Fans were introduced to a new type of roleplaying game experience last week courtesy of The Unleashed, an interactive RPG that gives its own unique spin to superheroes from some of the minds that brought you Power Rangers HyperForce. As fans saw during the pilot episode, The Unleashed weaves scripted beats and filmed sequences into the off the cuff and spontaneous gameplay RPGs are known for, and it got off to a hot start during its premiere on Twitch. Ahead of the show's second episode, ComicBook.com had the chance to sit down with Meghan Strawburry 17 Camarena, Melissa Flores, and Aabria Iyengar to talk about how the show came about, the challenges in bringing such a new take on the genre into reality, and how The Unleashed takes what they learned in HyperForce and makes it even better.
"So the main inspiration behind it was COVID happened and Shelby and Mika, Shelby plays Charlie and Mika plays Mara, we were playing a lot of World of Warcraft and just hanging out online a ton," Camarena said. "We were on a show called Kollok together and, originally, I was on HyperForce. Ever since HyperForce, I've just been chasing that feeling because, everyone that was a part of that, it just felt like family. I still miss it. I'm holding out for Season 2, still, with every part of me. I was telling them how great it was. I really loved being on Kollok with them, but it was just a really sad show and there wasn't a lot of wins for the characters. We were talking about how great it would be if we could create our own world where we could build new characters and have powers and things be reminiscent of the time that we shared on Kollok. I wanted to create something that was unique like HyperForce and Twitch had approached me and said that they are looking for premium content.
They're like, 'Do you want to do like a D&D show, a cooking show or whatever?' I instantly hit up Melissa and was like, 'Dude, let's do like HyperForce 2.0, but obviously original IP and better.' She was the first person I knew. I'm like, 'If we want to make this something special we have to start assembling the right people to really elevate it and make it unique and great.' Since she was such an integral part of HyperForce, being as great as it was, I just had to have her be a part of the project," Camarena said.
"Yeah, so then Meghan approached me and was like, 'Hey, Twitch's looking for new content. Let's do something really cool," and I was like, "Absolutely, of course," because I love Meghan and I missed working with her. If there was anything I wanted to do was the opportunity to do more in the Twitch space because I think, especially in the pandemic right now, there are so many eyeballs that are there right now, there's so much influential and important stuff that's happening there," Flores said. "To be able to be a part of that especially with people as creative as Aabria, Meghan, Mika, Shelby, and all those amazing people, it was a true honor and just so much fun, especially to be able to do something without having a brand attached to it like Power Rangers, which really just gave us a lot of originality and a lot of creative freedom to do something that we really wanted to do. It was like all the collars were off, all the leashes were off, "Let's just go," so that's what we did."
Part of the team was formed, but now it was time to find someone who could guide and tell a story in this amazing world, and they already knew who they wanted.
"I had a list of all my top tier, first picks for a wish list that I could bring onto this project," Camarena said. "We had a very limited budget. I've invested a lot of my own money and we're reaching out to sponsors and stuff to really make this what it is. With that I had to reach out to my friends and be like, 'Yo, this is a pilot, would you be willing to be a part of it?' Aabria was off the top of that list because she is one of the best GMs out there. She's always starring on a dozen other people's streams every single week. Whether she's a player or a DM or GM, she just leading that space so well and she crafts such a beautiful story. No one does it like how she does. Since we were on Kollok together, I wanted to become friends with Aabria and I invited her to play Pokémon with me and she thought I was trying to replace her in the Kollok."
"You were so nice immediately and I did not trust it," Iyengar said.
"I just wanted to be friends with you and I didn't know how so I invited you to play Pokémon TCG. It was an experience. I reached out to her and I was like, 'She's going to say no and I need to already think of other people,' but it was an instant, Yes. Aabria can speak to that because this project has changed quite a bit since the first initial pitch and it's not a normal type of a situation where she would come in and GM the way that she's used to," Camarena said.
"I feel like you weren't prepared for the level of dice nerd that I am," Iyengar said. "So I was just like, 'Okay, here are eight systems we can run. I love Masks. I think it tells a really cool story that falls into these parameters because we were all at the My Hero Academia premiere together. There's a very cool through-line for the kind of story that you originally pitched that you wanted to tell. When we first started it was like, 'Okay, we're going to run a game of Masks. I can do that in my sleep. I'm so excited,' and then we got ambitious. It was so fun to... okay. Stressful, at first, for me, because I'm terrified of change, but so fun where I was like, 'Okay, we're going to do film segments.' Oh, okay, no one's ever done that in an RPG, but I'm sure it'll be fine.' Then it became like, 'Oh, okay. In order to do that we have to build these branching paths and have scripted elements so we can walk down and know where we're going to get to certain points.'"
There's no rulebook for the things Unleashed is bringing to the genre, but then that's sort of the stressful fun of it all.
"All of that to say it's this really fun mix of a bunch of different things that haven't been done before," Iyengar said. "It feels so amazing that week-to-week we're still discovering new veins of how to do this and pull it off because there is no reference set. There's no one person we can call and be like, "You did this before so how did you get through it?" We are building it as we go."
