Film Crit Hulk SMASH: Goodnight, Adventure Zone
Some of the most important, defining story moments of my life, you will not find on screen. You will not find them in the pages of a book. You will not find them in any outlet that I can recommend to you. In fact, you will not find them anywhere but my memory. That is because they happened while playing Dungeons and Dragons.
If you've never played the game before, it's a bit hard to explain the unique power of DnD, precisely because there are few things more geared to the lovely nature of collaborative storytelling. Sure, the Dungeon Master (DM) may be the one guiding the experience and direction of the world you experience (and must do so with both incisive acumen and exhaustive levels of work - and then, in an unexpected instant, be able to change it all on the fly). But it's also about what you, the player, bring to your character and how you affect the events as they unfold. This makes you the co-creator of the very reality you inhabit. Ultimately, the entire process combines the very best of video games, improv, and the oral tradition into one coherent work. And if all this sounds amazing, that's because it really is. But it's also very hard. It takes a lot of work and commitment and enthusiasm from all the participants, which is honestly why most groups play a few games and then (even if they like it) let the game fall off. But for the many lovely DnD groups that commit, it becomes such a wonderful part of your life. But it's a variant one, too. For some DnD groups stick to the heavily-detailed guides of the world of Faerun and the lore of the game's creators. Some take that world and turn it on its head with wild and off-kilter comic sensibility. And some (usually my favorites) use the game as a loose framework to go off and build something bigger. But the one constant is how all the games, characters, and worlds become deeply personal to the players who inhabit it. And to all this...
The Adventure Zone is emblematic of every reason I love DnD.
I know I've talked about the McElroy Brothers before (I am now somehow on the third mini-column on their work), and often I've focused on the discussion of the layers within their new media work, specifically how jokes from the meta-level seep into story points and vice versa, all en route to creating a more resonant overall experience. But nowhere is that trait more evident than with The Adventure Zone. It all began about three years ago when the three McElroy brothers simply started a podcast where they played DnD with their dad. It all started slowly and deliberately. Heck, it basically took one giant pilot episode to explain the rules and then four episodes for them to get the hang of it. But once they picked it up, the jokes started coming and the entertaining aspect of the show was born. But now, what started as a fairly traditional DnD campaign with some good gags, has utterly blossomed into one of the most ambitious, strangest, funniest, endearing, and epic stories I have ever experienced in my life.
This is not hyperbole. I see countless people online echoing the same exact sentiment. And when I think about the weird world of Phandalin and the "Balance Arc" that made up this particular first iteration of the show, I'll admit that I first think about the stories within it. Meaning I think about the goofy mystery aboard the Rockport Limited. I think about the apocalyptic road race of Petals to the Metal. I think about the Eleventh Hour and certain character burning spell slots for the fuck of it as the world ends (again). I think about the terrible cost of the games within the forest of Wonderland. I think about how each of these arcs both fed into the story and challenged the players all on a meta-gaming level. But I also think about the smaller things, like how the casual decision to go along with the goofy name "Barry Bluejeans" radically affected the shape of what this story universe looked like and helped make the story better. I think about all the weird, wild characters that populated the arc, from Angus McDonald: Boy Detective, to Garfield The Deals Wizard, to Garyll The Phantom Unicorn. I think about all the moments of Magnus rushing in and Taako being good out here. I think about 50 Shades of Green, and Abra-ca-fuck-you. I think about the wooden duck. I think about the sheer massiveness of everything I loved, from the scale to the emotions themselves. I think about the narrative daring of The Stolen Century and how shockingly effective it was in tying the whole story together, all before crashing back into the grand fireworks of The Day of Story and Song... I think about how if you have not listened yet, this will all just seem a meaningless list of proper nouns... But to those who listened, I think about how each noun listed has a whole world of meaning to you.
And at the center of it all, I think about Taako, Magnus, and Merle.
