Sunday 31 March 2019

On Childlike Media

Only tangentially game-related, basically a big stream of conscious ramble.
Here's a list of some* media properties I like, in no particular order:

  • -Changeling: the Dreaming
  • -Old D&D
  • -Calvin and Hobbes
  • -Over The Garden Wall
  • -The Cat Returns
  • -Adventure Time
  • -Blood in the Chocolate, and the novel it's based on, the filmed versions to a lesser extent.
  • -Sylvie & Bruno (I could honestly write many blogposts about my thoughts on this, it's the best thing Carrol wrote IMHO).
  • -Made in Abyss
  • -Ynn
  • -Spirited Away
  • -Basically everything by Neil Gaiman, the Sandman in particular.
  • -Wallace and Grommit
  • -Spongebob
  • -Narnia (in particular the old BBC versions)
These are, while not representative of everything I'm into, a pretty good representation of my default tastes. If I need to watch a familiar film and relax, I'll pick something like The Cat Returns. 
There's a pretty consistent thematic thread running through them, and this little blogpost is gonna be my attempt at unpicking what exactly that is, and why I like it. Maybe why it's gaming-relevant.

An immediate thought is that childhood is a theme here. About half that list is made with kids as the intended audience. Others have prominent child characters or deal with innocence as a theme.
But it's not that I like children's media per se. Steven Universe is a show lauded as 'kids TV that adults can enjoy' and it's super fucking gay which ought to mean I'm into it, but I can't fucking stand it; it feels insipid and shallow to me**. Same for a lot of stuff. I don't like feeling like I'm being talked down to. 

I think a big part of it is about juxtaposing childishness and maturity and how they interplay. 
Like this is the central conflict in Changeling, between a sense of innocence/wonder/glee and the crushing force of mundanity in the shitty modern world. It's a game about struggling to keep the glamour of childhood (with all its joy and terror) alive in an adult world that wants desperately to smother it out. Work in retail and it fucking feels like your soul is being killed; changeling just makes that feeling horribly literal.
And then look at something like Adventure Time (which has been a huge creative influence on me). Sure, your protagonist is like 12 (to begin with, at least), and some of the show's plots involve shit like a quest to eat a magic crystal apple (that turns out to make you explode). But then you've got stuff like I Remember You which is... I mean, shit, it's not even subtle about how it's about Altzheimer's. When I first saw that episode, I'd just lost a relative to it and it hit me pretty hard and honestly the show just nails it. And then like the whole setting is horribly post-apocalyptic and full of stuff that's just nasty. I mean, look at this shit.

Now that I think about it, senility is a big theme in Changeling, too. Forgetting things that used to be important to you. A lot of people reading this are gonna be in that 21-30 bracket where you're an adult now and you're not quite used to it and not quite sure if you're doing adulthood properly. And you look back at being a kid and even though it feels like it was just yesterday, it's now distant. You remember it like looking through a telescope.

Like being a kid was not, for me at least, all that great for reasons I don't wanna go into in much depth here, but suffice to say plenty of people and circumstances contributed to making me pretty unhappy at times. But at the same time, as a kid I never had to deal with losing my home or holding down a job. Never had to look at the total fucking circus that is politics and the media. My problems were simple back then, and there was much less resting on my shoulders.
Growing up feels like losing something that, as a kid, seemed fundamental to who I was. It's hard to express succinctly but in short; the ability to throw yourself into something that you imagine or feel or enjoy whole-heatedly, with no worry about the outcome - to simply take things for what they are.***  

A lot of media I enjoy places characters with that perspective - that ability to be totally absorbed by their inner world and the moment they find themselves in - and throws them against adult concerns and adult perspectives. So Finn the Human is - or begins as - an innocent in a seemingly charming world full of candy people and talking animals, but over the course of the show he has to deal with all sorts of messed up shit, both on a grand scale (nukes) and a very personal one (turns out his dad is a total dirtbag). Seeing how his sense of innocence reacts and adapts to these situations is fascinating.

(This is a gaming blog, though, so I'll talk for a bit about this in a game context.)

A thing I enjoy about gaming is it can give you a space to slip back into that sense of innocent wonder. I put a lot of stuff in my games that defies a banal mature perspective (giant carnivorous cakes! evil squid-men with ray-guns and trenchcoats! talking spider gourmands! Floating psychic eyeballs!) and a lot of my PCs fit that mould: one of my current Vampire the Masquerade PCs is a kiasyd who can only be described as aggressively whimsical. 
RPGs give you a space where you can explore other perspectives and ways of dealing with the world. I would argue that in a lot of them - OSR stuff in particular - suspending your adult need for things to make sense is conductive to a fun game, where you can return to that less banal way of looking at the world.

