They Solved His Empathy Puzzle: The Ineffable Joy of The Adventure Zone Finale

It’s been a summer of endings for my favorite series. Always Human wrapped up its wlw slice-of-life cuteness in early June, Orphan Black finished in early August, and finally The Adventure Zone, whose humor got me through much of last year and this one, came to a close this past week. Though The Adventure Zone will continue, this particular adventure about Merle, Magnus, Taako, and a world of delightful NPCs is now over. Fittingly enough for this comedic fantasy-ish podcast, it ended with a finale which would, in other series, be considered extremely cliché. As other people on this blog know very well, I balk at the slightest hint of anything cheesy, but when I finished listening to this finale, I wasn’t rolling my eyes — I was happy. Somehow, through its 69 episodes (yes, 69, the sex number), The Adventure Zone boys had managed to construct a story in which a loving ending wasn’t only enjoyable, it was also practically required by the preceding narrative.

Massive spoilers for the entirety of The Adventure Zone below.

The Adventure Zone‘s curtains fell on an episode in which pretty much everyone got a happy, fulfilling ending. Though not every plotline was fully wrapped up, there wasn’t even a hint of bittersweetness in the ending — it was practically saccharine in its care for each character. Antagonists were defeated, protagonists were victorious, queer couples were resurrected and married in a way that, according to Tumblr, left Homestuck‘s Andrew Hussie flailing in the dust. And on both an in-game narrative level and a meta-gaming real-life level, all of this made sense.

In real life, The Adventure Zone started out as a one-off episode that the hosts, by their own admission, didn’t take seriously. The McElroy brothers, Justin, Travis, and Griffin, invited their dad Clint to play Dungeons & Dragons, a game which none of them knew particularly well. Griffin chose to be the DM, and he started by dumping his family into Lost Mine of Phandelver, a pre-written, fairly generic starter campaign, complete with its own pre-written character sheets that Justin and Clint chose from. At first, Justin (playing the aloof elven wizard Taako), Travis (playing the overenthusiastic human fighter Magnus) and Clint (playing the plant-loving dwarven cleric Merle) took turns one-upping each other with one-liners and disses. The group’s task was to collect the Grand Relics, seven items of immeasurable power, and our three players went about it in a way that suggested they were just in it for the ride. But a few episodes in, a funny thing happened: all of them fell in love with the story they were telling. Griffin created NPCs whom the players first bullied, then bonded with, and as Griffin expanded the starter world into a vast adventure spanning whole universes and realities, the others added to his story with character choices and actions that fleshed out and better informed his world.

In-universe, it’s later revealed that Merle, Magnus, and Taako are part of a crew from IPRE, a sort of fantasy NASA that set out to explore what was beyond their own planar system. With the help of a mysterious light they call the Light of Creation, IPRE creates a ship called the Starblaster, and our three protagonists and their crew (the NPCs Captain Davenport, Lucretia, Barry Bluejeans, and Taako’s twin sister Lup) take off — only to see, as soon as they’re in the air, their own home world devoured by a black opal cloud that Lucretia eventually names the Hunger. The IPRE crew flies from world to world for a hundred years, hoping to protect the Light of Creation and escape the Hunger, and finally end up on Faerûn, the world that most of the story takes place on. Though the crew is safe, the journey is not without its costs. As Taako says a year after they land on Faerûn,

We- I mean- I’m sorry, but I’ve been living a hundred years with me and one year with millions of people, interchangeable. I guess I just got to a point where… I was the one that I could focus on, because, everybody else that I ever met, aside from the six of you, were dust. They were just talking dust, okay, so I started worrying a lot more about me, because what was the fuckin’ point?

–from The Stolen Century, Ep 7

After their hundred year journey, they’ve completely stopped caring about anyone aside from the seven members of their crew, and it’s this lack of care that leads them to further disaster. To throw the Hunger off their trail, IPRE splits the Light of Creation into seven objects that came to be known as the Grand Relics, and Faerûn falls into an immense civil war over the possession of said Relics. Lucretia wants to re-collect the Relics and try a different method of hiding from the Hunger, but the other six outvote her, content to live in a war-torn planet if it meant they were safe from the Hunger. So Lucretia takes it upon herself to save her crewmates and the world — she erases everyone’s memory but her own, letting the Grand Relics fade from the world’s collective memory and thus stopping the war. Unfortunately, this means that even those bonds shared by the IPRE crew are gone, and neither the NPCs nor the player characters have any reason to care about anyone. That’s where the story begins for Merle, Magnus, and Taako. As Justin, Travis, and Clint began their D&D adventures as a joke, their characters also start out the story bitingly sarcastic, mocking and even stealing from each other as well as pretty much all of Griffin’s NPCs.

Each character slowly learns to care about their group and all the NPCs, but this character development wouldn’t be complete without a fitting literary foil. This brings us to the primary villain of The Adventure Zone, the world-devouring force known as the Hunger. During the Starblaster‘s hundred-year journey, the crew learns that they can talk to a physical manifestation of the Hunger who calls himself John. Merle, the point dwarf for these meetings, asks John what happened to make the Hunger into what it is today. John says,

John: We changed our entire plane into something new altogether. A single being, fueled by… discontentment. Searching for something bigger than this existence, regardless of the cost.

Griffin: He turns towards you and he says,

John: You call us the Hunger. That’s not entirely inaccurate. ‘Cause we are… hungry. But it would be more accurate to simply call us… Dissatisfaction.

