Jason VandenBerghe is a heavy metal human being. He's clad in black, sports thick long hair, a beard that vikings would be proud of, and a ring for every single finger. He's also very intense - melodramatic event - and speaks in deep, philosophical tones that wouldn't sound out of place in a medieval stage play. He's a striking character, and it's no surprise that he had For Honor - an ambitious armored warrior/sword-fighting video game - inside his head since he was a child. Lucky for Jason, he works for Ubisoft Montreal - the largest video game development studio in the world - making it possible to turn his dream into reality.
Through the prism of Jason's personal story, documentary filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier examines the creation of an "AAA game" in his new film, PLAYING HARD, which just had its Montreal Premiere at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival. We're granted access through the tight, metal-gated security of the Montreal studio and shown the savagery of big-budget video game development.
The game at the heart of PLAYING HARD is For Honor. It released in 2017, but before that, it was just the spark of an idea. In an industry where 85% of successful products are sequels, For Honor represents a huge risk; for companies as big as Ubisoft, it's not just a new game, it's a new brand, and the challenges that come with building something like it from scratch are gargantuan. Chartier covers five years of development, from the pitch, to concept design, to funding rounds, pre-release press, crunch-time, and finally, release.
Whether or not you'll appreciate PLAYING HARD depends on your interest in the industry, but even if you're not a gamer, there's plenty on the surface to latch onto. It's also a story about human ambition, and what drives someone to be creative in such a high-pressure industry. We see the trepidation and the self-doubt. We see the ache and regret of being near-tyrannical in managing a team of hundreds.
But I never felt Chartier went deep enough with this documentary. If anything, it makes development look too easy. Things seem to go far smoother than the reactions of the human subjects would have you believe. Jason seems almost broken by the end of the film, but we never really find out why. Stéphane Cardin, the producer of For Honor, leaves two months before the end of the project for an "intensive therapy retreat", but we never find out why beyond cursory explanations.
Sure, we know these guys work long hours. They're separated at stretches from their families. Without knowing more details it's hard to feel too bad for them - they have kickass jobs and they should be relishing every moment. From a storytelling perspective, PLAYING HARD doesn't quite deliver on the dramatic front, which is disappointing because the material is lurking beneath the surface. I'm not saying that I want to see human misery, nor am I saying I want to see these particular individuals go through hardship, but as a documentary, there's less conflict on the screen that I would have liked.
Perhaps a multimillion-dollar, AAA project wasn't the best subject for a documentary? Maybe Chartier was hoping something would actually go wrong, and he'd get the necessary drama by pure "lucky". What I'm looking for is something more like American Movie (1999), or Lost in La Mancha (2005) - those films tell fantastic stories of troubled productions, and the human drama grows out of them and their subjects organically. As far as video game stories go, David Kushner's Master of Doom is a book I'd love to see make the transition to screen. If you haven't read it and you have an interest in game development, I can't recommend it enough. It's truly warts and all.
Chartier seems scared to show off Ubisoft's... warts, for lack of a better expression. PLAYING HARD is too clean, and despite the film's claims that Ubisoft had no say over the final cut, it ends up looking more like a promotional piece. There's literally a moment where Jason is about to tell CEO Yannis Mallat why he's not happy, why he's not going to be invited back, and why he felt like his baby was taken away from him... then it cuts away. Frustrating.
Regardless, PLAYING HARD is well put together, slick, and immensely watchable, but unlike the hardened warriors in For Honor, it doesn't slice as deep as it could.