So how can you foster this feeling in games? It's a mixture of GMing style and setting content. The setting is the easy part; if you put in stuff that's a little bit nonsensical, that jams mundane stuff into unfamiliar contexts, you'll get the feel quite nicely. Animated objects work well here, particularly things like clothes, food, tools... day to day things. Likewise giant talking animals, giant bugs, that sort of thing.The familiar presented in surreal ways.
GMing style is a little harder. I think the core principle is don't think too hard about it. Let things work according to dream-logic. When improbable or weird things happen, roll with it. Don't address apparent contradictions or incongruities, let them be and if the players  comment your response is just "yes, that is weird, huh?" rather than justifying it. Don't pin the PCs down to routine responsibilities, let them be irresponsible, let them wreak glorious havoc in your setting without trying to get things 'back to normal'.
Let things be in flux, uncertain, bizarre and mundane at once.

It's not a tone that's going to be to everybody's taste. Lots of people enjoy gritty realism, or melodramatic angst, or action-packed over the top bombast. Those are fine, whatever works for your group. But, I find there's something very satisfying in playing games with a deliberate child-like openness to them.

*there's other stuff I like, lots of horror in there and lots of romantic stuff. It's not like I exist to personify a particular set of tastes.

**Fundamentally I found it's message of everybody will stop being evil if you have a heartfelt chat with them to be pretty fucking patronising, and the idea of steven using diplomancy to fix a bunch of millenia-old alien intelligences leading what amount to the tyranids or the flood was a massive let down. Like it felt like SU was unwilling to follow through with the threats it had deployed. And it felt really fucking preachy.

***Maybe this isn't a universal experience and I was just a weird kid, but this is my blog so fuck it.


  1. I've mentioned before on here how I think kids are really good at RPing because they don't have an adult sense of the limits of the possible, and I think this ties in to that to some extent.

    "But at the same time, as a kid I never had to deal with losing my home or holding down a job. Never had to look at the total fucking circus that is politics and the media. My problems were simple back then, and there was much less resting on my shoulders.
    Growing up feels like losing something that, as a kid, seemed fundamental to who I was. It's hard to express succinctly but in short; the ability to throw yourself into something that you imagine or feel or enjoy whole-heatedly, with no worry about the outcome - to simply take things for what they are.*** "

    This section is a big part of why I want a Basic Income Guarantee or something similar. So more people can just go wherever their curiousity or passion takes them without worrying about whether it's going to leave them homeless or starving.

    Steven Universe is one of those properties that I like for basically everything except the actual main plot. I like all the interpersonal and slice-of-life and just exploring Gem oddness bits, but they really haven't been able to sell the "evil empire" part of it at all.

    1. I liked the idea that there was something much bigger and more adult, and that we only got to see that through Steven's eyes.

      Once those things became the main focus, however, I lost interest. I liked those things more when they were vaguely hinted at.

    2. Yeah, it worked as background. Not as main plot.

    3. Honestly the problem is that they wrote a planet-devouring evil empire of crystal space aliens, and then wimped out when they wrote themselves into the corner of having to actually depict that.

      Going back to WR's original comment, though...
      So several years ago I was working in a shitty retail job and it was totally soul-crushing. Like before I got fired (For informing a customer that they could either be polite to me or fuck off because I wasn't being paid enough to put up with them), it just ground my brain into grey paste. I stopped writing, I stopped painting. I'd get back from work and not have the energy for anything creative, I'd just want to veg out watching something I didn't need to think about because retail was mentally exhausting. From talking to people, this is not uncommon acaift. Of course, basically as soon as I got fired, I went right back to writing stuff and my mental health recovered nearly instantly.
      So, like, you have to wonder how many people with talent (not like me, really genuinely amazing people) are having it crushed out of them by being part of the machine? How much amazing art are we losing because the artist is having their soul slowly destroyed by their career.
      You've got this this stereotype of the starving artist, and in my experience it's actually pretty accurate. You can't pursue creative goals while your brain is being ground to paste by the corporate machine. You have to choose between being comfortable and financially secure, or making art. So the the bulk of people really producing interesting art are those who just couldn't cope with NOT making art, and are willing to sacrifice their comfort and put up with horrible poverty to produce it. And that's fucked up, right?
      Like after a few years of being a total fucking mess of an adult I eventually decided to be a Starving Artist and, like, it's nice that I no longer hate my existence but that shouldn't be a choice people have to make.
      So yeah, bring on the fully-automated luxury gay space communism tbh. Overthrow capitalism for the sake of D&D.

  2. You've got me all nostalgic for the BBC Narnia.

    I think the bulk of your post points out why I almost never notice plot-holes in movies, or inconsistencies in published settings, and why every time I've tried to be the serious gritty type of GM that things fall apart. Unlike a whole session devoted to buying a goblin happy meals and pretty dresses. Thank you.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I need to finish Adventure Time, my son & I used to watch it religiously but just kinda fell out of it after we ditched the old cable box. Anyways nice post, kinda makes me want to write about my media/inspirations.