neo, the hero of the journey. Trinity is the Herald. Morpheus and the Oracle are mentors. Smith and the agents are threshold guardians. Mouse and Cypher are tricksters. Agent Smith is actually a shape-shifter, as he goes through a change in the story that makes him both a TG and the Shadow at the end of the story.
Now what role does a guy with a bag of “trick” arrows, trained by a dude named “Trick”shot get type-casted in playing in the marvel team? Sorry Barton, you’re the Mouse in the Nebuchadnezzar.
At face value Hawkeye just isn’t (super)hero material. He’s more than likely the first one to crack jokes and the last Avenger you’d call on to save the day. He’s just the guy who happens to be there at the time or the character you have to play with in Lego Marvel because you haven’t unlocked enough characters yet and your sister already called dibs on Black Widow.
So what changed for me? What won me over to team Hawkeye? Well first off, Hawkeye died– let me finish. The first rule of comics is that nobody stays dead forever (Unless you’re Morph or Uncle Ben #RestInComics). He was then replaced by a teen with attitude who took up the mantel. Good Folks: Meet Hawkeye, The second of the Hawkeyes. Kate mother-luvin’ Bishop.
Same abilities as Clint. As to say she’s human, and an archer. Young Ms. Bishop a girl who grew up in society’s upper crust, rejected her lavish upbringing and joined the Young Avengers in hopes to make a name for herself on her own as a super hero. She would later set her sites on being a Private Investigator to pay the bills.
She was quick-witted, extremely hard-working, and ambitious ta’ boot. The same characteristics could be used to describe the first Hawkeye, but being out shined by the rest of his team left him in the outskirts of Avenger town. Coming in on the ground floor of Young Avengers, Bishop had the opportunity to show who she is and prove that she’s where she needs to be. She’s still fresh to the world of the super heroes when we find out (sarcastic surprise) Clint Barton isn’t dead. He was hiding out under the name Ronin, but now he’s back and he wants his stuff. Including his name. This is where things got interesting for me. Kate refuses. They’re both stubborn and neither budge on the name. Clint shape-shifts from Trickster to Threshold Guardian to Mentor all within a few early pages of Kate’s story arch. They both decided to hold the moniker. After this debacle cleared up, Kate and her team go on to save the world, but that’s a story to be reviewed another time.
And so, after all of that, this unconventional road leads us to what has to be one of my favorite comics under the umbrella of the Marvel universe in quite some time. I speak of none other than the self titled “Hawkeye” solo series written by Matt Fraction and art (Mainly) by David Aja. This series came out of nowhere.
This was everything I never knew I wanted and it turns out it was staring at me in the face the whole time. Take Clint out of the Avengers and what is he? He’s just a guy! A guy with bad luck and not a lot of friends. Morally, he walks a line somewhere in the gray area, but he always does it for the right reasons. Therefore, he takes the hard jobs that his peers won’t do. On top of that, he’s an incredible marksman, which helps get him out of rough situations that he gets himself in. As far as messes go, this guy is a raging dumpster fire on roller skates, rolling downhill on a trajectory to run smack-dab in the middle of an oil rig. And who doesn’t want to see that? On top of that, he rescues a dog in the first issue that loves pizza and becomes his best pal. I love dogs! And I love pizza!
This book deals with what it means to feel the depression of inadequacy and still being too prideful to ask for help. It deals with the pain of loss and how your pain can negatively affect and damage the relationships the ones that love you. In this comic he digs his own grave of trouble and when he reaches the bottom, he stays there for a while. But he shakes it. He realizes that he can’t do it all alone. That he needs help and that if he reaches out and the bond with his loved ones is strong enough, their relationships can heal and even grow. This book gave Clint Barton the face he so desperately needed. This is the story that truly made him a hero in my eyes. More importantly, this book gave me my new favorite super hero: Pizzadog.
*cool little easter egg/crossover: In the Black Widow comic, when Clint falls on the car, Black widow is in a coffee shop across the street. She sees him and ignores it. Comedy gold.
Alexander (Axx) McAlister
I’ve come to understand, through a deep intellectual insomnia, why tabletop gaming can be a force for good in society. The elements of person-to-person interaction and the social contract of a game setting reflect principles onto the lives we live off of the game board.
