Thursday, February 9, 2012

REVIEW: Game of the Year

As a general rule, I'm not a fan of "gaming movies." Most of them, in my experience, are either inhabited by broad stereotypes intended primarily to appeal to mainstream audiences (who then laugh at how pathetic the gamers are) or are vapid feel-good films intended to show that "gamers are people too." Very few of them show any evidence that their producers have had any personal contact with gamers or gaming in decades, let alone are gamers themselves, never mind self-aware and thoughtful gamers. Consequently, when I received a copy of Chris Grega's Game of the Year, I was wary. But then I saw the cover of the DVD (pictured at left) and I started to wonder, "Could this finally be a good gaming movie?" Or, at the very least, could it be a movie that shows more understanding of the hobby and its participants than what can be gleaned from hazy, quarter-century old memories of gaming's heyday?

Game of the Year is presented as a mockumentary about a group of adult roleplayers hoping to win a spot for themselves on the fictitious reality TV show after which the movie is named. Should they succeed in this effort, their reward is running a game company for one year, but, before they can do that, they must first prepare themselves for the tryouts at an upcoming convention. Enter Jennifer and Neil, the director and cinematographer of the documentary. Every week, they venture into the basement of John Schiendheimer, where he and his friends gather for their gaming sessions, and film what they see there. In addition to John, who's more of a hex-and-chit wargamer at heart (because it's "based in reality"), there's the slightly pompous Game Master, Richard Matherson, Shawn Biondo (the "normal guy"), Mark Otus (the uber-gamer), Kyle Martek (the "cool guy" who insists he's "not really a gamer"), and John's cousin, Billy, who's attendance is spotty and who's easily distracted while playing.

With the introduction of the characters, I found my initial skepticism evaporating. From the little allusions to people and things from gaming's past to the games and paraphernalia scattered about John's basement, everything started to feel familiar -- and not in the sense that I'd seen all this before in other gaming films. Rather, I found myself reminded of my own experiences, both as a younger man and now. The characters are indeed stereotypes, at least initially, but what struck me is that many of these stereotypes weren't the usual ones you see in movies involving the hobby. Instead, they were stereotypes that spoke of real life experience with gamers and gaming. I was particularly taken with the characters of John, whose wife doesn't really approve of his hobby, and Kyle, who doesn't want his girlfriend to know what he does each weekend with his buddies. Both of these characters are broadly drawn -- this is a comedic film, after all -- but these are people I've known, people whose hobby has had repercussions in their personal lives and not entirely positive ones.

Like any gaming group, the one portrayed in Game of the Year is quirky and riven with little disputes, but, by and large, the guys get along well and have fun together. Whether they're the "Olympic" gamers they believe themselves to be is a question that never really occurs to them, as they plan for the selection process at the upcoming convention. What I really liked about Game of the Year was how much time the film spends on gaming sessions and not in a boring or silly way. Rather, the movie gives a good sense of what it's like to actually sit at a table with a bunch of adults, roll some funny dice, and pretend to be a fantasy character in an unfolding adventure. It's a small thing in some ways, but it's a huge one in others, since, I think, it simultaneously highlights the virtues and exposes the flaws in our shared pastime.

The real plot of the movie takes off when Jennifer steps onscreen and begins to game with the guys, at Richard's suggestion. Though enthusiastic and more knowledgeable than the average person about roleplaying, she's no gamer (she names her character Wonder Woman, leading others to follow suit and rename their own characters after various superheroes), despite the excuses being made for her by Richard, Shawn, and Mark, all of whom vie for her affections (while John and Kyle look on in horror). Again, in other hands, the whole "girls ruin gaming" trope might come across as puerile and small-minded, but, here, it's well-handled and used as a device for examining the inner lives of the various characters. It also precipitates a break-up of the gaming group, throwing into question their possible selection for Game of the Year, as well as introducing some hilarious scenes as the gamers struggle to find new players and new groups who match their own styles. Again, these scenes rang very true to life and also brought us into contact with the film's "villain," Gary Elmore, a former friend of Richard's, with whom he was once going to start a game company, Void Dragon Enterprizes. Gary's appearance, like that of Jennifer as an active participant in the game, is pivotal to the unfolding of the overall story.

Game of the Year is ostensibly a niche film. Some of its dialog and even plot points might be lost on non-gamers, though I should point out that my non-gamer wife, when I described some of the the scenes and dialog, rhetorically asked, "Where have I heard that before?" So, while familiarity with the hobby is certainly helpful, it's not essential. More to the point, I'm not sure Game of the Year can really be described as a "gaming movie" anyway. Rather than being about the hobby, it's about people, who happen to be involved, to varying degrees, in the hobby. For that reason, I think it's actually a lot more accessible to non-gamers than it might first appear. Likewise, I think it's a much more interesting and occasionally insightful film than one might expect, given its title and subject matter. In the end, I enjoyed Game of the Year a great deal, as has at least one other member of gaming group. It's an amusing, thoughtful, and sometimes cathartic movie neither pokes fun at gaming nor lauds it uncritically. If you have the chance to see it, I'd recommend it highly.


  1. The character names are a sign of familiarity with the subject, too. Otus, Gary Elmore (Gygax *and* Larry in one name)?

  2. Did you get to see Dungeon Crawl? I'm sure you'd hate it.

  3. this sounds quite good. It sounds like the characters are treated with a bit of respect at least...

  4. It's interesting that gaming can still reach out to pop culture (movies, podcasts, etc) but it will never be like it was in the 80's. How would anybody ever top Tom Hanks as a dorko (a young version of the older, bitter Grogs at DF) who takes the game way too seriously? You can't spin gold like that these days.

  5. Apropos of nothing, James, have you seen these Mike Sterling blogs where he's unpacking a box of old gaming stuff? Interesting Tekumel stuff and other material I'd never seen before (like the Blume/Gygax Barsoom game from TSR):

  6. For the record, this on sale at exclusively I think:

    It's hard to find because of all the video game "Game of the Year" listings.

  7. I always rather liked Astropia whenit came to RPG related movies.

  8. Thanks for the review...I'll be nipping over to Amazon in a few seconds to see If I can get a copy!

  9. Darn, I thought my comment from yesterday posted correctly, but I guess it didn't:

    This film reminds me of the movie "Gamers: Dorkness Rising", made a few years ago. VERY funny (to anyone familiar with gaming, at least). Check it out at deadgentlemen dot com.

    1. yep it was very funny especially the multiple-bard joke, but the first one ("The Gamers") was IMHO even better.