All of those elements help to further immerse longtime roleplaying fans but also serve to help usher in those new to the genre who are curious but perhaps a bit intimidated or just unfamiliar with how things work.
"I think the biggest thing for me is how do we bring in a new audience that's not too familiar with the TTRPG world," Camarena said. "How do we make things digestible and feel complete and episodic when the runtime is three hours. I was keeping that in the back of my mind. I know this works for HyperForce. I know what works for Kollok. I know everyone's strengths and weaknesses. How do we bring this all together and make it something that my parents can sit down and be like, 'I get it'? If they could get it then I'm like, 'We might've succeeded.' They just didn't understand the dice. They didn't understand the rolling, but they got it and they loved it. They really did. They're like, 'That storyteller is just so good.'"
"Oh my God, yes. I think what's so freaking crucial about this, this would not have worked. There's literally no one person in the cast and the crew that if we took them out of this equation we would have been successful," Flores said. "Aabria and I worked so closely together to craft this story with Lena Madrid, who's our other producer, with Meghan, with all these people. Everybody worked on their own characters specifically, but we needed to make sure that those film segments and the RPG segments were seamless. That you could go from one to the other and the characters felt like the same characters and the world felt the same. We had to make sure that in one episode you have your Act 1, your Act 2, or your Act 3, so it feels like a TV show but still feels like an RPG."
That said, it was still important to keep what longtime fans of the genre love about it, which is the spontaneity and organic nature of the story and characters. "For all those purists out there you're still feeling like there are places these characters can go and not feel so entirely scripted," Flores said. "But we also needed to make sure for the non-player audience it feels like a show. There were so many different parts. We needed to make sure, because it's Twitch, it's not a passive medium, that the audience felt involved some ways. So how do we allow them to bring their agency into the story when it's already semi-scripted. It's so many moving parts. It's something nobody's ever done before, but I truly believe it is the future of this kind of storytelling because the reaction we got was massive."
That's why it's important to have someone playing the game and experience the story who is new to the medium as well, and as someone who has been a part of games as that person and someone who has later played alongside new players, having someone new to the genre as part of your adventure makes it infinitely better.
"Having played and knowing that you guys were way more versed in RPGs, it's so nice to have Mike come in as this breath of fresh air, someone that's not very familiar with RPGs, that brings an actor's sensibilities to it," Iyengar said. "Christopher does the same thing when he comes in too. It's so interesting as a game master. I love being a bit of a chaos goblin and just like, 'Oh, I hope someone throws a wrench into this.' There's nothing like a person who doesn't know what the constraints of an RPG are to go in and be like, 'I do this?' and you're like, 'Oh my God, yes. We're going to go chase that. It's fun to play in the space in that way and challenge people in different ways."
"I enjoyed having Mike come in in Episode 1 where we first meet Daniel and he gets this very cinematic moment where we show off this character like, 'You're an actor. You're going to have a great time with this,' but also forcing him to make these RPG decisions where it's like, 'No, you're not on a script. Your motivation is whatever you decide in this moment.' You can watch the wheels turn for him and it makes my mouth water in this really cool way where you're like, 'Oh, man. I'm watching someone process this. It's still new and fresh.' Everyone is amazing all the time but, you're right, there's this fun difference in energy," Iyengar said.
"Mike, he has such an active imagination and he's such a talented actor," Camarena said. "That's just another thing I had mentioned in the beginning. When bringing everyone onto this project it felt like an Avengers type of situation. I was calling upon all of my creative friends that are the best of the best and bringing them onto this project because I knew they would really elevate it, and Mike does that."
The cast was all on board and the ideas and concepts were there, but bringing this to life came with its set of challenges, and those challenges honestly make it even more impressive that they pulled it all off.
"I got to be honest with you. I have this cinematographer friend that I've used over the years back in my production days and he's just a homie through and through," Camarena said. "He kept pushing back dates for filming all of the sequences and choice videos. I wanted him because I knew he would elevate our project. He pushed it until the week before launch and it was also the week I was moving. I just got out of a breakup too of a five-year relationship so my life was in absolute shambles at this point. We were using my studio to film all this because it's a live-work space. I remember he kept pushing back the days and pushing back the days, and finally I was like, 'Are you still able to do this?' He's like, 'No,' and I'm like, 'Oh, Okay, cool.' This is what made our whole project unique and special and standalone. It went through my head where I was like, 'Am I going to have to have this conversation with everyone where we don't do this? We've already ordered all of the wardrobe, costume has been working diligently on putting all of our heroes stuff together, we held off on doing all the hero shots and the photography and the press release.'"
"My brain scrambled and that's when I hit up my friend Yoshi who knows everybody in the business," Camarena said. "He came in like a freaking knight and saved the day. We worked with someone who's a senior in a film school. Definitely very green. They didn't have any reel to show me. I was just like, "You know what? This is the situation. They're going to be long days and we just got to get it done. It ended up being 58 pieces of filmed content that we had to film in 5 days and he did it with a smile. Yeah, in five days. I'm moving mind you. This ruins a little bit of a magic, but everything was filmed in one side area of my loft. The curtains never change, but we do set dressing and everyone on-set was doing everything. There's no actor that was just an actor. People were doing sound. People were doing the sets. We had someone getting crafty."