There are some issues I have with people on the internet, said everyone ever. But seriously, I have a major concern. It’s terrifyingly easy to ignore or lose track of your sense of common humanity.
We have used internet culture to divide and conquer the seemingly infinite amount of persons and personas we come across as we scroll through our daily news. The purpose of these feeds are to compartmentalize information that you may want, and to feed it to you in the most digestible fashion that your user data provides.
Memes. Short videos. A few articles. More memes. Like, love, favorite, emoji, LOL, move on. The concept is intelligent and is designed to save you time, so its success in that is appreciated. My issue is that real human people, just like you, are often boiled down to a blip on your news radar.
In most cases, person-to-person (PTP) interactions are replaced or limited by internet interactions. And on the web, we usually spend our time invested in what is easily digestible.
Quick likes and short comments to share that we appreciate the same things. Discourse on the other hand, is a beast of burden.
They feature long paragraphs of conceptual disagreement, lightly valid experiences, and more than often just nothingness. Maybe you give in a bit and reply, but internet conversations are messy by nature. It’s difficult to read tone and to perceive the depth of their perspective when it’s not right there, in front of you. But that’s how we communicate most of the time. Bearing the weight of the medium.
My biggest gripe is that people who disagree don’t have to deal with each other. Ever, if they’re so inclined. Censorship can be a good thing, and can be a great tool for those who need to control their atmosphere and keep their peace of mind. I’m all for it. But using it as a way to distance yourself from reality is self-harm. Many choose to run from the truths of others, even though facing that challenge is the best way for us to greater understand one another.
Rather than connecting over what we share, we fight over what is different. That which we care about becomes ammo for otherness, seen in the usage of “hive mind” terminology. Instead of a singular person, you become a banner-bearing representative of “the opposition”. All of your complex experiences and ideas, traded in like GameStop credit. Worth far less than your true value.
We should be able to accurately assess social issues with clear minds, allowing us to communicate. Because the common enemies are truly only concepts and ideas based in inequity and inhumanity, which only widen the gap.
In most discussions, the point of break down is dehumanization. You’re only “this” or they’re only “that”. Returning the complexity of human existence to the mindless army of drones that stand against you on the internet. It’s the easiest way to discredit honest discourse, or to divert from… actual thinking. Any proper discussion or debate should end with a mutual respect of disagreement, further experience and learning, or direct change. We rarely promote those cycles of processing. But tabletop gaming? It’s home sweet home.
The first principle of tabletop gaming is that you and those around you are unified for a single purpose: the game. Your goal? Beat the game. Regardless of how you do it, you’ve signed that social contract. Each player is striving toward their goal, and you’re going to be right along side them. Their play style, ideas, and personality all come out in the game. You have to deal with the real live human being in front of you in order to progress. Sometimes it’s by conquering them as an enemy, and other times it’s turning them into a friend. But the basis is always respect for the player, because they’re doing their best, just like you.
As an avid Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I absolutely love early levels of the game. Parties of characters usually have very little basis for understanding each other at first. They’re thrown into a situation that they can’t manage to handle alone, and have to rely on strangers and teamwork to succeed. Maybe it’s with swords and magic, or with quick-witted thinking. Either way, they grow to learn about one another, and respect their accumulated talents. Characters tussle and learn and grow from each other for the better, overcoming differences for the greater good, and realizing that their differences are foundations for new found strengths.
They work it out.
Because there’s no running away from the challenges that face us all, regardless of where we come from or who we are. It’s about who we need to become. Those who will not stand for hate. Those who can change and bend and grow through the acceptance of unifying oneness, as well as our unique differences. Champions in the reflection of all peoples.
We’re all just humans.
That at least deserves common decency and respect.
Because we’re all at this table together, doing our best to succeed.
David (DC) Collins
Here at The DesC, we love us some video games. In my younger years, that meant the bulk of my time after school and on weekends was spent devouring game after game. Massive role-playing games (here-to-fore referred to as RPGs) have always been my bread and butter, since their lengthy run times and systemic depth lend themselves painfully well to habitual play and poor time management. They’re grand and absorbing, and many a title in the past has nearly swallowed me whole. It will forever be my chosen poison, no matter how my circumstances change.
