At this weekend’s Magic: The Gathering Mythic Championship,pro Lee Shi Tian used his moment in the spotlight to draw attention to the protests in his hometown of Hong Kong.
Tian entered the tournament stage wearing red scarf over his face, indicating his support for the pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong. (Protesters in Hong Kong wear masks to obscure their identity from government surveillance and stay safe from tear gas.) Tian was also covering one of his eyes like an eye patch—another symbol of the resistance.
Running a highly aggressive red deck, Tian was one of the few top players in the tournament who swerved away from the dominant decks in the format: predominantly green and blue-based strategies dependent on ramping up to bigger creatures and effects. The popular deck type is so oppressive that some believe one of its key cards, Field of the Dead, will be banned today. Tian’s deck is only part of what made his win against Carlos Romao and entry into the Mythic Championship’s Top 8 so exciting:
In an emotional interview after his victory, Tian explained, “Life has been very tough in my hometown in Hong Kong.” Apparently overwhelmed with emotion, Tian added, “It feels so good to play as a free man!”
On October 8, Hearthstone publisher Blizzard suspendedHearthstone pro Chung “Blitzchung” Ng Wai after he voiced his support for Hong Kong on stream. Citing a Hearthstone esports rule, Blizzard also pulled his prize money. The punishment, which many consider overly harsh, spurred a huge backlash against Blizzard and resulted in a significant movement to boycott the company and its games.
Days later, Blizzard reduced Chung’s suspension from one year to six months and returned his prize money, but the damage was done: Fans are furiously suspending their subscriptions to Blizzard games, protests are being planned ahead of Blizzcon, and senators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ron Wyden penned a stern letter asking Blizzard to reverse their decision.
One other result of Blizzard’s punishment was popular Hearthstone caster Brian Kibler announcing he would no longer be involved in the digital card game’s Grandmasters competition. He said, “The heavy-handedness of it feels like someone insisted that Blizzard make an example of Blitzchung, not only to discourage others from similar acts in the future but also to appease those upset by the outburst itself.” Kibler, who made a name for himself as a top Magic : The Gathering player, casted the weekend’s Magic: The Gathering Mythic Tournament.
One tweet following the tournament suggested that Twitch mods for the tournament did not remove mentions of Hong Kong from chat, and Kotaku has reached out to the original source for verification of this. After his loss to pro Gabriel Nassif, Tian wrote on Twitter, “Thanks everyone supported me, Hong Kong, freedom of speech and democracy I saw the Twitch chat and I heard it. It has been a tough period for me but it also motivated me to shine brighter.”
Magic: The Gathering’s pro League just got its first female player. Jessica Estephan, who is from Australia, was also Magic: The Gathering’s first Grand Prix winner. Earlier this year, Kotaku reported on how publisher Wizards of the Coast wanted to make Magic less of a boys club—it looks like they’re keeping their word.
Japan’s Yuuya Watanabe, twice player of the year and a member of Magic’s Hall of Fame, was kicked out of Mythic Championship II in London over the weekend after judges found markings on the back of some of his cards.
During a deck check in Round 15 at Mythic Championship II, the judge staff noticed an issue with Yuuya Watanabe’s deck where the sleeves of his Urza’s Power Plants were marked in a specific way. Three Urza’s Mines and one Urza’s Tower had a different marking, and three Urza’s Towers and one Urza’s Mine also had a different marking. No other cards in the deck nor sideboard had any of these marks. The judge staff determined that the odds of this happening by accident were close to nonexistent, and disqualified Watanabe from the event.
This infraction will be further investigated by the MPL, according to Wizards of the Coast representatives.
In response to the disqualification, Watanabe tweeted that he didn’t realise the cards were in any altered state until judges pointed it out to him, before moving on to accept their decision and apologising to fans for letting them down.
Watanabe won Magic’s World Championship in 2012, was Player of the Year in 2009 and 2012, has seven Grand Prix victories, was inducted into the Hall of Game in 2016 and won the World Magic Cup in 2017 with Japan.