All goofy names, all arrived at with a laugh. Just as there was was the certain shrugging chutzpah in calling their adventuring band "Tres Horny Boys." Sure, they started by constantly messing up their stats, forgetting to do voices, and making jokes outside their own reality. But by the end, it was amazing to see how incredibly connected they had become to these characters they had created (and largely discovered along the way). And with every passing episode, it came to mean more and more, both to them, to us, and to the events within the story itself. Culminating in amazing moments like (vague allusional-spoilers until the last sentence of paragraph?) the reveal of The Lich's identity, "I've been here the whole time," and "Who?" Most of the grand moments came in just the last half of the year, as they were able to capitalize on the meaning and importance of the adventure that was reaching its peak. So perhaps it's no accident the penultimate episode was the very best in the series (at least to me). For it is a culmination of all the lessons learned, in terms of the storytelling and dramatic confluence, and how to incorporate both into the game itself. For there was the thrill of Magnus' lessons, Merle's reconciliatory conversations with the divine, and the meta-hilarity of Taako's inter-dimensional cooking lesson. But what is most amazing is the way the episode hammers home these moments as character arcs, all en route to opening up a sense of purpose going into the final episode... So yes, it's safe to say there was an element of excitement going into yesterday's finale.
But in the end (more textural spoilers I guess?), we got something that felt endlessly sweet. It piles on catharsis after catharsis - all earned, all good, and all true - but this sweetness is perhaps reflective of the simple fact that letting go is sometimes just too bitter a pill to swallow. It gave me a sense of a few storytellers not entirely ready to, or at least didn't fully know how to say goodbye without saying all of it. Which makes sense in a way, because a game of Dungeons and Dragons is different in the way it largely feeds off of such connection. I love Magnus, but I never lived in him, fostered him, and made choices with him the way that Travis did. As such it's probably no accident that my favorite moments of the finale were the completely meta ones where the family just talked about their experience and how they felt with the transition. And in that spirit, the story enamors itself to the tellers in a way that is a bit different. But unlike all the epic DnD story moments of many people's lives, we were lucky enough to have theirs shared with us at every turn.
So while I could sit here and point out some technical finale "shouldas" by making a few story arguments about how endings affect audiences, completely with folksy tidbits like "weddings are made more meaningful by those who cannot make it" and how "they aren't about getting what you want but what you need" (because in order for finals to be truly happy, finales also need to be part devastating, for most good things come not just with effort, but with cost) - But those observations, while accurate, also seems weirdly misplaced. Especially because there is n resonant idea at the center of The Adventure Zone finale that explains the larger catharsis choice in earnest. And that is "the gift of a normal life." Yes, it's a familiar trope of the hero genre, but only because it is a familiar trope of life itself. One best embodied by the American aim of domestication after the horrors of World War II. For there is a real gift of not having to battle evil, nor sacrifice exponentially, but simply getting to live. And yes, I know our normal lives are often anything but normal (and all good drama knows this), but in this finale, the notion of a normal life takes on a different meaning altogether. For it is not some mere selfish reward or obligation, but something that taps into the notion that a normal life is really about rebuilding something better. Because let's face it...
We live in a world where most people do not get a normal life.
The world exists in incontrovertible poverty, hate, fascistic movements, racism, sexism, war, tragedy, and sudden death. Which isn't even to count the endless number of people who have to live with trauma, depression, anxiety, and disease. And against that, many of those blessed with a normal life do not seem to understand the outrageous gift that they have been given, nor understand the pain of those who do not get to have it. And so we live in a world that does not seem to be learning from its mistakes. Instead we live in a world that feels like it's constantly failing itself. Which is exactly why the most important thing about The Adventure Zone is that its primary thematic interest was always, always, always what I will call "the ethical heart." Because Griffin constantly, fixating-ly, and unflaggingly brought the question of morality and responsibility to the center of the story and the games played within. Meaning this was never a story about rolling dice real good and making yourself feel buff, but making the constant choice about whether or not we repair our mistakes and help build a better world. And this was true every step of the way. So in the end, the "resolution as rebuilding" made for the fitting, final message. Which reveals the simplest meta point of all:
The world the McElroy family has created is the one that I want to create, too.
But not in some fantasy world. I'm talking about the one right here. Right now. Where all of us live together. I've long argued that character arcs and maturity itself is about learning how to turn the things we want into the things we need. So in this story of endless worlds, creation, creators, and gods - this happy ending is not the story's escapism, but aspiration. For it is the world we need. And as I listened to the McElroy family say goodbye to Magnus, Merle, and Taako and get choked up as the bittersweet feelings came to a head - I admit that I did not cry. Instead, I smiled wide, grinning like an idiot. For I finally understood the nature of this finale was really just about moving on within the space you already inhabit. Not just in the inescapable and obvious fact that The Adventure Zone isn't going anywhere and will indeed come back to "series two." I already knew this, but in that moment, it felt real in a way that was true and exciting. Which just unfurled the simpler, folksier truths of how every goodbye leads to another hello, a new world to build, and a way to do it even better.
For the heart of adventure is always what comes next.