8 August, 2016
Like a lot of nerds, I watched Stranger Things on Netflix recently. Although I didn’t binge watch it in one go like some people, we did go through the episodes pretty quickly. But, the show got me thinking about a few topics that have been rolling around a bit. Figured I’d post about them today.
There will probably be a few minor spoilers about the show. Nothing I consider taking away anything from the show, and mostly stuff that you could pick up from the first episode, but people like to be warned about this type of thing.
We’ve seen some pining for the 80s in recent popular media. The book Ready Player One got a lot of reviews raving about it being a love letter to the 80s. In movies we saw Wreck-It Ralph which was a paean to the arcade games of the 80s. Now we have an original TV show set in the 80s and evoking the feel of horror movies from the 80s, with much more impressive production values. :)
Makes sense as people who grew up in the 80s are starting to hit middle age. A time when people start to look back and wish they could turn back time to the good ol’ days. I think the 80s were also a turning point in technology. It was a time when computers became more prevalent and we had very early, very primitive networking for people who could afford it. This was before the internet swept onto the scene in the 90s and radically changed how we communicate these days. The internet also brought a lot of rapid technological change that significantly sped up our lives. In this perspective, the 80s was the calm before the storm; a relatively slower-paced time. Not necessarily simple or slow in an absolute sense, but a time when things were accelerating.
Not that I think many of us would trade today for then. My significant other and I even joked when the sheriff called to get an address, “how will he find it without GPS?”
But, it will be interesting to see if this trend continues. And when the 90s become nostalgic for people.
When D&D was cool
Okay, maybe this is a stretch, since the kids in the center of the craziness of Stranger Things were the nerdy outcasts. But, they played D&D unabashedly. A lot of the crazy supernatural stuff was discussed in terms of D&D idioms. Spells, different planes of existence, etc.
The imagination that D&D encourages allowed the kids to grasp what was really going on, and grasp the severity of the situation better than some of the adults. Their curiosity, stoked by the game, kept them asking the right questions to puzzle things out. Issues of friendship and loyalty were in terms of the party and working together. All the good things tabletop fans have been talking about for years.
This ties in a bit to the 80s nostalgia, as that was when D&D was near its biggest peak in mainstream attention and popularity. Although, D&D is very popular today as well, particularly with adults. Likely the same adults who heard about the game in the 80s and never got into it.
Creative success is 90% persistence
The show is a huge hit. But, like a lot of creative work, it took some effort to get it there. According to interviews, the show was rejected many times before finding a home on Netflix. Despite being a huge hit and seeming like a no-brainer in retrospect, sometimes there is just not that vision present to see the potential.
This echoes countless other stories. J.K. Rowling had her first Harry Potter books rejected over and over before they made her a billionaire. Sometimes the secret to creative work is to persist. Stick with it, and eventually it might come to fruition. Of course, for every Rowling or Duffer Brothers, there’s someone laboring away on something that will never get wide acceptance. (And in some cases, maybe really shouldn’t.) So, you shouldn’t necessarily put all your eggs in one basket and all your hope on your creative vision. And, even if you do get some success, it can take a bit to find your stride afterward.
This story is unlikely to change, so if you want to be creative understand the lessons here and take them to heart.
Fear of the extradimensional unknown
The show borrowed a lot of elements from other works. As someone quipped somewhere (apologies for not remembering the source), it certainly was 80s inspired because people took a long time discussing if something supernatural was happening or not!
The concept of a “upside down” mirror image of the familiar world appears in other works. Perhaps the example I’m most familiar with is the Umbra from the tabletop RPG Werewolf: the Apocalypse. In the Umbra spirits wander around, affecting the real world. Some are helpful, though. And a bit theme of Werewolf was about taking care of these spirits and protecting the natural world from the malevolent ones. One could see Stranger Things as a post-Apocalypse tale where the Garou are wiped out and the humans have to deal with the malevolent spirits themselves.
It’s also interesting how this preys on the fear of the unknown. That which goes bump in the night. Again, the setting in the 80s first perfectly, as there’s no smartphone selfie images posted to social media with the monster lurking in the background for people to analyze. A person disappearing remains a little mysterious and people don’t necessarily jump to conclusions about the unexplained. The 80s were great for stoking fears of the unknown, though.
I’ve seen people post up Choose Your Own Adventure book covers for Stranger Things. Someone on my Google+ feed shared an image of a D&D type module using imagery from the show. People have talked about how to make a tabletop RPG out of it. I’m sure some savvy person is talking to them right now.
As for me, my mind went in a different direction. I was thinking about what if the “upside down” weren’t all terror and horror? What if there was another world next to ours, separate for most of the time with the occasional tear between worlds? What if there were a whole other reality?
What if you had a fey land on the other side? Stories about faerie rings and elfin kingdoms under hills were fleeting glimpses into that other reality. But, something happens, a tear joins the two worlds at some points. Maybe it’s not all bad. New people to meet and new places to trade with. Or, maybe there’s a lurking terror. Maybe the other side is trying to escape from something. Hiding it from our sight while they try to escape their lands.
The inhabitants would likely be called “elves”, but they might not fit the usual poncy, pointy-eared, dandelion eating stereotypes. Maybe they’re more like fantasy Dwarves, but called elves because dwarfism is a thing. They might use magic but not shun technology. Hell, that might be one of the big things they want to trade, to acquire their own technology particularly if they have some big bad they need to conquer. The late 80s TV show Alien Nation might provide a template for how a bunch of newcomers might be treated in the world.
Maybe “magic” as we read about in fantasy stories comes from the other side. The tears let it leak through to our world, and adepts can use the magic to work wonders. One might look at Shadowrun as inspiration here, where magic is introduced to our mundane world as the ebb an flow of magic change reality. But, magic is a limited resource. Maybe the inhabitants of the other side figure out a way to package it up and export it. Magic crystals that people who learn the right incantations can use to fuel those spells. Items that store spells to be used later. A lot of urban fantasy settings such as the Dresden Files or the World of Darkness (of which Werewolf: the Apocalypse was a part) would work well here, too, but with a bit less secrecy about all the things going on behind the scenes away from moral eyes.
This could make for an interesting tabletop RPG setting. Hmm….
Anyway, what are your thoughts about the show? Did you see it? Are you interested in seeing it? Does it inspire you in some way?