Archive for February, 2014

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #6: The Institute

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(The Institute)

The Jejune Institute is a fake organization created by the artist Jeff Hull for an alternate reality game that started in 2008 in San Fransisco. The Institute is a documentary about the game. In some ways, it’s artistically ambitious and uncompromising, but in others it lets you down as a documentary.

The game’s core concepts are called elsewhere and nonchalance, and their semi-mystical nature is explored in the subjective accounts of game participants. The game follows some of the clichés of the genre: a charismatic old dude is the bad guy, and the players follow the story of a girl.

The movie mimics the structure of an alternate reality game, with a beginning where you don’t know what’s real and what isn’t. It has a rabbit hole structure, where you get drawn deeper into its concerns by engaging with its mysteries.

Unfortunately, this also means that the lines between reality and fiction get blurred, not only in the game but also in the movie. I didn’t get a clear idea of which participant experiences were fiction and which were real, the production context was completely unclear, and the whole thing seemed more about the aesthetics of mystery than explaining things.

A late highlight in the movie was a scene where the game ends. Some participants consider the ending a failure, and based on the movie, it seems so. Hull talks about punishing his participants for engaging with his game in the wrong way.

That’s terrible game design, but good cinema, and feels like a glimpse into a movie that could have been.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #5: King of the Nerds

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(King of the Nerds, season 1)

King of the Nerds is an American reality tv series in which a group of self-described nerds compete on who gets to be the titular king. Season 1 ran for eight episodes in 2013. We watched it because one of the contestants was the roleplaying game designer Ivan Van Norman, who made a game called Outbreak: Undead.

The series starts grubby and unpleasant, but gets better as it progresses. Pointless cheesecake and beefcake gets discarded and things start to feel more competently made. IP issues result in some weirdness, for example in a cosplay competition that doesn’t feature established characters.

In the spirit of spoiling the show, I’ll also add that the final three contestants were all women. Van Norman made it to the last episode, but didn’t win.

Antarctic Research Blog #126: The Ice Cave

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

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Non-fiction: Lucy Jane Bledsoe: The Ice Cave (University of Wisconsin Press, 2006)

The Ice Cave is a travel book, but more to the point, it’s a book about experiencing nature. The title refers to an ice cave the writer Lucy Jane Bledsoe visited as a child, and which she describes as her first profound experience of a natural environment.

She also participated in the U.S. Antarctic artist residency program, and the last part of the book is about her experiences there. The rest deals with sailing, mountain hiking, visiting the desert, and considering the meaning of animals such as mountain lions and bears.

Bledsoe is a vivid writer, and her experiences often have a gentle comedy to them. Not all experiences in nature are profound. Sometimes they’re silly or even stupid, and Bledsoe talks about those too. Those are some of the best parts, and it’s easy to identify with Bledsoe’s point of view. She’s got experience with survival, but she’s got limits to what she’s comfortable with.

Roleplaying Game Movie Night #4: The Gamers movies

Saturday, February 8th, 2014

I and some friends have a project of trying to watch all movies, tv episodes and other stuff with moving pictures related to roleplaying games ever made. We’re pretty far along on this goal. I’ll write here about old and new things we’ve found and watched.

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(The Gamers: Hands of Fate)

The Gamers is a series of American low-budget or amateur movies about roleplayers, larpers and card gamers. The first film, simply titled The Gamers, was released in 2002. It was followed by the sequels The Gamers: Dorkness Rising in 2008 and The Gamers: Hands of Fate in 2013. The movies distinguish themselves with their wit, pace and deep involvement in gamer culture.

The best is the latest, Hands of Fate. It’s an amazing movie in terms of what it attempts to do: Its emotional arc is predicated on the way narrative content factors into various kinds of games. Our protagonist is prejudiced against a collectible card game modeled after The Legend of Five Rings because he believes it doesn’t have the story potential of roleplaying games. During the movie, he goes deeper into the card game and discovers the narrative richness of a metaplot where major events are decided in tournaments.

Needless to say, this is not territory commonly explored in cinema. What’s more, the movie sells it. It’s a comedy, and its funny. One thing it’s not is condescending to the audience. Even I had trouble getting all the references, and if you watch it, reading up on how The Legend of Five Rings or Pathfinder works might be a good idea. Hands of Fate goes pretty deep into hardcore geekery, and is all the better for it.

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(The Gamers)

The older movies in the series don’t have the conceptual ambition of Hands of Fate, but are nevertheless fun stuff. The first goes through the standard jokes about fantasy tabletop roleplaying, but it also has a definite inside perspective. The second, Dorkness Rising, is almost like the mature form of the first. The joke’s the same, but the execution is better. Anyone who’s played D&D will have fun with the absurdities depicted here, and those who haven’t will be confused.

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(The Gamers: Dorkness Rising)

Many of the jokes are based on visualizing strange conventions games like D&D have. Thieves steal to test their stats in action, and off-game disruptions to the game cause problems with the in-game experience. In a sense, the movies are an attempt to capture what playing D&D feels like: it’s not about the story of the character, it’s about the meta-experience you have playing the game.

Research Blog Antarctica #125: Antarctica: A Year on Ice

Saturday, February 1st, 2014

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Documentary: Anthony Powell: Antarctica: A Year on Ice (New Zealand, 2013)

A documentary about a year working in Antarctica, this is one of the best Antarctic movies I’ve seen. The director Anthony Powell has worked on the continent for many years, and the movie reflects a deep understanding of the working culture and the people there. There’s lot of wonderful little detail about everyday life.

The star attraction in the movie is Powell’s time-lapse images. He says that to truly appreciate the Antarctic experience, you have to see the change, and for that purpose time-lapse is essential. He may well be right; his images are gorgeous and beautiful, and reflect the kind of commitment a really long-term project can have.

Other excellent Antarctic movies, such as Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World or John Carpenter’s The Thing, have done interesting things with Antarctica, but this movie shines in its subjective exploration of what’s it like to live and work there.