There are spoilers below the cut!
I’ve been hearing a little bit about The Quest in various corners of the internet for awhile now. Casting calls and information about auditions were passed around various LARPing communities. Interestingly, the word LARP is not used in either of the trailers I saw, so I wasn’t sure how explicitly LARP-like it would be.
The first episode opens with short statements from various producers; for a moment I thought I was watching a preemptive making-of documentary.
The highlight of this new show, to me, is the production values of the fantasy world created for the contestants to experience. The set design is gorgeous and much more authentic looking than I was expecting for a reality show. It looks like a ton of fun just to walk through. There various peasant-like extras milling about, doing mundane medieval work which makes the fantasy world seem all the more real. There’s even a cute goat somewhere on set, and a beautiful, King Arthur-esque round table in the common area of the castle.
The contestants’ introduction to the fantasy world within the show was a slow, dramatic build up, with a narrator doing a dramatic voice over as the contestants find flavorful invitation scroll props. This is followed by an underground (and over water) trek through dungeon-esque tunnels, where what are essentially NPCs (the Fates) show them the way into the fantasy realm where they’ll be competing. A lantern bearing NPC then leads them through the woods to Castle Sanctum, where they’ll be living. They get chased twice by monsters and/or villains, and during one attack, a hapless peasant-type NPC gets dragged off by monsters to reinforce the feeling of dangers.
This nice, long slow build up seems primarily aimed at bringing the contestants into character, so to speak. (They’re not playing characters, and in this way the concept arguably has some ARG-like elements to it.) I don’t know if it brought me as a part of the audience into the show (the contestants repeated excited statements about how real it feels to them might have something to do with it), but this is definitely the kind of thing I like to see kick off a LARP event. I’ve heard of LARPers doing slow walks into a LARP, as a subtle ritual for shedding their usual selves as they go. The external journey into the site reflects the internal journey into a character, to put it a bit dramatically. Having this sort of thing guided by an NPC through flavorful environments seems like a great idea for LARPs to use (and if it involves a lantern leading the way along dark paths, even better).
The fantasy setting itself seems like it’s meant to be as classic fantasy as one can get, with names like “”Everealm” and “The Fates”. (“Sunspear”, by the way, is also a location in A Song of Ice and Fire/ Game of Thrones, and to be fair, I’ve always greatly admired GRRM’s skill in naming things.) The plot involves 12 heroes finding pieces of a MacGuffn (the aforementioned Sunspear) to use to fight a great evil that is returning. Cliche, yes, but I think the intention was to let both the players and the audience grasp the concepts as quickly and seamlessly as possible, and I think the show is meant to be more about watching real people dive into a fantasy setting than it is about the story of the fantasy setting itself.
The first contest divides the contestants into teams and has them try to hit targets with real scorpions, under the eye of a scowling NPC sent to train them. (Sounds like fun to me!) The losing team had a secondary, smaller challenge involving archery, and the rest of the group voted to eliminate one of the losers of the archery challenge. …I say eliminate, but this elimination did not look like a typical reality tv show elimination — there were no parting words, or shots of the contestant leaving the set — just a neat CGI effect of her vanishing into smoke. Makes one wonder what role the eliminated players have yet to play.
The voting element is probably my least favorite part of the show. I’m actually not a big fan of reality tv. The only reality shows I watch are ones that display skills I’m particularly interested in. I’m learning to sew so I can make costumes, so I watch Project Runway. I love costuming and monsters, so I watch Face Off. But I watch them for the artistry. The manufactured drama between contestants either bores me, makes me vaguely uncomfortable, or both, so I’m glad this show keeps it to a minimum. This show purports itself as looking for heroism, so I don’t see why they should be using tactics that producers generally use to encourage backstabbing and politicking and bad feelings. My preference would have been having the lowest scorer in the secondary contest be eliminated, or let NPC judges decide. The players’ comments on one another while deciding their vote seem disingenuous.
The contestants thus far are nothing unexpected. Many of them described being enthusiastic fantasy fans from youth, often citing being a geek as a kid, getting picked on, using fantasy as an escape. When the contestants occasionally get excited and talk about how real everything is, it’s not in a way that seems extreme, to my relief. Viewers can catch glimpses of grins on their faces as they’re fleeing monsters– they’re clearly enjoying themselves.
And it’s interesting to see when the contestants are treating the situation like a competition (one might call this being “out of character”, even though they’re not playing characters), and when they’re trying to really cooperate with the story being told “in character”). When told to wait in a locked yard in the castle, a few try to boost one another up to see beyond the wall. (I think if they were treating it like any other reality show, they’d just sit and wait until some staff gave clear directions.) But when NPCs interact with them, they pretty much go along without question, even if it seems reasonable to demand more information. And when it’s time to vote someone off, some of them consider strategy (OOC), but some of them wonder if it isn’t better to try and make sure that the last one standing really is the hero needed to save the realm (IC). That’s LARP behavior, not competition behavior. Some also decide to hide their pieces of the Sunspear MacGuffin in their rooms while they sleep — more thinking like a LARPer. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I haven’t heard a prize mentioned for the last one standing. That’s a bold and interesting choice. The players are there primarily because they want to enjoy the experience.
Also interesting to me is how little of the players’ real lives are brought into actual experience. There’s some introduction describing their backgrounds, but it doesn’t look like the players have brought any luggage or personal items with them at all. They’re quickly given matching fantasy outfits, and at night are seen going to bed in medieval-looking night shirts. Clearly, the producers want them to feel immersed. I’m curious to see if they’ll be served medieval-style food, and I wonder what the facilities that aren’t seen on camera look like.
It’s worth noting that none of the contestants have mentioned LARP by name yet, though one is shown using boffer weapons in her casting video, and another talks about becoming characters while displaying costumes.
I don’t have any favorites to win yet, but one contestant is known to a number of my friends here in the local community, so I guess I’m cheering for Adria.
I sure wouldn’t mind being a PC (or NPC) on Season 2.
Anybody see the first episode? What did you guys think? Will you be watching episode 2?