Monday, October 1, 2012

Film Review: Game of the Year

I watched the mockumentary entitled "Game of the Year," and I have to say that overall it was not bad. I guess that's not necessarily a ringing endorsement. While the film had its moments, I felt there was something missing. I'll try to elaborate on this feeling by the end of this review.

Ok, initial impressions included "it's cool that someone made a film we can add to the small pantheon of D&D/RPG-related movies." I also thought "it's awesome that the DVD cover is a play off of the old D&D module covers."

Then I started watching. The film's premise is that there's an RPG reality show called Game of the Year. It's sort of a Survivor for roleplayers, right down to a slogan of "Strength, Wisdom, Dexterity" replacing "Outwit, Outplay, Outlast." I thought the whole concept was pretty clever and funny. Roleplaying groups selected for the show compete to win the privilege of running a game company for a year. I have to say it I found myself wishing there really was such a reality show. It would be the only reality show I would watch, as I normally hate the genre.

It occurred to me, however, that the criteria for selecting a winning team for Game of the Year are never clearly defined in the film. What are the contest's judges looking for? How well a group plays together? That seems really subjective. Do they want the most messed up, drama-filled group, or the most cohesive? This omission of contest details was baffling.

As the film went on, I found myself thinking "I wish they would have played some of the characters straight, rather than reaching for comedic moments based on gamer stereotypes." Especially the GM character, Richard, who sometimes came off as that cliched "goofy and bumbling nerd" type. And what's with the clothespins holding stuff onto his screen? Lame. I can't take this guy seriously!

Overall, I felt that there was some excessive stereotyping with regard to most of the characters. Now, I expected the film to offer up a bit of education for those not familiar with gamer archetypes. But I couldn't help but feel that the character's behaviors came across as a bit heavy handed. Again, this was especially evident with the character of Richard, who I saw as the central character/linchpin for the whole story.

There were definite moments where I said to myself "I wouldn't pick this team to win a reality TV show." I have to admit that I found them sort of annoying. Maybe it wasn't just the characters themselves, but something about the tone of the film. The characters seemed, I don't know...sort of desperate all the time.

Which leads me to my biggest question: who is the intended audience of the film?

Was it just a love letter to gamers? I don't think the creators wanted it to cater just to roleplayers. Perhaps they wanted to make it a hybrid, with nods and inside jokes/references for gamers but also accessible to non-gamers?

But if non-gamers are to be part of the audience, then I think the movie served to reinforce bad stereotypes instead of showing that gamers really are normal folks. I think the film makers were attempting to tread a fine line between respect for gamers/the roleplaying hobby and lampooning gamers/the hobby, and they didn't really succeed.

The "linchpin" Richard says at the film's end that (I'm paraphrasing) "people think gamers are normal and solid and stable, but in reality we have problems just like everyone else." I am not so sure outsiders to the hobby think that gamers are normal and stable, with their act together and priorities straight. On the contrary, I think that the wider world has bought into the view of gamers as nerdy losers who shirk adult responsibility (i.e. "still live in their parent's basement") and who can be a bit unstable (i.e. "always living in a fantasy world of elves and goblins"). If the film was supposed to argue against these viewpoints, I think it missed that opportunity.

All of this made me wonder if the film makers really had a good idea of what gaming is all about, be it shared storytelling, expressing creativity and imagination, escaping from reality, having a good time with friends, or even getting in some good old hack and slash. There were moments where I, as a gamer, wondered at the decisions made by the creators, and thought that perhaps the creators weren't themselves gamers. This just seems like a film that should have been made by gamers. If the creators are in fact roleplayers, then their creation missed the mark, IMHO, when it comes to a fully-accurate depiction of roleplayers as more than just the stereotype.

I think the film is worthy of a gamer's time, for its nods to the hobby. But I am wary of putting this forward as a good film to introduce non-gamers to the realities of the hobby and being a roleplayer. The film is just too vague and, frankly, "bipolar" about the subject matter that I fear non-gamers would come away from it even more confused about what roleplaying is really like. Or worse yet, those who may be cynical toward the hobby may find their cynicism amplified.

What I would really love to see, someday, is a film that is an actual documentary showing how there are gamers out there like me: a regular guy with a real life, a person who has a typical adult life (and all accompanying responsibilities and duties) and finds time to roleplay. If there's such a film out there already, please let me know! Because, sure, there are the fatbeards and catpissmen that non-gamers would mock as typical RPG nerds. But when will someone portray the RPG hobby as being peopled by a diverse cross-section of lifestyles?

More Thoughts on Game of the Year (Spoiler Alert!)

The following are some other thoughts that came up while I was watching the film (WARNING - what follows may be considered spoilers):

Ew, someone said "five foot step" during a game session. The old schooler in me cringed.

Is is just me, or were they using a strange mix of books from different D&D editions and other game systems at the table? That's weird to me, but I guess it wouldn't phase a FLAILSNAILS player. Seriously, there was a moment when I saw someone using a Conan RPG screen with D&D 3rd Edition books on the table. What's that about? This is one of the things that made me wonder about the gaming pedigree of the film makers and who the film was geared toward. Wouldn't real gamers watching the film notice such a thing and question why a hodgepodge of different game system materials were used all at once?

I thought the portrayal of the married couple's troubles was a bit over the top. They were way too angry over a game, IMHO.

The camera work in the film is a bit too much on the choppy side. I know that shaky camera style is supposed to be new norm, but it can be done wrong.

Wow, am I jealous of this group's game collection! You have to see it to believe it. Shelves upon shelves of game books, board games, etc. A thing of beauty...

I think they definitely nailed the awkwardness that arises when you are in a new roleplaying group. The scenes where players were trying to find new gaming groups to join were spot on.

It was a funny idea for the players to put their hands on their heads to indicate when they were speaking out of character.

I thought the love triangle aspect was a bit hackneyed. The way that several male characters were smitten with the female character Jennifer seemed like a rehash of the old "gaming nerds are desperate to get girlfriends" cliche.

The Gary Elmore (heh heh, his name is like Larry Elmore) character was funny, with his over-the-top, confrontational, frustrated novelist style of DMing.

So, the character of the "cool" roleplayer that doesn't want his girlfriend to know he's a gamer goes to a con? That might tip her off, eh?

The deleted scene where they play Axis and Allies is great. The Asian guy who is always asked to play Japan? Even though he is actually Philippino? Good stuff.

The deleted scenes were some of the best stuff on the disc, actually. The trip to the Miniature Market store was a highlight. The special features in general were great, such as the short film called "The Game."


  1. The IT Crowd episode "Jen the Fredo" is hands-down the best treatment of gaming I've seen in mass media*. The show is a comedy, so obviously things get played for laughs, but it ultimately portrays RPGs as fun and even a bit cathartic. And the people at the table (Moss excepted) are all what you could call "normal".

    * Well, that and the "Dancing and Dragons" episode of Freaks and Geeks, but that's more about gaming among teens in days of yore rather than contemporary gaming.

    Hmm. Both the above-mentioned episodes depict everyone at the table as relatively normal sorts--EXCEPT the GM, who in each case is depicted as being somewhere on the autism spectrum in terms of their obsessive devotion to gaming. Not sure if that's being unfair to GMs or merely truthful!)

  2. I'd add the Dungeons & Dragons episode of Community to the list of good mass culture treatments of role playing. Another 'autistic' DM, though.

    "I won Dungeons & Dragons, and it was Advanced!"

    1. Oh yeah, I loved that episode! I blogged about it, actually: