Sunday, April 29, 2012

Film Review: Game of the Year

That's right, it's my first ever film review!

You guys have Kevin Lehnert to thank for this one. He's Director of Marketing over at 88mm Productions and was recently kind enough to send me a complimentary DVD copy of their 2009 movie Game of the Year. So full disclosure: A freebie is what prompted this review. I'm still going to try to be as fair as I can manage, though, as I have in similar reviews for complimentary rulebooks and such both on this blog and at former haunt RPG.Net.

I feel the most useful place to start is by explaining that Game of the Year (GotY, hereafter) is, in essence, a "mockumentary" in the style of Rob Reiner's 1984 classic This Is Spinal Tap, as well as that film's own star Christopher Guest's subsequent similar series of works (Waiting for Guffman, Best of Show, etc). This means that GotY is meant to depict real people being followed around and recorded by a documentary film crew. These sorts of films are actually scripted, of course, but the "raw" seeming camera work and heavy use of improvised dialog encourages the audience to suspend their disbelief on that score.

GotY story centers around DM Richard and his motley crew of D&D gamers as they prepare themselves for a do-or-die audition at a local gaming convention. The audition is for a group spot on the titular "Game of the Year", a reality television show where rival gaming groups compete for the singular prize of running a (fictional) established game company for an entire year.

It's here, in the basic premise, that GotY makes its first and gravest misstep for me. Here, in literally the first minute or two of the movie, the idea of a big budget, televised reality show in the vein of Survivor or The Amazing Race centered around D&D is a huge blow to the realistic atmosphere that the filmmakers spend the entire rest of the production laboring, largely with great success, to achieve. Maybe if reality television existed in the D&D fad days of the early 1980s, sure. But in the 21st century? I swallowed the conceit and pressed on, but it went down hard indeed.

This is a pity, because by the time the credits rolled, I really was quite taken with GotY. Why? Well, one thing that I was on the lookout for before I even pressed play was the lazy overuse of cliche. And my heart did sink a bit when the main characters are introduced playing in...a dingy basement. Are basements really that popular for gaming? Over twenty years now, and I've never rolled dice in one.

Anyway, I digress. Despite that disconcerting start, the cliche beast is kept on a mercifully short leash throughout. There is a bit midway where a (gasp!) girl at the table causes some predictable awkward lust and inter-group strife, but that's really about it. In fact, most of the cliches on display in GotY have more to do with gamers' stereotypes about each other rather than anything outsiders would recognize: John is the solid, man's man military enthusiast into 1970s chit wargames and kicking ass while taking names. Billy is the ADD-afflicted goofball loony who just wants to have fun. "Good" DM Richard's pompous foil Gary Elmore (tee hee!) is an archetypal all talk, no action frustrated novelist/thespian, more interested in telling his epic stories as floridly as possible than in getting any actual gaming done.

In fact, GotY is at its funniest when it's operating in this mode. The scene where no-nonsense John and comic relief Billy find themselves sitting in on a new game where the anal-retentive tyrant DM has elaborate rules governing time limits for combat actions, out-of-character speech, etc, had me practically rolling on the floor. Although I imagine that non-gamers might not have been down there with me. This is definitely a film with a very specific target audience that it homes in on rather single-mindedly.

Thankfully, writer/director/cast member Chris Grega also took care to give the main characters depth beyond their stock types. John also has a troubled marriage, for example, and Gary blames Richard for ruining his life by stealing both his girlfriend and his game ideas in the past. This prevents the characterization and humor from being stunted at a corny "live action Knights of the Dinner Table" level.

How's the actual gaming in GotY? The mechanics are what I like to call "pleasantly vague." Other than a few things like initiative and clerics, there's not much to indicate what flavor of D&D rules are being used at the table. Some 3E rulebooks are glimpsed, but at the same time the referees seem to freely alternate between using DM screens from AD&D 1E, AD&D 2E, Basic D&D, and WotC editions. This is really for the best, I feel. Excessive jargon would be a pointless way to pander to the audience that would detract from the story. And while the game mechanics and such are never the focus specifically, the filmmakers still found plenty of more subtle ways to demonstrate to the target audience that they know their stuff. Characters cleverly sport surnames like Dee, Mohan, Otus, and Martek. Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Steve Jackson are referenced outright, but overall these are restrained, classy tips of the hat to the grognards out there.

Do Richard and company actually win a spot on the television show? I'm not about to spoil things here, folks, but I will say that the ending is what really made GotY a winner for me. Bittersweet, heartfelt, and fundamentally true-to-life are not terms I thought I'd wind up associating with a film that started off with a premise as dodgy as this one's, but there you go. The aforementioned above-average amount of effort put into the characterization (given the often lazily-handled subject matter) really does pay off when it counts most.

Is GotY really the best gaming movie ever made? By the end, I was convinced. Joke all you want about the bar being set low, but this is an indie comedy that has solid writing, believable acting, real heart, and also happens to be about tabletop RPG gamers. That combination is pretty unprecedented and, frankly, impressive.

If you need numbers, have a 4/5. See this one if you can.

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