Wild Child

This comic was drawn by Leslie Wernert (@leslietries on Tumblr) and written by me, Kathryn Hemmann (@kathrynthehuman on Twitter).

If you’ve never played Breath of the Wild, the joke is that the game not only allows but actively encourages the player to stage elaborate selfies in all sorts of dangerous situations. As a result, Link comes off like an absolute maniac, but he’s so charming that it’s difficult to dislike him. Probably even the creepy physical embodiment of Ganon’s spiritual corruption has a crush on Link.

Night in the Woods, Part Two

I started playing Night in the Woods again recently, and I have a lot of feelings about the game. When I get interested in something, my first instinct is to read what other people have written about it. Although I knew it was a mistake, I made a bad decision and clicked on the Polygon review.

This specific line jumped out at me:

Mae also does some platforming in her sleep, and these dream sequences in particular are dull, especially late in the game when the story starts to pick up momentum.

First of all, this game is not a platformer, and evaluating a story-driven exploration game as a platformer because the main character can jump is not useful or interesting.

Second, the dream sequences are amazing. One of my favorite conceits in gaming is a piece of music that has more instruments added as the player makes progress (like the Hateno Village theme in Breath of the Wild), and every single one of the dream sequences handles this conceit perfectly. The songs themselves are weird and fun and creepy – my favorite is Astral Alley.

The fact that a professional game reviewer could look at Night in the Woods and criticize its “platforming” as “dull” boggles my mind to such an extent that I feel like a Lovecraft narrator who can’t describe what he’s seeing and resorts to frenzied and nonsensical muttering.

Here’s another bit of the review that caused me physical pain:

[Mae] is often selfish, cruel, self-absorbed and destructive in ways that may be believable and relatable but rarely ever pleasant. Mae is somewhat redeemed by a childlike joy in simple pleasures, a streak of loyalty to her friends and some late-game realizations about her own failings, but only somewhat.

Mae is a good protagonist because she’s flawed, and she’s a good person because she’s genuinely trying to be sensitive and understanding for the sake of her friends and family. She’s not perfect, but she’s doing her best, and the same can be said of the way most of the other characters in the game treat her. Some people lose their tempers with Mae when she accidentally says something stupid, and some people are mean to her for no reason, but she’s good-natured about it and doesn’t get into fights or try to hurt people to get back at them. She goes out of her way to speak to everyone without prejudice, and she’s extremely generous with her time. She’s good-natured and, yes, she’s loyal and cares about other people, even when she’s hurt. This is why people want to be friends with her.

The fact that an adult man would look at this twenty-year-old female character and say that he doesn’t like her because she’s not performing enough emotional labor is really scary to me, to be honest.

It’s also troubling that Polygon wanted someone to review a story game about a twenty-year-old queer woman and couldn’t find anyone except an older man with children. They didn’t know any women? Any queer people? Not even any younger people? This writer openly admits that he didn’t want to review this game. Could the editors at Polygon really not find anyone in even a slightly different demographic? Perhaps someone who had been following the development blog attached to the game’s massively successful Kickstarter campaign?

I wouldn’t usually include the name of the reviewer in a critical response like this, but I think it would be weird not to mention that this review was written by Justin McElroy. I know a lot of people love The Adventure Zone, but I have to admit that I’ve never understood the charm of the McElroy brothers. The fact this writer is something of a celebrity in queer-identified youth cultures is even more troubling in light of his attitude regarding Mae’s mental illness.

In that regard, this part of the review is genuinely frightening:

After a scene where Mae belittles her parents for working for years so they could afford to send her to the college that she had just bailed on, I found it pretty difficult to re-engage with her. But I’m also a parent and feel a lot further from Mae’s side of the kitchen table than I used to. It’s a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character, and it’s an effective way of highlighting the virtues of the supporting cast.

Before anything, it’s important to point out that Night in the Woods is a dialogue-driven game. Except for a handful of very specific instances, the player is always given a choice of what Mae can say and how she can respond to the direction the conversation is taking.