In the wake of allegations that Magic: The Gathering pro player Owen Turtenwald behaved inappropriately to female friends and fans, it appears he has been removed from publisher Wizards of the Coast’s budding esports league. Replacing him is Autumn Burchett, a talented, gender nonbinary player who won February’s Mythic Championship.
Late last month before the new Magic Pro League’s first $1 million tournament in Boston, which WoTC described as the “biggest Magic: The Gathering event of all time,” WoTC mysteriously announced they’d removed Turtenwald from the game with a brief tweet. WoTC offered no explanation, but in interviews with Kotaku, women who knew him had some inkling of why he would be removed. Three people told Kotaku that for years, Turtenwald exhibited predatory and unwanted sexual behavior toward female Magic players. The people we spoke to corroborated these claims with screenshots. One month later, WoTC still has not clarified why Turtenwald was removed from the tournament.
Today, Magic Esports’ Twitter account announced that streamer and top player Autumn Burchett will be joining the Pro League for its 2019 season. Turtenwald yesterday deleted the contents of his Twitter account and all references to the Pro League. He has also been removed from the MTGesports website’s roster of players. Turtenwald, Burchett, and WoTC did not respond to Kotaku’s request for comment by press time.
Burchett is a medium-scale streamer and co-host of a Magic podcast. They became widely known after February’s Mythic Championship, where they awed spectators with their ability to build, wield, and win with a hugely risky and notoriously difficult-to-play deck. After Burchett defeated their opponent in the finals, fans’ hearts melted as their friends rushed the stage to tackle-hug them.
WoTC is working hard to transform the image of their blockbuster card game’s fandom from “boys’ club” to “come as you are,” Kotaku reported last month. Mary Louke, one of the Magic players alleging that Turtenwald acted inappropriately toward her, says that while she is happy he was removed, she’s confused about why WoTC still has not made a statement on the incident. “Generally I’m frustrated with WoTC and how they’ve handled it,” she said in a Twitter DM.
Burchett is the first person in the league who isn’t a cis man. Pro players reportedly receive $75,000 in contracts a year. Citing the success of other top players who aren’t cisgender, straight white men, Burchett explained after their February victory, “It made things feel safer and better for everyone. If this even has a tenth of the impact that both of those occurrences had on me, I lose my words thinking about it.”
When-23-year-old Jess Estephan made history with her team as the first woman to win a Magic: The Gathering Grand Prix last year, press and the Wizards of the Coast mothership were thrilled. Grands Prix are the largest Magic tournaments in the world—over the course of three days, aspiring pros descend upon a convention hall to grind through a grueling Swiss bracket for cash prizes and promo cards. You’d think Estephan would be equally as elated—but that’s not how she described the first few days after her victory.
“After we won, I was not happy,” she wrote in a blog post for Magic community conclave Channel Fireball four months later. “I spent days having panic attacks and feeling terrified whenever a notification popped up on my phone. I turned my phone off to try and concentrate on work. I begged friends to stop showing me the hateful comments. I closed my DMs on Twitter and unfollowed people to revoke messaging privileges…I was called fat and ugly, with many iterations of both. I was told I didn’t deserve the attention and the win because I wasn’t a photogenic physical ideal. In other words, screw the hard work I’d put in—I wasn’t pretty enough to be good at a game I loved.”
The shock and trauma of the championship sent her into a doleful state—not eating or sleeping, and feeling far less confident than usual. What eventually rallied Estephan were the spare messages of encouragement from other women that share her dream. They reminded her that no matter what anyone else says, she’s the one with the Cup.
“It reminded me of why I’d started doing all of this in the first place. If I gave up now, they’d win,” continued Estephan. “On a personal level, I promised myself that I’d take this and become a better person too. At this point, I’d spent a lifetime trying to prove myself. To whom or what? To everyone who told me I couldn’t.”
