Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

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Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman.

Sucked into the game. I’ve always hated that premise. I hated it in Tron and Captain N and the countless 80s cartoons that used it to for a one-off episode when I was a kid. I hated it in Reboot when I was a teen, and I hate it in the glut of isekai anime now. If I’d known about the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon–acknowledged by writer Kieron Gillen as one of Die‘s major inspirations–when it was on the air, I would doubtless have hated the premise there.

Fortunately, Die hates that premise, too.

And it deserves that hatred. (Of course I think so, why else would I hate it?) In college, I read an essay about games whose title and author I no longer remember, but a key point stuck with me. The essay discussed, in its introduction, a child trying to learn to play chess, but who kept losing because they refused to do anything to put the queen’s-side knight in danger. They had developed an emotional attachment to that piece, embued it personality as children sometimes do, and could not set that feeling aside to play the game. Part of what makes games games, the essay argued, is that they don’t really have stakes. Oh, we may wager something on the outcome of the game–money, pride, advancement in a tournament–but the individual actions and moves, the actual playing, has no stakes. Nobody is tortured when a pawn is captured, no fields razed when a football team loses ground. We do not care about the queen’s-side knight, or empathize with the pain our marker feels when devoured by snakes in its effort to climb to the top of the ladder.

But this begins to complexify in the latter half of the twentieth century, as various new genres–interactive books like the Choose Your Own Adventure series, video games, roleplaying games–begin incorporating gamelike elements into fiction or using games as a storytelling medium. Now we do care about our gamepieces, because now they are characters, and become emotionally invested in characters–though never in quite the same way as real people. Much of what is interesting about games as storytelling media arises from this tension between ludic elements and narrative, the knowledge that an errant roll of a d20 could spell the difference between a dramatic rescue and a tragicomic fumble, that our own button-pressing skill is all that stands between the brave hero taking a stand against evil and annihilation.

Or you can just abandon all that and use a traditional medium for a story about a bunch of characters sucked into a game, which accomplishes nothing except giving you an excuse to have characters make pop culture references in a fantasy world.

Die takes a different approach. It recognizes that fantasy worlds and games alike are frequently rife with violence, death, and suffering, and that most people have lives to which they feel some degree of attachment, so being sucked into the fantasy world of a game is a fucking nightmare. And, too, that if the worlds evoked by narrative games are in any sense real–as the geek-default “suspension of disbelief”/secondary creation school of narrative engagement insists on treating them–players are monsters, and game creators even more so.

Being sucked into a game is a horror premise, and for once Die actually treats it as such, briefly exploring how having been sucked into a game as teens warped the lives of a quintet of fortysomethings, and perhaps more importantly how it didn’t–for all their trauma, most of them actually lead pretty normative lives of marriage, children, employment–before flinging them back into the game once more. Bad enough having to live your fantasies; how much worse having to live the fantasies of the immature, overwrought teen you once were?

It helps, too, that the story acknowledges one of my longheld critiques of D&D-style fantasy, namely that people are nowhere near frightened enough of bards and enchanters. A powerful necromancer may send a zombie horde to enslave the kingdom, but a powerful bard can make them happy to be enslaved–and that is essentially the main character’s power, to tell others what to feel. (Intriguingly, they are also to all appearances a het man in the real world and a het woman in the game world. When asked about this by other characters, we are privy to their thoughts that they feel more free as Lady Ash, but they change the subject before we can learn much. Mind control is an extremely common fantasy among trans women, almost to the point of being an ingroup stereotype, I’m just saying.)

And yet despite all of that, there are still people who think they want to go to a fantasy world. Enough of them to keep isekai the latest obnoxiously big thing in anime, anyway. And in Die, we see them too: ultimately, the characters split between those who wish to escape the nightmare world of fantasy and those who, whether out of a sense of duty or because they’ve bought into the power fantasy aspect, want to stay longer.


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2 thoughts on “Retroactive Continuity: Die vol. 1: Fantasy Heartbreaker

  1. This review reminds me of Erfworld, an unfinished webcomic about a world that is very specifically a turn-based wargame, and how various people in it deal with living a world designed to demand war.

    Work on it abruptly ended due to a personal disaster for the author, the details of which were not announced at the time. I haven’t gone back to look at the website since.

  2. That’s got promise on the premise. Most of the time, when I see the portal fantasy to a game world kind of thing, the people who were changed spend as much time as possible trying to get back to that world, because it was the place where they were able to act out their power fantasies on others, instead of being relatively powerless in our world. One series that particularly sticks out is one where the table where the game is played on is magic and transports the other players into the world of the game, and a chair user very specifically wanted to go back because the barbarian-archetype character he played could walk.

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