Inspired by the unforgiving difficulty Dark Souls video game, Open Mike Eagle has used his own albums to create dense, RPG-like worlds.
Open Mike Eagle has built a career on metaphor. His MC superpower is a sturdy suit of armor forged from layers of allegory and a comical sensibility for the absurd. By rapping from the perspective of characters like Juggernaut from X-Men, the Joestar family from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, and his aunt’s demolished apartment building, he’s able to reimagine trauma through a fantasy that gives him the power to define it on his own terms.
On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, his 2017 album, he was inspired by the world-building method of the 2011 cult-classic video game Dark Souls. Recognized for its revolutionary storytelling and unforgiving difficulty, the Western-style Japanese RPG, developed by Hidetaka Miyazaki and FromSoftware, forcibly teaches the value of finding determination in the face of failure — an omnipresent challenge of Mike’s 2020. Within the last year, the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cancelation of his Comedy Central show The New Negros, and going through a divorce has lead him to the fresh vulnerability of his latest album, Anime, Trauma and Divorce, which was released in October. While the metaphorical armor of past projects afforded him an emotional buffer zone, the breakdown of the stability he had built in his career and personal life has led him to confront his trauma head-on. But he still finds strength through embodying heroes.
“If I’m working in metaphor then I’m not displaying my actual emotional state,” Eagle told me over a Zoom call last month. “I’m wrapping it in something, and that wrapping gives me protection from the questions, comments, gaze of others, as I try to process some of this stuff.” On Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, he insulated himself from the very real destruction of the Robert Taylor Homes, a Chicago public housing project where his aunt lived during his childhood. Rather than rap directly about his experiences there, he chose to take a step back and mythologize the neighborhood through a series of legends that need to be pieced together. “Let’s pretend the Robert Taylor Homes project buildings in Chicago are like pyramids,” he said. “As an archaeologist, you go into these structures and you read the cave paintings, and you kind of start to put together the lore of what society was.”
While the whole album takes place within the Robert Taylor Homes, the past, present, and future of the projects is woven through interconnected stories rather than explicitly stated. He mentions walking through the neighborhood and seeing a bar closing down that’s always been open, describes an apartment infested with roaches that’s using the exposed coils of a stove for heating. The album is full of metaphors that characterize the world indirectly.
“The way that I chose to populate [the Robert Taylor Homes] was not by saying, ‘this is what happened.’ It was kind of that Dark Souls-approach of having to tie all that together to build a sense of what the world was,” Eagle said. “I wanted the projects to feel like Lothric [from Dark Souls 3] or Lordran [from Dark Souls]. You could see evidence of what once was, but you get the sense that things have fallen into disrepair.”
Dark Souls drop-kicks the player into the world without much explanation and a woefully insignificant tutorial. The protagonist stumbles through Lordran, a once-thriving kingdom now suffering a zombie plague of its own. The game’s story, likewise, is little explained. Using sword and shield or magic and weapons discovered throughout the levels, the player fights their way through ancient cities, deep forests, toxic swamps and boobytrapped fortresses capped off with boss fights that often dwarf the protagonist in both size and power. Along the way, if you pay close enough attention to the details you can piece together the stories that tie the world together. A curse of immortality has given everyone — including the player character — never-ending life. But eternity is hardly kind to your sanity. As the inhabitants live forever, mindlessly repeating whatever tasks make up their lives, their humanity slowly drains away as they forget the purpose of the cycles they repeat — leaving them as the hollowed shells that make up many of the game’s varied enemies.
More than just a unique take on a zombie plague, the curse becomes the mechanic by which the game uses its immense difficulty to teach the player about the value of retaining a singular mindset in the face of repeated defeat. Interspersed throughout the lonely world, a handful of gently flickering bonfire checkpoints make up the only respite between the winding levels and challenging fights. Every death resets your progress to the previous bonfire and has a hollowing effect on the character — and with enough frustration, on the player as well. Eagle speaks of one particular boss, The Orphan of Kos, from 2015’s Bloodborne, a thematically identical spiritual successor to the game, that was particularly excruciating. “There’s only a few times in my gaming life where I really had to sit and question whether or not I was psychologically able to do something,” Mike said. “I really had to push through this feeling of ‘I’m never going to do this’.” It took him a month of fighting failure to achieve victory, but the endorphin rush of success is utterly unmatched in gaming. The only route to success is to keep the objective in mind and keep it pushing through the failures.
Eagle expresses this mindset on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream. On the album’s lead track, “The Legendary Iron Hood,” he raps from the perspective of Juggernaut, a tank-like super villain from X-Men. Juggernaut’s unique power is his unstoppable momentum as long as he keeps moving. Eagle uses Juggernaut to characterize the keep it pushing mentality that growing up near Robert Taylor Homes required. And while the metaphor protects him from directly expressing personal vulnerability, some of his own personality traits still leak through in his representation of Juggernaut: “They always tryna fight though but I stay cool / I can’t lose no argument, I got my jewels / I keep my head down, pushing like I’m walking to school.”
“A lot of how I operate my own life is kind of get from thing to thing, you know?” Eagle said. “I’m not sure how much of that was already in me before Dark Souls, but me thinking like that definitely helps in those games and for sure has been helpful in me trying to accomplish my career goals.”