Today, Estephan is undeterred. She’s inked a sponsorship deal to stream the free-to-play Magic The Gathering: Arena, Wizards of the Coast’s ambitious attempt to buy into the esports industry and supplant Hearthstone as Twitch’s card game du jour. But her fraught rise to fame is an effective symbol of what Wizards finds itself up against as we enter Magic’s 26th year as a commercial product: Estephan remains a stark minority in her field.
Simone Aiken, a lifelong Magic player, has a highly specific approach to the problem of increasing women’s participation in Magic tournaments: If more women play, more women will win.
Aiken’s approach has roots in a study the Royal Society published in 2009. Its conclusion is that the lack of female chess grandmasters can be almost entirely blamed on participation rates. If you plot the raw numbers of men and women competing in competitive chess on a bell curve, the stats shake out evenly independent of demographics. “In chess, there’s 16 men for every woman. That’s way better than Magic. We have 50 men for every woman,” she said, over the phone. “You’re not going to see very many women at the top of chess simply because the population is smaller. The study said that 96 percent [of the disparity] was completely explainable by relative numbers, as if you were taking left-handedness, or green eyes.”
It’s a revelation that shouldn’t come as a surprise unless you believe in the questionable phrenology of the superior Male Gamer Brain, but it’s given Aiken a concrete target: Increase the basic participation rates in Magic tournaments, and non-male winners will follow. Simple as that. It’s a reassuringly approachable formula.
So in 2017, she started Play It Forward, which could be reasonably described as a “Magic nonprofit.” Its praxis is simple; at every Grand Prix, Play It Forward offers a supplementary prize for women and nonbinary competitors: Of that group, the player who makes it the farthest takes home a custom-designed playmat and is immortalized on the Play It Forward website.
If the mechanics and metagaming of Magic aren’t keeping women out of the competitive scene, the blame likely falls on issues of social bias. Autumn Burchett, a nonbinary player who won the Mythic Championship 1 in Cleveland back in February, said via email that it’s always going to be an alienating experience to be one of the very few non-male players at a tournament. “This leads to women and non-binary people not going to competitive Magic events, which in turn makes it hard for them to start attending the next set of events when they see that the situation hasn’t improved at all,” they said. Burchett explained that this environment brings out unfortunate cultural deterrents.
“For example, I’ve heard stories of women being unable to find players they trust that they can share hotel rooms with because the men who they’d be sharing with have girlfriends that would be uncomfortable with this,” they continued. “The women players in this scenario can’t room with others as easily as a result and end up having to pay a lot more for accommodation, which presents an economic barrier that affects men less and means that women on average aren’t able to afford to attend as many tournaments. These sorts of barriers are really subtle and hidden until you’re actually in that position or know someone who has been.”
This is what Aiken is trying to change. She wants to counter those negative incentives with something that non-male players can get excited about the next time they’re at a weekend GP.
“Most of us are the best women players in our local communities, and we’re kind of used to being the best woman in the room. You get lazy. It’s a trap of low expectations. Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, Simone is amazing,’ and there’s this unspoken, ‘for a girl.’ You internalize it,” she said. “[Now] you’re motivated, you want to come out, because you want to get the playmat, or some are trying to get their second. You see huge changes. I hear people saying, ‘Before, I only went to one Grand Prix a year, and now I’m going to three or four.’ Even if we’re not getting new players, the best guys are going to 15 to 20 GPs. So we’re getting a larger population and greater participation.”
Of course those institutional problems shouldn’t distract from some of the more direct prejudices. Talk to any women in Magic, and they can recall a bad attitude, or a lecherous intention, that’s turned them off from the scene. Those experiences add up. It’s hard to fall in love with a game without a sense of solidarity from your practice partners, which can have a chilling effect on the global Magic competitive field.
