Actual play series like Critical Role and Dimension 20 are traditionally come-as-you-are affairs, with players and game masters alike looking like they just walked in off the street. That’s been especially true during the pandemic, which has seen troupes forced to play remotely via video conference tools like Zoom. Hyper RPG’s Kollok series, now in its third season, is completely different.
In Kollok players aren’t tiled on screen like the introduction of The Brady Bunch. Instead, they’re sitting side-by-side in a studio, in costumes and light makeup, monologuing dramatically to the camera. Players are flopping loosely on the table when they get knocked unconscious, spouting fake blood at each other, and generally trying to stay in character the entire time. It’s a much more gonzo style of actual play that goes well beyond using funny voices. It feels equal parts daring and experimental.
The program made its premiere on Monday night, kicking off a 20-episode arc airing live on AMC Network’s Fear HQ Twitch channel. The episode, the first after a two-year hiatus, wasn’t without its hiccups, but it more than made up for any technical difficulties with some solid performances and a couple good jump scares.
[Warning: What follows contains spoilers for the season 3 premiere of Kollok.]
Kollok takes place in a dystopian science fiction horror setting created by Zac Lim Eubank, former showrunner for Critical Role and Geek and Sundry, that runs on the Kids on Bikes ruleset. It posits a timeline that diverges from our own in the early 1990s, a setting that spans 30 years after the last generation was born. Players are powerful members of The Ascended, one of nearly 300,000 children who share the same — humanity’s final — birthdate and are locked in a power struggle with a mysterious totalitarian elite for control of the former United States of America.
The cast of players, composed of two different troupes of adventurers, is one of the major draws here.
The primary group includes Danielle Radford (Honest Trailers), Ethan Nestor (CrankGameplays on YouTube), yellowspoongirl (Twitch), and Xu Mason (Funnyish) with a special appearance by Elyse Willems (Rooster Teeth, Psychonauts 2). Together they take the role of a down-and-out militia element recovering from a failed assault. During the premiere episode it was this group that had the most trouble finding its feet, rolling failure after failure and becoming bogged down during the stream’s first few hours.
Hitting cleanup were three players returning from previous seasons. They include Aabria Iyengar (Critical Role’s Exandria Unlimited), Lucas Eubank (Geek and Sundry), and Mika Midgett (Twitch). The more experienced trio appears to have been captured by an unknown power and is currently stuck in a simulation of some kind over which they have only limited control.
If that all sounds tremendously confusing, things only get more challenging from there — especially if you haven’t seen the previous two seasons. My only life preserver in advance of the season 3 premiere was a synopsis that I found wedged into the dimly lit corner of a community Discord server. That’s where the majority of the fan interaction takes place as well. One of the show’s gimmicks is that players who subscribe to the channel on Twitch can then make their own characters and are then allowed to embark on a freeform text-based role-play via Discord.
The main attraction, however, is the weekly actual play program itself, an in-person multi-camera production that includes live music, sound effects, digital filters, and an elaborate set.
Those high production values are what ultimately drew me in during the back half of the premiere episode. Camerawork focuses intensely on the players’ faces, yielding an actual play that is far less about the game system and more about performing collaborative fiction in real time. That approach left plenty of room for veteran players Iyengar, Lucas Eubank, and Midgett to chew the scenery. It all built up to multiple tense crescendos, highlighted with both practical effects (like blood spouting from the game master’s mouth during one scene) and digital effects (like a graphical treatment that simulated the rebooting of an in-fiction virtual reality system).
I’m almost four hours into Kollok, and I’m still not entirely sure what’s going on here. But, rather than being a frustration, it feels like more of a tease that makes me want to learn and experience the storyline all the more. I’ll likely wave off of absorbing the show’s first two seasons for now mainly because of the decentralized, sprawling nature of those episodes. But there’s something deeply thrilling about watching these players discover the world around them in season 3. Coupled with those high production values, it’s a truly novel horror experience that you won’t find anywhere else.
The program runs for an additional 19 weeks, airing Monday nights at 9 p.m. EST on Twitch.