Starring: Felicia Day, Adam Rayner, Masam Holden, and Doug Jones.
The more I think about it, the more I find myself drawn to the idea that Felicia Day is similar to a young Orson Welles. Like Welles, Day has taken the medium in which she works to places that few others have dared to follow. And in the finest fashion of Welles, I think Day is constantly working to better her past accomplishments. Her fans are legion, so much so that she crowd sourced the The Guild before crowd sourcing was really a thing. In that light, it’s easy to understand Dragon Age: Redemption as an attempt to push the boundaries on what a web series can offer. We need only look at the challenges that went into Game of Thrones’ production to witness the demanding nature of live action High Fantasy. The fact that Day and co-producers Kim Evey, Dan Kaplow, and Greg Aronowitz have brought the world of BioWare’s Dragon Age to a web series is nothing short of a miracle.
While the fan in me wants to revel in this game to web series translation, the critic in me can’t help but think that the reach of this project exceeds its grasp. That isn’t to say that the show is doing anything particularly wrong. For a first attempt at bringing Dragon Age’s vast mythos to a non-game medium, the show is doing an admirable job. If we compare it to the low water mark of game to real world media, Super Mario Brothers, Dragon Age: Redemption is absolutely Oscar worthy. My concern is that there are some points where the difficulty of working in the fantasy genre is a little too obvious.
Let’s begin with the setting. When BioWare created Dragon Age: Origins, it came up with a huge, and I do mean huge, mythology. There’s a reason why I’ve yet to finish even the first Dragon Age game; I spend most of my time reading every scrap of back story that I find in-world. Ferelden, the nation where both Dragon Age games and this series are set, is as rich in detail as Westeros or Middle Earth. DA:R does a great job in bringing that richness to the screen. But on that point it’s a bit of a victim of its own success. Despite expository text panels at the outset of each episode, there’s nothing in the show that is inherently newbie friendly.
It’s not that it is hard to follow the main plot. Doug Jones plays a daemon possessed mage (mages get possessed by daemons quite often in the Dragon Age universe but you wouldn’t know that from the show) named Saarebas. When Saarebas breaks out of prison two rival forces seek to intercept him: The Templars and the Quinari. The Templars, hired goons of Ferelden’s church, The Chantry, hunt down mages gone rouge from the church’s authority as well as round up the kingdom’s feral mages. The Quinari are a race of empire builders who assimilate other species (humans, elves, et cetera) into their warrior philosophy. Adam Rayner plays the Templar, Cairn, and Day plays the Quinari elf-assassin Tallis. The two form a loose alliance to track Saarebas, agreeing to settle who takes custody of him when they finally catch up with him. Thus the main quest is established. The side quest involves a teenage elf (Masam Holden) rescuing his elf girlfriend and in the process becoming the “Keeper” of his tribe. It’s all a very time tested means of telling a fantasy story. The problem is in how the story unfolds.
The characters’ motivations, as well as the gimmicks that move the plot, are inherently married to the Dragon Age universe. If the characters stopped to exposit on what a Phylactery does, why rouge mages are dangerous, or why the Chantry Templars are able to fight mages despite their magic, then the series would be all back story. Outside of existing DA fans, I really don’t know how well this series is going to play, especially in the female demographic. It’s quite the shame considering mainstream television has done nothing but bombard its audience with vapid female characters this year. In fact I’d pay real money to see Tallis sort out Whitney’s obnoxious laugh track.
Then there’s the question of the costumes and props. In world where Terra Nova uses spray painted nerf guns (What exactly is that show spending its money on?), it might seem peevish to pick on a web series for its swords and armour. However, I bring it up to illustrate the point that doing fantasy on-screen is damn expensive. Consider the templar armour shown below. Reproducing a real life prop that mirrored the game’s armour would not only be prohibitively expensive but also a burden for the actor wearing it. Never the less, the sheet metal job might draw a viewer out of their disbelief and potentially create a distraction from the care that went into other characters’ cloth and leather attire, as well as the gorgeous location shots.
Again, I draw attention to these short comings not to belittle the hard work of the cast and crew, but to commend what they have achieved in a genre where the smallest of flaws is unfortunately obvious. With more money props could look better, and episodes could run longer thus giving over a bit more time to developing the world as well as the story. Sadly, big money and web series rarely go hand in hand.
To that end, I propose we look at Dragon Age: Redemption as we would any other fan production. Under that lens of evaluation, it’s pretty remarkable stuff. Shot in only 12 days, Dragon Age: Redemption has the courage to attempt the impossible: to quantify for the real world the limitless potential of digital story telling. Achieving such a grand task is no small order. Assuming that BioWare treats this project as more than just an extended commercial for Dragon Age 2 DLC, and thus pours some cash into season 2, there is a lot of room for growth in this series. If it turns out to be a one-off, DA:R’s story is strong enough to make me come back for more, despite having some elements that strain my suspension of disbelief. Kudos to Felicia Day and company for having the tenacity to take on such a grand project.
Overall Score: +2