Black Widow Movie Review

I just came home from the cinema, and my head is buzzing with many thoughts about Marvel’s return to the big screen. But, before I get into it, I will have to put a big red: SPOILER WARNING. You’ve been warned. 

The MCU had been going strong since WandaVision graced our TV screens, but we had to wait a tiny bit longer for the return of the movies. When they first postponed Black Widow, I don’t think any of us thought that it would end up getting pushed back till the summer of 2021. Yet, here we are. 

There was a lot of speculation about what Black Widow would be about and where it would be on the timeline of events, but I don’t believe anyone guessed correctly I certainly didn’t. My theory was that Natasha is closed inside the Soul Stone and she would somehow relive her memories, but slowly she would realize what’s been going on. I was completely off track, which led to the very sad realization that this indeed was the last appearance of Scarlett Johansson in the MCU. This realization is due to the fact that Black Widow takes place between the events of Civil War and Infinity War when Natasha is on the run. 

At the beginning of the movie, we get a look into Natasha’s childhood with her father, mother, and little sister in Ohio. It sure seems idyllic until the eagle-eyed Marvel fans (aka me for example) start to chuckle. Natasha didn’t know who her parents were, and that is made clear throughout the MCU timeline. She is in fact very surprised when Red Skull reveals her father’s name to her in Endgame because she didn’t even know that. Therefore, we can already tell that something isn’t quite right in the scenario, even though it is nice to see a happy moment from our beloved Black Widow’s childhood, even if we soon find out that it was all an illusion. The people she treated as family betrayed her very early on and she and her little sister Yelena (Florence Pugh) are tossed back into the Red Room where the Widow training is happening. 

The movie fast forwards 21 years as Natasha is on the run from Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after the events of Civil War. This is where we also meet Yelena again as she is on a mission and as she overpowers the target, a red substance is thrown at her. But instead of turning into a mindless monster, (which is something one could expect in a situation like this), her head actually clears up and it turns out that ever since Natasha escaped they have used very successful mind-controlling chemicals on the next generation of Widows. Yelena gets rid of the tracking device that is inside her and soon the samples of the ‘cure’ (let’s call it that) end up in Natasha’s hands.

Yelena (Florence Pugh) Alexei (David Harbour) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson)

That’s the catalyst for the movie. It is so much more than just a superhero/action film from that point. Natasha has to deal with a lot. She goes from one broken family (The Avengers) back to another one only to find out that the famous Budapest events (referenced by her and Clint a lot) were all for nothing. It turns out that she had tried to kill the leader of the Red Room and the Widow program Dreykov (Ray Winstone) and her arch-nemesis had actually survived. 

Now before I get on with the review, I want to share a bit of a fun story that happened at this big reveal. I am from Hungary, and we've been waiting to find out what role our capital: Budapest, would play in the MCU since it was first mentioned in Avengers (2012). There was a line in the movie referring to events that probably aren’t funny to an international crowd, but the whole cinema here laughed out loud when it was said. Natasha says that after the bombing, which was supposed to take out Dreykov, she and Clint had to fight through the Hungarian Commando. We all laughed at this because TEK (the previously referred to Commandos) has quite a bad reputation here in Hungary because in a lot of cases they are deemed to be incompetent. So Natasha saying that they had to fight through them like it was a big deal made over 90 people laugh in the cinema even though I am sure they didn’t think of it as a source for laughter. 

Ok back to the review. 

Once Natasha realizes that what she did to close down her past and save other girls from the same fate was unsuccessful, a much darker thing comes back to haunt her. As it turns out, the day they tried to kill Dreykov they also killed his daughter because as she put it, “There was no other way.” It’s clear very early on that this decision never left Natasha’s mind, and that she has struggled to come to terms with what she did. To find forgiveness. It sits heavily on the film the same way their “parents” betrayals do. 

Natasha Romanoff

They soon figure out that in order to find the Red Room they have to get the help of their fake parents. First, they have to save Alexei (David Harbour) from prison - he was betrayed and put behind bars by Dreykov - and get to Melina (Rachel Weisz) who still works for the Red Room and is responsible for the chemical compound that controls the widows. Once they arrive at Melina’s home we get to witness one of the most important scenes in the movie as the two girls’ trauma catches up with them. I have to admit that I was unsure about Florence Pugh’s casting as Yelena up until this moment in the movie. Here she proved it once and for all that she is pretty great. It broke my heart a little as it also showed us that Natasha’s past has been darker than we could have imagined. Yelena represented the child who was unaware that nothing she saw or experienced during their three years as a “family” was true, while Natasha was old enough to know that it was nothing more than an act. Both of their hurt was real and deep-cutting. 

I really liked the more quiet parts of Black Widow. It once and for all proved that one of the original six deserved to have her own film and we still had a lot to learn about her. She is smart, strong, brave, and everything that’s worth looking up to. It definitely gave me more strength to keep going on my journey and do everything I can to one day be part of the MCU. 

I know a lot of people complained about Taskmaster being a letdown and while I do understand them, I do not agree with them. The tragedy of this character, and showing the true evil of the story is simply fantastic. Taskmaster is none other than Antonia Dreykov (Olga Kurylenko) aka the daughter of Dreykov, who was used by her own father the same way other girls were. He was controlling the mind of his daughter without any remorse. He even has the audacity to thank Natasha for giving him one of his greatest weapons. 

Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko)

The movie's conclusion is amazing. Natasha not only finds forgiveness for what she did, but she also realizes that there’s still hope for her and her other family. They set Yelena up as our next Black Widow flawlessly and Natasha shows up at the end of the movie the way she looked in Infinity War, which gives a bittersweet touch to the whole story. 

I was ugly crying once the realization fully set in that this was our last time with Scarlett. She has been such a highlight of this Universe and she was an example for girls to look up to. She has been and always will be an inspiration. 

And the reason I will forgive Black Widow for coming out this “late” in the game lies in the end credit scene. 

Yelena goes to Natasha’s grave (with the dog she mentioned she always wanted) and that’s when FREAKING VALENTINA (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) to whom we were introduced in The Falcon and The Winter Soldier shows up to give Yelena her next target. It is none other than the murderer of her sister: Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Now, my theory with this big-ass surprise, in the end, is that we will meet Yelena again sooner than we thought in the upcoming Hawkeye series. I mean, it would make sense, but I also know that there’s no point in creating theories when it comes to Marvel because they like to mess with us a little. 

Julia Louis-Dreyfus in The Falcon And The Winter Soldier

All in all, Black Widow was a perfect entry in the MCU. Sure, we could have gotten it sooner, but to be honest I kind of don’t mind getting it like this. They did a wonderful job with tying the knots together,  and Scarlett’s last appearance couldn’t have been any better, even if it was bittersweet in the end. I sure will miss her. 

Thank you Black Widow. 

Thank you Marvel. 

I am sending my therapy bill. 

What did you think of the movie? Leave a comment below.

Talking Zombies, Hobbits, and Mocap with Nicole Tompkins

Over the past few decades, gaming has evolved from readable text to 8-bit sprites to a cinematic experience. Video game titles now have the same or more depth than a Hollywood Blockbuster. Nicole Tompkins has taken part in the evolution of performance capture or the recording of an actor’s movement, voice, and facial expressions to bring an animated or virtual character to life. Her first role as Idril in Middle Earth: Shadow of War was just the starting point. She also has taken on the lead role of Jill Valentine in the Resident Evil 3 Remake. And currently as Daniela Dimetrescu and Elena in the new Resident Evil Village.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Nicole to talk about her career in performance capture, gaming, and maybe we played a game or two to pass the time!

Can you tell us about your acting journey from your beginnings in Middle Earth: Shadow of War to now?

I did a lot of film and TV and started to do voice-over work because my agent told me I am good at doing this. I like to be in the booth and be a silly actor. I submitted 4 lines for a role of a 16-year-old British girl for some sort of fantasy game for an audition. I got a callback afterward in the Warner Brothers lot and thought, “This is the coolest thing ever!” Little did I know it was Middle Earth: Shadow of War.  This was my first time doing motion capture. It was a cool experience because I was surrounded by great people to work within the gaming world on the acting side. And I had a great introduction to how the gaming world can be.

I went back to more movie gigs and got the Jill Valentine role in the Resident Evil 3 Remake. I went through the casting process and found myself in Tokyo playing a lead in a Resident Evil game which was a very cool jump. I had so much fun and had the time of my life getting to do that working with Capcom. 

The cinematics and motion capture director for Resident Evil Village, Steve Kniehibly, approached me to be in Village since I worked with him previously on the Resident Evil 3 Remake. And he also brought in all the actors who were previously in Resident Evil Biohazard, and Capcom agreed with bringing them in. We came in and worked hard to make something new. And here we are, at the Village, and it was this chaos of an amazingly huge cast of interesting characters, and I am grateful to be in the middle of it. That’s what’s happening in the game world and in my life right now.

Tell the Replayers about a career highlight that you’re proud of from day one to wrap.

I have so many! Definitely being part of the Resident Evil world at all is a massive career highlight. I get to work with such a great company and interact with such an incredible fanbase. I am surrounded by so many talented and inspiring people working in both Resident Evil 3 and Village. It’s always the people that you’re with that define your experience working on a project. 

And everyone who works there wants to be there. That’s one of the favorite things I love about working in video games in general. The crew is a fan of the Resident Evil games, the video game industry, and love what they do. They are passionate about what they do, and there’s nothing like that!

What is an obstacle that you’ve come across in your acting career?

I say this all the time when people ask me for acting advice: You get so many No’s in the industry, and you learn to not take it personally. You will eventually get a yes if you’re meant to do this and you’re passionate about it. It’s never personal. They never are. And that’s interesting since any artist knows how personal their work is to them. And yet, the decisions behind the scenes are never personal. It takes a lot of persistence. 

I think one of the challenges I have to overcome is to continue to show up authentically and with optimism, passion, and excitement, knowing there’s a chance you will, or you won’t get the job. Even when you do get the job, the project may even not see the light of day. Projects shut down for all sorts of reasons. So knowing there’s always a unique challenge, roadblock, or setback and just continuing to show up alive and not letting those obstacles bring you down or be cynical. Let it continue to fuel you and what it is you want to do and strengthen you.

Who is an inspiration or an influence in your acting career that you’ve worked with?

I feel like everyone I’ve ever worked with grows on me in some way, and I love that about acting in general. I can point to any person that I’ve worked with and know what I’ve learned from them or what excites me.

I have so much love and appreciation for Jeff Scheine, who played Carlos Olivera in the Resident Evil 3 Remake, and Chris Redfield in Resident Evil Village. He’s such a talented human. We have a lot of mutual respect for each other and enjoyed working together. We have similar values of approaching the craft and in life: showing up with as much humility as possible and always doing your absolute best. I respect him a lot, and there’s a lot of ways that he inspires me.

I am also super inspired by Laura Bailey, Troy Baker, Travis Willingham, and Ike Amade on Shadow of War. I was super young at the time, and they just took me under their wing and taught me how to fly. And I did! Troy also directed and acted in Shadow of War and a lot of that dynamic inspired me and that’s super cool! These people are incredibly talented. 

You can’t look at someone like Laura Bailey with her career, personality, and the way she shows up and not be inspired by her. She is also one of the women in video games that made me realize that this is a career that can be rewarding. And more recently, Maggie Robertson, who plays Lady Dimetrescu in Village. I love her so much! There are so many people that inspire me. And that is just on the acting side!

There are producers, writers, producers, booth directors, and all the behind-the-scenes people. And it always takes a village behind any person that has any success or performance that you like. There are so many people that have contributed to who and where I am, and I am indebted forever to just look back and nod and be excited to watch everyone else’s success in all sorts of areas in life. That’s one of the best parts of doing this.

We took a little intermission and played a game of word association. I used words and characters that are associated with the Resident Evil franchise and here is what Nicole says the first thing that comes to mind:

Zombie

Apocalypse

Nemesis

Neil (Newbon)

Leon

Nick Apostolides!

Ethan

Hands (with a giggle)

Daniela

Having a good day!

Back to our regularly scheduled article!

How are we doing so far? How am I doing so far?

Dandy! We’re doing great! We’re chilling so far!

We dabbled into performance capture a little. What’s been that experience so far compared to traditional film, stage, and screen?

Performance capture is a beautiful marriage between film and theater in many ways. There’s physicality involved. You end up doing long takes or full scenes because we’re not waiting to move the camera or get a specific angle because any take could be your close-up. In so many ways it’s like theater. You’re doing a lot of pretending. You’re with objects that don’t look the way that they will. It takes a lot of imagination. 

Simultaneously, there’s something incredibly cinematic and technical about performance capture. We’re wearing an incredible amount of technology on our actual persons. And there are specific marks and places you end up having to hit. Or ways to look or be there at this moment. So timing becomes a thing. Starting and stopping positions. Doing your T-Pose before and after a scene. Much like a film set, it can get really technical when it comes to how it operates 

I have been very lucky to just be in a lot of sets that value the story enough to feel like we’re actually making a movie. Every performance is important and has this grounded naturalism. These games are turning into playable movies with incredible cinematics and emotionally driven stories and concepts. And I think it’s really cool because it gives us that much more material and depth to work with and dig into.

Check out the video below on how a performance capture session can turn into a cutscene in a video game-like in Resident Evil Village:

What are some memorable moments to share when you did performance capture?

I definitely have some fond memories of when we do our ROM (Range of Motion) in the morning. That is when I get my suit, connect the dots to our character, and track all the dots for the day on our person. We had some ROMs where we would end up doing a little dance to get the dots all lined up. There’s music on, and all of us do the motions at the same time. It’s a hilarious adventure of joy and silliness of us all in these wetsuits with velcro everywhere just jamming out to some intense song.

That and freaking mocap heels are a thing! There are always mocap shoes. But we had mocap heels because walking on heels changes how I physically walk. So for Daniela, Alcina, Cassandra, and Bela Dimetrescu, who are the witches in Village, we had to wear heels for the whole day. One because they’re very tall, and two, there is an in-dresses kind of movement. And that was kinda fun. My feet are done by the end of the day for sure! I would be like, “All right, cool. Kick ‘em off. I’m done! I’m out!”

Tell us about how you approached the role of Daniela as you do your performance capture during Village.

I felt like we were deciding on the day what these characters were going to sound like and how they walked. These ladies are very flirtatious and intentional on the part of the writers. For Daniela, it was pretty easy. She’s clearly kind of disconnected from reality, and like I said: She’s having a good day! She’s incredibly flirtatious and wants the player’s attention, not desperate for it.

There were days where I coordinated with Bekka Prewitt, who plays Bela, and Jeanette Moss, who played Cassandra. We wanted to show up as individuals but also as a cohesive thing because they look similar. A lot of people got them mixed up based on how they looked. But we knew our subtle character differences, and we had room to work with. Along with Maggie Robertson as Alcina, the head of the house, it came together as a cohesive unit. In the game itself, the team did a fantastic job of adding Easter eggs throughout the entire castle that teaches the player more and more about who they have been throughout time.

You’ve been part of legacy franchises like The Lord of the Rings and now Resident Evil, is there a wish list for future roles or a particular studio that you would like to work with?

Let’s be real: I would like to work with Naughty Dog! I played all of the Uncharted series and The Last of Us. They are just so groundbreaking in everything they do. They have fantastic talent, artists, and people. They find ways of evolving their games and create compelling stories and, specifically, interesting characters. Whether it’s a light, levity-filled character like Nathan Drake or super serious like Ellie, you can’t look at a character in a Naughty Dog game and not say, “That’s interesting.” The worlds they create are deep, layered, and emotional as well as entertaining. They’re a fantastic studio and I would love to hang out with some close people at some point.

I would also love to work with new, original IP’s. It’s fun how original IP’s start, and there’s something compelling about it like The Last of Us, Horizon Zero Dawn, and even Control. I love how a new world is created that is unique. I have had the pleasure of working on legendary IP’s. And there is something so satisfying about that because I came from an established world and fanbase. I throw my best at it and be like, “Hey, this is my version of this thing!” And, thankfully, I am warmly welcomed by everyone who enjoyed those games. But as far as being part of a new IP, that would be satisfying and cool for its own reasons. There’s something in my future and I don’t even know what it is yet!

Which franchise made you nerd out more: Lord of the Rings or Resident Evil?

Jill Valentine is the coolest role I’ve had the joy of playing, let's be honest. However, I will throw it to Shadow of War. There’s nothing like walking in your first video game role being a Triple-A Lord of the Rings game. I was like, “I’m sorry, what? That sounds amazing! Really?! Is that what we’re doing?! Okay, cool!” There’s something about it that made me so giddy inside.

Even with Resident Evil, I knew it was a big deal when I booked the role (for Jill). I was super excited to take it on and be part of it. But I didn’t have much context of how immersed I would end up with the Resident Evil community and the fans and how expansive that would be. Especially when Resident Evil 3 came out, we were heading straight into lockdown for COVID. So I ended up with all this time connected with all these humans online that were playing this game and enjoying it! The age range of fans is incredible, from nostalgia players who loved the games from the ‘90s to new players who are discovering it for the first time. It’s an incredible diversity of people, and I think that’s really special.

What have you been playing recently that you have enjoyed?

I’ve been playing a lot of stuff on Twitch. I love bringing the other cast members from Resident Evil Village and playing along with them on Twitch which is super fun! I play them because I want to see our performances and celebrate with the people that are involved. Also, people online suggest games I can play and make a list out of it. I also played the Tomb Raider trilogy on stream but out of order accidentally! Someone gifted me the third game (Shadow of the Tomb Raider) thinking that it’s the first in the series. It was the person’s favorite game of the trilogy. As I was playing it into Act One, I told my chat that I feel like I might be missing some context! Chat replied, “You’re playing the third game, Nik!” I was like, “Oh. Okay, cool.” So I played the third one, then the first one (Tomb Raider), and now I’m playing the second one (Rise of the Tomb Raider), and I’m enjoying the second one. I love the Japanese island of the first (game). But it felt claustrophobic and that was their intention.

What do you want to share with the Replayers what you’re currently doing and where can we find you on socials?

If you want to come hang out on a stream sometime, I have been streaming Resident Evil Village and bringing a lot of the cast members from that particular game lately. You can find me at www.Twitch.tv/nicoletompkins.

Or come say “Hey” on Twitter or Instagram: @nikileetompkins on either. That is where I get to post new projects and exciting things when I can do that. Until then, Love will be there and you’ll find out when the time is right!

During the interview, we added one more game to close out. Fellow contributor Daniel Morris and I wrote suggestions and put them in a hat. Nicole acts out the scenes based on those suggestions. It’s reminiscent of the segment on the TV show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” The suggestions are Resident Evil, entertainment, or pop culture related. Let’s see how she did:

Thanks again Nicole for interviewing! Also huge thanks to Daniel Morris who helped facilitate this interview.

Have you heard of Nicole Tompkins before this interview? What stands out from her growing career in gaming? Let’s hear them in the comments and talk about it!

8"x10" Daniela Dimetrescu print signed by Nicole Tompkins.

Also here's your chance to win an 8"x10" Daniela Dimetrescu print signed by Nicole Tompkins (valued at $50)! Enter below.

Nicole Tompkins Signed Print Giveaway

Ink Spot: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier Deepens Lily K's Connection to a Beloved Tattoo

I wholeheartedly believe that you are set for life when you have a good friend by your side. They're someone who will be there for you no matter what happens and, of course, you will do the same for them. Without that, life is a bit harder, a bit greyer. 

All my life, I've been looking for the friendship that Andy and Red have in The Shawshank Redemption, or the one that builds between John Coffey and Paul Edgecomb in The Green Mile. I wrote my dissertation about how the camaraderie between soldiers in World War II meant a life-long friendship. Also, in my article back in January, I talked about the relationship of the Winchester brothers from Supernatural.

Red (Morgan Freeman) and Andy (Tim Robbins) in The Shawshank Redemption (2004).

Even though I praised all of these friendships, I was never able to build one for myself. I do believe that women have a harder time finding and preserving friendships like men have with each other. I don't know what the main reason is, but there are definitely fewer examples of great friendships between women in my close proximity and in entertainment media as well. 

Personally, I've always struggled with finding meaningful friendships, making many mistakes on the way, and regretting a ton of decisions. Even after the lift I got from Supernatural, life seemed to get darker again in 2010-11. The only thing that kept me going was the announcement of Captain America: The First Avenger movie, with Chris Evans being the lead. 

Every girl has that one celebrity crush who lasts a lifetime. Well, for me, that's definitely Chris Evans. I've been watching his movies since I was 11 years old (remember Not Another Teen Movie?), and I loved seeing how he became more and more successful, rightfully so. So I held on until Captain America: The First Avenger arrived in cinemas, and it was the greatest decision of my life. 

Steve (Chris Evans) and Bucky (Sebastian Stan) in Captain America: The First Avenger.

This movie saved me from drowning during that low point, and it managed to give me another friendship I can look up to. I loved how Bucky Barnes looked after Steve Rogers at the beginning: it wasn't because he had to, but because he truly did care about him. Considering that Bucky only has about 10 minutes of screen time, it's amazing how well they established the friendship between Steve and Bucky. 

That story actually worked so well that when it was carried over to Captain America: The Winter Soldier 3 years later, it was completely believable: from the moment Steve visits the Smithsonian Museum and sees Bucky again, to the point where he discovers that the Winter Soldier IS Bucky, right to the end where he refuses to fight his best friend. This was the movie that gave us this line, which meant so much to me: 

"I'm with you till the end of the line."

That quote became one of the most permanent parts of my life, and it inspired me to mark that significant moment with a tattoo. 

I wanted to show the world how much Steve and Bucky's friendship meant to me, how it helped me since the first movie came out. I am very picky with my tattoos (as you should be too!). I needed the right artist who does quality work regardless of the cost, and I needed it to MEAN something. Without that there's no point (says the girl who has a small star and a heart tattooed on her hand because her friend was bored). 

It took me exactly three years to find an amazing Hungarian tattoo artist (Instagram: @dioszegitattoo) and to decide on the exact design. At first, I wanted Steve and Bucky facing away from each other. However, no matter how much I adore Chris and Sebastian, portrait tattoos were always a big no for me unless they are animal ones. Then my tattoo artist designed the perfect piece, fusing together Cap's shield with Bucky's red star along with that meaningful line from the MCU surrounding it. She did an amazing job and gave me my most precious tattoo out of all the ones I have. 

In Captain America: Civil War, Steve fought for Bucky. In Avengers: Infinity War he lost him again, and at the end of Avengers: Endgame, Bucky was the only one Steve trusted to share his plans with. 

Steve's gone. It hit both of Steve's dear friends really hard: Sam Wilson and Bucky. But they had to accept it, and it was time for me to accept it, too. Bucky's struggle, through the absolutely gorgeous performance of Sebastian Stan, showed so well what that loss meant for him and for us as well. His best friend was gone. As he says it himself when speaking to Sam before he reclaimed the shield: 

"It's just that shield's the closest thing I've got left to a family, so when you retired it; it made me feel like I had nothing left."

Bucky with Steve's shield in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

I think The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did such an amazing job with so many things. In particular, Bucky was the mirror that reflected the fan's feelings about Cap's loss. I had a hard time accepting Chris' departure because I felt like I needed to see more of Steve's friendship with Bucky, of how it changed and evolved with time. I felt like their time was cut extremely short. I know they are just fictional characters, but they're characters whose story changed my own life on a pivotal level. So, for me, it was just as hard accepting that Steve's gone as it was for Bucky, and I connected to Bucky on a whole new level. 

"I'm with you till the end of the line."

The show managed to change this Bucky's view on life so effortlessly that I've found a new friendship to look up to and treasure: Sam and Bucky. In losing Steve, Bucky gained a new—dare I say even more important—friendship through Sam. That realisation hit me when, at the end of their fight with John Walker in Episode 5, Bucky lifts the shield up, walks over to Sam, and drops it next to him, all while the reimagined version of "End of The Line" from composer Henry Jackman starts to play in the background. Why is it important you ask? Because in The Winter Soldier, when Bucky fights Steve on the helicarrier, that music is exactly the same, reaching its peak right when Cap drops his shield and tells Bucky: 

"You're my friend."

It is also the scene where, at the end, Steve tells him the famous line that changed my life and inspired my tattoo. So, putting the same music in Episode 5 with the same symbolic drop of the shield meant a change in how these two men looked at each other. I saw how Bucky was able to let go of Steve, and, at the same time, I saw how I could do it, too. 

A new friendship. Bucky (Sebastian Stan) and Sam (Anthony Mackie).

Steve and Bucky's friendship will always be very important for me. It helped me through some of the toughest times when I struggled with accepting myself when I desperately searched for meaningful friendships only to fail miserably when I was suffocated by my own self-hate. The tattoo I have is my way of saying thank you and to show my biggest respect. I think it's time to upgrade it though: it will need the Falcon's wings around it. 

Lily K with Sebastian Stan

And just a tiny story to the end. I met Sebastian Stan in 2019, but I was so overwhelmed that I was just happy to give him my Winter Soldier drawing and completely screwed my chance of telling him about how his and Chris' character helped me through so much. So maybe, by some miracle both Sebastian and Chris will see this. They saved me and they didn't even know it. So all I want to say is thank you from the bottom of my heart. 

This article introduces a new series called "Ink Spot" featuring Replayers' stories behind their pop-culture-inspired tattoos. Got a special tattoo story you'd like to share? Email us members@retroreplayshow.com and we'll match you with one of our contributors to get your story.

[box] If you are someone who's struggling with depression or have suicidal thoughts, please, don't be afraid to reach out and ask for help. You are never alone: Suicide Prevention Lifeline – talk to someone now[/box]

Spider-Man: A Hero In All Of Us

"With great power, there must also come great responsibility." This is perhaps the most iconic and recognizable comic book phrase (next to "I'm Batman," of course), and it belongs to none other than the world's greatest superhero, The Amazing Spider-Man! Dating all the way back to his first appearance in 1962, the webhead has swung himself into the lives of millions of children and adults alike, inspiring so many to view him as a role model and to dream of becoming a hero in some shape or form, including myself. So the question I want to answer here is, "What makes him a hero and a role model in my eyes?"

Growing up, something that I found very relatable about Spider-Man was that behind the mask he was just your average guy that always went unnoticed. I was never the popular kid throughout school over the years, nor did I really seem to fit in. I was picked on, I was very shy and I spent most of my time keeping to myself, only having a select few people to call friends. Looking at Spider-Man's alter ego Peter Parker, it was unbelievable to see this guy who nobody really took a second glance at and yet is able to go on to juggle fighting crime and helping others while somehow always choosing to do the right thing. Spider-Man made me confident that anyone, no matter how big or small, can make a difference in this world.

Jake Brown as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man!

As a hero, Spider-Man has also taught me time and time again to never give up. On so many different occasions, we have seen him outnumbered and outmatched, where all hope looks to be lost. But he always finds a way to rise above any obstacle in his path. When the odds are stacked against him, he has hope and a never-say-die attitude. This was something that has helped me in life, whether it's struggles I've had in my personal life or pushing to do one more set in the gym after I've given it my all. I've adopted the mindset to never surrender to doubt. Instead, I push myself to newer and higher limits so that I can achieve a better version of myself.

As a role model, Spider-Man's attitude and morals have had a big influence on the person I am today. I'm not sure how many times that I've seen Spider-Man put others' needs above himself. He always seems to do the right thing, even though he knows he will get the short end of the stick in the end. Following that example, I do my best to always be kind and respectful to others and to also lend a hand to anyone that may need my help, no matter what the issue may be. Yes, there have been multiple times where my generosity has been taken advantage of and times where I'm the one who is left hurt in the end. Fortunately for me, I always am left with a feeling of accomplishment knowing that I have made a difference in somebody's life for the better and that I'm able to put some good into this world.

"He's a menace!" - J. Jonah Jameson

One of the wall-crawler's traits that stands out to me most is how humble he is. He puts his life on the line for others time after time and will go to the ends of the earth to fight for what he believes in. And not once does he ever ask for anything in return. After everything he does to protect New York and all those that inhabit it, there are still people who despise him and will never respect him. He could easily turn a blind eye the next time someone like J. Jonah Jameson's life may be in danger. But his sense of responsibility keeps him in check, driving him to save all those in need of help, even if it includes his enemies.

When it comes down to it, Spider-Man gives me hope. I believe that the reason the character has stayed so popular and relevant throughout the years is that we all can find something in him to relate to. We all struggle from time to time. Some of us have relationship issues, some struggle financially, and there are some who even struggle to fit in among others. But it's how we choose to handle those struggles that make us who we are. We must choose to be greater than what we suffer. For me, I know that without Spider-Man, I would not have grown to be the man I am today. Yes, he may be a make-believe superhero, but you cannot deny that if we all shared his morals and sense of responsibility the world would be a much better place.

As long as Spider-Man continues to be represented in the form of comics, TV, movies, video games, and so on, there will always be children and adults around the world that will look up to him and feel encouraged to be a hero of their own. I hope that one day I can pass on my knowledge and love for Spider-Man to my daughter (named Parker, wink wink) so that she may find something to take away from the character and carry with her throughout life, inspiring and motivating her in all that she does.

Jake Brown as Spider-Cop

Everything that Spider-Man brings to the table—the responsibility, the humbleness, the never-say-die attitude, doing the right thing—are all qualities that each one of us can (or already do) possess. So I believe that any one of us can be a hero. I've come to the conclusion that Aunt May said it best in Sam Raimi's Spider-Man 2:

"I believe there's a hero in all of us that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams."

Who have been your role models throughout life? Was it a superhero like Spider-Man, Captain America, Wonder Woman? Or was it a parental figure such as Mom or Dad? Swing on down to the comments below and let me hear your stories!

Why Korean Movies and TV Shows Should Be on Your Watch List

I have to admit that Train to Busan wasn’t the first Korean movie I saw. It was actually The Host from acclaimed writer and director Bong Joon Ho. Back then, I don’t think I really appreciated that movie. I think I only watched it because everyone seemed to be talking about it. Years later, I went back and watched it again, and it was amazing. It gives a new shade to the monster genre and a depth that you probably didn’t even think was possible from a movie with a big monster in it. It’s not as much about the action as it is about the connection between the characters, the different relationships, and how they change. Although I have to admit, the action sequences are pretty damn good as well, especially the one at the beginning when the monster first attacks the people on the beach. But, I needed time (and an extra kick) to truly appreciate Bong Joon Ho’s movie. 


Gong Yoo (left) and Ma Dong-seok (right) in Train to Busan

In 2016 a new zombie movie rolled into the cinemas, and this time around, it came from Korea, not from the United States. It came at the right time when it seemed like that not even ‘The Walking Dead’ would be able to keep the zombie genre alive. In my personal opinion, Train to Busan single-handedly saved zombie films and is without question, the best one ever created. Yes, I know that is controversial to say, but I am standing by it with all my heart and soul. Once it came out, I managed to get it on Blu-Ray, watched it at least 50 times if not more, and I can’t get tired of it. I even got my hands on the novel version (it wasn’t an easy task).

I watched Seoul Station which plays in the same universe as Train to Busan and tells the story of how it all started in Seoul. This movie was such a huge success internationally as well, that we also got a second film called Peninsula which heavily involved the Americans, and not to throw any shade, but it sadly shows. Peninsula is nowhere near as great as Train to Busan was, and except for the opening scene on the ship, it fails on almost every level as it is heavily influenced by the simple curse of “More money, bigger effects and losing the heart and soul of the movie”. The characters are a bit flat and grey and they are your typical “genre characters”.

Not too long ago, we also got the news that James Wan (master of horror if you ask me) got the rights to create the American version of Train to Busan and I am not really happy with this news, to put it lightly. I love James Wan, respect him, and would LOVE to work with him one day, but I honestly wish that no one would ever touch Train to Busan. This movie was so good story-wise, in character building, and in the genre itself that it doesn’t need any remake/reboot. It needs to be left alone and exist perfectly on its own, please and thank you. I could go in-depth of why I think Train to Busan is the perfect zombie movie, but since I want to talk about other Korean movies and tv shows as well, I will link the video from the YouTube Channel ‘Wow Such Gaming’ in here because he explains it flawlessly:

After watching Train to Busan and falling in love with two actors Gong Yoo (he played the main character Seok-woo) and Ma Dong-seok (he played the absolute badass Sang-hwa) I did my usual ritual… I stalked them on IMDb and watched MANY of their movies and TV Shows. 

As I mentioned in my previous article, Ma Dong-seok will star in Marvel’s The Eternals this year, which I am overly excited about as it will be his first appearance in an American film. I would highly recommend some of his movies first for you all to fall in love with him. The two movies I love him in (besides Train to Busan of course) are two huge movies from Korea: Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days. In the first one, he only appears in the end but in the second one, he is one of the protagonists. These movies are mind-bending and I can guarantee you that they are very different from what you are used to. The first one tells the story of a firefighter who after his heroic death has to go through 7 trials in 7 hells over 49-days to disclose how he lived his life. He has the help of three guardians who are trying to succeed in defending him during the trials so he can be reincarnated as he is considered to be a model citizen. In the second movie, the Last 49 days we find out who the three guardians were in their life on Earth, and it is one of the most beautiful stories about how our lives can intertwine.

Watching these two movies made me realize why Korean movies are so appealing to me. The story-telling can be confusing at first because they are going deep from the beginning. They do not introduce their characters the same way other movies would, instead they go deep into the stories of their characters and the reason behind how they act during the main act. They don’t follow the so-called rules of story-telling. Therefore, when you fall in love with the characters on your screen it feels more natural, more human, as you find out who they really are and can get genuinely surprised when new characteristics are introduced through them. 

A TV Show I would like to recommend that stars Gong Yoo from Train to Busan, is called Sseulsseulhago Chalranhashin: Dokkaebi or as most people know it: Goblin. This series is mind-blowingly beautiful in every way possible: as a drama, as a romance, the cinematography, the story-telling, and the character building. It’s definitely a high peek of Korean television. Gong Yoo plays the titular character ‘Kim Shin’ aka ‘Goblin’ whose quest is to find a bride to break his immortal curse as he is a 939-year-old guardian of souls. It is at times heartbreaking, but all together just an absolutely breathtaking Korean TV drama. A must-watch. 

Still from the movie Forgotten

Netflix is a wonderful ally when it comes to Korean TV and Film, especially if you live outside of Korea. They have Korean originals and TV Shows and Movies (including the previously mentioned Along with the Gods) that are available to watch for the international crowd as well. The first Netflix original I saw was Forgotten. If you like heavily elaborate twists and true mind-bending… you HAVE TO watch this film. I adore Forgotten on the same level as Train to Busan (someone, please count how many times I already wrote down this title). Forgotten is about Jin-seok (played by Kang Ha-Neul) who’s brother returns after being abducted but he is a completely different person, so Jin-seok starts to search for the truth, and oh boy… the things he finds out and therefore we find out are so mind-blowing, that there’s no way you can guess ANY of the steps in this movie. It is masterfully done, every step, the way the story unfolds is something that should be taught to film students everywhere. It definitely changed my view on movies in a major way, especially on thrillers, as this counts as that. And what stands in the spotlight here as well? THE CHARACTERS. 

Another Netflix original I would very highly recommend to everyone is another TV Show called Kingdom. Kingdom is once again a major contender in the zombie genre BUT it plays during the Joseon period. It’s not just a simple zombie series, oh no… not even close, it is also a royal drama series with intricate story-telling and (once again) characters, who will very quickly grow on you and you can’t help but hold all your fingers crossed for them. This series easily knocks The Walking Dead out of the park, without any question. It focuses heavily on how greed is even worse than the dead coming back to life to bring chaos and destruction while also adding mystery and depth to its story. 

This article is very long. But hang with me as there are a few more titles that I need to mention as a must-see for anyone who would like to dive into Korean cinema (and oh boy, I hope you all do):

There are so many more Korean TV shows and films we could talk about, but I tried to highlight some of my favorites in this article. I’ve only really started to get into Korean cinema the past few years and I do regret not getting into it earlier. It’s so different from what I am used to that it is actually refreshing. I would give out a warning though… once you get in don’t be surprised if it completely sucks you in. As a matter of fact, I started learning Korean back in 2020 so I can watch and enjoy them without subtitles. 

Bong Joon Ho with his Oscars

Just to mention one last thing. Because I can’t leave without talking about it. Bong Joon Ho directed one of the best post-apocalyptic movies with a mostly American cast (khm… Chris Evans… khm) and I truly and fully believe that everyone should watch it. It’s called Snowpiercer and with it, you will glance into what Korean film-making and story-telling are like. It’s also worth it to mention that Bong Joon Ho is an executive producer on the SnowPiercer TV show on TNT as well. 

Michele Morrow Talks to us about Gaming, Healing, and Esports

After Michele Morrow visited Retro Replay, I had a wonderful chat with her about how our lives are impacted by gaming and whether esports is providing gamers with an equal playing field. She also shared her own story about how gaming helped her through a rough time. Check out the amazing stories and insights she shared with us!

In the spirit of retro games, since we're here at Retro Replay, let's go back to your own earliest memories with video games. What was the first game you remember playing, and what retro games still hold a special place in your heart?

The first game that I remember playing was called Tooth Invaders. It's a game where you fight off the evil cavities that are attacking your teeth. I must have been 4 or 5 years old, and I remember you get these big blocky teeth and you use a toothbrush to brush them off.

Michele's favorite retro game, Ghosts 'n Goblins. (Remember that beloved Level 1 episode?)

Retro gaming holds a very important place in my heart because that's how I grew up playing. I started on the Commodore 64 with games like Impossible Mission and Jumpman (not to be confused with Mario).

We also had an arcade pack that had Pac-Man, Moon Patrol, Galaga--games you would see more in the arcades. And going to the arcades was a big part of my growing up, too, either at a Chuck E. Cheese or at local malls. 

I got a Nintendo NES on my 10th birthday, and all the kids would come over after school and play it. Probably my favorite retro game was Ghosts 'n Goblins. You die a thousand times in your underwear! And of course all the Marios and Zeldas! 

I've heard you talk about how World of Warcraft has been a big part of your life, and your own personal story of how you got started playing is something I know a lot of Replayers can probably relate to: the healing someone can experience from gaming. For Replayers who may not be familiar with your story, tell us about what happened and how World of Warcraft helped get you through it all?

While an actor on an independent horror movie, I was asked to go on a behind-the-scenes day to film after we were done principal photography. There was a machine there called an air ram. It was optional, I just said that looked fun. It's like a trampoline on hydraulics: you step on it and it shoots you into the air.

And I did. And I landed on my head from 10-12 feet. And it hurt. Bad.

The injury resulted in a small neck fracture and removing my left cervical rib. It was called thoracic outlet syndrome. I had a neck brace on and couldn't really do a whole lot. It sucked.

I learned that gaming is really healing. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something.

I was depressed, gaining weight, and just feeling awful that I couldn't have my normal life. My boyfriend (now husband) and I, in finding things we can do together, started to play video games together a lot. He introduced me to God of War II, which I was obsessed with, and several other games that I got super into.

Then he introduced me to World of Warcraft.

Lady Sylvanas Windrunner from World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment)

It was great because it was a game that didn't end. I kinda had endless content. It felt like I was reading an interactive book! I'd never played it before 2007, coming in during the Burning Crusade. I was mesmerized at how much gaming had changed and how the storytelling had elevated to make you feel like you were in a choose-your-own-adventure.

In my first month, I was introduced to the character of Lady Sylvanas who lost her body and wanted to get it back. I totally resonated with that and wanted nothing more than the same for myself. So I got really into reading about her story: reading the books on it, novels, short stories that had been published online over the years. I loved it!

World of Warcraft really helped me through a tough time. I met so many people that were also going through injury or illness, and kids using it for an escape, who are in hospitals and can't see other people because their immune systems were so low. I'm still friends with a kid I met: he's in remission, he's doing great, and he's about to graduate from the University of Washington. We're still buddies.

I felt connected to other people in a time where I felt very isolated. I formed my guild around that time and it still exists, and some of those people I met in 2007 to 2009, are still playing with me to this day. It's kind of like a family. 

I learned that gaming is really healing, or it can be. I played the new God of War a couple of years ago when I had a knee surgery, and that was the best thing I could do to get through that. It gave me something to do. It made me feel like I was accomplishing something. I didn't feel like I was just waiting around. I loved it.

Speaking of WoW, and you touched on it briefly already, I'm sure many of us who have virtually indulged in BlizzCon saw your coverage as an essential part of the overall BlizzCon experience. How did that connection first develop with Blizzard and the BlizzCon event?

Michele voiced Alleria Windrunner in Hearthstone. (Blizzard Entertainment)

My first relationship with Blizzard was being hired to voice Alleria Windrunner for Hearthstone in early 2014. I about fainted when I got that role because it's the long-lost sister of Lady Sylvanas and a very cherry role. It was the first time she had been seen in the lore for a long time, so that was exciting!

That same year, they were auditioning people to be the new co-host with Geoff Keighley for BlizzCon 2014. It was the year Overwatch was announced to the world, and it was cool because I went from going to BlizzCon as a fan to now being invited into headquarters and shown all of the goodies. It was like opening Christmas presents before Christmas morning: I got to see everything, but I couldn't talk about it.

I hosted BlizzCon six years, 2014 through 2019. I really loved my time on the show.

The massive XP boost from your career achievements definitely shines through in The Game Diaries podcast, currently on a break after an inspiring first season. In the first episode, you define the podcast as a platform for stories from all kinds of people involved in gaming, focusing on how video games have made an important impact on their life. We've already talked a little bit about that already. How do you think that the media missed this opportunity and left this gap?

I don't know. I wonder that all the time. I think just now creators and producers are starting to see the value and educational part of gaming. I've seen documentaries about the history of gaming, and they all kind of focus on a very similar arc. Only recently have I seen shows digging a little deeper and showing the human interest side.

We've had a lot of people in gaming talk about the human impact. Jane McGonigal did a really great TED Talk about the impact of gaming. But I don't think the mainstream understands that playing a game and being a gamer is a part of an identity. It's part of a community. As our world is getting more connected, these communities can connect, thrive, and define themselves.

You can find Michele with missharvey sharing gamers' stories in The Game Diaries podcast.

I think that I got to see that with BlizzCon, specifically. Anybody who attended BlizzCon understands the convention is about this mutual love that people have for their games and meeting the people you play with in person.

Every gamer has a story about how gaming affected their lives, whether from a career level, or an emotional level, or a relationship level. My goal with The Game Diaries is to elevate those stories by taking some of the most important ones I'm aware of in my decade in gaming and bring those to the forefront. Most are stories that the mainstream just isn't aware of yet.

Since you're someone whose interviewing style I admire, I have to ask: How am I doing so far?

You're doing great!

It's clear that the positive impact of gaming has been something you've been passionate about for years now. In a post at Nerdist back in 2014 where you were covering an Extra Life event, you mentioned how gaming is the great equalizer: "It's participatory. It has no judgement. It sees no gender, no race, no age... and no disease." Do you see this equalizing effect coming through in esports? How are the different esports arenas doing with giving players an equal playing field?

Terribly. It's really disappointing because esports has so much potential to be just as inclusive as the rest of gaming. But it's an industry that requires outside funding, which brings non-endemic people to the table, and, at its core, it's highly competitive because that's what it's based on.

I have noticed there aren't as many female pros, as I'm sure you have, too. And the reason is because I don't think boys and girls are promoted to play together at young enough ages to get used to playing with anybody, any gender (it shouldn't matter). 

And I think that esports is putting in just enough effort to make something work. Esports requires a lot of funding, and it doesn't always have a return on investment. So I think they're going for the low-hanging fruit: teams that are already formed, guys that have been playing together since they were teenagers.

Here's the thing that frustrated me the most. I would ask, "Where are all the women?" Even from a broadcast standpoint (and it's only recently been changing), you would see on a placard of talent announcement 5 guys, 1 girl, and she's always the sideline reporter. There's nothing wrong with that role, by the way, it's an important role. I've done it. But when you're the only girl up there, and you're the one just talking to the pros, it makes you feel like you're the eye candy or that they don't trust you to do more than setting other people up to talk.

Where are all the women? I was told multiple times that it needs to happen when they're younger, in college. That's where we're really going to see a change: when women are joining esports at the collegiate level.

Okay, well... that's not happening.

There was an AP report in March that did a study on esports scholarships, and they found that 90% of the scholarships and 90% of the roster positions are going to men. When the AP reached out to the colleges to ask why, a lot of them responded that the esports program is not actually affiliated with the university. Even though it's a "varsity program," they're not paying for coaches, events, or scholarships. It's a different-funded situation, and it allows them to bypass Title 9 [in the U.S.].

And I don't think it's malicious. I think that it's just a bunch of kids in a club at a college trying to get something going. They probably have a handful of people they know and don't have the experience or knowledge to understand how to meet women where they're at. Or they're only picking games that maybe only them and their friends know, like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), which is going to have a lot less women playing than maybe Hearthstone. They haven't opened their minds up to what other games women could be playing.

This is also an issue in the Black community where there aren't very many Black pros outside of fighting games. And there's a reason for that from a socioeconomic standpoint: a monster PC is going to cost you maybe $5000-6000, but a PS5 is going to cost about $700 (if you're not getting it on eBay!). It's just more affordable for most American working families.

The fighting game community also meets people where they're at. It's very local, very community-based, promoting you coming to participate at an event at a convention center or small venue in your hometown. It also lacks the gatekeeping barriers that we see in a lot of first-person shooters or MOBAs: it promotes you as an amateur to come prove your skill, to get into the ring.

Top Mortal Kombat 11 players from around the world in the inaugural WePlay Dragon Temple tournament.

It promotes that excitement to be like, "Could I be the one? Could I be a contender?"

You can't just pop into a game or enter a tournament in other esports because you need a sponsor, you need these certain rankings, you need to play this amount, you need to have this certain computer... there are so many requirements! 

Esports lacks a lot of accessibility for people who are disabled as well.

So there's just a lot of things that esports could be doing. It's a growing industry and there are a lot of good minds behind it that are helping it. But unlike sports where no one owns the concept of "baseball," someone absolutely owns Overwatch, CS:GO, or whatever. So you are dealing with a publisher who is usually using their marketing budgets to put on events instead of it being an actual sports league akin to what we're used to.

Based on what you've seen covering esports, how is the esports industry making a positive impact on gaming culture overall? Is there a specific arena that's making a positive impact or doing something specific to try to improve the culture. 

Marcus "djWHEAT" Graham, esports commentating pioneer and Twitch's Head of Creator Development. (Photo by Vincent Samako)

I think individual people, pros, broadcasters, personalities, and content creators in the space are taking that mantle. You also have esports organizations like 100 Thieves and G2 that are being inclusive and creating a lifestyle that invites people to want to be a part of it. Most of the effort is coming from individuals who are trying to steer this giant ship so it doesn't hit an iceberg!

SW: It's like an industry that's still inventing itself, still experimenting.

And that's why it's exciting, right? It has so much potential, and there are so many amazing people involved in esports who are literally pioneers. I think djWHEAT is a really great example of that over at Twitch. He was one of the first esports broadcasters, if not the first. He's created a profession that didn't exist before.

You continue to take your career to the next level: accomplished on-screen actor, voice actor, producer, host, journalist, commentator, and podcaster! What kind of career opportunities attract you and inspire you?

I'm at a point where I'm trying to really focus on whatever makes me happy, that makes me excited about life, that's promoting something good in the world, and will bring happiness to my home.I'm really grateful and lucky to be in this position right now, to be able to pick and choose. 

I used to take everything and anything that came my way, afraid of turning down work. But now I think it's much more about the quality of the position and elevating the content to add my own experience or artistic lens.

I'm in the process of developing a couple of shows that I believe in based on all the experience that I have in what I'm passionate about: highlighting people or events in the gaming industry, or educating the mainstream about them, whether it's in a scripted form or unscripted form. I want to bridge these two worlds and treat gaming culture as pop culture, because that's truly what it is. 

Finally, after the "Retro E-Sport" segment on the show, what advice do you have for Nolan North if he aspires to be an eSports commentator?

Michele and Nolan commentating on Drew playing The Legend of Zelda.

I think Nolan has a future in esports commentating! I'm not sure he needs to have my advice because he is a ridiculous person who is also extremely talented and will do quite well in this field. 

SW: So you're saying he's got what it takes?

I'm saying the kid's got talent!

Well, Nolan, it sounds like Michele will be a good reference for you!

Don't miss Michele on the fun esports-inspired YouTube Red series Game Grumps.

For more about Michele, visit her website at MicheleMorrow.com and follow @michelemorrow on Twitter and Instagram. Also check out the inspiring episodes of The Game Diaries on your favorite podcast platform (https://linktr.ee/thegamediaries).

Does Michele's story about how gaming impacts our lives resonate with you, too? Share your own story in the comments.

Let's Reframe the Matt Mercer Effect on D&D

Dungeons & Dragons has been around for years and is frequently referenced in pop culture. That said, in its earliest years, D&D was not popular and considered not appropriate for kids. Some people wouldn't even mention the game to avoid being bullied in school. The media had made it even worse for some by depicting those who played D&D as "nerds" or "geeks," terms that carried a negative stereotype in the 1980s to early 2000s. 

Critical Role official logo

It wasn't until the last decade or so that being a nerd or geek was considered a good thing. D&D became more mainstream when certain group of friends were approached by a company that streamed content on Twitch. That company wanted to stream their D&D campaign. The show would be called Critical Role, and it now brands itself as a "bunch of nerdy-ass voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons."

In D&D, the dungeon master (DM) is the person who runs a particular D&D game, called a campaign. At the bare minimum, the DM finds out the background of all the players' characters, then plans the adventures those characters will encounter as they play.

Matt Mercer, photo from IMDb

Matt Mercer is a voice actor who serves as the DM for Critical Role. Some say Matt is the best DM ever because of his approach: creating a fully immersive experience through music, sounds, and more. He has definitely set the bar high for a lot of DMs. He has inspired others to create worlds of their own and challenge themselves to make their worlds more detailed (including myself). He encourages people to be more open within their home tabletop games, even if it's someone not interested in games.

Unfortunately, there are some D&D players who have watched Matt's skills on Critical Role and project their expectations on the DMs in their own games. According to most people (and Urban Dictionary), the Matt Mercer Effect is when players expect their dungeon masters to be super energetic and descriptive and fully immersed in the world they are creating, and maybe even do fun voices for each NPC. But not everyone is comfortable doing these things, and not everyone has the experience that Matt has when he plays with his friends. The Matt Mercer Effect puts pressure on the DMs who may love the game but not want to act or perform in their campaigns. The internet is not always the nicest place, and Matt Mercer and the cast of Critical Role tend to get a bit of backlash about the expectations they've set. 

So why does Matt also get so much backlash from just being himself and having fun with his friends? Those friends, by the way, are also seasoned DMs. Liam O'Brien from Critical Role runs home games with his kids and Taliesin Jaffe played for years before playing with the rest of the Critical Role cast.

Is it just that Matt's an amazing world builder and DM? Or is it something else that rubs people the wrong way?

Critical Role Campaign 2 Players, photo from Critical Role
Critical Role's Campaign 2 Players

Let's consider three DMs I've encountered that try to imitate Matt's skills and how they interpret the Matt Mercer Effect...

Intense Stan put his players in almost impossible situations and pushed them to their limits before their characters died. He made encounters for characters at level 10 when the party was at level 3. For example, Stan had a player defeat a bloodwitch at level 10 that was in a science laboratory, then guided the level-3 party to that laboratory to search for a cure to a rare disease that only that lab made. 

Humble Hannah DMed a one-shot adventure, which is a small story that can be dropped into any bigger campaign. We all said, "You don't have to be like Matt, just be you and have fun with it." She knew we all loved the show and didn't want to disappoint us with her heart of gold. We ended up having a blast, and she ended up as one of the best DMs I know through patience and explaining how to play the game to new players.

Dungeons & Dragons campaign board with dice

Creative Clive knew I was new to D&D and decided he was going to do a series of one-shot adventures within the Monster Hunter world. The super helpful guy gave me suggestions on creating my character and which spells to use for my cleric. When it came to the game itself, he tried to make it as immersive as possible with sound effects and music. He is a laid-back guy, and that translated to the party as we went through the adventure. He just wanted all of us to have fun.

As you can see, my experiences have varied. I will say from the world-building perspective, though, that I think we need to change the definition of the "Matt Mercer Effect." For me, the Matt Mercer Effect is inspiring others to better themselves. Through large descriptions of the world he built, he inspires young DMs and new players to try D&D. When my friends got me started watching Matt stream his D&D games on Twitch, I had already started making my own world just for fun. Once I saw Matt describing the world around the players, I wanted to make my own world better. This was Matt's influence that inspired me to better myself as a world builder.

Have you seen the Matt Mercer Effect in your own D&D campaigns? What do you think we can do to help D&D players and DMs feel free from expectations and just have fun? Share your stories and ideas in the comments!

Alison Haislip: The Actress and Gamer On Why Sex Is Funny

Alison Haislip has done a bit of everything. She’s an actress, she’s hosted a ton of shows, she’s a gamer, she’s been to Space Camp, and she has a cat named Gandalf the White.  How cool is that? After Alison’s appearance on Retro Replay where she and Nolan talked a little about her new project, ❤️  👶  🍆  (Heart Baby Eggplant), I had the extreme honor of sitting down with her for a bit more in depth discussion about life, gaming and her new amazing show. Make sure you check out this hilarious show on Amazon Prime or YouTube. Seriously...go watch the show!

Brandy: So I watched your show (Heart Baby Eggplant) and I absolutely loved it and I know I’m not the only person that thought this show was fantastic. Do you know what the plans are for new episodes or a new season?

Alison: Well Rati (Gupta), Laura (Ortiz), and I have been talking about a second season. Our goal would be that someone would pay us to do a second season *laughs*. We got hit with bad timing because of the pandemic so we are considering doing another crowdfunding to get season two done because we have gotten really great responses to the show. It’s wonderful for people to come out and say, “I wasn’t expecting the show to be like this! It’s really shocking and wonderful and funny!” So yeah, we really want to make more so we are working on that. 

Brandy: Sign me up! I will help crowdfund!

Alison: *laughs* Thank you!

Brandy: The Guild is actually one of my favorite web series and I happened to see a mention of Cheesy Beards in one of the end credit texts and I’m wondering if there is a connection there?

Alison: So, what’s really interesting is those end credit texts were one of the perks from our crowdfunding campaign for season one. At a certain perk level you got to choose a text that goes in during the end credits. So that actually came from one of the contributors and what’s really funny is, because we didn’t write that, when that episode came out there were a couple of people that commented and were like “OMG a Guild reference! A Guild reference!” and we were racking our brains wondering where in the episode did we have a guild reference? I’m friends with Sandeep and so I actually emailed him to ask him, “Hey weird favor, but can you watch this episode of this web series that I created and tell me where there is a Guild reference because me and my co-creators are losing our minds”. Then right after I sent it, I re-watched the episode and caught it in the text and I was like, “Oh my gosh of course, of course!” That’s what it was!

Brandy: I’m one of those people that’s hyper focused so I always pick up on weird little things. I saw that and got super excited.

Alison: And of course you would catch that! The three of us were so into the scripts Rati wrote that all the other stuff that came after that wasn’t drilled into our brains and, we were just like, what are they talking about? *laughs*

Brandy: That’s hilarious! 

Brandy: Women talking so openly about sex has often been a taboo subject. Women are supposed to be “ladylike,” etc., so it was refreshing to see a female take on sexuality from three different perspectives. How important was it that the three of you were very open about sex and sexuality on the show?

Alison: Well, that was incredibly important because that was really the entire point of the show. We are three women in three very different types of relationships and the very grounded approach they took to them. Those relationships are very much based on our individual lives, so we weren’t just trying to do stuff for shock value. Either they are stories that actually happened to us or were inspired by stories that happened to us, which was definitely the crucial part of this show. You are right. These days we are seeing more women talking much more openly about their sexuality. For a while, you literally had “Sex in the City,” and that was it. 

Brandy: That’s the thing; there was no shock value in it. It was just something that my girlfriends and I would talk about while out to dinner or drinks. It’s something we talk about but, it’s just not something openly discussed on TV and, it was so amazing to see that.

Alison: And that’s exactly how this show was created. The three of us were out to lunch, filling each other in on our lives. Laura was the one that said, “Wow, our lives are so different.” We were like, “this is a show” because there are groups of girlfriends just like us who sit around and have drinks with each other and talk about their relationships and their sex lives. It was like, why don’t we see more of that? 

Brandy: Exactly! Most shows are so male-centric, and they talk about their sex and sexuality, and it’s okay. You rarely get to see that about women, and it was really refreshing. You already touched on my question about the beginnings of the show. Did you have an idea going into the show that there was something that every group of female friends could identify with?

Alison: That was definitely our hope. You always have that one friend that cannot stay in a relationship to save her life. Then finds herself in one and doesn’t know what to do, which was me. Then there was Laura, who was about to be a new mom and, like most first-time parents, have no idea what they are doing, stressed about everything, and trying not to lose grip on their own lives as well. Then, we have our friend who doesn’t want to be tied down and loves having multiple sexual partners. That dynamic was so important, and how we were all there to support each other, even if we might not understand what the other person is going through. I think it is just a very real female relationship. 

Brandy: Oh absolutely!

Alison: And something we don’t shine a spotlight on in the series, but if you pay attention, the only three characters that have names are Alison, Rati, and Laura. Every other character is boyfriend, husband, and the unborn baby is “working title.” It’s not until the second to last episode when another character is given an actual name. Then it’s like, “Wait, this must be important because they just gave a character a name."

Brandy: As I was watching the show I seemed to identify a lot with the character Alison.

Alison: Oh great! 

Brandy: I also started a relationship with a great guy, and I have been waiting for something to end the awesome guy illusion. How much are the three of you like your characters, or how much of the characters are like you?

Alison: Oh, they ARE us. The person that boyfriend is inspired by actually made me breakfast in bed one morning early on in our relationship, and I was like, what do I do? What does this mean? I was texting my friends, and they were like, “it’s just a nice gesture!” I’m like, ARE YOU SURE? This has NEVER happened to me before! 

Brandy: I’m exactly the same way. So many moments in the show I can seriously and uncomfortably identify with. Are there other uncomfortable yet funny moments in relationships that you have shared with friends that may be coming up in an episode? Do the three of you brainstorm this and then let Rati run with it?

Alison: We have a Whats App chain between the three of us. Whenever something happens in our lives, we will send it to the chain like, “SEASON TWO,” so we have a bullet point list of stories like, oh, this is a new thing that can happen!  We are definitely keeping track of actual life events to add to season two. 

Brandy: I follow a lot of what Alan Tudyk does, so of course, I watched his seriously hilarious show, Con Man. Did working on Con Man with all of those amazingly funny actors influence you to want to do your own show? Did you get any ideas from it?

Alison: Well, it was definitely inspiring to see that Alan and Nathan (Fillion) had this idea, and they were like, screw it, let’s make it ourselves. And then they had one of the highest funded crowdfundings of all time or something to make the first season of that show. I mean, I didn’t think Heart Baby Eggplant could aspire quite that high. But if you have a fan base and you have a good product, even if the industry doesn’t quite get it, why not make it on your own? We now have that ability these days and if people are going to support it, let them support it. 

Brandy: All of those actors from Con Man are absolutely amazing. How did you get involved with that show? 

Alison: Oh, this is actually interesting. Alan and I had met at a Comic-Con a couple of years earlier and had exchanged phone numbers and had stayed in sporadic contact but nothing consistent. I had been in San Diego for a wedding, and I was driving back up at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, and my phone rings and Alan’s name pops up. I was like, there is no way Alan Tudyk is calling me at 11 in the morning on the weekend, so I’m like, this must be a butt dial, and I just let it go to voicemail.  A voicemail pops up, and I listen to it, and he's like, “Hey Alison. I’ve got a role for you. Call me back.” I had no idea what this could possibly be about, so I called him back, and he was like, "We’re shooting this week and we’d love you to play this role. Are you available? We know it’s last minute." I was supposed to go to New York for an appearance, and I was like, “Maybe? Let me get back to you.” I called my manager and she said, “No, you stay in LA and take the job. You don’t go to New York for the appearance” So in 12 hours, I canceled my trip to New York and called Alan to tell him I was in and showed up on set two days later. That’s where I got to meet PJ (PJ Haarsma was Executive Producer of Con Man and Co-Creator of Retro Replay) and just had the greatest time. I didn’t even know what I was walking into at first and I was like, “Oh this is awesome.”

Brandy: I can just imagine working with Nolan (North) and PJ is amazing and Alan. Just wow. I’m envious.

Alison: Nolan and I didn’t actually work together at all on Con Man. We didn’t meet until we all started to do press together. That was actually the first time I met Nolan and he and I just got along like two peas in a pod so I was like this guy...we’re keeping this guy around. 

Brandy: Is there anything in particular that happened that was funny on the Heart Baby Eggplant set? I know you guys shot that in a week but there has to be something crazy that happened.

Alison: We shot that in five days. It was such a last-minute, thrown together, "I can’t believe it happened," shoot. I won’t say this is funny, but the Universe was looking out for us. For this five-day shoot, we had wanted to ask this specific makeup artist, but she wasn’t available for the first day. We figured it would just be easier to hire someone that was available all five days, so we hired a different woman, and she was amazing. She did our first day on set. Laura, Rati, and I are all producers on the set, so not only are we actors having to make our call time, but we’re also having to deal with all the behind-the-scenes stuff. We woke up at around 5am for day two of shooting to a text message saying that our makeup artist had a death in the family, unfortunately, so she couldn’t make the rest of the shoot. Of course we understood, so we talked about bringing our own makeup and letting the other actors know that we might not have hair and makeup that day, so they would need to bring their own stuff. We were putting out all of these emergency texts to everyone, but I decided to hit up the original makeup artist we wanted. It was literally 5:30 in the morning. I thought that maybe if we could get her there by noon, she could cover half the day. I shot her a text, and I was like, “I'm so sorry this is such an early text but this has happened and I know yesterday you weren’t available, so are you possibly available the rest of the day?” She literally texted me back in 30 seconds and she’s like, “Yeah, girl, I’ll be there. What’s the address?” And here I am wondering why she was even awake? But okay, thank you! When you are doing an Indie project, you have to expect hurdles like this. The fact that it actually worked out was the Universe saying, “We got you.” We finished shooting, and Laura gave birth nine days later.

Brandy: We know from watching Retro Replay that you are an Uncharted fan. Do you typically play a lot of action adventure games? What are you currently playing?

Alison: Yeah, I like action-adventure puzzling games. The Portal games are some of my favorites, and these days, I am far more attracted to Indie games than to the Triple-A titles. They are just a little bit more specific and my Xbox Game Pass now starts recommending games. “We bet you would like this." You are very right! I just discovered the “Call of the Sea." You know, little Indie games that you can finish in 6 to 8 hours, so you aren’t dedicating a month and a half of your life to this. You have two evenings free, and you’re like, oh great, let me solve these fun puzzles with a great story. That’s really what appeals to me these days. I just played “A Night in the Woods,” which is not really a puzzling game, but it’s a storytelling game. I really like this trend of games in which you are less playing a game, but you are discovering clues along the way. Another good one is “The Return of Obra Dinn." That one is fantastic. 

Brandy: Is there anything that you are looking forward to playing? Something that you have seen that you are excited to see come out?

Alison: You know what I haven’t played yet that I have been meaning to play is “The Witcher” series. That’s sitting on top of my console waiting to be played.

Brandy: You have been a gamer almost your entire life and you’ve been in the gaming industry for a long time. What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen involving gaming and gamers.

Alison: When I was on G4, we would always cover E3 and seeing how E3 changed over those four years that I was there was cool. In the time span that I was there and watching E3 develop, it always stuck out to me how Nintendo marched to the beat of their own drum. I very specifically remember the year that both Microsoft and Sony were like, “HD EVERYTHING IS AWESOME! HD! HD!” Nintendo was like, “We’ve got movement-based stuff,” because it was the year they came out with the Wii. The very next year, Microsoft and Sony were like, “ WE DO MOVEMENT TOO! Look, we have movement! KINECT!” Nintendo just does not care where everyone else is going. They just do their own thing, and everyone just looks at it like, well, we can do that too! I’ll also say what’s really heartening is when I started at G4 back in 2007, I had started there because I was seen as a rarity. It was like, “a woman who plays video games and you know what you are talking about?” It was shocking. I love it that here we are, however many years later, and it’s very common for women to be in the gaming industry and play video games. It’s no longer seen as this odd thing. It's been really heartening to see that growth in the industry in the last several years.

Brandy: Oh I remember my first World of Warcraft raid. It was a 40 person raid and I finally spoke, “I need heals please”. Everything stopped and I heard over vent, “there’s a GIRL here?” and now it’s just a normal thing.

Alison: I know thank God!

Brandy: I have a stream with one of my good friends and it’s called “Breast Friends”.

Alison: *laughs* That is awesome!

Brandy: You’ve done so many different things. You’ve hosted G4, Battle Bots, The Morning After, The Nerdist. You’ve starred in amazing shows like Con Man, Heart Baby Eggplant and even directed a short film. What is next for Alison?

Alison: I definitely want to get more into directing. What you are referring to was a silly little project me and my friends threw together years ago. I was like, “I can just tell people what to do” because I was the one with the camera! We hired our very good friend Adam Green to direct Heart Baby Eggplant, but because everything was so last minute, I was basically standing with Adam and explaining, "this is what we are intending for this scene'" and he was able to capture our vision the way we needed it. But from that experience, I was like, I think I can do this for real. I didn’t get into this industry with that intention, but the more I learn about directing, the more I think my brain is kind of wired for this. So that is something I think I absolutely want to focus on more moving forward. 

Brandy: I’m definitely good at behind the scenes and telling people what to do. I’m not great at being on camera.

Alison: Well you are crushing it right now. 

Brandy: Well thank you so much! 

I honestly can’t say enough amazing things about Alison. She is one of the most down to earth and funny humans I have ever been privileged to chat with. Because to be honest, this interview was more of a chat than anything. It was so much fun to talk about NASA, swap ideas for new games to try, and to give Drew Lewis a bit of a hard time. I can’t wait to see what amazing ideas she comes up with next or new projects she may be involved with. Make sure you follow Heart Baby Eggplant, Alison, Rati Gupta, and Laura Ortiz on all socials to stay up to date on their upcoming plans for the show and watch for possible crowdfunding opportunities to make season two happen with some amazing perks added! 

What are some of your favorite things that you have seen Alison in? Leave comments below!

Get The "F" Out Of Wrestling

No matter where I go, when the topic of professional wrestling is brought up, some would like to strike up a conversation while others would just roll their eyes and use the “F” word. No, I’m not talking about the “F” word that George Carlin used in his seven dirty words routine. (Am I that old)? Jokes aside, the word I consider taboo for wrestling is fake.

Oh hey! Do you want to know what else is fake? Probably your favorite movie or TV series! Because there is no such thing as magical dragons that breathe fire or people with superpowers to take down the bad guys.

Wrestlers are skilled athletes who risk pain and injury...

As wrestling fans, we all know that every match is predetermined on who is winning and who is losing. What people forget, though, is that pulling off certain moves such as Brock Lesnar’s signature suplexes or Shawn Michaels’ superkicks takes specific timing between the two wrestlers, otherwise there will be serious neck injuries that could end up paralyzing someone. 

One of the most important features of a fan-favorite wrestler is not only getting down the timing of pulling the moves but how athletic they are. No matter what the size of the wrestler, big or small, they need to be sure to stay in peak physical condition on strength and stamina in order to survive year in and year out of the ring from either performing their insane signature moves or taking a nasty bump in the ring or going through a table where the athletes risk muscle tears or broken bones.

Non-wrestling fans don't realize that the ring provides very little padding if any at all. What’s underneath the tarp of the ring are 2x8 lumber boards spread across the ring and the only padded things are the turnbuckles. So the bumps you hear after a wrestler gets slammed to the floor and the grimaces on their faces are real because they are feeling that pain throughout their bodies.

One match I'll always remember is the 1998 King of the Ring Pay-Per-View (PPV) Hell in a Cell match Mankind (Mick Foley) vs The Undertaker in a crazy cage. About a  minute after the match started, The Undertaker threw Mankind off the top of the cage (22 ft. off the ground) and crashed down on the commentator’s desk with Jim Ross shouting "As God as my witness that man is broken in half!"

It was a scary moment because Mick lay motionless for several minutes with the EMT rushing out to put him on a stretcher. Vince McMahon broke character as the evil owner persona and was legitimately worried about Mick. What happened next was just unbelievable, Mick got out of the stretcher and walked straight back to the cage, ignoring every staff member, and climbed back to the top to continue the match. 

It would go on for the next few minutes until Undertaker did a chokeslam on Mick that busted the cage and fell straight down to the ring. Even worse is that the match still went on and there is a clip of Mick slouched to one of the ring posts a bit bloodied and one of his broken teeth somehow got into one of his nostrils. What is even crazier is that not only did the match continue beyond that, but somehow thumbtacks got thrown in the ring, and Mick got choke-slammed on top of them.

Another instance of a nasty injury was on an episode of RAW on March 8th. Drew McIntyre faced Sheamus in a no disqualification match. Near the end of the match, both guys beat each other with kendo sticks. They went all out with each strike and they posted pictures of each wound from the loud strike that the microphones picked up. The Twitter post here from WWE UK shows their backs after it all went down. Trust me, I’ve actually been smacked by a kendo stick and I know for a fact that the strike hurts like hell!

Wrestlers are talented performers in engaging storylines...

Flashy moves and physicality are not the only selling points of wrestling. What makes the events special are the different characters and storylines that happen throughout the year. Depending on the story/character arch, it might be a one-and-done month-long storyline that ends at an upcoming PPV or, if the story gets pretty hot with the fans, it could be a months-long feud that will end at one of the big PPV events. For my examples, I’m going to use the top four PPV events from the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE): WrestleMania, Summer Slam, Survivor Series, or The Royal Rumble. (The WWE was formerly the World Wrestling Federation or WWF.) 

Being able to perform in the ring is hard, but portraying the character is intimidating.

Now you can’t just have a great storyline if you don't have the right characters for it. In the wrestling business, there are two different personalities; Babyface (good guy) or the Heels (bad guys). So basically it’s heroes versus villains. Being able to perform in the ring is hard, but portraying the character is intimidating. Not only do you have to look the part of the good/bad guy, but you have to be believable for the audience when you talk to them so public speaking is a must! Of course, it is harder to do that these days with Covid-19 where the wrestler can not get a feel for the audience if they are liking or hating what they are hearing.

The Hurricane

I've seen so many characters from the past and present that everyone loved and hated. Stone Cold Steve Austin was loved for being anti-establishment. He flips off his boss, drinks beer, and kicks ass, which is what everyone wishes they could do at their day jobs. The Undertaker is pretty much a supernatural type character that is hard to take down and super strong. The Undertaker is also a perfect example of the gimmick character with his dead man look, which is what made him stand out and be memorable. There are other crazy characters that I’ve seen that were memorable that no one else could pull off like The Hurricane (superhero), The Godfather (pimp), and Sting (anti-hero crow). Mick Foley portrayed 3 different characters: Mankind (wears a leather strap mask), Dude Love (hippy), and Cactus Jack (a crazy hardcore guy that loves using barbwire bats).

Another essential thing for a wrestler is their theme music. Every time a wrestler shows up, their theme music drops to let the fans know who’s coming out. The music can be either a catchy beat or a song that can be used for your gym playlist. Shinsuke Nakamura's WrestleMania 34 “The Rising Sun” theme is a perfect example of what gets my blood pumping for the start of my workout. It has Alice Cooper’s guitarist Nita Strauss doing an insane solo at the beginning.

Present-day wrestling in America seems to have fewer gimmicky characters because every wrestler wants to be a badass instead of an off-the-wall character. Right now the best gimmick characters to me are The Fiend who is a supernatural clown type monster that sometimes carries a huge cartoonish hammer that has been seen sporadically this year. The other is The Miz who is easily described as the real-life Johnny Cage where he stars in B-listed movies and so full of himself (just like me).

The Fiend

I could go on and on about the different types of characters in the Wrestling Universe and tell you how they can crank up the crowd but it’s something that you would just have to witness for yourself. What makes today’s wrestling so fun it's more than the WWE. Look for:

All Elite Wrestling (AEW) on TNT
Total Impact on Twitch or AXS TV
New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW) on Roku

You do not have to rely on one particular promotion because every promotion actually adds a lot of different flavors that a casual fan would like or want to see what else is out there.

Oh yeah, and if you're feeling nostalgic about wrestling in video games? Check out Michael Saint Gregory's article "Pro Wrestling's Greatest Video Games."

Let me know in the comments below if you are a fan or if you are a new fan that wants to know about the other promotions to watch. Feel free to ask and connect!

Our Pandemic Vocabulary

During the COVID-19 pandemic, have you found yourself staying home and ordering takeout because people weren't socially distancing at the grocery store, and the cashier looked sus with that face mask hanging half-off?

And if I had asked you that question just over a year ago, would it have made sense to you? What kind of "face mask" would you have imagined? And what would "social distancing" and "sus" mean to you?

I posted this humorous meme to my Facebook page the first day that things started closing because of COVID-19.

This pandemic may have kept us away from each other, but it's also brought us together in some crazy new ways. In our social circles online, we've created our own language around the pandemic itself and the pop culture phenomena that it gave rise to.

Let's look at some of what I'm calling our "pandemic vocabulary" from the past year.

COVID and Coronavirus

News media has shaped how we talk about the virus itself. COVID-19, the most specific name of the virus, and its shortened form COVID, became common. We also heard Coronavirus so much it became a meme. We even heard stories about people naming their child Corona or Covid. And even the Corona beer makers had to bounce back when Americans misassociated the virus with their brand.

Face masks

In February 2020, perhaps the most common association we made with "face mask" was in reference to something worn as a costume or worn to protect the face in certain jobs or sports. By April 2020, there were thousands of vendors marketing cloth face masks to cover the nose and mouth while out in public. My friends and I started considering it a courtesy to wear them to help slow the spread of COVID-19 since science found we could transmit it up to 14 days before showing symptoms.

One of Hoot's hand-sculpted face mask creations.

Similarly, the average person is also now likely to know that PPE stands for personal protective equipment. You may be familiar with the struggles of hospitals worldwide to have enough PPE for their staff throughout 2020.

And if we're all going to be wearing these masks for our own safety, why not get creative with them? The featured image at the top of this article shows Replayers Maria Kinnun and Charlotte Merritt with masks that Charlotte made. Replayer Hoot (Jeff Owle), was inspired to construct fun handmade costume masks specially designed to wear over protective masks (check out the photo here). After a COVID-related layoff, Hoot turned his attention to building a home-based business to sell his masks (with a website coming later this month).

Social distancing

During the pandemic, governments and health organizations recommended or required people to take precautions to keep themselves and others from spreading COVID-19. Part of those recommendations added a new term to our vocabulary: social distancing. This means keeping a distance in social situations to reduce the chance of transmitting the virus by air. Basing their recommendations on recent years of scientific study, health organizations worldwide recommended distances from 1 meter (World Health Organization) to 6 feet (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Some people combined both face masks with social distancing for an extra level of precaution.

Postmates, Uber Eats, Grubhub, DoorDash

Did I use Postmates to order Krispy Kreme doughnuts? Yes. Yes I did.

I've already mentioned the reduced hours and lost jobs that came as businesses suffered during the pandemic. Restaurants were hit particularly hard, especially if they didn't already have a drive-through or delivery model. Besides having to adopt more stringent safety for preparing and serving food, many were forced to shift to a takeout-centric plan to stay in business. This reality has been a boon to third-party services that deliver food from area restaurants. In the US, the biggest names in takeout over the last year include Postmates, Uber Eats, Grubhub, and DoorDash. It's likely that more Americans have one of those apps on their smartphones now than they would have without the pandemic.

Work-from-home, remote working, telecommuting

The nature of some businesses was that there just wasn't any work during the pandemic. I already mentioned Hoot, a stage carpenter for live productions, who was finally laid off after four months of significantly reduced hours. His sister and brother-in-law were part of the crew in one of the traveling "Book of Mormon" productions, and they found their whole tour canceled.

Fortunately for myself and others in the tech industries, there was an option to start working from home. I am already a remotee who works completely from home, so my work routine didn't change much. For my office-based co-workers, though, there was a major shift in routine. They set up new desks, chairs, and computer monitors to work from home, and they made sure they had internet connections to support their work-from-home needs. Some even started referring to their kids and pets as "coworkers."

Many similar companies have used this pandemic experience to learn how they can better support their remote employees. They've also started looking at making telecommuting the norm for certain job roles, which can save a company in capital expenses like office space, parking, cleaning services, and snacks. It can also significantly reduce a company's carbon footprint.

Zoom, online meetings, and online hangouts

When business and social gatherings started moving into online conferencing software, Zoom became a household name. Before the pandemic, my team at work had been using Zoom for a couple of years as one way to deliver online training. When the pandemic hit, skyrocketing Zoom usage prompted the company to hasten improvements to its software, making it more secure and easier to use. Zoom continues to monitor how vaccines and people getting back out into the world will impact the company moving forward.

Certainly, other online meeting platforms benefited from an increased number of users. However, it was Zoom that became synonymous with both business meetings and social gatherings during the pandemic. The Replayer Happy Hour hosted each Thursday by Brandy Brown (@watery_tart19) is an online hangout on Zoom. Many of us regularly in that hangout have learned how to combine Zoom with fun backgrounds and Snap Camera filters.

Replayers chatting in Zoom
Replayers chatting in Zoom just after a Thursday Retro Replay premiere.

Another social phenomenon with online meetings and classes is social protocol around how to properly use the software. One online class I took had rules about how to use the chat and "raise-hand" features and about not having the camera on if there's going to be a lot of movement in the frame. At my work, where we primarily use Google Meets and BlueJeans for meetings, we ask people to kindly mute their mic if they have a lot of background noise. That said, we've become very forgiving for parents who have young kids at home that unexpectedly pop into the room.

There are other topics branching off from this that deserve their own articles: the challenge of moving schools to online classrooms, how fan conventions reproduced their convention experiences online, and how studio-based content creators like Rooster Teeth, Nerdist, and our own Retro Replay have used software like Zoom to reproduce the studio experience in an online format.

A watch party on Twitch

Watch parties

When Game of Thrones episodes were still coming out, Hoot and I invited local friends over to have a potluck dinner and watch each new episode together. Before the pandemic, social media companies were already including features to simulate watch parties like this online. The pandemic made the watch party more common as people sought shared entertainment and social experiences to replace going to the movies or hanging out with friends. This has prompted new features and enhancements that make it easier to host or join a watch party. Twitch even recently has launched a Watch Party feature that allows people to watch content hosted on Amazon streaming services using their Twitch channel space.

Sus, vent, crewmate, imposter, and doing tasks

GameTunes is just one of many YouTube creators that have created music and video content inspired by Among Us.

A lot of social games saw an uptick in use during the pandemic. Simple-concept games like Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout and Animal Crossing: New Horizons both had strong debuts in 2020, right as the world started staying at home and socially distancing. Perhaps the most notable success, though, is Among Us. Among Us is an online multiplayer social deduction game released by InnerSloth LLC back in June 2018. The game is cross-platform for Android, Apple, and PC (through Steam), making it easy to gather friends together even if they don't own the major gaming consoles. 

During each Among Us game, everyone in the group is a crewmate that has a list of tasks to do around a map. However, one or two of the people in the group are actually randomly assigned imposters who are sabotaging and killing off the others who are doing tasks. The goal of the game depends on your role: crewmates try to finish tasks before the imposters kill them all, and imposters try not to be voted out by the crewmates before they have a chance to kill everyone.

As a result of the rise in Among Us popularity in 2020, new words have entered our common vocabulary. The word "suss" means to realize something, but sus, short for "suspicious," is now the common way to let someone know you doubt they're being truthful. "Vent" as a verb may mean to freely express yourself, but vent also now refers to escaping through a vent in the floor, something only imposters can do.

Amelia Brown makes an imposter kill in front of her fellow Replayers who are crewmates.

There's so much more we could delve into about how the pandemic affected our pop culture and daily lives. I'm just scratching the surface here, highlighting a few parts of the story through some of the words we've started to use over the last year.

Do you use these words a lot, too? What other words can you think of that are far more common now than before the pandemic? Let's discuss in the comments!

A special thanks to Replayers Charlotte Merritt and Beth Sarber who contributed their ideas as I planned out this article.