For an adult man who identifies as a parent to choose the dialogue option that belittles Mae’s parents and then blame his own choice on the personality of a twenty-something female character in a video game is hypocritical and unfair.

It’s also important to provide the specific context. What has happened is that Mae’s mom, who is stressed out about money but doesn’t want to talk about it, tries to be “helpful” about her daughter’s illness in an unhelpful way. Mae interprets her mother’s genuine but off-the-mark concern as condescending, and she makes a shitty comment about how she doesn’t want advice from someone who stayed in town and never went to college. Mae’s mom snaps and says she worked hard so that Mae could go to the college that Mae has dropped out for reasons that, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, she’s either not willing or not yet ready to explain.

Mae knows this, of course, and Mae’s mother knows she knows this. They both realize they’ve gone too far. Again, depending on the player’s dialogue choices, Mae can either apologize or be a brat and walk away. Regardless, Mae and her mother offer each other more meaningful apologies later, and Mae’s father provides a different perspective on the situation when Mae mentions that she wants to start looking for a job. Essentially, he tells her that it’s the responsibility of parents to care for their child; and that, as parents, he and Mae’s mother take that responsibility seriously.

What the player learns toward the end of the game is that Mae was suffering from severe depression, which was co-morbid with executive function disorder (which refers to the state of knowing what you need to do and wanting to do it but being unable to get started) and extreme dissociative episodes. This specific diagnosis is never provided, but I’ve seen it often enough to know what it is. The way college is structured is not healthy for people who are prone to mental illness, which the game has established is true of Mae. It’s not that there’s anything “wrong” with Mae as a person, but being forced to live in a dorm while taking large general education classes that she wasn’t interested in triggered a crisis with a condition that she had previously been able to manage.

Mae was failing all of her classes, sleeping for most of the day, and thinking about death while feeling that she was slipping in and out of reality. No one helped her – which is normal in American universities – so she came home. Mae’s parents are sympathetic, and Mae is, for the most part, grateful.

Mae is in a difficult situation, but she made the right choice.

What exactly did Justin McElroy expect Mae to do? Stay at school until she successfully killed herself? So that she wouldn’t cause trouble for her parents?

A major theme of Night in the Woods is its critique of this specific attitude, namely, that it is the individual who is to blame for the failings of a large and impersonal system. It’s terrifying to me that Justin McElroy could play this game from start to finish and write about it as a staff reviewer for a major gaming news outlet and completely misread this theme, saying instead that it’s “a bold choice to center a game on an unlikable character.” What I’m afraid of is the fact that this is the sort of person who’s driving the culture – an older straight man who doesn’t see any problem with condemning a young queer woman for making difficult but healthy choices about her own life.

Night in the Woods, Part One

One of the things I find interesting about Night in the Woods is the relationship Mae has with her parents after she drops out of college and moves back home. There are a few moments of tension, but they’re resolved in a satisfying way; and, on the whole, Mae’s parents are kind and supportive.

I’m not sure how much I want to write about this, but my own situation with my parents and family was so dysfunctional and abusive that I had a lot of trouble understanding the relationship between Mae and her parents as “normal.” I kept waiting for Mae’s parents to show their real faces, but that twist never happened; both of them were kind and supportive for the entire game. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but most of my adult years have been an ongoing process of re-evaluating what “normal” relationships look like. Partially for this reason, I think Night in the Woods is incredible in the way it portrays an extraordinary range of relationships between different people. Even though none of the characters is a perfect model of what a person “should” be, the game contains a number of useful examples for what healthy interactions between different people can look like.

To put this into perspective, here’s an excerpt from a wholesome Tumblr post about good parenting:

And then one day the abusive father was angry at the mom, and tried to take it out on my friend, my friend got a call filled with insults and threats. It was scary and my friend got upset, I tried to comfort them but I really didn’t have good words to say. They later called their mom, and this is what the mother said:

“You are a perfect person, if anyone is talking to you like this, you can walk away.”

I remember just feeling complete awe hearing this, told from a mom, to a child. It even cheered me up. Those are the words we should have been getting from our parents. This is the correct attitude.

