Review: Game of the Year

I’ve discussed the topic of roleplaying games and films on this blog before. Traditionally, marrying the two has produced impressively hideous fantasy films, such as Dungeons & Dragons and The Mutant Chronicles. Though I try to keep an open mind, whenever I hear of a new film project that’s based on a roleplaying game property, I start calculating if my liver can take the strain. The trailer for the third D&D film just hit the web this morning, so I’ll be heading out to the training camp with a case of beer for the weekend.

Recently, though, we’ve had an influx of roleplaying films not about roleplaying games, but about the gamers themselves. Films like Astrópia, Knights of Badassdom and the topic of today’s post, Game of the Year. (Or This is Spinal Tap D20, as it might also not inaccurately be described. The film owes a huge debt to it, but hey, if you’re gonna borrow, borrow from the best.)

Game of the Year is a gaming mockumentary directed by Chris Grega. It tells the story of a gaming group preparing for Game Con, where they will join the qualifiers for the Game of the Year, a reality TV series where the winning team will get to run a gaming company for one year.

Primarily, that is an excuse used to point a camera at a group of gamers and watch how the act of observation changes the observed.

The group is a collection of basic gamer archetypes. There’s Richard, the DM, who runs D&D 3.0 (judging by the PHBs his players have) but uses an AD&D 1E DM screen. The core of the group is the DM, Richard, who’s dedicated to the game and wants to get in Game of the Year. Then there’s Shawn, the group’s “leader” and sort of a normal person. The rest of the group is John, whose basement they play in and who fights with his wife over the time spent gaming; Mark, who’s “cool” and doesn’t want his girlfriend to find out he’s a gamer; Mark, who can quote the rulebooks chapter and verse; and Billy, John’s cousin, who has the attention span of a caffeinated kitten. Rounding out the cast of characters are Jennifer, the document’s sound girl, and Gary Elmore (heh heh), a shadowy figure from the past that nobody games with, for good reason.

The characters in the film are rich and interesting, and their interaction rings true. Many of them remind me of people and situations I’ve seen in the hobby, even guys I’ve played with for many years. (I even know a guy that Gary could’ve been based on.) Yeah, we gamers can be a weird and funny bunch.

Of course, the characters wouldn’t mean jack if the actors weren’t up to scratch, and I am happy to report that they perform admirably. Acting tends to be one of the things where indie films often fall flat for some reason, but Game of the Year has a capable cast. (Of course—and this is terribly mean of me—it’s possible that they’ve channelled their nervousness of being in front of the camera to their characters’ nervousness of being in front of a camera.) The performances feel very realistic. There is one instance of hilarious overacting, but it is, shall we say, diegetic.

The arc of the story is predictable. They game, there’s drama, the group breaks up, they conclude playing with other people sucks (my favourite is the group Billy and John end up during this time, where they have developed an entire dwarven language and mock the newbies in it), they come back together. I’m not giving away what happens then. Anyway, the plot is not the movie’s point, the plot is an excuse. The point is the characters. The characters deliver, and therefore the film is good.

In the beginning the film occasionally slips into cringe comedy, which is definitely not my cup of tea, but once the characters are all introduced and the action gets rolling, the film manages to be interesting and funny. It’s not high art, and it’s not that funny, but it is good enough. At its most profound, Game of the Year captures pitch-perfectly that same feeling of sympathetic embarrassment you feel when one of your fellow gamers makes an ass of himself and lacks the social awareness to realize it and the nagging suspicion that at one point or another, it has been you.

I can recommend the film. Being indie, its availability is suboptimal, but Amazon.com carries it. Note that the Amazon website claims it’s R1, which is bollocks. The DVD version is region-free (since it actually costs quite a bit of money to add in that particular piece of user-hostility), although us Europeans will still have to contend with the fact that it’s NTSC, not PAL. Then, computers don’t care.

Full disclosure: I received a complimentary review copy from the production company.

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Review: Midnight Chronicles

It isn’t often that a movie is made based on a roleplaying game. There are a few, of course, and they’re all best enjoyed with a bunch of friends and possibly alcohol. We all remember the execrable Dungeons & Dragons. There’s also a sequel, rumours of another, and the Dragonlance cartoon, and that sci-fi flick from last year I ripped into last winter, Mutant Chronicles.

Now, then, we have Midnight Chronicles. It’s based on Fantasy Flight Games’ D20 setting, Midnight, which is your average D&D fantasy, with the exception that back when the free peoples of the West fought Mordor, Sauron kicked their asses and now rules the world. I don’t own any Midnight products apart from the DVD, nor have I read any.

The movie was done with a shoestring budget, apparently produced by the game company itself. The European distributor, incidentally, is one Boll Kino Beteiligungs GmbH & Co. KG, and that “Boll” there stands for exactly who you’d fear it does. The DVD even has a trailer for In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale. This does a good job of setting expectations.

From here onwards, there be SPOILERS.

