The Reading Room

The Return of Oral Story-telling: a review of Critical Role’s The Legend of Vox Machina

From Homer to the medieval romances, the tradition of telling tales aloud to an audience around a fire, either read from a book or performed from memory by a bard, has long been a part of the Western literary tradition, as has the wide variety of tones in which these tales can be told, from the uplifting and meditative of an epic like The Odyssey to the raucous and crowd-pleasing Miller’s Tale of Chaucer
Amazon’s new animated fantasy series, The Legend of Vox Machina, encompasses a little of all of these things. Sprung from a group of professional voice actors who publicly recorded their Dungeons and Dragons gaming sessions to unexpected popularity and success, this animated series portrays part of that group’s adventures in a fully animated format. The series is funded primarily by fans of the group via crowdfunding and is under the creative control of the original group, Critical Role, which has now become a “multi-platform entertainment sensation,” thanks to their immense popularity.
Given the style and the oral tradition in which the group’s collaborative storytelling is founded, this popularity should be of little surprise in hind-sight, nor should the quality of the narrative itself. The show is at times as ribald as Beroul’s The Romance of Tristan, in which Tristan and Yseut’s escapades and pranks upon King Mark were related with much hilarity and amusement among the courts of medieval France, yet at other times it is as serious, dramatic, and character-driven as a tale of Lancelot. The show is able to take on a host of different tones from within this wide range, stretching all the way to the serious plot of an epic for the overall directing arc of the story. Yet even in the midst of juggling all these different things the show never feels unbalanced or off in tone, or like it neglects any of its colorful cast of characters. Indeed, by the end of this twelve episode show we feel we know every main character intimately through their time both in the spotlight and in the background as another character takes center-stage. This balance and the empathy the show generates for each character is truly remarkable, and it would not be possible without the group narrative that made this show possible in the first place.
Each of the original players in the group played a vital role in constructing the world and the story. The primary conductor of the narrative created most of the world, played as the majority of that world’s inhabitants, and designed and ran the monsters and obstacles the players had to surpass. But all the players created their own characters, who had their own unique backstories and constantly adapted to and shaped the narrative world around them, creating a shared world with every other player and with the person running the game.
This meant that the narrative was a team effort where each player had an equally vital and world-shaping share in the story. Essentially, then, there were seven authors who created this very enjoyable story, each crafting the tale in concert with one another so that no one person became the primary narrator. Each of these authors contributed to the tone of the narrative and to the quality, determining together when they wished to have amusing adventures and when they wished to engage in world-shaking events. This level of give and take prevents show-boating, prevents pride or agenda or a skewed understanding of what constitutes good narrative from taking over the story. Instead it forces each author, like the wandering bards of medieval Europe or ancient Greece, to listen to his audience (in this case his fellow authors), to adapt accordingly, and to make a story that everyone loves–not just himself, but his fellow authors and audience as well.
In this way, then, the act of collaborative story-telling which created this animated fantasy show carries on the western literary tradition of oral story-telling, either around a fire with a small group of friends or by a roaring hearth in some medieval court. It provides hope that media fraught with constant remakes of popular classic films and franchises and with watered-down, generic, formulaic stories can realize that it is possible to create new and enthralling stories, while at the same time reminding people that if they don’t like what they see on their screens, they can always go make something better with their friends.