It’s a mindset that’s easier said than done to maintain and often relies on the stability of the foundation you have to build from. In Dark Souls, defeat is punishing but only resets your progress to the comfort of the last bonfire. It’s a pattern of relief that the player is unwittingly lulled into, just for Miyazaki to rip it away at one of the most crucial points. One particular bonfire, referred to as Firelink Shrine, serves as a central hub for the world. No matter how far you wander or climb through the depths of Lordran, there’s always a breath of relief when an unlocked elevator or path surprisingly leads back to the comforting safe space — until it doesn’t. Immediately following one of the most strenuous journeys in the game, the player finally returns to Firelink Shrine to find the bonfire extinguished and its loyal keeper murdered.
In 2020, Eagle’s divorce and the cancelation of The New Negros similarly shattered the stablity that he worked from.
“Stability has always been really important to me, like deeply, deeply important. And in one year, kind of everything that I was dependent on went away,” he said. “Suddenly, everything that I was shaping my world around, had disappeared. It is yes, a lot like what Miyazaki expected me to feel when that Firelink bonfire wasn’t there. Only I had a walkthrough then, but I didn’t have a walkthrough for this.”
With a decade of successful work in his career and a wife and kid, on paper it looked like Eagle had done everything society mandates for a stable and rewarding life. The task of dealing with his shifting reality worsened through the new normal established by the COVID-19 pandemic — one of isolation and decay. Suddenly gone was the financial stability of his career and the mental and emotional foundation of marriage. He was forced to recognize the fragility of comfort, how quickly it can be torn down.
“The real feeling was like, ‘Oh, this is it. I’m gonna blow up and it’s gonna be like this and like that.’ Feeling like this is going to be the ultimate game changer” he said of the cancelation of his show. “It happens… it doesn’t really change the game… and then it gets canceled. Then it’s like, ‘what am I going to do with all these feelings? What am I going to do with this intense disappointment?’”
This subverted expectation of comfort and stability was a driving force of Anime, Trauma and Divorce. Cast into a tumultuous emotional state without a checkpoint to recover from, he took advantage of the same creative outlet he’s previously used to explore trauma and isolation but this time he discarded the armor of metaphor. On the album opener “Death Parade,” he sings: “ Took a bad fall, bad fall / Look, but we had nothing to land on.” This time he’s analyzing the cycle of trauma from within its vortex.
When we’re comfortable, it’s easier to live through our trauma, but it’s also easier to perpetuate it. A common tactic for getting unstuck on a difficult Dark Souls boss is actually to strip all of your protective armor to move faster. Knowing you’re one solid hit away from losing it all somehow replaces the fear with single-minded focus. Eagle captures that feeling on “Everything Ends Last Year.” “It’s like trying to invoke fearlessness when you’re actually very scared,” he said of the song. Amid the emotionally charged turmoil of the album, the gentle song finds a spotlight in the ashes for the emcee to openly assess his lowest point and acknowledge his fatigue. There’s a rejuvenating effect to making the space to do that.
Songs like “Sweatpants Spiderman” and “WTF is Self Care” highlight the absurdity that Eagle sees in his situation. Not only is it difficult to make lifestyle changes at 40 but you don’t really anticipate the need to. He recognizes that he must do something different to overcome the low point but he doesn’t fit into the modern wave of self-care recommendations and even points out the subtle classism the expectations reinforce. A man trying to find the strength to push through his lowest point invokes irony when he raps:
“(What the fuck is self care) / I think I get it finally, it’s like going to wineries /… It’s like finding good smells, or fine wood shelves / In my neighborhood nobody sells that shit so oh well.”
Not all communities have access to the resources that self-care narratives often take for granted, and it’s not like everyone can spend the weekend going to wineries and releasing tension when they have to prioritize getting back on their feet.
It’s telling that amid an album where he addresses his trauma so directly, the only time he steps back into the armor of characterization is on “I’m a Joestar (Black Power Fantasy).” He shakes the binds of self-care expectations to escape into the anime JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, where he finds solace by imagining himself as a member of the Joestar family. In every arc of the show, a generation of the Joestar family sees their life shattered to the core by a cycle beyond their control and their plans are frequently foiled in real-time, but a Joestar never falters in the face of even the most absurd disaster.
“They may react terribly, they may lose their mind, people around them may lose their mind,” Mike said. “It’s like, watching this character try to confront these things and the character traits that are necessary to push through. It’s inspiring to see.”
It’s the same admirable tenacity that Eagle identified in Juggernaut on Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, and the same determination required to keep pushing through Dark Souls defeat after defeat. The difference is that the metaphor of “I’m A Joestar (Black Power Fantasy)” is no longer a defense mechanism, but a battle cry. The way he sings on the record is undeniable. Swirling within an album where he’s bare-knuckle brawling his own trauma around every corner, the escape into a world where he is undefeatable stands as a moment of triumph purer than any other.
When Eagle climbed up out of the depths of Dark Souls and faced the loss of Firelink Shrine, he was playing the game with an online walkthrough open. Because someone else had blindly experienced the breakdown of stability before him and left a record of their journey behind to guide others, he wasn’t as taken by surprise. “People kind of depend on the bravest of us figuring things out and then telling the rest of us how to do something,” he said. “I stopped being afraid of what the game was going to surprise me with, because I started to have the understanding ‘Oh, I have all the tools here. I can deal with whatever they try to play me with.’”