The film’s plot is pretty simple. There’s a town, Blackweir, way out in the frontier. A legate – a cleric of the Dark Lord Izrador, I think – was sent there some time ago to consecrate a temple to Izrador, and now he’s gone missing. Another legate, our dashing hero Mag Kiln, is sent to find out what’s up. “Dashing hero” in this case actually means a textbook Lawful Evil dude with black robes, a bald head, and a disturbingly skeletal visage. Charles Hubbell, of whom you have probably never heard but may have seen in the short film “Fear of Girls”, plays the part rather well. He looks the part and has the appropriate intensity and gravitas. He is accompanied by a sidekick whose name I’m not entirely certain about but think might be Kruce. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles on the DVD, and the actors can’t seem to agree on how certain names are pronounced. This sidekick guy is funny. He reminds me of Malak, the thief in Conan the Destroyer, but in the sense that this is how the character should’ve been done.

They are joined at Blackweir by the female sidekick Chuzara, and quickly become embroiled in a sordid mess of intrigue with the mayor’s petty thievery, ancient curse stuff, and the freedom fighters out in the forests, who are led by this Morrec guy, who turns out to be the legate gone missing, turned good guy. There’s also an elf, who tries to channel Hugo Weaving and fails, and a farmboy who becomes a hero, and other minor characters.

The acting is pretty decent, for the most part. None of them are Laurence Olivier, but there was remarkably little grimacing in pain in the audience. Chuzara, though, appears to have only one expression, the freedom fighter Morrec is bland, and the elf is just plain bad.

The movie also has certain plot issues. The pacing is off, and very little actually happens for most of the film, and when it does eventually happen, it all sort of stops before the climax. I have nothing against setting up for a sequel, but Midnight Chronicles is nothing but setup for a sequel, or perhaps a TV show. Most of the plotlines aren’t really resolved, and there are a few characters whose only function in the story seems to be to get introduced. The farmboy-cum-hero is one of these, as well as being a horrendously overused cliché.

The CGI is cheap, but used judiciously and so that it doesn’t call attention to itself, except in a few spell effects.

Apart from the plotline, there’s one thing that bothered me. The gear and clothes of the characters look too new. They don’t look like the equipment of people who have been travelling for weeks, or living in the forest, or in the filthy town. It’s one of those things that you don’t notice when it’s done well (Conan the Barbarian, Lord of the Rings), but immediately looks off when it’s not. It should be pretty cheap to get some credible wear and tear on that gear, and it would’ve gone a long way to making the movie look good.

I want to like Midnight Chronicles, but I just can’t. It is simply not a good movie. Unfortunately, it’s also not a bad movie, and I can’t really laugh at it. It’s just somehow less than the sum of its parts. I am disappointed.

It’s still the best of the lot when it comes to movies based on roleplaying games, though. Tells you something.

**½/*****

Review: Mutant Chronicles

I recently came to possess a DVD of the new sci-fi movie Mutant Chronicles. The details of the acquisition are irrelevant, though suffice it to say that alcohol was involved. That’s my excuse for paying money for this thing.

Now, I have watched this film, and have come here to warn the rest of you. Do not attempt to view Mutant Chronicles. It will hurt you, especially if you have any affection for the original property.

Indeed, the original property is most nifty. The reason, see, that I am reviewing this on my gaming blog is that Mutant Chronicles is originally a Swedish roleplaying game, from Target Games. It spawned a miniatures strategy game, WarZone, and a collectible card game, Doomtrooper. The latter was one of the first CCGs to be translated into Finnish, and at the tender age of ten, I spent most of my meagre allowance on booster packs. I still have a crapload of Doomtrooper cards in a box, somewhere.

So, I have fond memories of Mutant Chronicles. Also, it’s inspired by Warhammer 40,000, which I absolutely adore. The main difference is that Mutant Chronicles is more humanocentric. There are no space elves or orcs. The central conflict is between five human corporations, the religious Brotherhood, and the Dark Legion, which is a stand-in for Chaos. The corporations are the American Capitol, the British Imperial, the Japanese Mishima, the Franco-Germanic Bauhaus and the sci-fi Cybertronic.

The Review Itself

Incidentally, from this point on, there are SPOILERS. While you actually do not want to see this movie unless you have masochistic tendencies or a crush on Ron Perlman, and can likely puzzle out the entire plot fifteen minutes into the film, I thought it’d be polite to warn you.

The movie retains some of that. However, while the corporations have already left Earth and are busy fighting over the solar system, they’re still fighting over Earth in the film and are only evacuating to Mars when a battle between Capitol and Bauhaus forces awakens a mutant-making Machine deep beneath the earth and all of the land is consumed by mutant zombies in the space of about three weeks. The rest of the movie, then, is about a team of hand-picked badasses going down into the ground to shut the Machine down with an ancient bomb they may or may not know how to use. The badasses include Thomas Jane and Ron Perlman, who, along with an underutilised John Malkovich, are the only people in the production who can act worth a damn. We’ve also got the token black, Asian and Latino characters.