Where demographics particularly swoon, explains Aiken, is in card games like poker and Magic. Not only is the environment in a card room less inviting than an open range, but a significant part of success in Magic is left up to chance. That opens the door to some uncharitable interpretations regardless of whether a woman wins or loses a match. “You can try your hardest, you can play perfectly, and you can still lose. And when you lose, and you’re the woman, you’re going to have a lot of people saying, ‘It’s not because mana screw happens, it’s because you’re bad at Magic,’” she said. “And when you win… You get people writing you nasty emails about how you totally lucked out.”
Teresa Pho, an aspiring Magic pro in Cincinnati who attended her first Grand Prix in 2017, cut to the root of these issues when I called her to ask if there’s anything specific about the competitive Magic infrastructure she’d like to see improved for women. In short, she’s looking for a role model.
“I think a lack of mentorship is a barrier for women,” said Pho. “I think it’s really hard for us to find other good, competitive players that want to see us grow and succeed and hit that really high-level place. That’s an area that’s really lacking.”
It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Demographic barriers keep women from getting started in competitive Magic, which means precious few women orbit to top-of-tournament brackets. When Pho got her start, there wasn’t the same bulwark of pros willing to take her under their wing as there is for male pros. The situation is likely to stay that way until the same traditions and institutions are established for female players—and with it remains the question of what should be done.
Elaine Chase, the vice president of esports at Wizards of the Coast, is aware of all these issues. Representation is a corporate priority, she said in a call, and the company has made a concerted effort to increase the diversity of the on-camera interview and analysis talent of Magic tournament broadcasts. “We saw our numbers go up in those events, more women playing,” she explained. “We looked at our competitive structures themselves, and we put more emphasis on the community gathering [around Grands Prix]. The Grand Prix tournament is still the showcase of the event that happens that weekend, but tons of people show up that don’t even play. They’re there to meet friends, or do side events and things like that. The more that women show up, the more it becomes normalized.”
Wizards has been trying to lay a groundwork for representation for at least the past few years. They even tapped two prominent women from the competitive scene, Jackie Lee and Melissa DeTora, to design and balance new cards. Those hirings were actually met with some mild, good-hearted abrasion from Magic players; two of the best women in the world, who exhibited the best chances for a non-male player to scale the competitive circuit, were plucked from organized play for good. (Chase understands that, but she reiterates how important it is to keep the internal culture of Wizards diverse.)
When I reached out to Estephan for comment over email, she was adamant that she’s been mostly satisfied with how the company has established its ethics.
“[Wizards] really dedicated themselves to increasing both visibility and representation within the community at higher levels of play, which is really important. Seeing women both on coverage and on commentary has been wonderful, and a personal driver in my engagement within the competitive scene,” she wrote. “It would be great to see more women involved in high-level Magic, and to see more women competing. I believe that the aforementioned visibility and representation is a key to increasing these numbers.”
However, that 32 men were invited to the Magic Pro League seemed incongruent with those ideals. For a game that’s been around for so long, it was strange that Wizards didn’t bridge the gender divide in one of their biggest competitive investments ever. Chase told me that this was a question she agonized over.
“It was very serious consideration. We had a lot of different approaches how to build that roster, but at the end of the day we decided to take the top-ranked players from last year. Starting from number one, and going down to 32,” she says. “It was very sad to us that there were no women in that list today. We’re trying to figure out what the MPL looks like next year. I very much want there to be women in next year’s MPL. I want there to be a system that encourages that kind of play. But for the very first time out, as we’re trying to transition from the tabletop world to the esports world, we thought it was important to take the top-ranked players.”
Her sentiment reminded me of what Estephan wrote in her blog post, about how being the center of attention—the first woman on the moon—was for more harrowing than it was rewarding. I brought the quandary to Chase: How worried was she about putting a woman in that same position?
