This is dedicated to Ti-Lin Todd Sun. I’m forever grateful for him telling me to listen to his cassette tape.
I started to draft this article over six years ago and could never navigate my brain and heart well enough to find the right words to adequately describe why Ten became so meaningful to me when I was a kid and how it remains a pillar of my interpersonal development. I realized this week as Pearl Jam is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album that I could spend another six years tinkering with words and it’ll never be perfect.
I have to settle with offering a glimpse into my mind back in 1991 when I was an incredibly anxious teenager trying to figure out who I was and how to comfortably and confidently be myself. The following is my relationship to a few songs on Ten and I hope – at the very least – an expression of appreciation and gratitude for all it has meant during my life.
Once (upon a time)
I was born in 1976 and the music I consumed throughout the 1980s was a combination of pop, rock and metal. The topics covered in most songs were about partying, sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Meanwhile, older bands that had songs with deeper themes seemed outrageously old at the time. Anything released before 1980 felt like the Stone Age; even Queen seemed like a relic from the distant past and they released a studio album in 1991 – the same year as Ten.
It all started with a cassette tape that a friend convinced me to listen to earlier in the day. I listened to the cassette on a beat-up Walkman in the dark that night in my den. What I did earlier that day or in the subsequent weeks, I have no idea. But I remember the first time I listened to Once kick in. It sounded so good and different from the type of music I usually heard. A couple of songs later, Alive immediately caught my attention and captured my imagination.
After thoroughly enjoying Hadesduring the pandemic and breaking up with Hearthstoneearlier this summer, I had some space in my life for a new game. Star Wars: Fallen Order intrigued me for obvious reasons – it’s Star Wars and the buzz about the game seemed to be positive after it came out. I recall people speculating that the main character, Cal, might appear in the second season of The Mandalorian (hold this thought) so it seemed like folks overall enjoyed the content. I envisioned the game as an action-adventure that allows you to mow through Stormtroopers and other foes with a lightsaber and some Force powers, so I purchased the game and leapt in!
I finished the playthrough this week, and the following are some lessons I took from the experience regarding game design and my preferences.
I learned there is SOME action and adventure in Fallen Order though much of the time is spent navigating to the next destination on the map through a variety of special abilities, most of which are not available to you until later in the game. The introduction to the game features Cal jumping, climbing, and searching for a way forward interspersed with some elaborate cinematic set pieces. Fallen Order provides a tutorial on how combat and navigation controls function by introducing new obstacles and offering the solution to those obstacles. As Fallen Order moves past the introductory mission and gets to “the meat” of the experience, the controls for navigation become more necessary than combat skills.
After some trial and error I read some articles about the game and was smacked in the face with sentences like, “….you’ll spend the majority of your time in Fallen Order solving puzzles, platforming, and exploring. We didn’t know that going in, and it made the first couple of hours confusing.”
Yes, it WAS confusing!
The other tip from the Polygon article above that turned out to be essential was, “Your map is a three-dimensional hologram, which is helpful because so many levels and paths have a lot of verticality to them. It feels like navigating like a bowl of spaghetti sometimes. You’ve got a great map. Use it.” This is the best description of playing Fallen Order that I can now imagine. Each planet you visit has multiple levels that twist and turn and stack on top of each other. I would be hopelessly lost in those levels if not for the map, which also has a bit of a learning curve in terms of how to comprehend and manipulate it effectively.
Perhaps a good thing for me to do in the future is to read more about a game before I commit to it. That sounds rather simple and easy though it has not been my practice too often. I played Horizon Zero Dawn on the recommendation of friends and loved it; same with Battle Chef Brigade and other games like Golf Story. I had in my mind that Fallen Order would be one experience and it offers something else; it’s more Tomb Raider than Dark Forces, which is fine once I settled into it.
My enjoyment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is something I’ve documented previously. The consistent quality of the films (for the most part) has been a wonder to behold. A question that loomed when the Disney+ shows were announced was, “Will the MCU transfer that magic to a smaller screen?” Now that WandaVision, The Falcon & The Winter Soldier, and Loki are here to consume, it is safe to say the answer to that question is a definitive YES.
