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.
Last month I traveled to visit family in New Jersey and my intentions were to be mindful and focus on quality time with my wife, son and extended family. Squeezing in Hearthstone games to knock out Daily or Weekly Quests did not seem aligned with the “quality family time” value so I took a break from opening up the app on my phone.
I have not opened Hearthstone in weeks and it feels – liberating.
Like more and more games in the past decade, Hearthstone is a game that never ends. One could say that Chess never ends either, though Chess does not have the allure of frequent expansions that promise new pieces and mechanics to revitalize the game. Hearthstone resides in a perpetual state of being…. there. I rarely played while sitting at a computer even though I dabbled here and there with streaming it. It’s been primarily a phone game for me – jamming games while on a walk, eating lunch, watching sports in the background, and likely between many other activities that I should have my full attention.
It’s fair to say Hearthstone became a habit (not an addiction), and that habit is now broken. Interfering with the behavioral chain has given me some space to decide if I want to return to the game. I still follow the same community of players and developers online and know a new expansion is on the horizon, which promises a new Tradeable mechanic that will introduce more deck-building strategy and in-game decision making. I find myself not terribly interested, and again that feels pretty good.
Similar to how I’m evaluating my relationship to tabletop roleplaying games, I’m examining what I get out of playing Hearthstone these days. There is a bit of fun to be had; it’s nice to win games and check off Quests. There has always been a nagging question with Hearthstone though, “To what end?” I had some fantasies about becoming a Hearthstone streaming personality and never seriously worked to make that happen. I’ve likely spent $1,000 or more on the game and my digital collection of cards is worthless; I cannot sell them or trade them in for anything else. That money did provide a good deal of entertainment over the years, though should I really devote so much time to playing the same game for a year – or five?
How and When to Cut Ties with a Game That Never Ends
My goal is not to decry Hearthstone; it remains a fine game and there are talented, dedicated people who are attempting to make it the best product it can be. After playing the game for years and achieving the goal of hitting Legend, the game feels stale TO ME. The repetition of expansion release, honing in on a deck or two to learn, absorbing changes to new and past cards, and hoping I had enough dust to field more than one competitive deck got increasingly expensive and frustrating. I stopped pre-ordering expansions over a year ago, and that also changed what I felt comfortable playing. Since I no longer had a collection that allowed me to field more than one competitive deck in Standard per expansion, I moved to Wild. It remained fun for some time though the returns were diminishing.
Joel’s life was filled with nothing but misery and pain for 20 years. Can you blame him for stopping at nothing to keep his final connection to his deceased daughter alive? He kept Ellie alive because he could not live in a world where she no longer drew breath. The experience of empathizing with Joel during his journey across the country and merging with him in that final sequence was harrowing. After the credits rolled, I was thankful I could put down the controller and turn the game off.
And not live in Joel’s world.
Earlier this year, I stepped back into Joel’s world by replaying The Last of Us and then playing The Last of Us: Left Behind for the first time. With The Last of Us Part II coming out, I wanted to refresh my memory about of all the elements of Joel and Ellie’s story that riveted me years ago. The backdrop of a real-life global pandemic made playing through the games unsettling in a new way.
I was curious to learn how the team behind the original game would answer the questions left hanging from the conclusion of The Last of Us. Joel’s lies about The Fireflies not needing Ellie because they’ve already found others with immunity seemed more flimsy this time playing through the game, and Ellie seems fully aware Joel is bullshitting her as the credits in The Last of Us begin.
How would Ellie discover definitely that Joel lied to her?
What will Ellie do once she learns that Joel killed The Fireflies to save her life?
What will happen to the relationship between Ellie and Joel once that reveal takes place?
Are surviving members of The Fireflies searching for Ellie because they still believe she can provide a cure? Or searching for Joel for revenge?
As I’ve said more than once about the long-rumored Kenobi show, “I don’t care what it’s about. Just give me Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan quieting drinking tea and musing about his past failures with Anakin. Everything else is window dressing; I just need that!” Any sequel to The Last of Us has to focus on the powerful dynamics between Ellie and Joel.
Everything else is window dressing.