"It's not top-level production," Camarena said. "This is just a hope and a wish and it's a pilot. It's the homies coming through and making it happen. That was probably the most stressful part of all of this and I didn't know if it would flow, but seeing those video pieces really made it feel cinematic. Up until the show had already aired and happened that was the biggest thing where I was like, "Is everyone going to know that I filmed this in my loft? That we messed up the audio? Is the lighting 100%?" That was my biggest fear, but it worked out better than I thought it. It just worked, you know?"
Now, you knew we couldn't let the crew leave and not talk some HyperForce, and they definitely learned a few things from that beloved project and expanded on them in Unleashed.
"Definitely, the fact that you could lightly script RPGs," Flores said. "I think because it was a big-brand show and because we needed to have a lot of control only because it was a big-brand show, we had to work with Zach and Malika to lightly script every single episode. The good thing with that is that you ended up with really, really cinematic moments because the GM was able to lead the characters into these moments. They're still able to make their own choices and make their own journey each to an extent, but we knew where we were going and it allowed us opportunities to pepper in guests that maybe we wouldn't normally get. We knew when we're going there we were able to have these amazing crossovers. So the fact that we could take that part of it and put it in this show was really cool."
"HyperForce was my first RPG experience and my first time playing that sort of game system," Camarena said. "The elements that we definitely took from it were obviously the ease of gameplay. Then knowing where things are headed. I think one thing that I find a little bit frustrating as a player, because I don't come from the traditional space and I started with Hyper, is the meandering a bit, not knowing where the story is headed and having to search and explore and create that without really knowing what is supposed to happen. As a player, I like knowing the map, even if it's loose. I like creating all those unique and authentic moments in between everything, but I do like knowing the endpoint so I can help drive the story there. So we took all of those parts from HyperForce and elevated and created a completely different version of it on our own. I think you can tell there's the heart of it there just from our love of HyperForce, but we really spun it on its head and did something different."
They also took some lessons from missed opportunities the first time around regarding the audience, specifically how the audiences wants to get behind the show and represent their love for the characters and world.
"I think something that we learned from HyperForce is the demand from the fans for additional content, artwork and things like that," Camarena said. "We just launched our store on Friday with all of the PE uniforms and that's something that we had been working on in advance. We're also working on dice so that people can get that too. Just a bunch of really cool things I wish we could have had when we were doing HyperForce we have for this show because we know that the audience will want it. It's been a treat."
"Yeah, we have stream artists because we knew how the fans are so in love with the art for HyperForce," Flores said. "We worked with BOOM! comic books to create amazing art. We have amazing artists here doing stream art for us as well, making sure we really bring those moments alive that weren't segmented that were all RPG magic in a different way."
The Unleashed brings a lot of creativity to the fold, but it also features a truly diverse and inclusive crew and cast powering this roleplaying experience, both behind the scenes and onscreen.
"We really wanted to put a huge emphasis on diversity and inclusivity," Camarena said. "Everyone that's been a part of this from the beginning, it's a group of women that are not just, "Oh, we're just girls." It's like we're bad-ass businesswomen in this space who have been here for a long time and have earned our stripes. Us collaborating and working together has been such an honor and not something that you see so often. I think that's just attributed to our friendship and our mutual respect for each other."
"I think the biggest thing for me and my goal and my mission with creating anything that I do on the internet is to make sure that people can look at it and feel like they're represented. Just all walks of life," Camarena said. "Mike, he always says, 'Thank you for casting me as an Asian superhero,' and it's so crazy for him to have to thank me for that because that should be a normal thing, and it isn't. Those roles aren't created for people like him. I hope that as we continue to move forward with the show and if we get a Season 2 or when we get a Season 2 we can keep creating more characters of different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, LGBTQIA+. That's super important, I think, for all of us."
"I think what's really important about what Megan said is that it is a very diverse crew," Flores said. "It is a very diverse group of writers. We are all women, but we all come from different walks of life, we all are different races, different experiences. You need that in a writer's room, you need that when you're crafting a story because diversity, when it comes from a room that isn't diverse, becomes tokenized very quickly and becomes more of just checking boxes. 'Oh, okay. We need this race and this race and that person and that girl.' Instead, what you're seeing here, you're seeing characters that come out of experience and you're seeing true representation, not because we're expecting to be everything for everybody, but we're expecting to live out true experiences. True diversity doesn't happen unless the room itself is diverse, the people behind it is diverse. You're seeing these strong, complicated female characters, you're seeing these strong heroes and antiheroes that just happen to be a certain way. Whether it be pansexual or straight or Asian or white or Hispanic, it's secondary to who they are. Who they are is they're either heroes or their villains and anybody can relate to that."
You can check out the series on Twitch tonight at 6:30 PM PST, and you can check out even more from the show right here. You can talk about all things Unleashed in the comments or by hitting me up on Twitter @MattAguilarCB!0comments