This morning, I set my alarm for 5AM so I could watch the finale of Loki before work. I lost faith that I could control avoiding spoilers a long time ago so it was either 1) go internet-dark for at least an entire day or 2) wake up early. The choice was clear! While watching the series season finale some gears whirled and clicked in my brain. I felt transported to another time and place when mysteries abounded and a cast of characters were figuring out how to wrestling with their glorious purpose.
Not the multiverse, no.
Ever since the initial promos, Lost was a show that captured my attention. The dramatic voiceover teasing the show, a catchy premise, stunning visuals, a soaring score, and with Merry from The Lord of the Rings prominently involved – I was hooked. For all its eventual flaws (we’ll get to those in a moment), Lost excelled at establishing a setting that allowed attractive, charming and talented actors to tell entertaining stories and delve into a variety of intra- and inter-personal relationships.
The high-water episodes of Lost stack up with anything from Prestige TV that has come since. The voilà transformation in Walkabout, the vibrating urgency of The Constant, the incredible build-up and execution of Through the Looking Glass, and the hilarity and sweetness of Tricia Tanaka Is Dead stick with me 15 years later. On that last point, we named our son Hugo because there are worse things than having your namesake mutter, “Let’s look death in the face and say, ‘Whatever, man.’ Let’s make our own luck.”
The Marvel Mystery Box
With my enjoyment of Lost as a backdrop, let’s return to the journey of our multiverse-crossed pair, Loki and Slyvie. Having cleared a path through Alioth to reach the Citadel, the two finally get to meet The Man Behind the Curtain. The introduction of Kang The Conqueror into the MCU has been rumored for almost a year. Where WandaVision ended with a otherwordly display of magical powers and action, the majority of Loki’s finale was exposition from Kang and watching how Loki and Slyvie would respond.
Kang now replaces Thanos as the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG), which allows the characters throughout the MCU to respond to a new threat. The Lost parallels truly clicked for me after the post-credit scene simply displayed the stamp: LOKI WILL RETURN IN SEASON 2.
For either good or bad (it’ll take years to play out), the MCU as we know it triggered not only a massive, multiversal war but also a significant paradigm shift with the audience. The MCU has been fueled by spectacles on the big screen and the shows have given previously-underutilized characters a place to shine so they can take on more prominent roles in future films. Loki coming back for a second season truly breaks that mold because the finale functioned more as a tease of what is to come than the culmination of specific plotlines.
The MCU is its own multiverse now – versions of itself stacked on top of each other with the sole purpose of consuming our attention. There will be mystery boxes, BBEGs, character development, and – yes – seasons of shows to continue the vast, episodic, and relentless worldbuilding. It has the potential to be amazingly and staggeringly beautiful – an arena where talented creators and artists have an unlimited palette to craft critically-acclaimed stories that can be inspiring, heartbreaking, or simply triumphant.
It also has the potential to become a never-ending series of unfulfilling stories. The flaws with Lost are that it changed the questions a few too many times and suffered from a lack of adequate answers. Lost asked fascinating questions with the Smoke Monster, The Hatch, and The Others; some of those answers were magnificent and others…. eh, not so much. It also knew how to shake the snow globe for its characters. Need to inject some new life to spice things up? We have survivors in the tail of the plane! The MCU is using a similar bag of tricks and has demonstrated that they can build up and pay off the investment of fans. It would be foolish to doubt their ability to keep up this quality though the slew of shows and movies on the horizon will put those abilities to a greater test.
The danger is that fans burn out on the MCU moving the goal posts one too many times. Let us build up the Time Variance Authority (TVA) and get you invested in what that might be only to show it’s a conjuration of Kang the Conqueror, who is just one version of Kang and you’ll have to wait for that story to unfold over years in future shows and movies. Loki and Slyvie (and the audience) got some answers in the finale, though I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes from “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, “Just when they think they got the answers, I change the questions!”
