“Winter Dragon” and the Sad Story of The Wheel of Time

I was staying up late last Sunday watching the myriad of Sunday shows I enjoy.  The Walking Dead, in which characters cry and slay zombies in equal measure, returned.  Better Call Saul (complete with one of our favorite actors, Michael Mando) premiered.  Characters on Downton Abbey whined about propriety, characters on Brooklyn 99 discovered newfound camaraderie and John Oliver exposed the corruption in our medical industry.  It was a good night for television.  Hidden away among all of those programs was a series premiere called “Winter Dragon” on FXX which is getting a lot of attention this week even though nobody watched it. It's a shame we missed it, though.  For those of us who are fans of fantasy novels, just the fact that this show ever got filmed at all would have blown us away.

Winter Dragon, it turns out, was a pilot episode for a proposed series based on The Wheel of Time novels that were extremely popular years ago and still have an active fanbase today.  The Wheel of Time series is familiar in many ways to fantasy fans: magic exists and some folks are born able to use it, evil forces and monsters lurk about, there’s a “Dark One” who is waiting for his chance to kill everybody, and everyone is uncommonly good at fighting.  The big twist in the series is that using magic drives men – but not women – insane.  So the male characters in the books who use magic do so knowing that their sanity is slipping away the more they use it.  It was a pretty cool twist to a familiar formula and seems like a good premise for a show.  The pilot was arguably not a genuine effort at a series, however; the company owning the rights (a company called Red Eagle) has talking about a series for a while and apparently had to air something to keep the rights to the books.  So the pilot was rushed together to preserve those rights, which is very similar to how we got The Amazing Spiderman movies.  

It's a shame the pilot was not more of a genuine effort.  Given how popular the Game of Thrones series is, the Wheel of Time series would be a natural television series to create.  The entire series of fourteen books (fifteen if you count a prequel) has been written, the books are EXTREMELY dense, there are dozens of interesting characters in those books, and - while the series sprawled out to a huge number of characters - the books kept focus on its five original characters throughout the thousands of pages. 

The one questionable element is the fact that the stories of revolve around the use of magic and magic is hard to depict on the screen (as you can see in Winter Dragon, which makes season 1 of The Next Generation look like Avatar).  Even fans of fantasy get sick of seeing grimacing characters with their fingertips outstretched, or watching wizards duel by pointing wands at each other while their hair blows back, or a character touching his forehead while squinting really hard.

However they do it, the series seems like a natural and a game series seems almost inevitable.  Apparently, a game based on the series appeared years ago (and perhaps the less said the better) but given how innovative developers have become with known franchises, this might be the perfect time.  The game would lend itself to open-world gameplay or Telltale style storytelling.  There would be a wide variety of character classes to choose from and enemies to battle.  A Wheel of Time series could bring a really innovative element to gameplay, too, by incorporating an insanity meter that was exhausted by the use of magic (perhaps even culminating in the player losing control of the character for brief periods), sort of an Eternal Darkness meets Shadow of Mordor type of gameplay.  A gaming franchise seems like a sure thing….or so you would assume.

Needless to say, Winter Dragon did not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the idea that my Wheel of Time game is on its way.  The company that owns the rights to the series, Red Eagle, seems to be unable to get any kind of game created.  From what Adam Whitehead reports here, it seems that Red Eagle made a deal with EA to distribute a Wheel  of Time-inspired RPG that Red Eagle would design with Obsidian.  The game would be written by Chris Avellone.  Red Eagle was responsible for funding the game but they were not able to do so.  Red Eagle then seemed to lower their sights a bit; they partnered with Jet Set Games to produce some mobile Wheel of Time games and turned to Kickstarter to fund those.  They couldn’t get the money there either. And after that?  Apparently nothing.  There’s been no movement on anything until Winter Dragon appeared Sunday night/Monday morning.  A hugely popular, extremely successful fantasy series with a fanatical fan base has produced, to date, a modest first-person shooter and a television pilot starring Billy Zane. 

Right now, it looks like the Wheel of Time is about as close to getting made as Beyond Good and Evil 2, The Last Guardian and Halflife 3.  That's a shame because there's an insane amount of potential there.  Then again, maybe it's useful to remember that the series' author - Robert Jordan - began his career writing books about Conan, another franchise that has been surprisingly unsuccessful in producing video game titles or television shows.  Sometimes no matter how suited a franchise is for gamification, it just doesn't happen.  Winter Dragon was a reminder, though, of what could happen if this series ever found a way forward, with or without Billy Zane.