Sunday, April 21, 2024

Mind Melding With The Anonymous Brains Behind ‘Midst’, Critical Role’s Surreal New Audio Drama

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Currently in its second season, Midst is a surreal, high-production, semi-improvised Space Western about “a crotchety outlaw, a struggling cultist, and a diabolical bastard making awful decisions in a world on the edge of disaster.”

Acquired back in March by Critical Role’s production company Metapidgeon, Midst is simultaneously a departure from CR’s long-form actual play style and an intuitive addition to the medium-defining, culture-shifting catalog of work the team has been producing for nearly a decade.

Unlike the traditional actual play format, Midst is distributed in fast-paced, short-form installments (with each episode ranging from 15-30 minutes). The ongoing story is told in an all-consuming, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness. The consciousness in question? Third Person, an unreliable three-faced narrator.

Embodying Third Person are Sara, Matt, and Xen, the anonymous real-life entities behind Midst. The three of them interchangeably narrate all aspects of story, character, and setting – occasionally breaking the fourth wall to ground the listener in the constantly shifting world of Midst.

In the words of the team at Midst, “The second season picks up in the wake of a reality-melting catastrophe on Midst, when the moon falls out of the sky and reality eats itself alive, making things complicated for the residents of the small desert planet. Our three complicated antiheroes and their companions will fight to survive a cosmic calamity, overcome dangerous adversaries and inner demons, and face truths and revelations that will change them and their cosmos forever. “

While the first two seasons were released independently, the Midst team has been able to re-release the remastered original episodes from the first two seasons. Alongside these are new versions of each episode, offering a more immersive auditory experience. 

I sat down (via email) with the teams’ three anonymous creative minds to discuss the inspiration behind this medium-melding show, the differences since being acquired by Metapidgeon, and what they hope audiences take away from this story.

Midst is adapted from a TTRPG setting the three of you created. As a result Midst is an incredibly surreal container for this narrative, adjacent to actual play but not quite. What was the intention in choosing this short-form Third Person improv style for this story rather than a more traditional TTRPG system?

Sara: We were never out to make an actual-play podcast, but we definitely wanted to draw on TTRPG roots for our narrative style. We wanted to present a deliberate, crafted story with immersive sound and lots of supplementary lore, while still entertaining ourselves and leaving room for a bit of chaos.

Matt: Frankly, it was due to trying out different styles of play that lead to what Midst is today. Our original “game” was one that we sought to co-play AND co-run for one another, but our experiments around narrative voice ultimately gave rise to the THRILL of the unreliable narrator angle, and wanting to find a way to share this world with friends brought us to the podcast format. 

Xen: Creating and playing systemless games that are driven by improv and group storytelling has been a collective hobby of ours since the three of us first started hanging out. That improv-heavy narrative style made its way into Midst because it’s just how we typically tell stories together, and it’s how we’re collectively most comfortable spinning yarns as a trio.

Midst is marketed as semi-improv. How much of the narrative is plotted out beforehand, and where does the improv come into play in the overall story?

Matt: The approach we took was a lot like how we plan jointly-run sessions of table-top RPGs: we identify major plot beats and lessons for how to introduce and navigate the world before recording, but HOW the characters do that, and accomplish their goals; what they say, how they say it, is joyfully extemporaneous.  

Xen: 90% of Midst (both narration and character dialog) is improvised on the fly at the time of recording, and it results in the show having a fun, slippery, unpredictable naturalism that’s hard to capture in fully-scripted content.    

Sara: I always feel the urge to qualify the “improv” label because I would never claim that Midst just magically turned out the way it is through sheer improv mastery. Improv is the tool, not the product. And it’s not the only tool we use: the story is extensively discussed, planned, and edited. If improv isn’t working for a particular scene, then we have no qualms about scripting it. But I think a lot of Midst’s unique voice came from the fact that the majority of the time we didn’t know exactly what we were supposed to say and just kind of embraced the imperfection. Many of my favorite moments were the result of improv.

Matt: The nutcracker, the Stationary Hill Post Office bell, the Incendiary Imaging Device (our in-universe camera), even Landlord the foldhound were products of improv that wouldn’t exist otherwise – and we wouldn’t have it any other way! It gives the show the spark of life, like when a group of friends are telling you a story by a campfire, each remembering different little details, but all threads bend towards the same goal.

How has production changed since being acquired by Metapidgeon as opposed to operating as an independent podcast?

Sara: So many ways! We’re able to do more, harder, better, faster, stronger. One of the most amazing developments is all this new art that was created to accompany the podcast on YouTube. The goal was to provide something lightly animated that enhanced the audio, without distracting from it or requiring constant eyes on the screen. Midst is an audio drama, but even when we were indie, we were very gung-ho about making it “more than just a podcast” – creating as many supplements as we could, the appendices, character portraits, episode icons, etc. So having the opportunity to visualize our world through the styles of so many different artists has been a dream come true.

Matt: It’s also coming out far sooner than we would have managed to get to it! Prior to the acquisition, Midst was a labor of love and mania in our hobby time: NOW, miraculously, it’s what we get to work on all day, every day.

Xen: As indie creators working on Midst in our off-hours prior to the Metapigeon partnership, the three of us were lucky if we had one or two days a month to sit down together to hash out Midst content. Now that we can give the show our undivided attention every single day, we’ve been able to launch Midst’s storytelling, sound, and music to a level that was practically unimaginable and literally impossible in the before-times. We’re very proud of what we accomplished with seasons 1 and 2 of Midst as hobbyist producers creating a show during our nights and weekends, but our upcoming third season (the first season we’ve been able to work on full-time) is just… well, it’s on another level. 🙂   

The word midst, half submerged in water
What was your inspiration for having three interchangeable narrators act as a single omniscient mind?

Sara: It wasn’t so much an inspiration as an… inevitability? 

Xen: Yep, it’s really just that there are three of us and we all wanted to narrate and perform the show, so we did. 

Sara: We tried very hard to do something else at first. In early tests we attempted to mimic the dramatic, flawless narration style of other podcasts and radio shows we admired, but it didn’t really feel right for Midst. There just weren’t many examples of the type of thing we were interested in doing, except in actual-play. It definitely felt weird at first, like “is this even allowed?”

Matt: Yes! In those early recordings, we kept looking at each other, wondering who was going to go next and say the next clever thing, and we kept tripping each other up, or freezing when it looked like someone was thinking of the next line. I can’t remember who suggested it, but someone (I think it might have been Xen?) had the idea to try wearing sunglasses, and it was like magic: our hesitations, our trepidations melted away, and we were suddenly able to communicate like these incredibly cool, omnipotent, snarky, handsome, and unreliable narrators.

You’ve chosen to tell the story of three individuals (Lark, Moc, and Phineas) who are not the traditional protagonist archetype – nor is Third Person, our unreliable multi-faceted narrator. What about the space western Genre, and the world of Midst specifically requires less traditional heroes and narrators?

Sara: The space western genre is another thing I feel like we didn’t intentionally choose, we just realized after a while that Midst had sort of become that. I personally had very little familiarity with or interest in Westerns before working on Midst, but have learned a lot since. Anti-heroes fit right into the genre!

Matt: That’s not to say our headliner characters didn’t START as heroic, attractive, self-insert protagonists, but as we continued to flesh-out their world, and the circumstances they were embroiled in, it seemed fitting for the main characters of Midst to be more broken then we’d originally imagined. It helped enmesh them in that mutually broken world, and gave them stronger reasons to fight for what they believed in. 

Xen: Westerns often tackle grand themes like the inevitability and turmoil of change, the new VS the old, the known VS the unknown, and good VS evil – all of which are very much at the heart of Midst’s narrative. Westerns throughout the decades have often been interesting windows into the values, concerns, and cultural mindsets of their time – and Midst is no exception in how it obliquely explores a wide range of contemporary themes. The Western genre provides a great canvas for mythic, symbolic stories, and let’s be real: being able to stick them in SPACE is just too fun to pass up.

With that, the fourth-wall breaking from Third Person adds a bit of levity to this incredibly fast paced, emotionally turbulent narrative. Are those moments intentionally chosen, or do they develop organically during recording?

Sara: We definitely set the intention prior to recording, but specific instances usually weren’t planned. Again drawing from TTRPG experience – it’s fun and helpful to break the fourth wall, to make pop-culture references, and to connect with the real humans who are playing the game with you. We’re not pretending the listener doesn’t exist, we’re actively inviting them to hang out with us on the extradimensional narrator balcony.

Xen: The best fourth-wall breaks are always those we don’t see coming, so we try as often as we can to not pre-conceive of those. 

Matt: We as narrators, and our audience as listeners, all inhabit a society: but we wanted it to feel like these characters are also in a context JUST as complex and nuanced and meaningful as our own. Sometimes the opportunity to break the fourth wall came-up organically, and sometimes we engineered it to tweak and twist the listener’s expectations. We aim to please and surprise, but it’s best when those surprises surprise even yourself. 😉

The primary antagonist of this story is the Trust, an all encompassing cult that’s primary focus is uplifting one’s Valor, or usefulness to society, while eliminating a person’s Caenum, or their burden on the community. There’s a lot there in terms of American exceptionalism and the bureaucracy of evangelical oppression (a la Trust’s Notaries) – which each of the three protagonists have a significantly different relationship to. What are you hoping listeners take away from this post-post-modern narrative that takes place at the end of a world not so different from our own?

Matt: Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, nothing about the Trust is particularly new: An arbitrary hierarchy of worth and value, predicated on inscrutable metrics, depicted in a society through fashion and status, dominating oppressed peoples, and inherited/earned/escaped debt are themes that we, our friends, our families, everyone encounters to varying degree in their day-to-day lives. Rolling it all into one convenient source is compelling, but like any antagonist, it’s interesting to imagine a foe that has moral graynesses of its own: like a corporation or religious institution, the Trust is made up of individual people who don’t want to enact these negative things, but by virtue of the systems they inhabit have no choice BUT to be complicit. It’s a quandary. 🙂 🙂 (: 

Sara: Like any sci-fi story featuring a too-powerful corporation, the thrill of it lies in how cartoonishly evil and yet how depressingly familiar it is. The Trust draws on systems and experiences that are unfortunately probably very relatable to many listeners. It’s cathartic as a creator, but I don’t think we’re raising any points that haven’t already been raised. I’m mainly interested in exploring how the Trust affects the mindset of various characters, and ways in which they can (or can’t) exercise their own agency within this vast power structure.

Xen: Our hope in Midst is that it’s never entirely simple to say whether or not the Trust is actually the antagonist – or, for that matter, that any one person or faction in the story is “the bad guy.” Just about everyone in Midst is bad and good by turns. Good people do bad things and bad people do good things, and that’s just the reality of it.    

If there’s anything I didn’t tackle in these questions that you’re dying to share with the world, please do so:

Sara: I’d like to give a shout-out of love to our OG fans and Patreon supporters. We feel astoundingly fortunate to have landed in our current situation, but I want our original fanbase to know how much they encouraged us when Midst was just our little hobby-project, and how much it still means to us whenever we see an enthusiastic comment or a piece of fan art. Hang in there for Season 3! 

Matt: Midst could very easily have been something we kept to ourselves, like selfish Dragons hoarding treasure in our own private Dungeon, but because people were curious about what we were doing,  we started thinking about Midst as something we could share instead of keeping secret and safe. You know who you are, but Thank You for encouraging and enabling us to share a story about three terrible people in a world on the edge of disaster. Season 2 is releasing NOW, with remastered episodes, incredible art, episodic appendices, and more at midst.co! Subscribers get 2 weeks of early access and an array of behind the scenes content.

Xen: We invite you to listen to Midst with headphones if you can! We put a lot of time and effort into rustling up a rich stereo experience that’s quite literally designed for headphones, so we encourage listeners to tune into that soundscape via headphones as well. It’s the surest way to simulate the unique feeling of having your brain teleported out of your head and transplanted directly into a cosmic space Western adventure

The second season of Midst premiered August 23rd. New episodes air every Wednesday on Critical Role’s Youtube, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Images courtesy of Motive PR

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