4, 8, 15, 16, 23 and 42 Billion Served
The success of the MCU is more impressive by how other franchises have so utterly failed to maintain their hold on pop culture. Harry Potter once dominated and (weak prequels aside) that property is complicated to enjoy due to viewpoints by JK Rowling. Game of Throneslit itself on fire and has quickly faded from relevancy. Star Wars is in a weird and sad place where they cannot seem to escape the shadow of three films from nearly four decades ago or animated shows that aired to a small audience years ago.
As I sat through the trailers before Black Widow I was struck by how it’s All-MCU-All-The-Time. The trailers for Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and The Eternals played back-to-back. A piece of me worried that our films are getting funneled through a narrow output machine and another is ready to embrace the glorious purpose of the MCU.
The ambition of the MCU architects to dream this big and execute it all so well….
Tale From the Loop is a tabletop roleplaying game that’s been on my list of things I desperately want to try for some time now. A friend got the book and has threatened to run a campaign, which we finally started this week. My interest in the system was fueled by listening to a campaign run by the fine folks at the Very Random Encounters podcast and it hits on my sensibilities as a child of the 80s.
Your character in the game world is a child living in a version of the 1980s. A twist is the government has created the world’s largest particle accelerator underground, known as The Loop, in your town. The children in the game deal with typical issues that were commonplace in the era such as bullies, absent or nagging parents and homework though they also get to explore mysteries related to The Loop. Weird events start to happen in town and it’s up to the children to figure it all out because adults prove to be inaccessible and otherwise ineffective. Tales From the Loop exists with six main principles:
Your Hometown is Full of Strange and Fantastic Things
Everyday Life is Dull and Unforgiving
Adults are Out of Reach and Out of Touch
The Land of the Loop is Dangerous but The Kids Will Not Die
The Game is Played Scene by Scene
The World is Described Collaboratively
I was born in 1976 so the late-80s and early-90s are my wheelhouse in terms of pop culture touchstones. I have created plenty of characters in fantasy settings for games like Dungeons & Dragons though creating a kid living in the 80s brings another level of enthusiasm and connection to character creation. I started to think about the different character Types in the game:
I quickly honed in on Rocker and Troublemaker. I grew up with kids that fell into those categories and thought it would be fun to inhabit that role in the game. Plus, I’ve been gushing about Billy from Stranger Things for years. I also took inspiration from John Bender (The Breakfast Club), Duncan (Some Kind of Wonderful) and Griffin (Prayer of the Rollerboys). My other initial thought was, “This kid listens to Skid Row.” However, our GM running the game said the adventure was set in 1988, which was a year before their first album was released. I had plenty of other heavy metal and hard rock options to choose from as our GM wanted each character’s playlist. I dove HEAD FIRST into this activity and came up with the following 10 songs:
I hope you are surviving in this difficult time and finding joy with family and friends however possible. As for me, I have been preparing to dive into a Tales From the Loop campaign with my new favorite character and embracing Christmas songs. I have also been concocting a way to raise more money for suicide prevention and clear out some space in my gaming closet.
Several years ago I teamed up with Limitless Adventures to publish No Assembly Required, a collection of 10 highly-detailed monster characters that could be used in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons. The PDF continues to be sold for $5 and ALL of the money goes directly to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. You can see that we have raised nearly $4,000 since starting this endeavor in honor of my brother who ended his life in 2017.
No Assembly Required is still on sale and everyone that purchases a copy of the book between December 21st and December 24th of 2020 will be entering into a drawing to win ALL of the following:
That’s right, one lucky individual that already gets a holiday, feel-good boost from donating money for suicide prevention will win:
The books retail for nearly $200 combined plus you get a sweet dice bag! My hope is that we’ll raise more money for AFSP than it costs to ship everything to the eventual winner who will be selected on December 25th – CHRISTMAS!
If you purchase No Assembly Required, then at the very least you’ll have donated $5 to help prevent suicide AND get access to 10 vibrant and interesting monster characters that were conceptualized by me, illustrated wonderfully by Grant Gould, and brought to life in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons by Limitless Adventures.
Please consider entering the contest and spreading the word (although I realize spreading the word dilutes your chances of winning; it’s the holiday season – help us out!)
