Sun. May 22nd, 2022

Hey folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. Today we’ll be exploring a property that’s a little different from our usual fare, as we check out the first episode of the recently released Legend of Vox Machina. Apparently, this show is actually an animated adaptation of the web series Critical Role, which follows a group of friends through a variety of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. I’m presuming that Vox Machina will in turn be abstracting the gamified elements into fiction, presenting this campaign as a fantasy narrative in its own right.

That sounds pretty interesting to me! As for my own experience in this field, I’ve never watched Critical Role, but I did check out a few episodes of Adventure Zone some months back. I like the concept of following along with a D&D campaign, but didn’t really find Zone’s banter gripping enough to stick with, so I eventually fell off it. My greater chunk of relevant experience is simply playing D&D; I never got the chance to play consistently as a teenager, so it’s been delightful to participate in a campaign with my housemates over the past year. I’m quite fond of my surly warlock Taliandrel, and more broadly find D&D’s mixture of game design, narrative design, and improv theater absolutely fascinating. Of course, like with all tabletop activities, the most important thing is the company you’re sharing it with – so let’s see what to make of our present company, as we tackle the first episode of Vox Machina!

Episode 1

We open on the land of Tal’Dorei, as the narrator offers our standard fantasy setup: magical land, great evil, brave adventurers, etc

Ahhh… and we’re starting off by leaning into ultraviolence and swearing as a hilarious counterpoint to the generally staid high fantasy standard. That’s an unfortunately juvenile first brush with this story’s writing

The narrator follows that up with “well, that was… something,” evoking that Marvel-style “isn’t all this a little silly” lack of confidence in your material. This is a pretty horrific first impression

Okay, good, round table, characters actually talking rather than quipping. Improvement

Art design is kinda so-so on the whole. American adult-oriented fantasy animation is in an odd place at the moment, largely defined by the ‘80s cartoon-aping aesthetic of shows like Invincible, Castlevania, or He-Man. The character designs in such shows feel too similar to each other and concerned with realism to really exploit the power of animation, and the storyboards lack the cohesive compositional sense of anime, with characters generally looking like they’re talking in front of a background, rather than existing within an environment. Those two features combine to create a real stiffness of execution, where characters can’t bend or contort in the way animation does best, while the camera is equally restrained by the stillness of the background art. American animation has no recent history of constructing mature and inventively storyboarded productions, and it really shows in the sitcom-evoking limitations of their visual vocabulary

The purple, pointy-eared, sneering member of the council suggests they capture the beast and use it against their enemies. I get the feeling we’re not supposed to trust him

“Do not rest until you bring me the greatest band of mercenaries in all Tal’Dorei!” And with that beat, we of course jump to our intrepid heroes. I assume it’ll rise above this as the group get more confident in their storytelling, but this is definitely suffering from the usual amateur genre riff issues at this point: all of the variables introduced are clichés, the only difference is the show is winking while revealing them

They’re in the midst of a drinking contest. Actually some very charming expression work for the drunk party members

Voice actors don’t seem quite like professionals – I assume some of the original players are doing their characters’ lines?

“Watch it, bitch.” “You watch it, dicknose!” There’s gonna be a lot of this, huh

“We don’t waste our time on talking assholes, remember?” It’s not that swearing is bad or anything; it’s just that when all of your characters talk like this, I can easily see the common authorial voice behind them, and it’s just not that interesting of a voice. Vulgarity is a poor replacement for personality or wit

Ooh, nice, better composition here – using soft focus and foreground objects creates a much greater sense of space within the shot

Also some solid choreography for their battle, and even some active camerawork! We’ve already ascended well past Invincible in terms of visual artistry

The revolver-user’s gun misfires, an extraordinarily true-to-D&D experience. Feel like those fuckers just exist to jam

Gotta admit, I’m having fun. Script issues aside, I just freakin’ love D&D, and will probably always feel at home in a Tolkien-derivative fantasy universe

The gnome bard is a horndog, of course

Banned from another tavern, the party confronts a common D&D problem: they’re all a bunch of violent, chaotic weirdos with no binding values, and aren’t really sure what they’re supposed to be doing. It’s interesting to see one of D&D’s core design questions translated to traditional fiction – the actual reason any D&D party comes together is “we’re friends and we want to have fun as a group,” but that doesn’t necessarily translate cleanly to in-universe character motivation. My own party is still to an extent grappling with the question of “why is this group of strangers even traveling together,” and answering that question generally requires some earnest out-of-character discussions between players and their dungeon master

Our heroes at last receive their quest

Seven members is a whole bunch for a D&D party! I feel like that’s reaching the point where you really have to possess a strong existing chemistry with your whole group, or some members of the party will just sort of fade into the background. Obviously a fictionalized narrative of a D&D adventure won’t be getting into the real-life dynamics of maintaining equal participation and investment in an adventure, but it’s an interesting technical challenge

Ooh, very nice device for relating the character introductions, as the bard sings in turn about each member of the team. Telling everyone about your character sheet and background is an integral D&D experience with no clean parallel in traditional fiction, so forcing the bard to hype the team in order to secure their job is an excellent way to square that circle

I also appreciate that they’re not overthinking their character designs, and are largely embracing classic archetypes. It’s easy to flesh out a familiar archetype with individual personality, whereas characters that fully embrace every weird idea their creator comes up with have a tendency to come off like… I dunno, Sonic the Hedgehog OCs

The druid does seem a bit less confident than the other actors – her acting was iffy in the bar, and most of her lines since have just been puking noises. I wonder if it took their player a bit more time to be comfortable play-acting with the group

The ranger’s apparently got some connection with Purpleface

“What are we doing here again?” Another perennial D&D question

The gnome basically seems like they’ve transposed Sokka from Avatar’s personality and affectation

The gang meet some innocent villagers, presumably to provide a human face to the carnage when this all goes south, and give our heroes something personal to fight for

As basically the direct intersection of game and narrative design, thinking with the mind of a dungeon master is a great way to reassess the purpose of various narrative tools

Some more nice multilayered compositions, though the composite work is unfortunately a bit rough – the illusion of the characters being truly a part of their environment is inconsistent, an issue shared with shows like the recent She-ra. The great anime studios are still light years ahead in terms of convincingly cinematic animated photography

The beast turns out to be a giant dragon. More welcome active camerawork for this confrontation, though the CG dragon won’t be winning any awards

Aw shit, the ranger’s got some backstory tie-in with dragons. Her parents were killed by dragons, she can sense when dragons are close, etcetera. Seems like Purpleface is probably the dragon in human form

And bam, there it is – they return to the village in ruins, and at last have a personal stake in completing this quest

And Done

Hey yeah, that was a lot of fun! Things improved substantially once we got out of the introductory scenes, and the show stopped trying so hard to prove it was “not your grandma’s D&D campaign!” Once we were on the ground and running, the inherent fun of a D&D party in motion kept things entertaining throughout, while the interesting negotiations of narrative and game design gave me plenty of structural details to poke at. The humor could still use some improvement, but I’m enjoying our party dynamic otherwise, and feel safe in assuming that, like all D&D adventures, things will only get more compelling as the journey continues. Bring on the next episode!

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By admin