King of RPGs written by Jason Thompson and drawn by Victor Hao

Posted by on February 19th, 2010 at 9:00 AM

Dey Rey; 234 pp., $10.99; Color, Softcover; ISBN: 978-0-345-51359-5

There are four brilliant, throwaway panels in Jason Thompson (writer) and Victor Hao (artist)’s King of RPGs. A SoCal hottie pokes her head into a dorm room, inquiring if the occupants want to head over to Tijuana to party. Deep in a nerdy discussion, they dismiss her, saying that she couldn’t possibly help with the problem at hand. To their surprise (and the readers’) she not only resolves it for them, but she reveals that she’ll have to cut her trip short, since she’s going to have to meet up with some people online to play World of Warfare. The blonde whipping out her “Meerkat Spellsinger” mask is unexpected, adorable — and slightly disturbing. If only the whole book had sharp insights like this, drawing attention to the fact that that gaming is undergoing a cultural shift very similar to comics, in that it’s mainstreaming among groups of people who in the recent past would have had little interest in it, it would have fulfilled my hopes, as a tabletop gamer myself, for this project.

However, as a gamer, I’m sensitive to the difficulties of trying to depict the experience of gaming in various media: I was curious to see what kind of narrative strategies Thompson would employ to overcome them.[1] As far as I can tell, there are two (and-a-half) ways to do it successfully: one is just to create a balls-out love letter to the game, whatever it might be, in which the cartoonist manages to infect readers with his or her own enthusiasm by skillfully depicting it as the most exciting thing on earth (in a Sequential Tart interview, Thompson cites Hikaru no Go, a shounen manga that inspired a Go craze in Japan,  as one of his influences): Hikaru no Go is an example of this approach. The other way to do it is to treat it as a catalyst for character development: the game itself is not the focus, but how the characters relate to it and through it and/or try to apply its rules to  real-life situations (the film Role Models, the Web series The Guild). The half-successful path is heavy use of in-jokes: however, even if the reader understands the references, the work tends to fall flat without elements of strategy one or strategy two. (This kind of in-jokiness translates itself best to the comic-strip format, I believe, because strips can be easily structured around gags, like Penny Arcade.)

As such, I was curious to as to how Thompson would execute his tale about Sheesh, an 18-year old who, down to his last chance because his addiction to an MMORPG has nearly ruined his life, becomes a sort of gamer savant: when his “dark side” asserts itself, he is the master of all games, but has no memory of his actions afterwards. Rounding out Thompson’s cast is Jen, an androgynous female who regards gaming as a chance to develop her writing skills, Mike, Sheesh’s retiring, concerned friend, and Theo, a manipulative game master who develops an adversarial friendship with Sheesh. In that same interview with Sequential Tart, Thompson wrote “King of RPGs is my comedy/adventure attempt to combine the conventions of Shonen Jump-style manga, like Hikaru no Go and Yu-Gi-Oh!, with tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons (and RPG comics like Knights of the Dinner Table, Order of the Stick and Penny Arcade).”

Unfortunately, the combination doesn’t really come off: like the gaming culture wars that Thompson so carefully details (tabletop vs. MMORPG, LARP vs. tabletop, cosplay vs. LARP, card games vs. tabletop), the result is discordant; essentially, the main story is too kiddish for the 30-and 40-somethings who crab about how Magic cards killed the game stores, and to those for whom the acronym “RPG” conjures up World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy probably don’t have much interest in how to create a balance between rewarding and challenging one’s player characters. Hao’s art isn’t up to the task of creating a seductive hypodiegetic world, one which would make the reader understand what all of the fuss is about; its blander than even the shounen art it echoes and therefore cannot provide the character nuance the story lacks, or conversely the larger-than-life characters that Thompson attempts to create. Ultimately, the Hikaru no Go/D&D, grounded-in-real-life-/exaggerated cartoony characters and situations mash-up that Thompson and Hao are striving for comes off a bit like a moment in the Web series The Guild (which pokes gentle fun at World of Warcraft players), in which two female videogamers excitedly meet, only to find out that one likes first-person shooters while the other likes MMORPGs — and then they haven’t anything to say to one another.

[1] Tucker Stone pinpoints the difficulty of depicting gaming in other media in his March 29th, 2009 “What, Scientifically, Does Iron Maiden Have to Do with Disappearing Female Aviators?” column (full disclosure: Tucker Stone and Jason Thompson freelance for the same site I do):

Licensed video game comics have to do something that nobody seems to want, which is take the character of the video game—the one that any player is used to treating as his or her own self, their second skin, their place in the world—and directing it without the user’s control. Isn’t that totally opposed to what the user wants? It’s one thing to see the film version of From Hell and be irritated that Johnny Depp is neither fat nor mustached—but when the main character of a story is someone that the reader is normally used to being in almost absolute moral and physical control of—it’s quite another.

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