Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Game of the Year (Film)

A few weeks back, I read a review of the film Game of the Year over at Grognardia, and my interest was piqued enough to look and see if it was available on Netflix. So I was quite surprised when the producer of the film emailed me to ask if I’d like a copy of the DVD and be willing to do a review. Right on!

The thing came in the mail a while ago but last night was my first opportunity to watch the thing, which I did…twice. Here are my thoughts:

First, the Quick & Dirty: if you are a gamer, or curious/interested in gamer culture, or are in a relationship with someone who games, you will probably find the film entertaining. If you’re really not into documentary films, even fake ones (like those of Christopher Guest), then you may not like the film’s format as it is of the fake documentary or “mockumentary” style. There are some funny bits, some poignant bits, quite a bit of good acting, and a well-paced script, if a little “light weight.”

Now for the deeper (if more convoluted) review.

Game of the Year is a weird film. Not weird in the Naked Lunch or David Lynch kind of way, but the POINT of the director is an odd one.

Because there IS a point. The filmmaker isn’t just trying to entertain in a documentary style (as is the case with a mockumentary like, say, Best in Show or Spinal Tap)…there’s a bit too much care and affection for the characters and material (in my opinion). And yet it’s not a “real” documentary film: it’s scripted and contrived and for the most part acted by (amazingly) non-gamer folks.

Let’s back up for a moment: the premise of the story is that there’s a reality TV show getting produced regarding table-top role-players, and the winners of the show will get to help run a game company for a year (in the spirit of The Apprentice). The film isn’t about the competition, though…instead it’s about one group of gamers who’ve been playing together for years that want to get on the show…and so they have cahooted themselves with a documentary film project, in hopes it will bolster their chances of being one of the contestant teams (kind of like a semi-pro audition tape or something). The film then chronicles, not their game, but their relationships to the game and to each other.

This isn’t a film about RPGs. It’s about the people who play RPGs…their relationship to the game and to each other and the balance of that with their real lives (though the latter is very down-played in the film for the sake of entertainment and the wink-nod in-jokes to gamers).

I liked the film. It’s a good little film (and I’ll highlight some specific things I liked in a moment), but in a way I’m disappointed…I think there was an opportunity here to “blow the top off” that got missed for the sake of a slightly safer film.

I have to say I didn’t much like the premise. It’s not that the reality show is so farfetched (I have watched a LOT of different reality shows over the years, and they’ll make just about anything for the right niche market. Top Shot? Now those guys are geeks…geeks with guns!). I understand that the filmmaker is using it as a backdrop to “up the stakes” and drive the plot…why else would these guys be filmed right? a way similar to the variety show reunion thing in A Mighty Wind. But it’s weak. It’s so secondary to the REAL drama of the film…the interaction of the cast (which is the fun of fake documentaries anyway)...that it feels forced.

I would have preferred to see just a film about the gaming group, fake or not. Maybe the documentarians were filming it as a “slice of life” of gamer culture (similar to Spinal Tap’s “slice of life of being a touring rock band”). The stakes are already there; they are already as high as they need to be: friendship, social contract, the intimacy of gaming, home life and family, love life issues.

There are strong ties that bind any members of a subculture. And because subcultures are niche rather than mainstream, there are huge amounts of emotion and feeling that get invested in ‘em. I mean, most people want to share what they do with others, and hobbies that require group participation (like role-playing) need people even more. If I get 86’d from my “rock climbing club” I can still go climb a mountain on my own (though that might not be as fun, given my particular temperament). If I get kicked out of a gaming group, well, I suppose I can sit around reading my books. Or blogging. But that’s NOT the same thing as actually playing.

In the course of the film, we see the members of the group have a falling out. The individual members then attempt to cobble together new game groups for the sake of still auditioning for this “reality show,” Game of the Year. Why? I mean that’s not the important part (from a gamer perspective)…the important part is finding A NEW GAME. You’re not a gamer without a gaming group, you’re just a sad little man sitting alone in his garage (like one of the film’s characters, Gary).

You don’t think that’s important? My God, for a person who’s played these games, it’s just about the MOST important thing. People will hang out with all sorts of rejects and crazies…or stay in terrible, unsatisfying game groups…just so that they don’t have to go out and find a new group. Because there’s no guarantee the new group is going to be better, or even equal to the last…as I think the film aptly demonstrates.

The social contract involved in playing these fantasy games, ESPECIALLY as an adult, is a crazy-complex one. For one thing, sharing time in an imaginary world with others is a deep and intimate bonding experience…you start speaking a language and sharing experiences that few outside your own game group will understand. And while this is fine and dandy as a kid (imaginary play is expected and often encouraged with most kids), for adults there is such a stigma attached to the idea…that people need to GROW UP and deal with the REAL WORLD as opposed to playing silly games…and the friendships formed around the gaming table are deeper than anything you’d find in, say, a fantasy football or pick-up basketball league. People will put up with shit they’d never put up with in other areas of their life just to keep the game going.

And while that’s a stake for the characters in Game of the Year there are additional stakes as well. One character becomes separated from his spouse over his gaming hobby. Another character is trying desperately to hide his hobby from his significant other. Two (or three) other characters are vying for the romantic affection of one of their fellow game members. One character hasn’t had a girlfriend in years and his buddy’s are trying to set him up with someone (and he makes a hash out of it).

These “real world issues” – how we relate to our loved ones and potential partners outside of gaming, especially when our gaming has an impact or takes a toll on those relationships – is plenty significant, and the stakes are good and high (and the situations still ripe with comedic potential and pathos) without the whole "reality contest" concept.

However, that’s not the filmmaker’s point in making this film. The point (at least what I seem to get from watching) is to portray gamers in a more true-to-life light, in a way that breaks the stereotypes often portrayed in film and television. Often gamers are portrayed as out-of-touch nerds with screws loose and a near complete inability to function in “normal” settings. Which isn’t usually the case: most of us still have jobs and houses and cars and spouses and lives outside of gaming. Just because we like to imagine we are wizards and warriors a couple nights a week (or month or whatever), doesn’t mean we’re totally retarded, 12 year olds living in the bodies of 30-somethings.

And I think the filmmaker gets that point across. The gamers portrayed…at least when they’re away from the table…aren’t much different or any weirder than other people their own age. This is, of course, a good thing: taking gaming a bit out of the basement, as it were. If that was his main goal (as well as poking fun at gamers where the sterotypes ARE sometimes accurate), then he succeeded.

But I still think he misses an opportunity. It’s as if Chris Grega (the director/creator and a self-professed gamer himself) is a bit self-conscious of his own material. He has to include this whacky reality show idea because he’s buying the hype that something MORE is needed. That people can’t get so worked up over something that’s “just a game,” right?

Just a silly game.

They ARE just games, but people get worked up over smaller things than that ALL THE TIME. Soccer players have been murdered for blowing a play in a big game. Professional sports players have been suspended and fined heavily for stomping on the heads of downed opponents, just in the heat of a game. People go on nationally televised reality shows (even ones without cash prizes involved) and get into fights and altercations over the smallest, pettiest slights…all filmed for the sake of ratings and more sensational programming.

Historically people have dueled to the death over trifles. There’s a reason why 1st degree (premeditated) murder carries a higher penalty than murder performed in the heat of passion: humans get worked up over all sorts of shit. Crazy, ridiculous things of no importance. A waitress brings me the wrong beer or forgets my side order and we get all bent out of shape…while there are other people starving to death and/or dying of malnutrition in our own country. That’s just human nature…we OFTEN miss the big picture for the self-specific gripe right in front of us.

It’s no different with gaming. Gamers can be petty, irrational, ridiculous people…just like anyone. And that’s okay (or at least “acceptable” just like we need to accept any of our other human failings). And it can be entertaining, too, just like watching any train wreck can be! I salute Grega’s portrayal of gamers in a realistic light, but I wish he’d just taken it another step and reveled even more in the passion (and foibles) of what it means to be a member of this niche hobby.

Okay, that’s the bulk of my take on the movie.

Other thoughts: there was actually quite a bit of food for thought (i.e. fodder for blog posts) in this film. I don’t know if it’s just a St. Louis thing (where the movie was filmed and where the filmmaker resides), but the total lack of female gamers (“Wonder Woman” notwithstanding) was a little weird. Other than my current game group or the occasional 2-3 player one-off there’s always been a woman or two at my gaming tables (whether I was running the game or playing). In the DVD commentary, I might have heard Mr. Grega say he’d never had a female player in his experience. Maybe Seattle’s just more co-ed (interesting that my current LARGE game group is all men and most of them are from St. Louis…just saying…).

The gaming itself, as portrayed in the movie, felt very “testosterous” (perhaps helped by the lack of women?)….the scenarios were all of the “let’s fight something and get loot” variety. Miniatures and battle mats were used in most of the scenes, and there was loud complaining when players didn’t get to roll for initiative enough. Combat and killing seemed to be the preeminent attractions, and the characters were portrayed as enjoying wargaming (especially historic wargaming, not GW stuff) as well. Early in the film, one player complains that their current DM isn’t “the storyteller” that their last DM was, but when we see that guy he’s ALL fluff (much to his players’ chagrin). There wasn’t a happy medium portrayed (though again, the film’s point was NOT about documenting game play itself but of examining the people who play the game).

Let’s see, what else? I thought it was only in my games that player characters kill each other and teabag their fallen opponents. Apparently we’re not the only ones.

I thought the acting was pretty darn good (especially considering most of them had no background in gaming prior to making the film). The characters all reminded me of real gamers I’ve met over the years (though the personalities were more that of guys I’d known in my 20s, and the actors look older than that). Most spouses and significant others of gamers I’ve known have been more sympathetic or accepting of their partner’s weird hobby; but I can certainly relate to some of the marital conflict on display (I’ve learned over the years to prioritize MY hobbies a little differently)!

I was amused by some of the set dressing, particularly the DM screens chosen for the different game masters in the film. The main “protagonist” DM has a 1st edition AD&D screen, the mechanics-emphasized table used a 4th edition screen, and the “story teller” used the 2nd edition AD&D screen. I don’t know if this was purposeful or not, but I felt the choices were appropriate.

There were an awful lot of amusing bits that make me chuckle when I reflect on the movie. There were no token stoners in the movie (I think the A.D.D. cousin and the “milf” dude kind of stood in for them), but there was plenty of other craziness on display, all of which I found amusing…seeing as how it wasn’t happening to me. There’s a reason why game groups will stay together for years without a whole lot of member changes: getting that right mix of people together to run a satisfying game can be pretty damn tricky. The social contract of role-playing is not an easy one to put together, and unfortunately all the “DM advice” in the world can’t stand in for going out and putting it together…through trial and error and error and error.

Anyway, I liked the film. My (non-gamer) wife started watching the first chapter and found it amusing as well. She asked if I was going to let my game buddies borrow the DVD and I said I’d probably force them to sit through a screening. I might just take it down to Café Mox and see if they want to show it one night, instead of the usual cartoon/sci-fi fare. Damn, though, I do wish it had closed-caption subtitles!


  1. Excellent and balanced review sir! I have to be honest, I never knew this film existed, so one for me to try and root out.

    Once again, well done - a very engaging read :)