Night in the Woods has a cast of characters who are flawed but try to have this sort of “correct attitude” regarding the trouble in their lives. The overall atmosphere of the game is quite dark, but each of the characters shines like a small light. It’s useful to be able to identify signs of abuse, of course, but it’s also important to have access to models for healthy relationships, no matter how old you are or where you are in your life.

Hollow Knight

I’m a big fan of the aesthetic of Hollow Knight, and I got the collector’s edition from Fangamer when the game came out on the Nintendo Switch. I absolutely loved the first hour or two of gameplay. The world is gorgeous, the gameplay is a lot of fun, and the writing is lovely.

When I got to the first boss, however, I died. And then I died again, and then I died again. And then I died again. It’s not that this boss is particularly difficult; it’s just that it has a ton of health while you have relatively little. The fight is therefore an endurance test in which you can’t make any mistakes. This is particularly unpleasant because, once the boss starts breaking out new attacks and movement patterns, you’ve already been in the fight for a relatively long time and have probably already lost some health.

When I took to the internet to figure out what was going on, I found a lot of posts saying that Hollow Knight is a brutally punishing game, and that sometimes people can take hours to make it through a boss fight.

I then tried to search for “Hollow Knight easy mode,” and that was a mistake. Oh my, the “real gamer” discourse these children engage in.

I remember really loving Super Metroid as a kid. It was much too difficult for me and my small brain and tiny hands, so I used a Game Genie as something like a set of training wheels until I got good enough to play it on my own. I ended up spending more than a hundred hours playing the game instead of just one or two, and this hurt no one. I had a game, and I played it, and it was fun. I liked exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack; and, if this isn’t “how the developers intended the game to be played,” it didn’t matter, because my parents paid money for the game and I owned it.

This is more or less the same thing I’m interested in when it comes to Hollow Knight – exploring the world and discovering its secrets while listening to the soundtrack. Because of one boss fight at the beginning of the game, however, there’s no way I can do this. I now own a very pretty $70 game that I could only play for a little more than two hours, and it’s frustrating.

I wonder, would it really hurt the developers to include an easy mode?

Nineties Child Starter Pack

The backpack you take home from school weighs more than you do.

We had so much homework, and I mean so much homework. If there’s one thing that’s relatable to all millennials, no matter what sort of neighborhood or economic class they grew up in, it’s that the pressure to get into a good college started in seventh grade, if not earlier.

You use self-deprecating humor because it’s social suicide to acknowledge how hard you’re working.

Also because we’re all working really hard, and only douchebags talk like they’re writing a college admissions essay. Despite the fact that this style of communication has carried over to the Gen Z kids, a lot of older people still take this sort of communication at face value and interpret it literally, which is both disheartening and unintentionally hilarious.

You can never accept a complement, ever.

See above. We’re collectively getting better about this, thankfully.

You always have to pretend to be on a diet or losing weight for sports.

We bore the full brunt of mass media advertising culture in the 1980s and 1990s, and we didn’t have any tools to resist its messaging. Current conversations about “body shaming” and “body positivity” are a direct result of MTV Spring Break setting the standard of what a human being should look like, which turned out to be super unhealthy for people of all races and genders.

Goku is there for you when you need him, and you have no idea Sailor Moon is Japanese.

We didn’t know what anime was until we learned what anime was, at which point we couldn’t get enough of it. Can you blame us? At the time, the only real alternative was Disney. The Disney Renaissance was great and all, but sometimes you just need to watch girls saving the universe while one dude kamehamehas another dude right in the face.

You get on the internet for Pokémon cheat codes and make a cringe adorable first username.

No I didn’t know that there were no cheat codes for Pokémon, and no I will not tell you my username, but I sure did have a lot of fun as a tiny child on the internet.

No amount of hard work or internet literacy will save you, though.

This is especially ironic because people in their early twenties are now hired over people in my generation because they are “digital natives” with “social media expertise.”

The generations ahead of you just will not retire, so your professional career is fucked.

Friends may come and friends may go, and dreams can burst into brilliant life and then fade away, but student debt is forever.

In conclusion, nineties children are stressed out all the time, but at least we got all the good anime and video games.