Sadly, circumstances are wont to change. I’m not in school anymore. I have a genuine paycheck-providing job, complete with a beefy commute. Time to sit in front of a television, controller in hand, feels like a precious commodity. Nevertheless, I continue to be drawn to the sprawling worlds of these interactive epics, which brings me to the discussion of my latest endeavor: Atlus’s blockbuster JRPG Persona 5.
Persona 5, as it turns out, is quite a fitting subject for the debut entry into this series, as it is a game whose mechanical foundation is built upon effective time management strategies. You’re going to need them, too; despite the game’s easily-over-a-hundred hour runtime, you will still be unable to do everything the game offers in one go. For example, I’ve been playing the thing since its launch in the states and I only just finished last week. And I only maxed out, like, a handful of confidants.
As much as I want to immediately dive into a number of thoughts related to the game’s primary focus, here, let me preface my thoughts with some context. Despite Final Fantasy VII‘s role as a foundational game in my own love of RPGs, I don’t actually engage with many JRPGs (in case you’ve never heard and you don’t feel like inferring, the J in this case stands for Japanese). In addition, unlike a number of people contributing to and hopefully reading the work on this site, I’m not a big fan of anime. Nothing really against any of it, it just doesn’t manage to get its hooks in me all too often. I’m more of a western storytelling, rich world building, BioWare/Bethesda sort of chap.
Then, some years ago, I bought a Playstation Vita. I had begun a different part-time job that also happened to have a lengthy commute, and my bonus was enough to cover a one-year-in Vita purchase. I’d already owned a decent collection of games for the system that had been granted to me by my PS+ membership, so it made sense.
As I do whenever I get a new platform, I did a quick round of research into the best games available there, and a consistent suggestion was Persona 4: Golden. The data was undeniable. I picked up a copy, and 4 commutes later I started actually getting into some gameplay. I didn’t mind, though. The characters were charming, the music was catchy, and I was slowly drawn into the game’s bizarre world of Jungian high school drama and slick dungeon crawling. Hooks were got.
Naturally, when Persona 5‘s announcement came knocking on America’s door, I was ecstatic. Hopped right on that steelbook preorder, believe you me. In a move that would have sounded ridiculous to myself 5 years ago, I happily dropped my playthrough of Mass Effect: Andromeda to dive into Persona as soon as it arrived in the mail (more on that game in a future installment).
Immediately, the game makes it obvious that it is SLICK AF. Style oozes from every element of the UI. The music is catchy and exuberant. Animations are effortlessly cool. Everything just works. It takes a solid 15 hours at the very least to approach any of its combat systems, but the route there is full of so much stylistic swagger that I really didn’t care.
Like the narrative of Persona 5, I’m gonna take this opportunity to run the clock back a bit. As I noted at the start of this article, the game is easily over a hundred hours long on your first playthrough. I think I clocked in at roughly 115. That is goddamn excessive. As a working adult who wants to experience the wide breadth of what this hobby has to offer, tackling this monster is downright daunting.
But boooooooy are those systems engaging. If you’ve never played a Persona game, the series has carved out a very special niche of combining the stats-focused grinding of a turn based dungeon crawler with a richly textured slice-of-life high school drama, then steeping that in the collective unconscious for about a hundred hours. It’s a beautifully unique combination, where the satisfaction in the design comes from how well those disparate elements work together to create a cohesive experience.
The series has always done a great job exploring how time affects modern life, and this entry is no exception. Spending time with your friends allows them access to more powerful abilities when you go dungeon crawling, and spending time with various hobbies gives you access to a wider breadth of abilities that increase your own effectiveness in battle. I love when designers find mechanical ways to explore thematic ideas, and Persona’s time management systems are able to meaningfully tackle the importance of, as the youths may say, “living one’s best life”[sic]. You can’t do everything, so you have to do what matters; sometimes, that’s just taking the time to sit and read a book, or spend an afternoon with a loved one. It’s a truly powerful sentiment in these turbulently productive times.
