Published Apr 25, 2018In 2017, the videogame industry reached the 100-billion-dollar mark in sales, double the annual box office, but the documentary Playing Hard shows the kind of coordinated effort and sacrifice required to make a blockbuster videogame. It's a sprawling behind-the-scenes account of how the game For Honor went from idea to massive Ubisoft release in 2017. The four-plus-year collaborative process yields its share of rewards, but they come at a price of artistic compromise, fractured relationships and mental anguish.
Under the working title Hero, we see the game begin to take shape with only a small team within Ubisoft. Creative Director Jason VandenBerghe brings plenty of passion and a long-gestating idea for a fighting game involving knights, Vikings and samurai. He also recognizes that he can sometimes be perceived as a bit "intense." In fact, he won the job after brandishing a wooden sword in his interview that he had made as a teenager. Producer Stéphane Cardin is a divorced dad of two young daughters concerned with pleasing his CEO and delivering a great product on time, and the company's brand manager, Luc Duchaine, is excited at the opportunity to create his first original brand with this game.
With such a long period of development, the documentary considerably truncates aspects of the process, but could really benefit from pausing to clue viewers in on what For Honor is really all about. We're left to glean what we can from a few scant details involving an innovative combat mechanic and some cut scenes of a bloodthirsty warlord named Apollyon in an post-apocalyptic wasteland. It impresses the higher-ups at Ubisoft enough though to have them invest heavily in the game, causing the development team to balloon to as many as 500 people, spanning across continents.
Predictably, it becomes harder to delegate and manage a larger group, and as the release date approaches, tensions only continue to mount. VandenBerghe does his best to contain his simmering frustrations at being increasingly removed from the decision-making process, while Cardin especially feels the weight of the fast-approaching deadline and is forced to make some tough calls concerning not only the direction of the game, but also his mental health. The level of access here is certainly a few notches above the usual fawning making-of featurette, but you still get the sense that any real drama happened behind closed doors, including a pivotal meeting between VandenBerghe and Cardin that shapes their relationship going forward.
VandenBerghe can't help but emerge as the film's central figure, blessed with an imaginative streak, but all-too aware of his anxieties and intimidating demeanor around others. He's so consumed by the insular world of creating the game that we're as grateful as he is for the respite of something as simple as a meal with his brother, who finds just the right words to cut him down to size like any good sibling should.
The film returns periodically to VandenBerghe hiking out over green and snowy pastures, walking stick in hand, and he's fond of likening himself to a warlord straight out of his own game. He came into this fight acknowledging that he wounds easily, but the sense of pride and pursuit of perfection in his craft suggests he'll dust himself off after this lengthy battle and live to fight another day.
(MC2 Communication Media)