Runner-up: Observer/Anthony Burgess prize for arts journalism 2022 – Laura de Lisle on Critical Role, Campaign 2, Episode 141 | The Observer/Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism


Laura de Lisle is a theatre critic for The Arts Desk and a freelance writer, currently working on a play about an obscure German poet. They live in London

Objectively, the final episode of Critical Role’s second campaign is too long. Brilliant, but too long. Seven hours and two minutes, to be exact, with a 15-minute break. A full night’s rest (ish) and almost a long rest in Dungeons & Dragons – but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Context is critical.

Critical Role is an intensely modern phenomenon, which makes it hard to write about. It’s what’s known as an actual play series, in which people play games – in this case, D&D – in front of cameras. The cast are professional voice actors living in Los Angeles, whose antics roleplaying wizards, warlocks and goblins are broadcast weekly on Twitch. There have been two series (or campaigns); the second ended in June 2021, with the seven-hour monster in question.

To be clear, that’s long even for this show. An average episode takes four hours. The last campaign concluded in a cool four-and-a-half (after 114 episodes of build-up, naturally). The cast talk slowly, at least to a British ear, but the main reason for the length is that D&D is a fundamentally collaborative medium. Matthew Mercer, the dungeon master, presents the players with challenges, and they decide how they’re going to deal with them, and roll some dice to see if it works.

Critical Role in the studio
Critical Role in the studio, where giving an impression of a wine bottle pouring is all part of the job. Photograph: Chris Lockey

That’s a simplified version, of course. But you don’t need to know anything about D&D to enjoy Critical Role. Half the time the players don’t even know what they’re doing, although their technical skills have improved over the six years the show has existed. Their talents lie in their instincts for improv, their ability to “yes and” each other into situations both ridiculous and tear-jerking, sometimes within the same minute. It’s a whimsical blend of old and new forms of storytelling. Mechanically, there isn’t much difference between Critical Role and ancient bards reciting epic poems; one just happens to be livestreamed.

This episode, Fond Farewells, is meant to be about tying up loose ends, which is more complicated than our heroes anticipated. They’ve just saved the world from a wannabe god, who took over the body of their friend who died more than 100 episodes before (the excellently named Mollymauk Tealeaf, played by Taliesin Jaffe). That friend has been resurrected, meaning Jaffe has to play two characters, a burden his cast-mates have no qualms about exploiting for comic effect. His other character, Caduceus, is hosting everybody at his family home while they catch their breath and work out what to do next. That is, until the resident wizard’s (Liam O’Brien) abusive former teacher turns up and tries to burn them alive.

It’s strange to review a piece of media that’s got enough filler that you can have it on in the background while you’re getting on with other things. Like critiquing talk-show radio or the music they play in supermarkets. But that’s one of the best things about Critical Role: the variation within campaigns, and within episodes, gives us space to breathe. Seven hours of intense emotion would be too much. You’ve got to break it up with a couple of dick jokes.

If the players are the story’s protagonists, the dungeon master (or DM) is the narrative world. Mercer voices everybody who’s not a player character and a few inanimate objects – his impression of a wine bottle pouring is frighteningly accurate. Exandria, where Critical Role is set, is a fully fleshed universe; it even has its own calendar. The show has grown in tandem, with its own studio, a video game in the works, and even a theme song, written by cast member Sam Riegel. Despite this scope both imaginary and actual, Critical Role’s strength is its detail, the nitty-gritty of eight friends messing about and taking the piss out of each other.

As well as being a nightmare to describe to people who haven’t seen it (“No, I’m not playing, it’s these people I’ve never met”), Critical Role is a love story. There are inter-group relationships – at the end of the episode, Marisha Ray and Ashley Johnson’s characters, a surly monk with a heart of gold and a fearsome barbarian who loves collecting flowers, settle into quiet domesticity. Real-life spouses Laura Bailey and Travis Willingham also get together, despite Willingham previously insisting that he would never role-play romance. Ultimately, though, Critical Role is a love letter from Mercer to his friends, and from them to him, and from them all to the viewers. Only love would make you do something as stupid as spending almost a third of a day playing a table-top role-playing game. “I love you guys so much,” Mercer says at the end of the broadcast, tears streaming down his face. But he doesn’t need to. He’s been saying it for seven hours, and for six years before that.

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