Nobody has any real personality and the characters die off one by one, as the mission progresses. The script is painfully predictable, even when it goes off the rails and stops even pretending to make sense at about the  halfway point. See, at the beginning, in the trenches, there’s Sgt. Mitch Hunter (Thomas Jane) and Captain Nate Rooker (Sean Pertwee). They fight the Bauhaus and then they fight the zombies. Rooker, at one point, asks Hunter to “take care of the girls” if he doesn’t make it back. At this point, we know he won’t make it back.

And then, when he stays at a heavy machine gun to fight a completely superfluous rearguard action so that Hunter and the last redshirt of the platoon can get away, nobody is surprised. He is then last seen being dragged away by a mutant zombie on a meat hook, still alive. We see that he’s still alive, and we know he’ll be coming back, most likely as a mutant zombie.

But no! As the crack team of cardboard cutouts descends into the bowels of the earth, weeks later, they find some mutie zombie still dragging the still-alive Rooker towards the Machine to be transformed into a mutant zombie. Hunter first rescues and then euthanizes him. Come on, now. The man’s survived being dragged on a meat hook through his chest for three fucking weeks, he can still keep going.

The fact Rooker doesn’t come back as a zombie but as a live person is the only thing in the film that can be said to be surprising. Every other twist can be seen coming a mile away.

Until the mission gets underway about a third into the mercifully-short film, very little actually happens. Hunter mopes around, we are introduced to a bunch of characters we can’t care about, John Malkovich has the lamest last words ever, Ron Perlman gnaws upon the tasty scenery, and we are told that the mutants are nearly impervious to bullets and the best way to kill them is by inflicting massive tissue damage, or with swords. Then, things start to happen, and I longed for the boring bits where nothing happened, because they were invariably superior. The director (also named Hunter, ironically – the character of Mitch Hunter is from the game so we know it’s not a self-insertion, mercifully) can’t direct action scenes worth shit. The choreography is poor and it shows, even with the shaky camera.

Actually, the crowning moment of the film comes soon after they’ve entered the necropolis where the Machine is supposed to be. They start rappelling down an elevator shaft to get into the depths and leave the token Asian, Juba, to guard the rear, hiding in the elevator cabin. The guys get down and are attacked by zombies, and so is Juba. He fights a losing battle, and finally ends up duelling a mutant zombie in the free-falling elevator. During the fight, he cuts off the mutant’s own meat hook hand and then stabs it through the face with it, nailing it into the wall. Then the elevator hits the ground and explodes, killing all the other mutants the rest of the team were fighting. The camera is shaky and the direction is poor, but the idea is good, the concept is cool, and they almost manage to pull it off.

Strangely enough, all of the ethnic token characters explode upon death.

Also, the CGI is atrociously bad. The film’s opening scene shows a yellow sun with clouds passing over it that reminded me of the CGI in Babylon 5, which first aired fifteen years ago. Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning had better CGI, and that was made by a guy in his mom’s kitchen.

In the end, it’s still better than Uwe Boll. It’s better than Dungeons & Dragons. It has a few one-liners that actually work (“I’m not paid to believe. I’m paid to fuck shit up.” or, when the monk, Brother Samuel (Perlman) reads an ancient inscription on a wall in the catacombs: “Abandon ye all hope who enter here… motherfuckers.”), and some good concepts that could theoretically have been made to work. For the most part, it is not actively bad. However, it has no soul and no atmosphere, and thus Dungeons & Dragons 2 is still better, even though the acting in that one was uniformly dire.

**/*****

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

I was actually planning to start a feature on this blog, called “The Silver DM Screen”, about movies I watch and how aspects of them could be made to work in RPGs. It was my intention to see if this, a movie based on an RPG, could offer something.

It really couldn’t.

My advice: get Mutant Chronicles and play that. If you can’t find it, get Dark Heresy, it’s almost the same. Actually, skip Mutant Chronicles, it’s practically impossible to find nowadays anyway, and just get Dark Heresy. Dark Heresy rocks.

Also, if you do find yourself watching this movie and cannot escape or commit suicide or something, make note of where and how the plot really fails to work. Predictable clichés fail in RPGs in exactly the same places, and they’re often more fragile because a game moves slower and the players have more time to think about it. I could tell stories of entire plots being pieced out by genre-savvy players.

Never, by the way, steal a whole plot, especially if parts of it can be bypassed, such as in most investigation adventures. Sampo, our former Living Greyhawk triad man, told me of a module that he’d played at a convention somewhere in Europe. It was a murder mystery of some sort, and the group was stuck, until he realised that the plot was identical with the Babylon 5 episode “Passing through Gethsemane”, which in turn meant that the murderer is this guy… and lo and behold, it was.

Yeah. Let’s see if I can find something better to watch for next time.