Now, imagine if the game was only about 70-80 hours long. Imagine how much more impactful those decisions would feel. It’s not as if the decisions don’t feel impactful in the game as it currently exists, but they just give you SO MUCH to do. I understand the appeal of the story’s progression through the seven deadly sins, but… I mean, it’s not like that’s the freshest of narrative conceits. Maybe five dungeons would have been kinda fine?
I really do love the characters that drive this wacky narrative, and the central thematic thrust of “Hey wouldn’t it be nice if everyone just GAVE HALF A SHIT SOMETIMES” feels particularly relevant to the current state of the western world. Persona 5 is a surprisingly political game, and I’m a bit curious to study the current state of Japanese politics in order to come to a richer understanding of its relevance to its home culture. There were a number of times over the course of the game’s story that I was quite moved by a number of the characters’ heart-on-the-sleeve speeches.
A quick aside about those speeches (and I’m far from the first to voice this concern): this game’s English script is terribly sloppy. Lines here and there work great, but there is a syntactical awkwardness that courses through the entire thing. It’s like a key step in the process was glossed over where the translation is rephrased in a way that has a more natural flow. If I had the time, I would love to go line by line and retool the entire thing as a bit of an experiment, but it’s OVER A HUNDRED HOURS LONG. If the whole of it was more concise, maybe the translators could have had more time to give this script its due.
The voice cast, I should say, does a fantastic job. There’s a genuinely compelling narrative hiding under that localization, and the cast sells it about as well as they possibly could. The characters are lovable, and the performances have a natural warmth that almost breaks through the awkward dialogue on a number of occasions.
At the end of the day, though, Persona 5 is a towering masterpiece. It’s interlocking systems are endlessly satisfying, and they work together in service of a cohesive narrative that actually tries to explore some powerful themes. That it arguably is too much of a good thing is a testament to its success.
And it might be too much. I mean, come on, Atlus… some of us have jobs.
Today’s article is the introduction to a brand-new column, Determined Designs. Keep coming back to The DesC for Raymond’s continuing chronicles on Gaming, Game Design, and features on different designers.
Whether I consciously knew it or not, game design has always been one of my biggest passions. It started as early as when I played the Pokemon TCG in 5th-6th grade. I’d make up new cards or different variations (like a Dragonball Z version, I was a proud kid). For a long time of my life, I put aside that interest. Hobbies come and go so easily (or so I thought). I don’t remember what came first, but sometime in 2010 my sister sent me a picture of a piece of paper taped to an old Goldeen card. It was one of my Goku cards from my made up game as a child. My game design passion came off the shelf again and I couldn’t get enough. Within about a year or two, I went through countless concepts, many playtests, and multiple notebooks of ideas. I also absorbed articles, writers, so many games over this time period. Magic the Gathering (MtG) was my main game at the time and Mark Rosewater was part of the reason why. MaRo, as he’s affectionately known, is the lead designer of MtG and has a weekly column called Making Magic he’s been writing for over a decade. In October of 2011, he wrote a two-part article titled Ten Things Every Game Needs that honestly changed a lot of how I looked at games. It’s an experience I think all gamers and certainly game designers should have.
As the title implies, Rosewater lists ten concepts he believes every game should have. He originally broke down these concepts for the purpose of teaching 5th graders how to make a game, but the simplicity of the concepts actually transcend many types of games. The ten concepts are:
If you want a full breakdown, I suggest reading the original article (I’ll link it below), but there are a few I want to highlight now: Goals, Interaction, Flavor, and Hooks.
The goal of the player really should be the first thought a designer has when brainstorming. Everything else about the game is flourish and embellishments on top of that original goal. Although the more a game blends its goals with interaction, the exponentially higher a game’s potential becomes. A very basic example of this are solitaire games vs multiplayer games. Different people are attracted to different games but I’m sure many would prefer Hearthstone over Candy Crush (and both have had large player bases) simply because of the interaction defeating others. Bioware released data years ago about how only 50% of players that began Mass Effect 2 actually completed it. At the same time, the population of Call of Duty servers at any given time had to be an immensely higher percent than those playing any single player mode. Players generally prefer interaction (despite what your voice channels would probably lead you to believe).
