Reading “6: The Grind”

I have two answers to the not at all uncommon question of why I don’t have pets.  The first is the easy answer that I can give without risking deeper interrogation from folks who are unapologetically pet people: I’m allergic to cats and dogs.  It’s easy and straightforward and when you cite health reasons people tend to back off.  Occasionally someone might say, “but you love turtles, so why not get one of those?” and then I have to make vague excuses about living space or something similar.  I know and love lots of pet folks, but like with any fandom, enthusiasm for a thing can sometimes bleed into aggressive proselytization, and I am not about that life.

The second answer is much more honest: by my count I’ve directly or residually experienced the death of about eight cats and dogs.  My mother was a dog person, and she had a lot of them in her youth, and it was a pretty normal part of my growing up that I would periodically find her dogs dead in the back yard when I went to feed them.  Those are sort of background noise to the ones that died when I was in high school and college; I still vividly remember weeping in the hallway at the vet when I had to drive my father there with our dalmatian that he had decided to put down on a weekend visit to home.  I’ve been there to console my friends after they had to make the same decision with their own dog and cat at different times.  You take on a pet because you want the companionship, and if you’re not elderly you should expect that you will bury your companion.  I accepted a long time ago that you can’t avoid the grief when it comes to the people you love, but I’m not looking to go through that particular experience more than I absolutely must.

The purpose of this preamble should be apparent to anyone who has read Die #6.  Angela, the party’s rogue, needs to gather up enough Fair gold to sneak everyone out of Glass Town, but her attachment to her artificial dog Casey keeps pushing the needs too high.  She makes a decision, and at the end she’s effectively euthanized her companion.  It’s a robot inside a world that might not actually be real, but it still hurts something fierce.  Anyone who’s put a pet down gets it.

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These guys feel like the Platonic ideal of shocktroopers. (Cover by Stephanie Hans)

The cover for this issue features in place of a player character the forces of Eternal Prussia, the realm of Die that the party allowed to conquer Glass Town in the previous issue as part of their ploy to lure Sol out of hiding so they could try to end the game.  Eternal Prussia as a concept plays with the roots of tabletop role playing games as descended from war games of the nineteenth century and twists it with the automated sensibilities that seem to underscore Sol’s particular game world (anyone who has read the beta rules of Gillen’s Die RPG knows that the game’s background lore suggests an infinite number of pocket dimensions in which various versions of Die are situated).  They are both artificially intelligent creatures and mechanized puppets following a set script, and the cover’s depiction of a couple of infantry with their rust colored metal skulls next to a mechanized dragon drive that image home beautifully.

The focal character for the issue is Angela.  Gillen has touched on her briefly in previous issues, particularly to highlight how her Neo powers manifest in ways that evoke the behavior of addicts, but we’ve not spent a significant amount of time with her as the central character.  Up to this point she’s been mostly a foil for Ash’s own doubts prior to returning to the game and a device for getting the party into trouble.  Here we get nearly an entire issue that focuses on her backstory and motivations she brings to her time in Die.  To recap, Angela is going through a messy divorce, has had a very rocky career because of the vagaries of professional video game development, and is generally experiencing feelings of abandonment from every significant relationship in her life that are only compounded by her recent admission of her own bisexuality (in probably the most messy way possible).  We’ve known since the first issue that Angela’s life was the biggest apparent mess before she was pulled back into the game, and things like the particular vitriol surrounding her divorce proceedings lend special urgency to her need to get home.  Balancing all that urgency is the fact that Angela’s life in Die is infinitely simpler and she’s buoyed by the unconditional support of Casey, an artificial recreation of the dog that she lost just before Sol pulled everyone into the game the first time.

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Angela has been through some stuff. Being in Die seems like more of a respite for her than for some of the others, which makes her decision to try to get back particularly interesting. (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Surrounding the macro story of Angela’s slow acceptance that she’s going to have to let Casey go in order to get back to her mess of a life is an extended discussion of the life of game developers.  Before he was a comics writer, Gillen was a video games journalist, and he talks pretty extensively in the ending essay for this issue about how affected he was by the open secret of the terrible working conditions that game developers endure to get out works that are often underappreciated by consumers and disregarded by publishers if they don’t turn immediate profits.  Much of Angela’s story is designed to be an exemplar of that life with all the destabilizing effects it can have on folks’ personal lives.  Angela’s marriage falling apart is definitely due to a decision she makes, but the circumstances that lead to that decision are so far out of her control as someone just trying to make her career pay off even in a small way.  It’s fair to note that everything we learn in this issue is told from Angela’s perspective, but this is the first time we receive any context for how her life has gotten in the state it is; Dominic’s narration in the first issue is vaguely disapproving of his sister’s life because he hasn’t seen the realities she’s dealing with.

Given all of that, her dependence on Casey is totally understandable.  Pets are creatures that totally rely on us; they never walk away from us the way that a spouse or a child can in a moment of abject disappointment.  Casey is Angela’s rock, and despite that tiny bit of security, she ultimately chooses to let him go just for the chance of jumping back into the chaos.  It’s the most interesting of choices.

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Choices that don’t make a difference are how we learn the most about a person’s character. Given absolutely no exterior incentive, which choice would they prefer? (Artwork by Stephanie Hans, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Angela’s encounter with the Fair during this issue present an opportunity to tease her with a choice that will ultimately be meaningless from the Fair’s perspective.  They operate as odd amalgams of game programmers and artificial intelligences that are obsessed with duality.  To the Fair, Angela’s decision to give up Casey is ultimately irrelevant because chance denies her to opportunity to permanently trade him away.  The Fair wander off to whatever next thing that happens, and Angela is left with the realization that she’s made a choice but she’s going to have to carry out the consequences herself.  It’s one thing if an external force deprives you of a thing you want; then you at least understand it was just a thing you couldn’t have forever.  Instead, here we see her forced to make a choice she wouldn’t under different circumstances.  It’s all a cruel mirror of the end of her marriage, but played out in even more dire circumstances.  She could make the selfish choice, indulge in the thing that’s directly in front of her and offers her comfort in trying times, or she could let that go in exchange for the highly uncertain possibility of getting back to a thing that wasn’t much comfort in the first place.  This time she makes the selfless choice, and we’re left wondering if it will be worth it for her in the end.  We hope so, although there’s not much promised.

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