Certainly knowing this, the team behind The Last of Us Part II provides a lot of window dressing. The game owes a debt to shows such as Lost, Breaking Bad, The Wire (especially Season 2), and Game of Thrones. The primary moments I was truly invested in as a player are told in flashbacks (Lost). The image on the title screen shows a pivotal scene from the conclusion of the game though you do not realize that until the very end (Breaking Bad). Instead of focusing solely on the characters already established, the game introduces a variety of new characters including devoting a significant amount of playtime as Abby (The Wire). And to top this all off, the player spends hours of time as Abby after we see her brutally murder a prominent character, Joel, quite early in the game (Game of Thrones).
The Last of Us Part II was designed to be disappointing; quite on purpose. As I’ve been in my own state of quarantine since March, I was able to avoid spoilers and still have not reviewed commentary about the game. I am honestly not sure how others have reacted to the sequel. What follows is a bit of a running diary of how I processed the purposeful disappointment that plays out during the experience.
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.
Tomo Moriwaki talks about his career in videogame design and how his experiences led him to the latest endeavor, Epic Tavern. In Epic Tavern, players are tasked with building up a tavern to cater to adventure needs AND with sending those adventurers on quests. Tomo talks about his goals to design an engaging gameplay loop that encourages players to spend more time with Epic Tavern; it was fascinating to learn about the decisions that are made to create a successful gameplay loop that cultivates that “one more turn” feeling for players!
He discusses obstacles to creating a game “like fantasy football for fantasty fantasy” and how the small team has overcome those challenges. Tomo educates me about the logic behind Epic Tavern gameplay, including the encounter system involved in questing.
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Dr. Ryan Kelly joins me this week to talk about his work on how to use geek passions to grow. He is a psychologist and speaks about his work with a variety of clients including those that use videogames in problematic ways. He presents his thoughts on how the power of videogames have increased as technology has improved and wades through some of the available data about links between videogames and problematic behavior.
We discuss the potential benefits and consequences of gaming and other hobbies, and offer suggestions for how to find a healthy balance. He highlights that games can be a useful tool and coping strategy, though that can become a problem if it is the only tool used by someone.
Enjoy the 46th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
It’s been a while since I read something that inspired me to respond with an article of my own, though that is just what happened after reading Susan J. Morris’ musings on internal tension in characters. I previously interviewed Susan on the Ego Check podcast back in January 2017 where she spoke about her work as a fantasy author and editor for companies such as Wizards of the Coast and Monte Cook Games. Her article this month on character tensions uses wonderful imagery to demonstrate how characters are affected by internal tensions and external forces:
Imagine for a moment everything your character cares about—Love, Friendship, Family, Country, Ideals, Religion, Tradition, Self, and Things More Specific—as a string, wrapped around your character.
The more your character cares about that thing, the tighter that string is pulled—the more tension on the line.
The more strings? The more interesting it gets.
She provides numerous examples of how characters can be tied up, and then offers this clear advice, “I think [the] most useful application is troubleshooting spots in your story where the tension drops or feels off.” By diagramming the tensions pulling a character in a story, a writer could identify when the tension sags and adjust accordingly.
Susan’s article provides useful suggestions for writers, though it struck me so strongly because it relates to an exercise I often complete with patients in my clinical work as a psychologist. And it is an exercise that can cut quickly to the heart of problems in one’s life.
Gaming Informs Work and Work Informs Gaming
A task I take on early when working with a patient in therapy is to clarify his or her values – in other words, why does that person want to live? What is important? It is a question I typically preface, “This may sound like an odd question…. why do you want to stay alive?”
In addition to listing the 10 values, it asks for the individual to first rate how important each value is in their life at that moment. The second step is to rate how satisfied they are with each value in their life at that moment. The third and final step is to answer some open-ended questions about each value.
The Valued Directions Worksheet gives a patient and I a great deal of information to discuss in therapy. For example, Parenting could be identified as very important while the satisfaction level with Parenting is low; this would be a good place to 1) explore and clarify why Parenting matters to the patient and 2) determine strategies for raising the satisfaction level of Parenting. One key thing we know from decades of research and clinical practice is that our mood typically improves when we engage in activities that are connected to our values. The first step for us is identifying what values are important, and the next step is taking actions that are connected to those values.
Many (if not most) of us struggle with this, and that is okay!
Susan’s article made me realize that the homework exercise above that I often give to my patients is something that my players or I could also use to create characters in role-playing games with more depth! What would it be like to complete a Valued Directions Worksheet as my Bard, The Stone? How could that exercise potentially add to my ability to “know” The Stone and role-play him effectively?
