Mentopolis, the latest season of actual play from Dimension 20, is a heady (pun intended), trope-fueled noir. The show’s 19th season invites us to explore an entire city housed within the mind of one man, Dr. Elias Hodge, a lonely pharmaceutical researcher who realizes the work he’s been doing is unethical. Having long had doubts about the morality of his research, Hodge follows his conscience and impulsively steals an important file. The fallout from this act of rebellion causes a violent chain reaction from the powers that be, including inside his own mind.
Though Dimension 20 is known for its highly genre-focused narratives, Mentopolis takes this to a new level. This season blends the art deco aesthetics of Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian sci-fi film Metropolis with the device of characterizing cognitive processes from Pixar’s Inside Out. Instead of Dungeons & Dragons, the game is played using a modified version of the rules-light Kids on Bikes system from Hunters Entertainment.
Hodge’s act of moral impulsivity is initiated by the wealthy heiress Imelda Pulse (Siobhan Thompson). She hires private investigator Hunch Curio (Mike Trapp) to tail newsie Conrad Schintz (Alex Song-Xia), who handed her a newspaper outside the speakeasy Sugah’s, run by Dan Fucks (Freddie Wong). Meanwhile, a larger conspiracy is in the works. The mayor of the city has hired The Fix (Hank Green) to “eliminate” Conrad’s subliminal moral messaging for being a distraction, and reporter A. Tension (Danielle Radford) is investigating the cover-up of a mysterious murder at Cerebell Pacific, the company that powers the city. The resulting story is a poignant meta-noir that examines the way systems of power coerce us into sacrificing our morals, happiness, and community to be better, more productive workers.
“I don’t exactly put the B in subtle when it comes to my work and my own political leanings,” game master Brennan Lee Mulligan said in a recent interview with Polygon.
In what brought these two seemingly disparate genres together, Mulligan explained that “on the personal psychological level and the larger political-economic level is the idea of unexamined systems. A lot is going on in any one person’s mind outside of what they are consciously choosing to think about or focus on. The societal issues of Mentopolis are themselves the deeply personal and individual issues of Elias Hodge.”
And, importantly, Hodge’s individual issues (loneliness, poor self-esteem, worker exploitation) are also our societal issues. While many of these conflicts are systemic and can only be solved in community, Mentopolis shows there are many subconscious factors at play in combating them.
“What does it take to have that moment where an individual chooses to organize? What does it mean to buck a system?” Mulligan said. “It’s not a neutral choice when gravity is already pushing you down that system’s channels [that have been] preselected for you.”
Mentopolis shows individual action can cause a communal domino effect. We see this most directly in Green’s character’s refusal to fulfill the mayor’s immoral request, but also indirectly through subtle sustained acts of moral resistance by Conrad. Though Conrad is the one trying to get people to notice the immorality of Hodge’s work, Mulligan said, “It was important to me that it’s not Conscience who makes the decision to grab the file, it’s Impulse. It’s the idea that: What has more power in Elias Hodge’s mind? Conscience is a scared little kid. But [Impulse is] this wealthy heiress who comes from an important family; she has the key.”
The framing of Mentopolis also forces viewers to reflect on how we relate to these various internal parts of our own minds, and who benefits from our self-suppression of those voices.
“There’s this puritanical idea [that] impulse has a negative connotation and virtue is always conscious and deliberate. I think that’s wrong and messed up. We have lots of beautiful, moral impulses. Impulse is an important part of the process to remind you things you’ve accepted are wrong. Occasionally it’s good to have that moment where your conscience, your moral self, and your sense of impulse go, I’ve got to act. It’s going to feel irrational. The system that has been designed to keep me compliant benefits from making moral actions feel irrational, but I have to do something.”
While we have only just organized the party by the end of the second episode (aired Aug. 16), Mulligan says viewers should expect more of these good impulses as the season progresses.
“There are choices made by the players in the last couple episodes of this story that are so beautiful and meaningful,” he said. “The player’s contributions to this are why we do tabletop games and why we do collaborative storytelling.”
The first episode of Mentopolis premiered Aug. 9 and is available on YouTube. The final episodes of the season can be viewed exclusively on Dropout.tv.