Monday, February 26, 2024

Dimension20’s New Noir Series ‘Mentopolis’ Is A Trope-Filled Triumph

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In Mentopolis, the 19th season of Dropout’s Dimension20 series, we find our Prefrontal PI’s exploring a dystopian noir city inside the mind of a socially isolated Elias Hodge.

By the end of the 2nd episode of Mentopolis (warning, spoilers ahead), we learn Hodge is a corporate pharmaceutical researcher who realizes looking into mind control might be a bad thing. The initial act of stealing an important research file leads to consequences internally (a mysterious murder at the switchboard inside Hodge’s mind) and externally (Hodge being defenestrated from an office building).

(from left to right) Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, and Hank Green on the set of Dimension 20's Metropolis
(from left to right) Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, and Hank Green on the set of Dimension 20’s Metropolis

Player Characters

In what has become his signature Dimension20 opening style, Lee Mulligan introduces us to the world and its machinations through individual character vignettes. Using noir archetypes, each of our six player characters have significantly different relationships to the power structures within the city, which correlate to Elias Hodges’ relationship to the power structures of our society.

Hunch Curio (Mike Trapp) – A curious Private Investigator for working-class people, who is hired onto the case by Imelda Pulse. Through his snooping, he finds a potential connection between the mob, the political powers in the city, and the murder that happened as the city’s power grid went out.

Imelda Pulse (Siobhan Thompson) – An impulsive old money heiress who uses her family’s key to the city to get Hodge to steal an important file. She doesn’t know why. She hired Hunch Curio to investigate a newsie who handed her a newspaper with the file on the front page.

Conrad Schinz (Alex Song-Xia) – A conscientious street urchin newsie who reorganizes The Daily Observer to put the stories he thinks are most important on the front cover as a personal act of daily moral resistance. He has a very cute, very sad best friend in his talking dog. Justin Fication.

The Fix (Hank Green) – A muscle-for-hire with a heart of gold and a thousand horrifying facts. He helps facilitate hyper fixation by eliminating distractions on behalf of the mayor. For the first time, he rejects a job when told to eliminate a child, Conrad. Oh yeah, and he supports an orphanage of abandoned passions and interests. 

Danny Fucks (Freddie Wong) – The hedonistic owner of Sugah’s, a club in the Pleasure Center red light district where he serves prohibited chemicals. He suffers frequent, but mainly performative, raids from the police.

Anastasia Tension (Danielle Radford) – Secretly a member of the Pulse family, A. Tension is a reporter from the Daily Observer investigating the coverup of a murdered worker at the synaptic switchboard. Her investigation leads her to this file, and quickly the realization that the company Elias Hodge works for has attacked him for attempting to go against them.

(from left to right) Brennan Lee Mulligan, Alex Song-Xia. Danielle Radford, and Mike Trapp on the set of Dimension 20's Metropolis
(from left to right) Brennan Lee Mulligan, Alex Song-Xia. Danielle Radford, and Mike Trapp on the set of Dimension 20’s Metropolis
Building Mentopolis

The art-deco noir world of Mentopolis comes directly from it’s titular inspiration, Metropolis Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopian anti-capitalist sci-fi opus. To use this backdrop, combined with the literally meta-cognitive archetypes of Pixar’s Inside Out this season of Dimension20 is nothing short of a triumph of tropes.

While designing the show’s setting, DM Brennan Lee Mulligan consulted with psychology professionals Dr. Megan Connell, and Raffael Boccamazzo, PsyD. There the design team got the advice to label things as their functions. This clear linear distinction between character and setting in this highly concept-driven show turns the normal functions of one man’s mind into a bustling city. 

Anatomical, biological, and chemical realities became the external world. Physical structures in the brain are turned into noir-ified locations, like the Occipital Station, or the city’s college, Hippo Campus. Neurotransmitters like oxytocin become commodities –- which the ruling class of Mentopolis has prohibited until Elias gets praise from his boss. Due to Hodge’s lack of physical or emotional connection, his job is the only thing he derives any sense of self-worth from.

That left cognitive functions as the active agents to populate this world, acting as archetypes of the conflicting parts within each of us.

