Quite by accident the other night I found myself staring at a television set tuned to a channel of which I did not know and was presented with the opening scenes to a show of which I was not familiar with.
As the scenes unfolded, with contestants introducing themselves, their names in flowery almost Celtic-like patterns on the bottom telling personal stories of their earlier years, at first I thought this had to be a History channel snippet about Medieval times. Researchers perhaps? Historians or even, dare-I-say-it, Mythologists?
But as the scenes switched into talk of fantasy and the unknown world around us I began to suspect it was perhaps a behind-the-scenes look at the latest Hollywood fantasy flick I was not even aware as being in production.
Wrong on all accounts.
The show, which became apparent to me after watching a few minutes, was a reality series where contestants vied to become the Hero of a group of Paladins in the Kingdom of Ever-Realm.
Upon seeing this I can only suspect that you would have immediately jumped to the same conclusion I did about the show—the people are LARPing!
And indeed that is the unspoken premise behind ABC’s reality television show, The Quest.
In this new series, twelve contestants venture into the mystical world of Ever-Realm to become the Last-Hero-Standing as they battle it out against the evil forces of Verlox in the kingdom of Saenctum. All of this action takes place in a fully immersive and completely constructed landscape around a castle and populated by costumed Medieval citizenry as well as witches, wizards, monsters and more.
The expanded canon of the world includes the Fates, three mystical beings who banished the historically nefarious being of Verlox, a cross between Middle Earth’s Sauron and Harry Potter’s Voldemort, with the help of an original group of heroes, a dozen Paladin’s from ages past, testing them through various Labors (like Hercules) until a Legendary True Hero emerged. And every time this V’lox fellow returns, the search is reset, with new pallys sought out by the three Fates to do battle with the Sun Spear against the evil Verlox.
The show itself follows the typical format for reality fare: contestants vying to become the-last-man-standing through a series of challenges. The twist to The Quest however, is the blend between fantasy and reality- or as ABC bills it:
“from the producers of “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, paired with the producers of “The Amazing Race,” “The Quest” will be a fully immersive experience. In and around this castle, our fantasy realm will come to life with state-of-the art projections, animatronics, prosthetics, real-time motion capture and art direction. The narrative and mythology of “The Quest” is deep and fully imagined, and it has been designed to incorporate seamlessly with the unexpected actions and decisions of our contestants – fantasy comes alive as it never has before in this genre-bending series.”
And as for the folks behind it:
‘“The Quest” is executive produced by Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri, Mark Ordesky, Jane Fleming, Rob Eric and Michael Williams. It was filmed on location in Austria.’
In the first episode, which was in all, a rather timid beginning, the contestants entered the Kingdom of Saenctum hounded by horsemen and were given their first challenge which turned out to be, get this:
Firing ballista’s into wooden dummies.
That’s right; they suited up in Medieval gear, got behind wooden barricades and fired FRIGGAN ballista’s!
How medieval is that?
Can you get anymore LARPed out than firing a FRIGGAN ballista?
I’ve been to LARPS and I’ve never fired a ballista, let alone did so in a challenge, let alone did so against wooden dummies, let alone did so more than once– Have you?
Aside from firing FRIGGAN ballista’s, the real intriguing things going on with the show however, and unfortunately it is not the shows chemistry or super engaging contestants themselves or camera-work, is the backgrounds of these ‘contestants’.
Self-professed dreamers and superhero fans, the contestants are, so far as has been revealed anyways, not exactly cut from your typical Gamer cloth.
They are regular people, and by regular, I mean non-RPG/LARPers: i.e. non-Gamers. They are waiters, real-estate folk, teachers, an MMA fighter (that’s right a Real-life FIGHTER, (Level 4+ I imagine)), assistants and other non-gamers galore.
Now given this, I’ve already come across a review about the believability of these folks’ commitment to their roles.
Which reminded me of the mild outcry over Porn Stars playing D&D as being a horrible representation of the hobby to the public at-large, which was simultaneously seen as disingenuous all-the-same (never mind the creators own inflammatory history within the community itself).
The issue is really though, and always is, about the legitimacy of the ‘non-gamer’ who engages in Gaming culture.
This is a reoccurring and thorny issue amongst any group that prides itself on exclusivity and uber-competence. But for me what is so potentially exciting about the show is the fact that it is precisely because it is about non-gamers adjusting to a fantasy setting that makes it something worth consuming and encouraging.
