No blog post this week. I'm too busy gaming. (And also everything else on my to-do list that's building up while I'm gaming...)
Laura K Plays 1: Embarrassing Games / Embarrassment
Laura Knetzger’s video game comics were and are hugely influential to me and my understanding of both mediums. I feel lucky enough to say Laura is a friend and this long blog post is a tribute to the inspiration she's provided to me as a (in the most grating of terms) "comics senpai". It feels like this ongoing strip never quite got the critical praise owed to it besides very nice Twitter comments and, far be it from a deep dive, this post can at least illuminate its virtues. You can read all of Laura K Plays at medium.com/@LauraKnetzger.
In her first entry, Knetzger reflects on the personal impacts of the gaming experience. Her color palette is initially overwhelming to demonstrate the overwhelming effect of playing a massive game. She also uses a half-finished poem as a metaphor for the loss of words one has while talking about gaming experiences. It's far too hard to talk about love when you're experiencing it in that very moment, but reflection on that experience builds year after year. Nostalgic warmth continues as a thread she illuminates through the following works.
2 - Pokémon / Leveling Up
There's a symmetry between Pokémon and children leveling up that's explored in this strip. I certainly have developed as a human being alongside the Pokémon franchise. In fact the first time I felt the compulsion to read was so I could play Pokémon. Another kid on the bleachers of a high school basketball game let me play his copy of Pokémon Blue, but it was taken away because I messed up his game. I couldn't navigate without learning what the words meant.
There's a wonderful graphic that appears at the end of this strip. "An experience bar that can be filled in every direction" is reminiscent of Knetzger's depiction of the sea urchin in her genius collection of that name. I don’t know if it's an original concept, but Knetzger's depicted it originally and it lives in my head rent free.
3 - Final Fantasy IX / Memory
In this entry Knetzger uses the metaphor of a box of memories to define her experience of playing a video game and not remembering the sequence, slowing getting to zero items in the box. I know Laura worked for a toy company for awhile, which gives her metaphors a kind of crafted or 3-dimensional construction. To round it out, there's also a skillful use of impactful thumbnail illustrations employed to supplement this metaphor along the way.
I'll say Laura is the queen of metaphor, able to create these poetic connections that I feel most cartoonists don't attempt. It's not necessarily a lack of skill, but more a lack of poetic vocabulary in relationship to their understanding of the medium. There's not much financial encouragement for this kind of thinking either, with popular venues such as The Nib not interested in abstraction of concept beyond a person talking about how bad things are.
4 - Threads of Fate / Anger
Knetzger writes that her favorite time to play games is in the evening while it's raining. She's lucky she lives in the SeaTac area and its constant supply of precipitation. Idaho would be a poor gaming habitat for her.
Video games allow for a task completion escapism, which is why I turn to them again and again. Today alone I have 15 items on my to do list, which may or may not be completed by the end of the day. Yet in a video game you can defeat X number of a specific enemy, which then prompts a villager to hand you in-game currency, spells, or even friendship. How amazing is it in a video game to be recognized for your accomplishments? The final panel depicts that elusive feeling.
5 - Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time / Hope
The bright greenery Knetzger uses here is akin to her self-colored/painted Bug Boys work, with the higher saturated imagery of Ocarina of Time. She punctuates with pink throughout and settles on an autumnal shift at the end, using a desaturated palette as Link faces off against a Wolfos.
Knetzger makes the assertion that Link is no one special except for the fact that people believe he’s special. Nintendo games continuously play on this mechanic of involving the player as an active participant in rooting for the hero, whether it's as their guiding spirit or calling on the player at the controls for support in Earthbound. Knetzger’s participation in the game develops a simultaneous effort of saving the world for the in-game characters and also doing her best for people in her day-to-day life.
6 - Pokémon Super Mystery Dungeon / Help
Laura draws the most appealing fuzzy edged Pokémon. The Mystery Dungeon series seems to have a strange psychic effect on people who've played other games in the series. They are unused to playing as a Pokémon rather than caring for a Pokémon. At first Knetzger depicts herself as her Fennekin avatar. That representation drops off as she reasserts herself into the picture with Leafe the Snivey as her support, returning to a human/Pokémon relationship.
This compels Knetzger to talk about the splitting of parties (and the self) as one seeks help. In order to save one’s self, does one have to bifurcate? Laura depicts herself as a knight saving her young mage aspect at the closing of the comic. Yet earlier Knetzger depicts herself with devil horns to represent the evil aspects of her personality. There's just no end to the manifestations of the human spirit.