It was late September when I joined the Cult of Hades players. I had been patiently waiting for Star Wars Squadrons to release so I could devote countless hours to chasing the feelings I had while playing X-Wing and TIE Fighter back in my younger years. Numerous people I follow on social media were mentioning Hades and gushing about it; and the interesting thing was the people were not in the same circles. My Twitter feed is an amalgam of folks from tabletop roleplaying games, Hearthstone, sports, and politics – and people from each sphere of influence were talking about Hades.
I was intrigued.
Not knowing much about the game, I purchased it on my Switch, and the last six week have been DELIGHTFUL as I’ve been sucked into a pleasing gameplay loop that feels like a combination of Diablo II and various “one-more thing to collect” mobile games like Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes. And yet the game design is not exploitative of the player’s time or resources. There’s a hypothetical version of this game where the player could spend money to purchase upgrades or make the game easier – like how Candy Crush levels are near-impossible unless you play them 100 times or purchase special upgrades for a few bucks. Hades sometimes feels like that though the upgrades are all built into the experience; it’s not trying to bilk the player of additional cash even though the game has multiple currencies for various upgrades. The allure of collection and progression is baked into the gameplay loop. For those not familiar with the loop of Hades, a primer.
You are Zagreus, son of Hades, living in the underworld with his family, their pet dog, Cerberus, and a few other members of note. Zagreus wants to escape the underworld as he does not get along with his father, so he must leave the House of Hades, which means fighting past monster-filled rooms. The gods of Olympus learn about Zagreus’ quest and offer him support along the way in the form of bonuses (Boons) so he can be faster, stronger and/or more resilient. Zagreus begins his quest with little in the way of Health or resources, and achieving success in terms of escape is not something that happens quickly.
The first exposure I can remember to superheroes were the Superman movies and the old Batman television series. The former was rather earnest and the later was incredibly campy, and both set the bar in my mind for what type of film or television was possible when based on a comic book. The initial Batman movie was such a phenomenon in 1989! Culture moved so much slower back then (trust me), so Batman owned what felt like a year or more of everyone’s attention. The movie expanded my perception of what was possible in a movie based on comic book characters, and it fueled an interest in comics as a hobby.
My first and really only dive into comic books was during the early 1990s when Image Comics splashed onto the scene. I was certainly aware of comic books before then and knew a few things about common superhero lore, though I didn’t start collecting until I had a chance to be in on the ground floor of something. The idea of getting caught up on characters and franchises that had been going on for many years or decades seemed daunting, and starting with #1 of any new book felt exciting.
Somewhere in my mother’s house sits several long boxes of early-era Image comics such as Spawn, WildC.A.T.S., Savage Dragon, Youngblood, Wetworks, Cyberforce, Shadowhawk, The Maxx, Pitt, Gen 13, Witchblade… I set out to collect all the Image stuff.
And for a time, I did.
I also sprinkled in other titles from those days like Spider-Man 2099 and the Star Wars Dark Empire issues. It all became too cumbersome and expensive though, and my interest in comics faded as I progressed through high school and into college. Superheroes remained something I was aware of, and I slowly got interested in graphic novels many years later – finding titles like Watchmen and Y: The Last Man quite profound.
Superhero Films Revival
The first X-Men film in 2000 was a reminder that the stories within comic books can be translated into quality entertainment at the cinema, and the first sequel in 2003 was a wonderful comic book movie featuring talented actors performing interesting roles with twisting allegiances, snappy dialogue and stunning visuals. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 arrived around this time, and both of them delivered quality experiences. The Christopher Nolan Batman Trilogy started in 2005, and the massive success of The Dark Knight (released July 18, 2008), fueled by the otherworldly and tragic performance by Heath Ledger, gave superhero movies increased credibility.
A few months earlier in 2008, another superhero movie, Iron Man, opened and started a chain reaction of events that would result in the following completely silly and staggering box office numbers below. Even with the success of several superhero movies and franchises, nothing could predict the outrageous popularity and success of what became known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Look at those numbers. It is absurd!! Twenty-BILLION dollars worldwide and counting from worldwide box office!? And that doesn’t factor in merchandising and gods-only-know what else they have as revenue streams.