“It was a key part of our decision making. We actually talked to a female Magic player as we were forming the MPL, if we could fit her in. If we could fit others in. How we could make that work,” continues Chase. “And ultimately, her feedback was, if we are going through a system where we’re picking number one to 32, and we have to dip down to number 200 on that list, it would deem her a grave disservice. It would be setting her up to be a target of you’re only here because. And it would derail all the positive things you’re trying to do. So ultimately, we moved away from it. It was tough for us.”
Aiken, who has committed an entire organization to fighting the raw statistical balance in Magic representation, shared the sentiment. As she works tirelessly to bring equity to competitive Magic, the number one thing she’s concerned with is not being cruel.
“It would depend on who they chose. It would vary wildly. I think one [woman player] would be a mistake. If you were going to do it, you’d want at least three,” she says. “It’s like, if I’m the only woman at a thing, and I top-8, that says one thing. If I’m the only woman and I hit the middle, that says another thing. If I’m the only woman and I finish at the bottom, that says another. If you do one, you’re putting intense pressure on her to represent all women. She has no cover. That’s going to degrade her happiness and her performance.”
Given what Estephan went through, it is perhaps unsurprising that she concurred: “It would have been met poorly by the community as a whole and made it only harder for competitive female players to be taken seriously.”
Wizards of the Coast is currently trying to fix the imbalance in other ways. At the forthcoming PAX East in April, the company will host the Mythic Invitational—pitting the MPL roster against a variety of invited streamers and personalities, including seven women. (One of them is Jess Estephan.) The reaction from the community was mixed. Some players were irked that spots in a tournament with a million dollar prize pool were being offered up to Twitch stars and casual players, rather than the people grinding away in the tournament slag mines. There were also some reports that the streamers in question had deactivated their socials to shield themselves from vitriol. Integration in the MPL, if and when it does happen, is going to be an uphill battle.
“The thing is, the vast majority of the Magic community shares the same ideals that Wizards of the Coast does. The vast majority of the community is awesome, and welcoming, and supportive,” says Chase. “When you move things out to the internet, when you have a community as large as Magic, you’re never going to get 100 percent of people that all believe the same thing. The problem with harassment is that it only takes a couple hundred.”
“To me, that’s the question of the human condition.”
Red Dead Redemption 2 is full of distractions. There’s poker, blackjack, and dominos to play. There are animals to hunt and collectibles to find. Many of these activities seem like ways to take your mind off the main story, and you can easily ignore them to focus on the game’s more pressing matters. But one piece of side content, the vaudeville show in Saint Denis, is more than just a distraction, and it’s worth stopping to watch.
Saint Denis is a city in Red Dead 2 modelled after New Orleans. It’s a contrast to the rest of the game’s wilderness, both visually—with its crowded streets and belching smokestacks—and narratively, symbolizing the changing world that’s making the lives of the game’s main ensemble, Dutch’s gang, obsolete. One of the city’s many landmarks is the Theatre Raleur, where protagonist Arthur Morgan can see a series of vaudeville acts over the course of several nights.
For a couple dollars, you can watch a magician catch a bullet in his teeth, a woman dance with a giant snake, a honky-tonk quartet, some can-can dancers, and more. Each act is beautifully animated, with motion-capture some professional performers. The night’s lineup lasts around 15 minutes, and the performers or the content of their acts change each time you go. On occasion the show also features special acts related to stranger missions you might encounter in the world.
The evening’s entertainment is hosted by a charming but self-effacing emcee who calls himself Aldridge T. Abbington. Though the acts themselves are engaging and dramatic, through Abbington’s framing and the personality of the performers, they become something more than a night on the town. In one act, simple magician’s trick becomes a story about far-off lands, fatherhood, and survival.
Red Dead 2’s vaudeville shows address many of the same themes as the game’s story, weaving the shows into the movements of the world outside the theater. They explore how hope and imagination can transform the drudgery and dangers of daily life into something worth savoring.