7 - Yo-Kai Watch / Presence
Remember when Yo-Kai Watch seemed poised to become the #2 Japanese monster franchise in the US instead of Digimon? Sadly it didn’t. Even though I never had a strong desire to engage with the series directly, I've liked the secondhand bits I’ve gotten.
Anyway, in this strip Knetzger depicts the lack of atunement one feels as they transition on to adulthood, shutting out smells and textures. The warm presence of tea reignited this for Knetzger and she zooms us in to environmental studies from the game and her own life.
“Don’t forget to feel”, she writes with dust motes floating in the air and light shining through the ceiling. The ability to truly observe dust motes requires to ability to have child-like presence, letting such a small thing hold your attention.
8 - Undertale / Shame
God I thought the cutaway layered sphere in this comic was impressive the first time I saw it, but now having played Undertale and seen the incorporation of so many elements, it’s masterful. The wonderful thing about this series is how it gives you these snippets that make you want the whole thing. This strip also reignited nostalgia for webcomics with gifs, a trend that felt like it was the future for a short time. I wonder if the growth of print publishing or the effort required killed that trend.
Selfishly I want an entire book of Laura K Plays Undertale/Deltarune comics. Seeing Alphys, Asgore, and Frisk for such quick glimpses made me want to see Laura draw all of the cast. (Maybe I should commission that.)
9 - Final Fantasy Tactics / Allegiance
“You fought and you fought, and what did you get?”
I struggle with games like Fire Emblem and Final Fantasy Tactics, because I hate the idea of a character or combatant being able to permanently die. Most of my tough Pokémon battles are spent on reviving, because I don’t like the idea of my little monsters getting the snot kicked out of them. The question Knetzger asks above is at the core of her musings on games. As we watch these flickering lights on our screens, delivered to us through circuits and computer chips, what are we getting out of the whole deal?
There is the risk of our spent time, which adds stakes to these interactions. Yet why is play so important to us that we amuse ourselves with fake people? In the final panel, the splatter of blood in the ruin provides a clue. A fear of death compels the desire to live in all the ways that our flesh and blood bodies may not allow.
10 - Final Fantasy X-2 / Reinvention
It was at this point I realized the high percentage of the comics in this series that were about Final Fantasy, which I’ve never seriously played. Maybe I skimmed these entires as they were released for that reason and that's why they're much foggier to me. My only experience with this specific game is the AMV uploads on Youtube set to pop music in the mid oughts. How do you tell kids these days that the only way to listen to a lot of songs on YouTube in the early days was through anime and video game AMVs?
There’s a quality of mark making in this strip that sets Knetzger apart from her peers and lets on that she’s a skilled painter with traditional media too. Whereas many of her video game influenced peers like Mia Schwartz and Rory Frances operate with a strict specificity of line, Knetzger has always possessed a dabbled impressionist sensibility that comes to the fore every once in a blue moon. Her grass and water can be chunky, like an N64 cluster of polygons. Precise costume elements like straps and embroidery can be thick shapes. The mind is allowed to fill in what it thinks or knows these textures to be.
11 - Legend of Mana / Ambiguity
Here Knetzger reflects on a game that stands on the fringes in multiple areas, focusing throughout on the game’s environments rather than its coherent storytelling. The final panel is one of her best, as a giant floating tree hovers colorful forests littered with ruins. The color work is admirable, showing a different sensibility to the warm colors on Bug Boys provided by Lyle Lynd (which are wonderful in their own right). Knetzger on her own uses a deeper, darker, and hazier effect with strong atmospheric perspective. Since lately Knetzger’s focused on black and white lineart, a comic like this makes me wonder where her color storytelling could go.
12 - Breath of the Wild / Before and After
If there was ever a video game with BLKE (Big Laura Knetzger Energy) its Breath of the Wild. It's all its aspects: from the atmosphere to the leveling system to the simple fact that it’s a long haul.
There’s a single panel that sparks the most joy in this entry and maybe the entire series. It's a smiling korok with a stupid little expression on its face, holding blocky branches dotted with leaves. It's one of the clearest overlaps of this shape based style and the spirit of Bug Boys. It’s a drawing that’s so good that you might breeze right past. The rest of the comic widens its perspective, but that panel isolates the joy we search for in BOTW and Knetzger's work.
13 - Night in the Woods / Meltdown
This is an interesting entry in the series in that it is the only one that does not feature Knetzger as a participant, commentator, or narrator. Here she writes from the first person perspective of one of the characters from Night in the Woods, splicing in (I’m assuming) memorable depictions that relate to the game.
