By Bears Rebecca Fonte
There’s an argument to be made that video games and not filmmaking are the true zenith of visual storytelling. With that in mind, I dove into the new documentary PLAYING HARD which follows the production of the video game For Honor through a four-year process from pitch to launch. Giving unprecedented access inside the offices of Ubisoft, as well as the mind of For Honor creative director Jason Vandenberghe, Jean-Simon Chartier’s film has the setup of a truly eye-opening experience.
Over the course of for years we watch designers fight, possibly backstab, but mostly struggle against the ticking clock of release. We get to know a few of the major players but none as well as Jason, the man who would probably describe himself as a visionary. This is where the documentary goes wrong. Jason is a bit of a megalomaniac narcissist who never quite deals with the fact that he has to work on a team. The film spends far too much time listening to him whine about how he feels sidelined without ever really holding him accountable for his behavior. At one point in time it feels like a documentary crew has been hired by Jason himself to save his reputation so he can find employment at another company. There is very little time actually spent on the game and how it works and why it might be revolutionary despite the fact that Jason keeps saying it is. There is very little time spent with the public and their reaction or anticipation of the game. Few of the Ubisoft employees get much extended screen time so we never really feel like we know any of them. The lone exception is the producer Stephane Cardin, but even he feels like we are witnessing him through the eyes of someone who is in Jason’s Court. Is Jean-Simon Jason’s roommate?
For the general public, people who are not gamers, there’s not much to recommend in PLAYING HARD. It’s not a particularly Illuminating film about the industry, nor are the characters and their trials and tribulations transcendent of their jobs. I can’t speak for gamers. My guess is if you play this game, For Honor, you’re probably going to love this film, in much the way fans of a great movie love listening to the director’s commentary. Unfortunately, I just don’t think there’s enough here that is cinematic to draw in the viewer’s attention otherwise.