Our current Movie of the Month, the 1984 children’s action-thriller Cloak & Dagger, has a lot to say about the dangers of fantasy roleplay gaming, but it’s all very confused & self-conflicting. If nothing else, the film seems to be confused about what gaming culture even is, conflating tools like video game cartridges and 12-sided board game dice as if they belonged to the same activity. Additionally, it cannot decide whether it wants to scare parents about the dangers of fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or if it wants to promote the purchase of Atari cartridges like the one that gets its young tyke protagonist into a heap of trouble. Besides the film’s horrific eagerness to put children in life-threatening danger, I’d point to that self-conflicted messaging as one of the film’s major draws. In a key exchange in the first act, a father & son (Dabney Coleman & Henry Thomas) argue about the value of fantasy roleplaying and, in what’s rare for a children’s film from the era, both sides of the divide have a point – the father in pleading with his son to consider the practical realities of the world around him and the son in asking the father to participate in his gaming interests as a way of bonding. That well-balanced approach to the topic of fantasy roleplaying may be smart & nuanced, but it does dampen the novelty of Cloak & Dagger’s larger tendency to function as an alarmist siren to all parents everywhere that roleplay fantasy is corrupting their children’s minds. Thankfully, another early 80s gaming drama picked up the slack with a much less nuanced, raving lunatic screed against the dangers of D&D. And it even starred one of America’s most beloved celebrities.
The 1982 made-for-CBS melodrama Mazes & Monsters is a vision of what Cloak & Dagger would be like without dramatic nuance or tact. Based on a “true crime” novel about a real-life disappearance case where a fanatic D&D player committed suicide, the film deliberately skews logical cause & effect patterns to make RPGs out to be child-endangering killers. Mazes & Monsters opens with a news report explaining what fantasy roleplay gaming is and how it can directly lead to “loss of distinction between reality & fantasy, and possibly the loss of life in the process.” We’re then introduced to four college-age friends, each with deep-seated personal issues, who regular meet to play a fictional RPG called Mazes & Monsters when they should be focusing on their school work. Tom Hanks, in his first leading role, plays the most troubled of the foursome – a likely schizophrenic outsider haunted by the disappearance of his older brother. While the other players in his gaming circle have no trouble using the escapism of Mazes & Monsters to forget their personal issues (romantic, parental, school-related, or otherwise), Hanks’s fraying protagonist struggles with coming back down from the fantasy to return to normal life. He refuses to break character, hallucinates demons from the game in his real-life environment, and eventually runs off to NYC on a suicide mission to jump off The Twin Towers. His friends eventually call for help when they can’t stop him from doing a 9/11 to himself, but in the process feel compelled to lie about their involvement in the game, endangering him even further in their cautious self-preservation. Everything that touches the Mazes & Monsters game only leads to malady & misery.
The amusing thing about Mazes & Monsters is that it contradicts its own message just as much as Cloak & Dagger; it just seems to be entirely unaware that it’s doing so. The film shoots itself in the foot by foolishly swapping around the cause & effect of its alarmist fearmongering. The way the movie frames it, roleplaying games cause a psychological break with reality that generates a series of personal problems in the impressionable, weak-minded youngsters who succumb to their temptations of escapist fantasy. However, it also frames the Mazes & Monsters gamers as already-troubled youths who use the RPG lifestyle as a means of forming comraderie with like-minded peers. Tom Hanks’s troubled youth is already predisposed to schizophrenia & suicidal urges when he arrives to college; the social activity of roleplay gaming merely provides him with a safety net community who can call for proper medical attention when he needs it. Of course, this glorified Afternoon Special about the dangers of gaming misinterprets this dynamic to the opposite extreme and practically characterizes the RPG community as occultist freaks. Late night Mazes & Monsters sessions are candlelit as if they were witchy seances. Dragon-like demons (or at least hallucinations thereof) are summoned in condemned, life-threatening caves. Worst yet, the game is warned to even inspire your kids to run off to New York City, the biggest temple of sin since Sodom & Gomorrah. The depictions of fantasy roleplay gaming start off harmless & true enough – with college age nerds putting off studying for a Physics exam so they can roll 12-sided dice in a cramped dorm room. By the end of the film, however, it’s played with the authenticity & occult-fearing alarmism of a live-action adaptation of a Chick Tract.
As amusing as Mazes & Monsters’s alarmist rants about the otherworldly danger of roleplay fantasy gaming can be, and as adorable as it is to see Tom Hanks find his humble beginnings in a project so embarrassing in its central conceit, the movie is unfortunately too muted & slow-moving to recommend as an over-the-top novelty. It’s interesting as a comparison point to Cloak & Dagger (and the two films’ titles could be swapped with hardly anyone noticing), as it demonstrates what that superior film could have devolved into if it had fully committed to its scolding about the dangers of gaming. Cloak & Dagger‘s dual purpose as an advertisement for the flailing Atari 2600 console added an interesting, self-challenging layer to its anti-gaming moralism missing from Mazes & Monsters. Without it, that made-for- CBS melodrama only challenges its own message by missing the point entirely – advertising for roleplaying games as a source of community & comraderie in a misguided attempt to condemn the harmless activity for its supposed reality-distorting sorcery.