The stage shows are accurate for vaudeville acts at the time. In 1899, the year the game takes place, vaudeville was reinventing itself around the country as a classy form of entertainment, separate from burlesque shows or circus acts. The acts reached for theatrical legitimacy while still trying to appeal to a broad audience, so they often skirted the line between bawdy and high-minded. This shift changed things a lot for magicians. As author Jim Steinmeyer points out in his history of magic, <a rel="nofollow" data-amazonasin="B001O5CYJA" data-amazonsubtag="[t|link[p|1833099462[a|B001O5CYJA[au|5876237249236363128[b|kotaku[lt|text" onclick="window.ga('send', 'event', 'Commerce', 'kotaku – Red Dead Redemption 2’s Vaudeville Shows Are More Than Just An Impressive Diversion‘, ‘B001O5CYJA’);window.ga(‘unique.send’, ‘event’, ‘Commerce’, ‘kotaku – Red Dead Redemption 2’s Vaudeville Shows Are More Than Just An Impressive Diversion‘, ‘B001O5CYJA’);” data-amazontag=”kotakuamzn-20″ href=”https://www.amazon.com/dp/B001O5CYJA/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1&tag=kotakuamzn-20&ascsubtag=535fa9a66a7523d1d64771564a1ee98408652ddc”>Hiding the Elephant, vaudeville turned magicians from personalities with long acts into performers with a single hook, like card tricks or escapes. Vaudeville was meant to be at once elegant and refined, while also titillating and affordable enough to bring in someone as rough and tumble as Arthur Morgan.
The game’s vaudeville show features one magician, the escape artist Benjamin Lazarus. In his shows, Lazarus catches bullets in his teeth, vanishes from a locked box to reappear in the audience, and attempts to escape a straightjacket while he has a noose around his neck. Lazarus is a Houdini-esque figure—in fact, some of the specific feats Lazarus brags of, such as demanding the police lock him up so he can escape, are things Houdini was attempting in 1899 in an effort to transform himself from a minor theater performer into a legitimate star. While Houdini eventually became interested in grander magical pursuits than shocking audiences with escapes, Lazarus is singularly focused throwing himself against the boundaries of death. At the same time, he pushes his act away from the purely macabre by framing his feats as being about mortality itself. Lazarus spins stories that are chilling in their specificity:
Death. Madness. It is all around us.A beautiful wife of 14 years old suddenly dies of colic and pleurisy. A wealthy man goes mad and hacks his family to bits. Why? The mind is weak and yet it imprisons us all. Tonics and liquorskeep the spirit buoyant as we all suffer all kinds of maladies in this life. These days you are just as likely to die as a man of 12 years old as you are a man of 42 or more.
This framing connects Lazarus’ feats to the audience’s lives beyond the theater. His stories touch on things that his audience knows well. Arthur (and the player) do, too: Lazarus’ act features bullets and nooses, objects Arthur is all too familiar with. He defies these objects by catching the bullets, by escaping confinement. He uses them to show how, as he says at one point, “I, the great Benjamin Lazarus, will do what no man has ever done and cheat death! As if it were nothing.”
Despite his braggadocio, Lazarus’ tricks aren’t about his personal greatness. They’re about fear and agency, things Arthur and the rest of the audience struggle with daily. This is the promise of magic: familiar objects like cards and coins—or in this case, guns and steamer trunks—become vessels through which the performer tells an impossible story. Death is all around the show’s viewers, and though Lazarus claims to be the only one capable of cheating death, each of his spectators does it too, through money, power, community, or luck. Dutch’s gang cheats death through every complicated heist and ill-fated move to a new home. Dutch’s plans and Lazarus’ tricks both promise a transcendence of the ugly limits of the violence and death of Red Dead 2’s world. They don’t always succeed—Lazarus fails one of his tricks, and many members of Dutch’s gang die—but the effort feels transporting, even when it’s not successful.