Hooks and flavor also lead to a large part of a game. Anyone who has played Betrayal at House on the Hill would recognize games with both. I would define flavor as the world the game displays, while hooks are parts of the game that steal players’ attention. I always see these two concepts as halves of the same whole. Without good flavor, your hook can hit really softly on some gamers. The same could be said for a great world without a good hook. I’m sure there are many zombie games with great worlds they’ve developed, but with a hook that can be found almost anywhere the world has to be very special to stand out. I felt immediately enlightened by the importance of these two concepts. A little light switch had flipped somewhere in my brain. I found myself immediately diving into the many game concepts I had and deciding whether there was an audience for them. I liked my ideas, but I had to know my audience just as well as I knew myself.
So much more could be said about the ten topics above. Over the course of this column, I’ll talk more about many of them. I’ll detail the concepts and games I’m still working on today. And I’ll portray some of the games’ evolution over the years. The influence and inspiration from Rosewater and many other designers changed my perception on games and certainly game design. An inspiration I’ve heard detailed from others, but also an inspiration I hope to keep passing forward.
Here is a link to the original article: Ten Things Every Game Needs, Part 1 & Part 2
Raymond “Rayn” Jackson
Welcome to the first edition of Gateway Geeks! A series designed to signal boost nerds who make it easier for the masses to dive into our beautiful culture, and to highlight the techniques and content they use to do it.
Right now I got to tell you ’bout…
Getting into tabletop gaming comes with some large hurdles. From a social standpoint, the tabletop community seems exclusive upon first glance. There’s a great deal of equipment being dealt with, sometimes accompanied with huge maps and complicated terminology. Mechanically, there’s a bottomless well of complications for brand new players. It can be intimidating. That’s why series like Monarchs Factory’s Newbie’s Guide to 40k (hosted on Freebooter’s Network) is a welcome addition to new player content. Created and hosted by Dael Kingsmill, her videos help establish a firm groundwork for the lore of the series, which removes common feelings of confusion and disconnect when dropping into current story lines and expansive war maps.
As gamers of all types, we often assume that beginners have all the tools necessary to begin enjoying our favorite hobbies. Rule books and figurines, controllers and computers; they can be the base of the experience, but they don’t always highlight the potential interest a new player might gain from the overall experience. Although many veterans do their best to explain the rich benefits of game as sessions proceed, it’s potentially more beneficial to provide newer players with supplementary content before taking to the tables. The more complex the game, the more helpful preparation can be.
Warhammer 40k is a titan of tabletop war games that few newbies have experience with. It’s vastly different from household favorites like Clue or Monopoly, so the look and feel of the game can scare off those who may potentially enjoy what 40K has to offer. But what we can learn from Kingsmill’s various series is that there are clever ways to tie in the current interests of new players with the possible interest of a new game.
Since 2013, she’s been providing the internet with video breakdowns of mythological lore; commonly known mythologies that possess hundreds of substantial stories. For consistent viewers of her channel, the switch from socially popular mythology to game-based lore is a smooth transition. From a few simple clicks, viewers are guided through a brand new world of content by the same friendly host they’ve become comfortable with.
Story gives purpose to action in gaming, and Kingsmill provides the context in an interesting and inviting manner. Most videos in The Newbie’s Guide to 40k series span from 5-8 minutes. They carry chunks of easily digestible information, accented perfectly by the fact that Dael has learned all of this information at about the same time as we are.
Instead of coming from a place of expertise, the series highlights that the 40k lore is being provided from a newb, for a newb. She goes on to explain in the first video of the series that she’s diving into this adventure fresh, which makes the journey feel relatable to those who are doing the same. I would feel comfortable sending an interested player to her content because what she’s sharing is an experience of companionship; learning together.
“I ran into this problem, but here’s a good way to avoid it.”
“This was confusing to me, so here’s how I understood it.”
“I find it best to explain this complex concept in this way.”
These are the pillars of assistance that can help an introduction to gaming turn from a momentous task, to an adventurous one. So thank you Dael Kingsmill, for being an exemplary Gateway Geek! The 40k community is lucky to have you.
If you’d like to support Dael and her content, be sure to check out her complete works and her supporting community through the following links:
David “DC” Collins