There are always the two sides to this issue of non-Gamers entering the Gaming sphere, those who wish for the hobby to remain exclusive and purist, and those who believe it should be more inclusive and welcoming—I believe it isn’t too hard to imagine which part of spectrum of that argument I stand upon, firmly.
Which, despite the lackluster excitement of the show itself, leads to the biggest and coolest thing about the show that I saw (aside from the ballista’s of course)—the FIGGAN diversity!
Take a look at some of the paladins, i.e. the shows Contestants (Heroes):
The show is set in a fantasy realm modeled after the Middle Ages in Europe. But these don’t exactly typify the images of people ripped from settings of this standard archetypical D&D world (well maybe some D&D Worlds)—yet here, on one of the biggest Networks in the world, they pushed aside all the historical ‘sameness’ of Europe and went for contestants who looked like this:
What can I say? Awesome; that’s one thing I could say. And I will say it- Awesome. (Care to give it a try?)
But it wasn’t just the Paladins who were of eclectic origins, I also noticed Non-European stock in the extras too (apologies, Background Actors), and check out the three Fates of the realms, the mystical women, more than likely modeled after the Greek Fates and transported Ever-Realm and the ones responsible for overseeing the original Heroes who triumphed over Verlox in the first go-round:
Notice the ethnicity of the one on the left and of the one in middle (at the highest podium I might dare add. Well La-de-da!) I wonder who is clearly leader of the group? Can you say, INCLUSIVE? (No seriously, say inclusive—come on now, I know you can)
It was astounding to see, not just see, but how little the show seemed to give a damn about portraying these folks in a medieval setting according to ‘historical’ notions. It immediately reminded me of a website I’ve recently been pointed towards, called People of Color in European Art History—a site that explores how apparently ingrained and pervasive (yet ridiculously ignored) people of color were throughout European history.
But unlike actual history, ABC didn’t stop simply with representations; they seemed almost gleefully joyous at the idea of promoting female stars as the main draw, with over half (seven) of the twelve contestants not just being women but women of various backgrounds.
In fact one of the coolest and most interesting and candid moments of the Pilot episode was when the contestants were discussing their motivations for coming and one of the female paladins said she hoped that one of the ladies ended up winning, just to show that it could be done (paraphrasing)—What!?
For all this talk recently about inclusion in the gaming world and community, what amazes me is that mainstreaming execs of the show didn’t even blink at the discomfort these icons might cause. The reason? I suspect because unlike the real Gaming world, ABC realizes that they aren’t catering to a select group of folks who may or may not dominate a particular past-time: the past-time of tv watching.
Rather by simple profitable design they are clearly seeking a broader fan base than the traditional Gaming industry caters to, i.e. the actual landscape of the American population and not some rapidly shrinking minority group who for the moment still holds the majority.
Right now though, there doesn’t seem to be much discussion out there about the show. But I imagine if the series continues it just might start showing up on the radar big-time in the hobby, more than likely controversially so on both sides, for and against the depictions, and of course for and against the mainstreaming of LARPing in general and for and against [insert minutia by which Gamers will inevitably find to pick the show apart].
For me though I can think of no greater spearhead than such a show as a wedge for the hobby to gain further traction into the consciousness of the world beyond the Gaming community itself.
Game of Thrones made medieval cooler, even as Lord of the Rings made it cool in the first place. Take a look at the new movie Hercules which stars Dwayne Johnson as the Son of Zeus; you have a mixed-American male playing a European historical Icon and folks didn’t even seem to raise a Rock-like eyebrow (even as they vociferously howled over Idris Elba’s Thor).
If the folks out there interested in widening the tent in Gaming really wanted to show off their gaming pride, and especially those LARPers out there, why not mention the show to everyone you can, inserting subtle little questions in the conversations like “Wouldn’t it be cool to be on vacation in a castle like that?” or “Imagine if Halloween was more than once a year, and you could dress up like a Knight?” These questions and discussions aren’t’ so far off from nudging them ever so slightly into “So I’m heading out to this medieval festival this weekend, you wanna’ go?” If the gaming hobby needs more of anything, it’s that it needs more Gamers.
So when you get a chance, why not tune in, download, stream or just pirate (don’t pirate- say no to pirates, they have Beards) ABC’s The Quest and