Mazes and Monsters (1982)

Hey, wouldn't it be amazing if all this money was real?
That is the single most predictable and BORING thing that anyone could ever say whilst playing Monopoly.
--The Young Ones, "Boring"

It seems like every time there's a national tragedy on the news like a school shooting, there's always some half-crazed, loudmouthed politician who is quick to blame violent TV shows and video games for corrupting the minds of our children and encouraging them to pick up a gun and blow someone's head off.

Back in the 70's, rock bands like Led Zeppelin, Styx and ELO were often accused of hiding backwards Satanic messages in their music.

Every once in a while a kid gets a hold of a library book that their lazy parents wouldn't want them looking at and then it's cries of "take this book off the shelves children shouldn't be reading this."

And of course, J. K. Rowling got an earful when ultra-conservative Americans started thinking that the Harry Potter books were a gateway to Satanism.

Apparently there are so many ways to screw up children these days.

It was the same with RPGs in the 1980s--misinformed parents back then thought games like Dungeons and Dragons would have their kids joining a cult or something.

Mazes and Monsters is a 1982 CBS made-for-TV movie based on a novel of the same name by author Rona Jaffe, which was among other similarly-themed works based off the real-life disappearance of one James D. Egbert III, a child prodigy and computer science student at Michigan State University. On August 15, 1979, Egbert disappeared from his dorm room and entered into the steam tunnels below campus in the first of several attempts to kill himself (he eventually did in 1980). Although at the time he was suffering from depression, stress and an addiction to drugs, initial investigations into his disappearance led to the misconception that his hobby of tabletop role-playing games was the cause, and of course the media took it and ran with it.

Thankfully, in these enlightened times, nobody of sound mind believes that playing RPGs leads to violence and suicide. These days we just assume that people who play them are fat, pasty-faced nerds with thick glasses, pale skin and high sugar intake who will probably die having never known the touch of a woman.

The paranoia is gone, but the negativity sadly persists.

"Obvious exits are north, south and Dennis. Also, you can't get ye flask."

So the movie begins with a police investigation at the entrance of a cave somewhere. An on-the-spot reporter explains to us all that whatever led to this sad, sordid state of affairs began with a seemingly innocent (which it probably was) Mazes and Monsters game played by a group of students at the fictitious Grant University.

Let's meet our foursome:

Chris Makepeace from Meatballs plays JayJay, a genius who skipped to college straight from high school. He acts like a clown at parties because he gets lonely and wants people to notice him. He also has a pet mynah bird, a mother who constantly redecorates his bedroom every time his back is turned, and an odd fixation with hats. (Seriously, he wears a different hat in every scene--kaiser helmet, cowboy hat, pilot's helmet, safari hat, Sherlock Holmes hat, construction worker's hard hat...)

Wendy Crewson, who would play the First Lady in Air Force One, is Kate, a brainy girl with a history of bad relationships, which she attributes to being too smart for the boys she meets. She wants to be a writer.

David Wallace plays Daniel, a boy for whom his parents have very high expectations. He wants to go to Grant U and make video games for a living, but his parents would prefer he go to MIT and get one of those big hi-tech jobs.

Your enablers, ladies and gentlemen.

And last but not least, in his first starring role fresh off his engagement with Bosom Buddies, Tom Hanks takes the lead role as Robbie, a former Mazes and Monsters player whose obsession with the game saw him flunk out of his old school. His mother drinks, his father is strict, they often get into fights, and years ago his older brother Hall, who had entertained thoughts about running away to New York City when they were kids, disappeared without a trace.

The foursome inevitably meets on their first day of college, and when they hear Robbie used to play M&M, they invite him to join them and complete their foursome. He refuses at first, saying that he's only here to study, but eventually caves to peer pressure.

He should be reading Shakespeare. He's a SWELL author.

For the next few scenes I begin to question if Robbie actually had an obsession with Mazes & Monsters in the first place. We see him playing the game perfectly normal-like and alternately going outside, studying and starting up a relationship with Kate. What part of this screams "tabletop RPG addict"? It looks to me like it's just another harmless hobby which he partakes in moderate, healthy doses while living a perfectly normal life outside the game. And they're telling me it made him flunk out of college?

In fact the only person I AM genuinely concerned with is JayJay, who suddenly feels lonely when Daniel has a test to study for and Robbie and Kate are having a moment together.

In fact, he feels so lonely he is contemplating suicide. Maybe THEN people would notice him. And maybe people would notice him more if he killed himself in the abandoned caves near campus.