Other acts also reinvent daily dangers. Abbington’s vaudeville show features a fire dancer named Antoinette Sanseverino and a snake charmer called The Mysterious Maya. Antoinette spins lit torches and swallows flames. Maya dances seductively with a huge snake or balances a sword on various parts of her body as she twirls. Both performers’ acts are set to winding, sensual music, and they wear revealing outfits. Antoinette, Abbington tells us, is from Colombia, “where they do not wear clothes,” and he says that he “can attest that she does emit fire from almost every orifice in her body.” Maya’s backstory is less clear: In one show Abbington says he met her on a steamer to Morocco, but he also says she’s from Lagras, a small town in the bayou not far from Saint Denis. Despite being more or less local, Maya’s backstory is sold as exotic: Abbington spins tales about her seducing alligators into pots and says, “If only Eve danced so well with her devil, maybe humanity would still live in a garden of innocent grandeur, rather than a pit of depravity and despair.” These stories are condescending and fetishistic, but they seem to be in service of adding some romance and mystery to the everyday dangers the performers flirt with. Fire and swamp predators are pretty familiar to Arthur and the rest of the audience. Getting attacked by an alligator in the swamp is a terrifying annoyance; Maya coming too close to a snake is breathtaking. Placed on a stage, wrapped in sexuality and an international backstory, these encounters become daring and romantic, even desirable.
Women aren’t just sexualized objects in the show, just as they play more complex roles in Red Dead 2’s society. The vaudeville show has a strongwoman, Hortensia, who rips phone books in half and has cement blocks broken over her stomach. She undermines gendered expectations of the time through her tattoos and boots, her grunts and flexing. Women play an awkward role in Dutch’s gang; they’re subservient in many instances, often tending to the daily needs of the men around them. In other moments, such as when Sadie proves herself against the Lemoyne Raiders after a fight with camp cook Pearson, or when Susan goes with Arthur to rescue Tilley, they prove themselves against the odds and against the expectations of their male companions. In the course of Arthur’s daily life, these moments are notable but fairly regular; the gang seems to have an understanding that women are just as capable as men, even if it sometimes causes clashes among gang members. Hortensia’s act both elevates and perverts this position—Hortensia’s strength is a spectacle, and she’s framed as an oddity whom Abbington says he found in Bavaria pulling a cart of manure. It also points out the game world’s gender gap specifically, turning women’s strength into something worth paying for. “What grand entertainment watching a reversal of the sexes,” Abbington says at the end of one of Hortensia’s acts, when she defeats a male challenger from the audience in a fight.
Abbington himself is perhaps the strongest force for the show’s elevation into more than just entertainment. His patter and presentation predisposes the audience to like the acts and to see them as more meaningful than they are. He’s unremarkable-looking, but he dresses in a bright red tuxedo jacket and top hat that would look gaudy but not out of place at a high society party. Abbington sells himself as a worldy rogue, spinning tales of the far-flung origins of his acts. He also shares stories of his lifelong love of the theater, which make him sound earnest, if not exactly professional. He tells us he’s “travelled the world seeking delights and amusements,” but these amusements also have uplifting qualities for the audience’s “emotional, spiritual, and psychological enhancement.” He introduces one evening’s acts with a benevolent explanation:
In an effort to bring this entertainment to even the poorest dreamer of dreams, I have determined the ticket price should be very low, and the show held without a profit to me… For it is blessing enough to bring these gifted artists to you.
Obviously Abbington isn’t actually providing these shows at a fiscal loss, and if he is it’s certainly not on purpose. But his patter frames the show as a meaningful experience earned through sacrifice for which the audience should feel grateful. This patina of sacrificing for others doesn’t feel all that different than gang leader Dutch’s air of put-upon dedication to his people. In Red Dead 2’s opening scenes, when Dutch praises the people the gang has lost, he says, “Now, if I could throw myself on the ground in their stead, I’d do it gladly.” It’s the same flair with which he offers himself up to the Pinkertons when they first come for the gang outside of Valentine. It’s a trick that predisposes his listeners to like him.
