Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Quest

So I found out at the last minute (read: an hour and a half before it's premiere) that ABC was debuting a new Reality Series called "The Quest". It was shown as like The Amazing Race, but in a medieval fantasy world. Regular men and women from our side of reality are cast and put into the roles of heroes and are set on a quest to save the realm. Fast reading through some of the reviews, everyone is calling this a form of Live Action Role Play. Everyone but the showrunners.

After three episodes, here's my take on it.

A lot of the reasons why larping is such a hard hobby to describe to people outside of larping is because larps are about everyone being the performance. It's not something you can easily show to a passive audience. The only way it's worked in the past is through documentary, interspersing the action that is going on with comments from the players. Reality Shows also follow this pattern of showing you the action while having one of the folks in the scene comment on it while separated from it.

And that's how they did it here.

So, okay, the premise so far. 12 people from 'our world' were chosen by the Three Fates to become Paladins on a quest to save the fantastical kingdom of Everrealm from the oncoming Verlox. Each Paladin was given a piece of The Sunspear, an ancient weapon to fight back the dark. Only by overcoming challenges with and between each other can the one True Hero emerge to wield the Sunspear restored against Verlox. From Sanctum, the Capital of Everrealm, the 12 paladins live together and a constantly moving world world (aided by actors from around Austria, where the castle they are staying in really is).

The Fates are The Judges, The Sunspear the Reward.


Watching the first episode, I saw a lot of familiar tropes going on that many people who've ever done a fantasy role play have ever experienced. The players, still in their normal street garb, are transported across an underground river where they are met by the Fates, who guide them to their main contact. They're representing the threshold into game space, from here on in, no one is going to be in Kansas anymore. They enter and recover the fragments of the sunspear while meeting their contact, Crio. Crio leads them to the castle through a dark forest. Just as they're making their way, an Ogre appears and kills Crio's friend. Everyone bails, but as soon as the danger is over they reassess what just happened, which leads to one of the Paladins going "Okay, from here on out we NEVER Let that happen again".

They make it to Sanctum, and are then immediately put into jail by the obligatorily smarmy Vizier. It's at this point that the players get a chance to converse and talk. So you have a "You all meet in Jail" scenario, which allows the players to get to know each other and to establish themselves. Some talk about climbing the walls to escape, whilst others try to rationalize this and wait for Crio to try and spring them. After a while, they do get sprung, and it becomes clear that they will be housed in the castle and trained to defend themselves and the realm.

The format of the show is really simple. Plot happens in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the show, then comes the challenge of the day. In the first episode it was learning to fire ballistas into dummy soldier, the second involved archery and accuracy with a spear, and the third required a puzzle to get ingredients to an antidote. At the end of each challenge, the three Paladins who do the worst must complete a second challenge before the Fates. If they win, they are excused, the two who did not win risk Banishment from the world as voted on by their fellow Paladins. They then continue the plot which leads to the next episode. It's a simple plot, but there is a lot going on here.

The main thing is this: This entire premise stands out because they are interacting with a fully fleshed out world. There is a lot going on, and it's clear we're only getting the highlights. These players are immersed in the world and treat it as if it's really happening. This is aided and abetted by the NPCs that are moving about, either as citizens or as named NPCs who guide and interact with them.

What makes this whole thing special is that it's a reality show with a plot. The Reality comes from the players while everything around them is part of the show and scripted. This sometimes leads to them all huddled together as the plot happens around them, watching as the actors take part. I also have the feeling that the filming of this was done in days and not in weeks. Something about the pacing makes me think that each day is a challenge. One, because of the production value put into the show, Two, because the actors go home every day while the Paladins sleep in the castle. I would love to see this be done with a more controllable town where, if the players wished to, could go out and see people interacting and playing with one another and the players. It'd give more a sense of depth to the world.

The show reminds me of another reality show. It was called "Murder in Small Town X" it was aired in 2001, it focused on murder in a fictional town in Maine, with the players being the investigators brought in to find the killer. There was a very David Lynchian aspect to the show, with The town was entirely populated with actors whom interacted with one another around the players and with the players. There was a story and a world to explore It was at the time very ambitious, and marked with Tragedy as the winner of the show was a New York Firefighter who died during 9/11 just one week after the finale aired.

One of my major hang ups with 'Reality TV' is that it's not Reality. It's artifice, of people duking it out for fame and for money. That sets a horrible precedent. The players of the Quest aren't playing for the money, there is no money. They are playing purely for the experience, for the story. I think this enhances it for the players, as their voting of the other players removal is more emotional. There is no sense of greed, but many of them are trying to figure out a way to achieve the goal of saving the world. Many of them have said during the voting process 'They may be the One True Hero, they may not. I'm voting for them because they will help us get to that end". I think this also allows for the viewers to sit and enjoy, because there are consequences to the world around these guys. They aren't in a bubble, and their actions have consequences and there is a definite end along the way.

As a Writer, I have to help but to laugh at some of the things I see on the show. It's truly a "Fantasy Role Play Trope 101" course with generic names for locations and using common character types. The sneering Vizier, the Faithful Steward, the Unimpressed Hardass Combat Instructor, all of them are at the heart of this game and many more. The dialogue that is not exposition can almost be quoted five seconds before they say it. This does not take away from the experience, because you're watching a group of people getting to live the life of a fantasy role play protagonist.

The Quest has become a popular show, hitting many TV Watch Lists. This shows to me that people are more amenable for people to do something as outrageous as this, to follow a fantastical notion and accept that these relatively normal people are willing to do something that is as undeniably geeky and undeniably cool as living out the dream as being a hero in a fantasy novel. To quote a few of my friends, it's Larp Light. This gives me hope that people may be more accepting of the fact that we, as larpers, try to do similar. Of course, I'm a closet idealist.

Also interesting to note is that several of the players in the game are friends of my friends in the geek field. Christian is a staple of the Renfaire Circuit and Adria is a larper and Cammie herself. I'm always amazed at how small the community is, and yet how isolated we sometimes can be with one another. It will be interesting to see what the show has to offer and maybe one day I'll be able to meet some of the players and get to ask some questions.

In short, watch the Quest. It's a fun adventure, for the players, and for the audience. It gives a fairly good account of what a larp can be to those who view it from the outside, a rarity in our communiity.  For those of us who larp, this is a dream come true. And I hope that it is the first of many seasons.

Later,

C

Here's a Link to The Quest's Hulu Page: Watch Here

For the sake of Nostalgia: here's a Youtube Playlist of all of Murder in Small Town X's episodes: Watch Here

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