Marvel released a movie about Ant-Man, and made half-a-billion dollars worldwide. 500 MILLION!? Ant-Man!?
I believe I have seen every one of these films in the theater, likely within a week or two of them releasing. They rarely fail to deliver on entertainment, and they have continued to thrive at the box office and avoid (for the most part) the natural cultural backlash that comes with anything that is this wildly successful.
I’ve tweeted this numerous times over the years; it amazes me how Marvel continues to keep this up. The casting has been fantastic, the marketing is always top-notch, and the films deliver escapism entertainment with heart and humor, and they make it look easy.
It’s not easy.
So after I saw Avengers: Endgame, I wanted to explore how this all happened. How did Marvel get the point that it could release a three-hour movie about a group of heroes battling back against a cosmic villain most people hadn’t heard of 10 years ago that culminated a 20-film story line – and it would be the highest-grossing movie of all time (most likely soon)?
How is Nebula, a side character from the pages of in a C-level comic book (in the eyes of the mainstream), one of the narrative linchpins of this film?
How does it all work!?
In the latest episode of Childhood Ruined, my co-host and I welcomed Duane Sibilly to the show to discuss these questions, and geek out about the wondrous splendor that is Avengers: Endgame.
I hope you’ll give it a listen!
And special thanks to the supporters of my Patreon including: Ashton Ruby, Adam J, Michael Shea, Duane Sibilly, Faience, Hawke Robinson, Jana Flesher, Samuel Dillon, and Sinan Turnacioglu.
Spoiler Warning: The following post contains numerous plot details for the film, A Star Is Born. I encourage you to see the film before reading any further. If you continue reading, multiple plot points will be ruined for you. Thank you.
Are you happy in this modern world?
My wife and I took some vacation time from work yesterday to have lunch together and see a movie. It was a rare weekday date for us while our son was in daycare. She picked me up from my office, we ate lunch at Wahlburgers in the Mall of America (she refrained from asking our waiter if he ever met Donnie), and went to see A Star Is Born at the mall’s new theater palace.
I stayed away from reviews because I knew I wanted to see the film, so I entered the theater with a blank slate. I knew there were prior versions of the same film, but I could not recall too many details about them. I assumed A Star Is Born would provide a compelling story and engaging music. I’ve found Lady Gaga to be an intriguing and impressive artist over the years; for example, I respected her dedication to a performance during the 2011 MTV Music Awards when she took on another persona and COMMITTED to that as she launched into You & I with Queen’s Brian May. I remember watching that, and just finding the whole thing so epic; the BALLS it took to do that. The creativity required to generate the idea and the fearlessness to execute it was inspiring. I recall showing it to my wife and saying, “You should watch this. It’s amazing.”
Meanwhile, I’ve been on board with Bradley Cooper since his performance as Sack in Wedding Crashers; probably the most I’ve ever laughed inside a movie theater. He’s provided quality performances in other movies too, and I gleaned from kinda-sorta, not looking at headlines that he took this movie with Lady Gaga very seriously.
So I had high hopes for A Star Is Born, and I assumed it would have something important to say.
My guard was down. I was not prepared.
I can only imagine what it would be like to see this film without living through the experience of my brother ending his life last year. You ever wish you could “unsee” a movie so it could surprise you all over again? I’d love to “unsee” The Shawshank Redemption, The Usual Suspects or Fight Club so I could experience that “ah-ha” moment all over again.
I imagine A Star Is Born would still be a powerful film to watch had my brother not decided to end his life. However, I only know this reality where I sat in my seat yesterday watching the final portion of the film – knowing and dreading what was unfolding before my eyes.
Disclaimer: I received an advance copy of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana over the weekend by the kind folks at Wizards of the Coast and Ten Speed Press. My review and discussion of the book could be influenced by the fact that I was given a copy at no cost. However, I am confident I would find this book amazing if I paid the full price for it.
I was anticipating the mail over the weekend because I knew I would be receiving a copy of Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, which is authored by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer; the book also has a foreward by Joe Manganiello. The mammoth book contains nearly 450 pages that span the game’s entire history. The one-page press release that accompanied the advance copy summarizes Art & Arcana well:
This isn’t your run-of-the-mill “art of…” book; rather, it’s more of an archaeology project that involved lots of needle-searching in haystacks….
The author team spared no expense in finding these pieces; unearthing sketches, memos and internal drafts of some of the game’s most iconic material; locating and interviewing early artists whose names had since been lost to D&D lore; gathering pristine products and obscure advertisements; and obtaining hard-to-get-licenses – a labor of love all leading to a previously unavailable visual archive and untold story about how D&D truly came to be. No matter what edition of D&D you play or played, or even if you are just a casual observer or pop culture enthusiast, this book will have something special for you.
Honestly, after I read the press release I wanted to immediately delve into some dungeons and fight some dragons!
Art & Arcana is a feast for your eyes as every page is lovingly curated to highlight moments from over four decades of Dungeons & Dragons history. From crude concept designs to massive, pristine spreads of iconic images, Art & Arcana will trigger those nostalgia neurons in your brain and cause your heart to skip a beat. No area seems taboo or off-limits as the book presents an overview of the rise and fall of Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) with never-before-seen artifacts such as personal communications and invoices. The sale of D&D to Wizards of the Coast is also covered in detail as Art & Arcana provides commentary and context for the movements and development cycles of the game over the years. It’s clear the authors adore the game, though the book is willing to examine (and delightfully poke fun at times!) D&D’s potential shortcomings. The treasures in the book provide a feeling of, “Whoa!” as nuggets of information are organized in a visually pleasing and accessible manner across the pages.
Art & Arcana is beautiful to consume visually, and it is also quite educational. I imagine there are new details in here for even the most hardcore fans of D&D. For someone like myself that skipped about 15 years during the 2nd and 3rd Editions, the book is a master class on how – and more importantly, why – D&D evolved over the years. Art & Arcana also has a sense of humor about it that makes the book fun to read, and I read every piece of text before writing a review; I encourage everyone to do that same! It has everything you could ask for from a visual history – classic advertisements, screen shots from computer games, pages from manuals, pictures of miniatures and toys, black-and-white photos of Gary Gygax and company, glorious maps of dungeons and cities, and an enormous collection of the best pieces of art that have been created for the game – quite simply, Art & Arcana will galvanize your fandom of Dungeons and Dragons.
The only situation that comes to mind that is comparable to how I felt after devouring Art & Arcana is my reaction after watching the documentaries about the making of The Fellowship of the Ring on the Extended Edition DVDs. I had previously read The Lord of the Rings and even taught a class on the books along with other modern mythologies while in graduate school. I enjoyed the film, but seeing how much care and devotion went into the making of the movie increased my adoration for the franchise. My wife and I even traveled to New Zealand back in 2012 primarily because we fell in love with the locations from hours of watching those films get made. I’m a much bigger fan of The Lord of the Rings because of those documentaries, and I believe Art & Arcana will have a similar effect for fans of D&D.
I just wonder where I should travel now that Art & Arcana has me fired up? Watch out, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, here I come!
If you are a fan of Dungeons & Dragons, then treat yourself to this book. I cannot imagine a material plane of existence where you would be disappointed.
Now, please enjoy my in-depth musings on Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History.
Tom Eastman, President of Trinket Studios, joins me to talk about their new release, Battle Chef Brigade, which is now available on Steam and Nintendo Switch. Tom talks about the four-year development process for Battle Chef Brigade, and the challenges his team faced as an small independent company. He discusses the perils of marketing the game while fighting obscurity, and how Trinket Studios partnered with Adult Swim Games. Tom details how Battle Chef Brigade went through a rollercoaster in terms of scope and gameplay variations, and how they arrived at the current combination of mechanics and features. He answers my numerous questions about the design of the game, including how players are rewarded – rather than punished – for playing the game. We also get into the logistics of art design and voice acting. Tom concludes by talking about the mental toll of working on such a project and releasing it into the wild. If you have played Battle Chef Brigade or are simply interested in how games are developed, then this podcast is a must listen! And if you have yet to experience Battle Chef Brigade, go buy the game! It is an amazing experience that I am loving.
Enjoy the 26th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below: