Adventure Time has become a show with a pretty big adult following, and with good reason. The show is not only bright, colorful, creative, and genuinely funny, but it actually has a lot of heart, and a surprising maturity. It's even shown with episodes like "I Remember You" that it's willing to tackle some pretty dark subject matter.
Whenever I hear people talk about their "favorite episode" of the show, it's usually off a pretty short list. "I Remember You" and "Simon and Marcy" get brought up a lot, and yeah, they're both incredible episodes. If not those, then you'll often hear some of the Lich episodes brought up, bringing a darker tone to the show, or anything to do with the Bubbeline fandom, like "What Was Missing." Of course there's also the Lemongrab episodes, or some one-off episodes like "Puhoy"... But one of my favorite episodes, perhaps even my favorite episode, is rarely mentioned by the fandom, and I think that's a real shame.
So, I thought I'd talk for a minute about "Dungeon Train," one of the best, but most often forgotten episodes of the series.
I know, I know. "Dungeon Train"? Isn't that a pretty random pick? Well, that's the thing, there's a very specific reason why I feel so strongly about "Dungeon Train," and that because of all the episodes of the show, it's not only the one I've personally connected to the most, it's one which talks about a subject which I've never seen handled with the same level of care anywhere else.
I'll just tell you know, I'm going to spoil not only "Dungeon Train," but several plot beats leading up to it. So if you haven't seen up through "Dungeon Train," turn back now.
In case you haven't seen it, or don't remember it, "Dungeon Train" was an episode which aired last year, toward the middle of season five. It comes a few episodes after "Earth & Water," which was the official break up episode for Finn and Flame Princess. Finn's still feeling pretty down in the dumps by the time we get to "Dungeon Train," so Jake decides to take him to explore a weird cave Flambo's brother told them about to cheer him up.
On the way to the weird cave, the two come across a mysterious train marked by an infinity symbol, and after waiting for it to pass, they realize that it's just going in an endless circle. The two decide to board the train and ride it to the other side of the loop to make their trip faster, but when they get on it they start finding monsters onboard who drop loot, and the two start having fun just fighting the monsters in the plain ship chambers. Kill monsters, get loot, repeat.
It cheers Finn up for the first time in weeks, and at first Jake is thrilled to see Finn so happy, but after a few hours Jake starts to get bored of the dungeon train. He asks Finn if he's ready to leave to explore the cave, but Finn says he's still having fun on board the train, so he wouldn't mind staying for a while longer. Even after the two of them get hungry, Finn just wants to eat the (slimy) food they find on board the train so they won't even have to take a break.
Eventually, Jake realizes they're not even fighting new monsters any more, just the same monsters in different colors. Blue ants become red ants. But Finn doesn't even care, the mindless cycle of kill, loot, repeat has cheered him up. He says it's like his brain is telling him to keep it up, and that it's good stuff.
Before long though, one of the items that drops is a future crystal, revealing the future for the two… And it turns out that Finn keeps fighting in the train, enjoying the same boring loop over and over again, for the rest of his life.
And here's the thing, he doesn't even mind. He thinks that sounds great. Even when Jake threatens to leave Finn behind, Finn says he wants to stay on the train, because "stuff makes sense here."
Eventually, the only thing that makes Finn realize how ridiculous he's being is when he takes a closer look at the future crystal, and sees old Jake is still following him, bored as ever.
At the end, Finn decides to send Jake home, keep playing for a while, and then go home. He looks at the crystal again to prove he'll get it out of his system, and come home, and our episode ends.
So that's the general gist of the episode. Now, why do I like it so much?
Well, here's the thing. "Dungeon Train" is a really strong standalone episode, but I really feel that this episode was, not so subtly, about something else entirely, MMO addiction.
I'm not really sure what you want to call it, I've heard MMO addiction, MMO compulsion, game addiction, game compulsion, and so on and so forth, but what I'm basically trying to get at here are the people who retreat from the real world, into game like World of Warcraft. I was one of those people, for a long time.
Let me start by being up front about one thing, I don't regret the time I spent playing World of Warcraft, and I don't say any of this to try and demonize those games. I love those games. I'm not still playing WoW, partly because I did eventually get tired of it, and partly because I just didn't care for the newer content that much, but I think it's a great game on its own merits, and I've sunk a lot of time into it. I have weeks of play time on it, and that's being conservative.
But like I said, I don't regret the time I spent playing it, I met my best friend through WoW, and I have a lot of great memories of spending time raiding with friends that I wouldn't trade for the world. I do, however, also acknowledge that for a span of a few years, I got way further into the game than I really ought to have.
Here's the thing about MMO's, and most games in general. They're designed to be instantly gratifying. Every time you start to get bored in an MMO, you're either close to, or have just reached some new goal. Leveling up, getting new gear, unlocking a new dungeon, even just finishing a quest hub and getting sent to a new one, it's all designed around (I'm getting a little inside baseball here) these engagement loops. Even completing your rotation is based around that idea, think about it, most characters in WoW have "rotations," which is to say you use little attacks until a bigger attack becomes available, and then loops that together until a boss dies.
And that's fine, there's nothing wrong with that, if there were I wouldn't have played WoW compulsively for years. But the thing is, that kind of engagement loop feels really good. That instant gratification feels really good. It makes you happy, however fleetingly, to get some new piece of loot, or level up, or even just complete a quest and get some new bright flashy light shine on screen. So if you are feeling down in the dumps about, let's say, a breakup, that kind of engagement loop is distracting in a really powerful way.
The reason I like "Dungeon Train" so much is because it's the most realistic and relatable, and for that matter non-judgmental, story about game addiction I've ever seen. Take, for example, this clip from (and yes, I know, it's low-hanging fruit) The Big Bang Theory, from an episode where Penny becomes addicted to some sort of... game, I don't know, I'm not going to actually track down this episode to make a point.
That right there? That's how I feel people on the outside view game addiction. Some sort of hilarious thing to be made fun of, which instantly reduces normal people to utter slobs, and makes them irritable and crazy because they're too into a game. That clip pays lip service to the actual problem, instead of representing it. It makes sense, because on the outside, that is how it looks.
Here's the thing though, this sort of game addiction doesn't happen because "the game is so fun," or anything like that, it happens because people who feel bad about themselves, or their life, or just how something has gone recently, have found something which can make the pain go away for a little while. It's the same reason people get addicted to alcohol, or heroin, or any number of other pain relievers like that.
And, let me be clear, game "addiction" is not something as serious and dangerous as heroin addiction or alcoholism, I'm not trying to say that it is. The point that I am trying to make is that these games can become an escape for people who feel bad about something. By design they're made to keep people engaged for long periods of time, so of course people who don't want to deal with their real lives any more would be sucked into that idea. In truth, much like other addictions or compulsions, you may know very well that you've gone too far, but if it's the only thing that makes you stop feeling bad about who you are, that doesn't mean you're going to stop.
In some weird way, Star Trek got it right all those years ago with Barclay, games like this are already addictive, I'm sure I'd be ten times worse than Barclay was if I ever had a holodeck ("Hollow Pursuits" is actually another episode I love dealing with a similar subject matter, though written years before this sort of a thing even became a problem. Life imitating art?).
That's why "Dungeon Train" speaks to me so much. That's why it's my favorite episode. Because it's not judging you for getting too far into these kinds of games, it's just representing what that feels like.
I also like the moment where Finn sees a world where he's done nothing with his life but spend it all on that loop, and says that he's going to have the best life, because that feels totally realistic to me. That's the other thing that can be so consuming about these games, because it doesn't feel like a waste of time (and, hey, I'd argue it's not a waste of time, time enjoyed is not time wasted), it feels like you're really accomplishing things. It feels like you're great at something, and that's a kind of high which comes much harder in the real world.
More to the point, it's not even trying to make fun of these games themselves. Think back to the ending of the episode, Finn doesn't just leave the train right away and say "phew, yeah, I'm glad I quit that thing, that was an evil train," he says that he'll stay behind a while, but eventually get over it and come home.
There's nothing evil about World of Warcraft, as much as some might like to demonize it. There's nothing wrong with playing games, even with playing games a lot. The problem only comes when you ignore the real world to flee to one of fantasy, and hey, that's true of anything. If you disappear into movie after movie trying to escape reality, that's a problem too.
It even manages to say all of that without ever uttering the words "video game," and I'd say that's pretty impressive.
So that's why "Dungeon Train" is, if not my favorite episode, certainly in my top three (and, yes, "I Remember You" is one of the other two). I think it's a real shame that it's such an often forgotten episode.