Abbington, like Dutch, needs the audience’s sympathy because he doesn’t have all that much to offer. Vaudeville isn’t high theater, and some of his acts don’t go well. To cover this up, he dresses the acts up in dreams and hope; he emphasizes their importance over what the audience might wish they were. He tells us “entertainment is a gift that will see you through the winter better than any packed larder or root cellar full of canned goods.” It’s the same as Dutch trying to feed the gang with plans, faith, and promises of a safe place somewhere out there in the wide world, even as things go increasingly wrong. “I’m nothing but a seeker,” Dutch explains himself at one point, and he constantly tries to recast the gang’s predicament as something more than the natural consequences for their crimes. At the end of the day, both Abbington and Dutch’s words are just showman’s flair to obscure reality, but they both dress up the mundane as something more transcendent.
Despite the liveliness and grandiosity with which Abbington introduces his shows, he bookends each night with a dark note. He tends to swerve dramatically into reminding the audience of their own mortality. “Each day is one less until our last, distraction is our greatest joy,” he says at one point. He ends another show by saying of the evening’s entertainments, “These are the bright spots in our lives, which often terminate without sense or meaning. We are deluded into assuming it was in any way interesting.” Yet another ends with him reminding us, “We flounder through the morass of humanity, with only bright moments like these before it all goes dim, and snuffs out in silence.”
The offhand aplomb with which these reminders are delivered seems to mock, or at least downplay, mortality. The contradiction between the seriousness and mundanity of death is reflected in Arthur’s life outside of the theater. A lot of people die in Red Dead 2, at Arthur’s hand or the hands of the game’s enemies. Arthur himself is an agent of life’s tendency to “terminate without sense or meaning,” as Abbington tells it. At any moment Arthur can massacre the occupants of a bank, train, or entire town. There are moments of levity, too. There are parties, romantic dates, fun drunken nights. The game’s grittiness and clunky survival mechanics emphasize these moments as bright spots against a dark backdrop. Abbington’s monologues, along with the vaudeville show’s acts, follow the same rhythm as Red Dead 2 itself: joy swerving into despair, then back again.
At one point in the game, Arthur can go on a date to the theater with Mary after helping her deal with her father’s gambling debts. The date is, as Abbington promises, a bright spot against an otherwise dark day, made all the more precious by Arthur and Mary’s awareness that their relationship is impossible. While watching The Mysterious Maya swirl around her snake, Arthur asks Mary, “Can you imagine doing that every day?” Mary replies, “I can’t think of anything worse.”
Maya’s act, like all the acts, are things Arthur can imagine doing every day, because he and his companions live them. He lives Benjamin Lazarus’ death-defying feats. He lives Maya and Antoinette’s flirtations with danger. He witnesses Hortensia’s strength.
And yet, with a bit of polish from Abbington and a spiffy costume, the vaudeville show makes life’s grim reality a thing of whimsy and surprise, far more successfully than Dutch ever manages to.
Some Magic: The Gathering fans are sending cards through Google Translate, with hilarious results.
Although I have dated not one but two men who made me sit through many long games of Magic, I still don’t understand how Magic: The Gathering is played. What I do understand is how funny it is to send different bits of text through Google Translate, and then translating them back into English. It’s something I started doing as a middle schooler with any old bit of random text, and now a few players are doing it with the descriptions on Magic cards.
The flavor text on Magic cards is kind of esoteric, so this experiment has yielded some funny results. Two players, Ajani and Sutekh94, have been putting cards through Google Translate manually since last year, using the hashtag #GoogleTranslatesMTG. Their methodology is generally “do it as many times as it takes to make it funny.” There’s also the Twitter account RosewattaStone which is a bot built to do the same thing. Other players have started to get in on the fun as well.
I am no closer to understanding Magic: The Gathering after reading these, but it did inject some joy into my Monday morning. How else would I learn that animals are very creative and influential, or that snacks can be cooked?