Luckily, he has a change of heart when he discovers that the caves would make the perfect place for a kick-ass LIVE ACTION round of Mazes and Monsters. So with a little convincing, his friends agree and they have one.

It is at this point where Robbie, who up to now has been a perfectly rational human being, FINALLY begins to lapse. While they are in the caves, the party becomes separated and Robbie for some reason begins to hallucinate that a monster from the game is standing right in front of him. Which in his subsequent freak out he proceeds to slay.

From then on, Robbie continues to speak in character as Pardieu the holy man, plus to add to Robbie's recurring dreams about his missing brother he now sees a strange magical guy who urges him to go on a quest to find "The Two Towers" and reach "The Great Hall" who convinces him to spend all day in his dorm room drawing maps, break up with Kate to maintain his celibacy, and finally walk out of JayJay's Halloween dorm party without returning to his dorm room.

After a while Robbie appears to have dropped off the face of the earth, and his friends get worried, especially after inspecting his bedroom and finding the very nicely drawn maps in his room. They call the police and manage to report Robbie's disappearance to Detective Mayor-of-Amity-from-Jaws while keeping their real life RPG game in the cave a secret from him, which takes us back to the police investigation at the beginning of the film to let us know all that we've finally come full circle. Eventually, Robbie's confidence in Kate suddenly makes everything clear - he has wandered into New York City and plans to jump off one of the Two Towers, i.e. one of the World Trade Center buildings, so he can reunite with The Great Hall, i.e. his brother.

Right about now would probably be a good opportunity for a Lord of the Rings joke, but I'm not all that interested in Tolkien, so I don't really know any good ones.

By the time Robbie's friends make it to NYC and set up headquarters in JayJay's re-re-re-re-refurbished bedroom, Robbie has already reached the next stage of addiction--acts of shocking violence--by knifing a mugger in an alley under one of his hallucinations.

See, this is what Dungeons and Dragons does to you! It starts with one or two harmless games, then you get hooked! Next thing you know you start LARPing and talking in character, and then come the fixed ideas, the monstrous extravagances and emotional disturbances...you can't direct your thoughts...space expands, time slows down...you're unable to resist physical emotions! Next thing you know you're lying in a gutter with 20-sided dice up your nose murmuring about elves and hobbits and orcs and damage points! It's a worse drug than H. P. Lovecraft novels, Transformers and Magic: The Gathering COMBINED!

Anyway so as not to mince words, they manage to catch Robbie and snap him out of his reverie just as he's about to leap from the observation deck.

Three months later, Kate (now writing her novel about the four of them playing the game), JayJay (now in the director's program of the theater arts department) and Daniel (who I'm sure is...doing...stuff) pay Robbie a visit at his parents' house. Robbie, having reached the final stage of addiction--INCURABLE INSANITY--is now living peacefully in what he is convinced is an inn, his payment for room and board in the form of a "magic coin" that reappears at his bedside every morning, though he is undergoing therapy. His friends, secretly lamenting that the Robbie they knew and loved is no longer here, join him on one last Mazes and Monsters game.

"Gimme all your gold, your EXP and any items you might have or I'll kill you and take them off your dead body!"

Okay, here is my view of this issue:

There is nothing wrong with escapism. In moderate, healthy doses, a little getaway from reality every now and then is a good thing. It's especially true for teenagers--kids are a cocktail of emotions in their adolescent years, and while sources of ethics, morals and guidance are important, having an outlet for their aggression that doesn't hurt themselves or anybody else can be beneficial to their development. Besides, we already have V-chips, content ratings and responsible parenting; if we just go and regulate the crap out of everything free speech protects just because it MIGHT drive someone to commit acts of violence, that's just censorship. If you take Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft or any other pastime too seriously, outside of the simple hobbies that they are, then the problem isn't with the games, it's with YOU.

This is the message I CHOSE to derive from this movie. Robbie's descent into fantasy-induced madness was because of unresolved emotions after his brother's disappearance, not because of some silly game like Mazes and Monsters. His mother even tells us herself at the end of the film--he was already emotionally fragile, and the game was just an outlet. His friends are also examples--they all had issues, they played the game to escape reality, they knew it was just a game, and they all move on to bigger and better things. (If anything, I was more concerned with JayJay's hat fixation. Where is he GETTING them all?)

And Robbie too will move on to bigger and better things. Things like Apollo 13, Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan and the Toy Story movies.

Good thing too, because this movie is flat out ridiculous. Learning about the possible dangers of role-playing games from a film like Mazes and Monsters would be like watching Reefer Madness for its anti-drug message. An outdated product of a thankfully bygone media circus.

"Okay, but we can't stay too long. We've got an anime club meeting tonight."

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