This is the first and only “fan comic” in the mix that seems to be operating solely within the world of the game discussed. It reminded me of Zac Gorman’s Magical Game Time comics, the best of which are his bittersweet Earthbound strips. There’s a playfulness and a conflict with the form she’s developed over 13 entries. It almost seems to indicate she's getting ready to wrap it up soon.
14 - Digimon World / Partnership
In this penultimate strip, Knetzger dives in once again into the nature of parasocial relationships with video game characters. She closes the comic with, “All of the love I showed my Digimon partners…I’ll never see it returned, but its out there. Swirling around in the Digital World.” In an age where love is an almost finite resource, sometimes you questions why you spend your love, time, and energy within these digital constructions. Knetzger introduces a transcendental spiritual aspect to the conversation, much in tune with the messages of the Digimon franchise. Much like Tolkien’s belief that storytelling is a mirroring of the divine’s attributes, is not loving within a fabricated microcosm an equally empathizing and divine action?
15 - “Games I, Uh, Actually Have Never Played?”
It's bittersweet coming to the end of this. Writing about this series has been a kind of daily devotional in my morning routine. In this last strip, Knetzger closes with thoughts on the experience of watching other people playing video games, from streamers to her partner. Laura K Plays is a fascinating extension of this somewhat recent form of game spectatorship. Thoughout the series she has played with varying degrees of artifice and fiction, but at the core is a personal love for video games and a continuously experimental process. I hope more and more people come to know this specific treasure through reading this. All indie comics publishers should duke it out for the rights to a print version, give Laura lots of money, and take mine.
Stage 1 - Game Philosophy and Hobby
Roger Caillois’ philosophies on the elements of gameplay have inspired so much of what I understand about game theory, not because they’ve stood the test of time, but that they’re so aspirational. Caillois proposed that games are:
Separate from the World
Governed by Rules
All of these have been challenged by recent developments like the notion of play to pay and the meta verse, which increasingly add socioeconomic ramifications to gaming, much like how athletics lives in the shadow of the high stakes of professional sports. There’s a nostalgia filter on this statement, but it seems like the concept of affordable play, hobbies, and free time are under attack more than ever by the oligarchs manipulating the global economy.
One of the silliest, yet most personally influential books in my library is a book Winston Churchill wrote called Painting as a Pastime. In the book he writes about the process of being a well rounded person and part of this is having hobbies; his was painting. But with a gig economy, play to pay, and the higher stakes of gaming in general, whether it be virtual or IRL, can gaming survive as one of modern culture’s beloved hobbies without perceived financial pressure? As much as I loved the Balance arc of The Adventure Zone, in its aftermath so many tabletop gaming sessions feel like profit generators that can be exploited through recording or documentation in some way. I myself have been victim of this, seeking clicks from fan art of my own campaigns.
An illustration produced while DM'ing a Monster of the Week campaign with Madeline McGrane, Brando Hughes, and Aaron King as players called Hebe, Idaho.
Stage 2 - Bean Ship
Meanwhile I am genuinely hopeful for the future of gaming as a social experience without financial expectations for playing. Playing Among Us appealed to me in the same way a German board game like Carcassone or Settlers of Catan does. It set parameters that allowed for a specific kind of social play I’ve also observed in jovial poker nights or the best tabletop RPG sessions. The goal is not so much "winning the game" for the average person (although there are certainly some competitive players) it's more about its continued repetition.
My Among Us-sona from the beginning of the pandemic saying my classic catchphrase.
The deception, conversational banter, and laughter shared over Discord servers was a saving grace of the earlier days of the pandemic. I met so many people I admired through playing, which felt like friend dating. None of it would have happened unless we manipulated our little beans around a 2000s era Flash game-esque game with Invader Zim-esque backgrounds. There’s a warmth to those nights which are now permanently tied in my mind to a certain period of the lockdown.
Stage 3 - Word Blocks
In recent months, my casual mobile play has been usurped by Wordle. The game's free once-a-day updates have the feeling of a newspaper crossword, but sped up in play time. There's also that nice, unique brain tingle at the end once you’ve solved the puzzle akin to a Professor Layton game. I love to see everyone’s daily outcomes and the commiseration over a shared challenge. The idea of an archive or bingeable version of the game seems imminent, but I hold on to the hope that the game can remain pure, wild, and free without losing its vibrancy or audience. For some reason, these little puzzles make me hopeful for gaming and the joy a tool like the internet can bring in the face of scams, pyramid schemes, and its oligarchs.
Checkpoint - Games I Played While Writing This:
FTL: Faster Than Light: I keep coming to this game as an absent minded experience while listening to podcasts. Anyone who can play on hard mode baffles my mind.