Brennan Lee Mulligan behind a metallic contraption DM Screen on the set of Dimension20's Metropolis
(from left to right) Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, Hank Green and Brennan Lee Mulligan on the set of Dimension 20’s Metropolis
Dimension20’s Production Background

Due to production for this season overlapping with Dungeons and Drag Queens, the Dimension20 crew decided not to use battle sets this season – one of the driving forces behind using a noir-adapted version of Kids on Bikes’ rapid combat resolution system over the more tactical, combat-oriented mechanics of 5e.

Even without the minis and battle sets, the production value on Mentopolis is higher than ever.  The powerhouse production team led by Rick Perry, Raven Bartlett, and Casey McGeorge create a fully fleshed noir world within the dome. From the initial title sequence by TJ Gonzales, to delightful casting choices by Jessica Clemons, to the art-deco projection designers Derek Christiansen and Ruby O’Brien, endless tiny minutia elevate this season’s cinematic production above others.

If there’s anything I know about Dimension20, it’s that capitalism is going to be the villain. So, as an anti-capitalist nerd who had a brief stint as a film major in college, I was thrilled to see this season was paying homage to Metropolis. For those unfamiliar, Metropolis is a 1927 German Expressionist film made in the Weimer Republic (an era that is chillingly similar to our current climate). Without diving into the explicitly class-conscious nature of the film’s plot, I thought the timing of this season to be the first airing after the SAG-AFTRA strike began was the cherry on top of what I already expected to be a very pointed and very funny production.

And I was not disappointed.

This season creates an open-world cinematic narrative that is recognizably the inner workings of someone who has sold their soul to their employer. Every level of this show is an example of what makes D20 shine from production, to narrative design, to performance. Each of our seven cast members (three of whom are in the dome for the first time) collaborates seamlessly to create a fully realized world, through the lens of Inside Out as a screwball comedy noir. Which is…not a sentence I ever thought I’d write.

(from left to right) Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, Hank Green and Brennan Lee Mulligan on the set of Dimension 20's Metropolis
(from left to right) Siobhan Thompson, Freddie Wong, Hank Green and Brennan Lee Mulligan on the set of Dimension 20’s Metropolis

Siobhan’s high-camp performance of an old-Hollywood femme fatale would make Mae West cackle. When paired with Mike Trapp’s goofy off-brand Humphrey Bogart (who feels more like Roger Rabbit than Maltese Falcon), the duo immediately immerse us in the heightened reality of the season.

Danielle Radford’s reporter fast-talking, sharp-witted reporter in the tradition of films like His Girl Friday is the central driving engine of this narrative. Every interaction she has drives the plot further, which in a film would be the mark of good writing, but in Actual Play is the indication of a honed and gifted performer.

Though new to the dome, Green was in Wil Wheaton’s Titansgrave and utilizes his science communication background to his advantage. Using his vast wealth of knowledge, he creates horrifyingly poignant metaphors to either subdue his opponents into submission, or provide a moment of connection between characters.

Wong, a long time Youtuber, filmmaker, and co-creator of actual play Dungeons and Daddies; gives a strong performance as the pleasure-oriented Dan Fucks. While I do find myself cringing a bit on occasion, I think that’s more of a testament to his performance and my own relationship to what his character represents than the quality of Wong’s Performance. Nuance my friends, we can have it all.

Song-Xia gives a heartbreakingly hilarious performance as Elias Hodge’s neglected conscience. There’s something profoundly moving in the way they’ve chosen to play Conrad embodies the way world’s punishment of innocence and compassion manifests in self-punishment and justification for why that punishment is deserved.

My Predictions

While the very nature of actual play is inherently improvisational and unpredictable, I believe we’ll be diving a bit deeper into a few elements of the power structures of Mentopolis as The Big Guy plummets to the ground. Among the infinite possibilities, here’s one possible way I can see this going:

We move into bullet time as Elias Hodge’s life flashes before his eyes. The Prefrontal PI’s have the options to try and get the word out to have the various parts of the body work together to try and save him. At every turn, the powers that be (The Mayor, Cerebel Pacific, the Avarici family) are trying to stop them from alerting the public to their imminently dying plane- I mean body. Why? Probably profit.

We’ll just have to watch to find out.

The next episode of the six-episode season airs 8/23 at 7pm EST on Dropout.tv

Images courtesy of CH Media

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Author

  • Rowan Zeoli

    Rowan Zeoli is a journalist with a focus in tabletop games, actual play, gender, and revolutionary thought. You can find her work in Polygon, Autostraddle, Tripsitter, and more.

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