–from The Stolen Century, Ep 4

In essence, the Hunger is made up of a whole plane of people so fueled by nihilism that they don’t see any point in caring about others, the same as the player characters at the start of their story. John even says earlier in the same episode that “friendship and love and happiness, they’re all so… small.” And it’s precisely because this story is set up in this way, with this enemy, that the ending is important.

In the finale, Daveport and Lucretia fly the Starblaster directly into the Hunger to cut it apart, and Merle, Taako, and Magnus have to face off against John one last time. They defeat the first version of John fairly easily, but the Final John is much harder to beat, and soon all three characters are unconscious. Then Merle sees something. It’s his god, Pan, who heals them all and sends them back into the battle. Griffin then introduces a new game mechanic called bond attacks. If the player rolls in a certain number range, they can summon an NPC to come and fight the Final John for them. This works excellently on both levels: Justin, Travis, and Clint get a chance to call on the NPCs they’ve come to love, and their characters also get a chance to prove that they’ve stopped thinking of people as “dust” and have started caring about and respecting them by summoning them. And on a narrative level, these bond attacks are much more than some deus ex machina: they’re the exact foil to the Hunger that the narrative requires. Just as all the people in John’s reality came together in their hatred, all of the people in Faerûn came together to support each other and defeat the Hunger.

The seventh object was love all along! (art via vnberry)

Even the few deaths in the TAZ finale support its happy ending. Deaths in other finales are often written in for some form of narrative tension, like in the Orphan Black finale, where many minor characters died unnecessarily to raise the stakes of the battle. Or deaths are used for some form of realism, like Harry Potter‘s Battle of Hogwarts, which killed off beloved minor characters like Lupin, Tonks, Fred Weasley, and even Harry’s pet owl Hedwig to show the true costs of war. Aside from its epilogue, though, the TAZ finale only had two deaths, and both were joyful and supportive. The NPC robot NO-3113 sacrificed herself to save the friends who’d given her a second chance, taking out a fourth of the Hunger’s forces in the process. NPC bard Johann was killed by the Hunger, but his story was broadcast across the world, calling its inhabitants to arms and inspiring them to win the battle. The rest of the characters are allowed to live a happy ending with the inhabitants of the world they’d once disdained. As Griffin says near the end of the last episode,

It was one of the happiest days of all of your lives, and even happier days were to come, because that was the world that you made. That was the ending you earned.

–from Story and Song, Ep 3

Because of the way the story has been written up until this point, this ending rings truer than other such finales. Naruto‘s protagonist spends a lot of time shouting at his enemies to inspire them to more loving heights, and this somehow works all the time, even when it’s nigh unbelievable. Harry Potter‘s protagonist asks Voldemort to show some remorse for his villainous actions despite Harry not being a particularly forgiving person; as selfless as this was, it couldn’t help coming off as a shoehorned-in hint that Harry was of course a Christ figure. But in TAZ, calls for redemption, requests for help, and the act of cooperation itself aren’t clichés or writing tropes. Rather, they’re the culmination of three years of character development — Merle, Magnus, and Taako started off as characters who wouldn’t hesitate to attack, belittle, and kill NPCs and became characters who rescued, supported, and worked with NPCs as well as with each other. The epilogue even features Taako willingly partnering with Ren on a business project and atoning for his past treatment of Angus McDonald; Merle becomes a responsible dad to his kids, Mavis and Mookie; and Magnus helps best friend Carey at her wedding and is finally reunited with his dead wife, Julia. In short, they all slowly learned to care as they faced off against an enemy who is the very antithesis of caring. As Merle says in an earlier conversation with John,

Whatever I do, I find joy in it. Because, at the end of the day, that’s all you got, is lookin’ back on the joy you had and the joy you found and the joy you gave other people.

–from The Stolen Century, Ep 4

Learning to care is the culmination of all their character arcs, and having all the characters come together in one last display of their bonds proves to be a fitting cap to both character development and plot narrative, creating a finale that’s emotionally fulfilling even without the dramatic deaths or angst of other series. It’s a hopepunk ending in a real world which is increasingly filled with cynicism and despair. Because we know what’s come before, we believe that Merle, Taako, Magnus, and all of the NPCs weren’t just gifted their happy ending on the clichéd, proverbial platter — they truly earned it. And that’s the real joy of The Adventure Zone!

Major thanks to the folks at TAZ Transcribed for their hard work transcribing all the episodes!

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5 thoughts on “They Solved His Empathy Puzzle: The Ineffable Joy of The Adventure Zone Finale

  1. This article sums up all of my feelings about the TAZ finale. I’ve loved this show for so long and nothing is more rewarding then seeing this ending so true to who the characters have become through their years of travel. Griffin did such a great job crafting this story and I can’t wait to see where they go from here! Ahhhhh reading your article has brought back all the feelings!!!!!!

  2. Thank you! Thank you so much! I loved the ending despite it being so cliché and didn’t know why. You just nailed it.

  3. I love this take, and I think that another layer in support of it is the player experiences of Clint, Travis and Justin. As I was listening to the epilogue, I spent some time thinking that the happiness and wrap-ups were kind of over the top, but then I realized that Griffin was giving his brothers and dad a chance to fully say goodbye to their own characters, which made it as much about the players and DM as it was about the audience. Usually I get frustrated when creators indulge themselves, but this was a lovely reminder that storytellers can get as attached to their stuff as anyone, and in a collaborative setting like D&D, everyone can help each other resolve and let go.

  4. Pingback: A Short Annotated List of Hopeful Media | Tiffany Sostar

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