How important are these values to the character, and how satisfied are they with those values? Discrepancies between importance and satisfaction naturally lead to potential plot hooks – and as Susan detailed in her article, tension.
For example, if the NPC strongly values Education/learning and is not satisfied in that area, then how could the players interact with that NPC to increase his or her satisfaction level? Regardless if the NPC is a queen, guard, innkeeper or monster – the exercise could give the NPC additional depth for the GM and PCs to play around with as the game unfolds.
Finally, consider taking a moment (ideally, after several long, slow, deep breaths) and complete the Valued Directions Worksheet for yourself. Self-monitoring and externalization can be wonderful tools to enhance our awareness and improve our mood. If this exercise highlights an area of your life that is important while the satisfaction is low, then consider methods to increase the satisfaction.
More exercises like this can be found in The Mindfulness & Acceptance Workbook for Anxiety, which is a solid resource if you’re looking for a self-help option. In addition, considering speaking with a friend, family member and a professional clinician to work on areas of your life that might be a concern.
NOTE: There are spoilers for The Last Jedi in this article. Please stop reading if you have not seen the movie yet.
When I started writing this article, the first paragraph detailed my excitement for Star Wars: The Last Jedi and how the only expectations I had were that it would be a good movie. At one point in the original article I wrote, “I was happily absent of expectations before the film.” It felt true when I wrote it; it really did. As I kept writing, I realized it was not true. It was actually far from true! I had many expectations for the film beyond it being good. I was just unaware of them all.
There is a moment in The Empire Strikes Back when Yoda warns Luke not to take his weapons into the cave. Luke asks, “What’s in there?” And Yoda responds, “Only what you take with you.”
Consciously and subconsciously, we all have expectations about what Star Wars should be. And when The Last Jedi challenges those expectations – or openly subverts them – it triggers an anxiety reaction. How we monitor and process that reaction likely goes a long way to determining if we thought The Last Jedi was a “good” movie or not.
I’m not here to tell you how to react to The Last Jedi. What I am suggesting is to review the expectations you had about the film and franchise because I was unaware of many of my own expectations. Overall, I thought the film was brilliant, and I would like to harness the nervous energy I experienced during those two-and-a-half hours while watching the movie on opening night.
Because that feeling of plunging into the unknown was pure electricity.
My response to the Rorschach test of The Last Jedi is below.
I’m joined this week by Dr. Megan Connell, a licensed psychologist who is currently using Dungeons & Dragons in two therapy groups to teach children social skills and empowerment. She speaks about motivations for pursuing a career in psychology, including her decision to join the military after the events of 9/11. Dr. Connell provides her insights into how dungeon mastering is essentially people management, and how DMs can use specific skills to improve gameplay for all involved. She covers how important it is to talk with your players to establish ground rules and resolve potential conflicts. She details her use of a Session 0 for all new campaigns to accomplish these goals. We review how mental health symptoms can manifest for players at the table, and present some strategies on how to address these situations. She talks about her Psychology and D&D video series featured on YouTube and her stream, Clinical Roll, which features numerous mental health professionals playing Dungeons & Dragons.
Enjoy the 22nd episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below:
This week I’m joined by Chris Benefield, a longtime friend I first met during our days in graduate school way back in 1998. Chris has a masters degree in Educational Psychology, and is now working toward an advanced degree to become a school counselor. In the episode, we discuss our history of arguing, “Who is the bigger nerd?” and explore how social comparison theory affects geekdom, “Sure, I’m a nerd – but I’m not THAT nerdy.” I ask Chris why he cannot get into tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons & Dragons, and he asks me why I’m unwilling to dive into Magic: The Gathering (MtG). He discusses the merits of MtG, and we explore how games like Hearthstone, SolForge, and Eternal scratch a similar itch. We delve into our approaches to mindfully engage in our hobbies and time management, which leads into our use of social media – for better and sometimes worse. Along the way, we review our trip to GenCon 2012, and talk about trying to remain a nerd while parenting young children.
Enjoy the episode, and please provide feedback if you would like Chris and I to continue recording similar discussions as we are considering spinning this off into a separate podcast.
Enjoy the 14th episode of Ego Check with The Id DM! And please subscribe to the podcast at one of the links below: