Review: ‘Playing Hard’

Hot Docs 2018

6 mins read

Playing Hard
(Canada/USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Jean-Simon Chartier
Programme: Special Presentations (World Premiere)


“Entertainment is philosophy in motion,” says gamer Jason Vandenberghe towards the end of Playing Hard. The film sees Vandenberghe realize his dream by leading the team at Montreal’s Ubisoft video game empire in creating the entertainment he always wanted as a child. Vandenberghe talks intensely about the potential for gaming to provide outsiders like himself outlets of escape with virtual communities of like-minded geeks. His excitement is palpable as the Ubisoft team readies his game from concept through completion. Even if the “philosophical” elements of his video game aren’t clear, his boyish enthusiasm gives some insight into the world of geeks and gamers.

This look behind the curtain follows Vandenberghe as he pitches his game that runs with the idea of two boys picking up a pair of sticks and using them like swords. He furthers the concept into a role-play type combat scenario in which players battle for honour. That’s actually the name of the game, For Honor, once the Ubisoft tinkerers find the title that’ll sell the most units.

Gamers are gonna love Playing Hard. The doc by Jean-Simon Chartier takes gamers inside the world of the Ubisoft offices to show how the magic happens in a multi-billion dollar industry that exceeds the worldwide box office take for movies. This behind the scenes glimpse lets audiences see the laborious process of conceptualizing a game, creating its graphics and visuals through motion capture swordplay, and perfecting the marketing campaign to ensure the game is a success. Video games, like Hollywood, thrive on franchises, so the release of an original game is a major risk. Creating and launching a game looks as difficult as a gold medal on a race down Mario’s Rainbow Road.

The theme of honour underlies Playing Hard as the doc likens Vandenberghe to the lone knight of his game. The higher ups at Ubisoft gradually push him aside while meeting deadlines and perfecting the game within their budget. Vandenberghe doesn’t hide his frustration at the irony of a company that sells nobility but doesn’t practice it. The doc features wandering drone shots of Vandenberghe walking through fields like a knight retiring from battle to emphasize the point, to near nauseam.

For anyone who isn’t a gamer, Playing Hard might not be exciting. Video games either thrill a person or they don’t, and watching them is even less fun than playing them. The doc finds some great material in Vandenberghe’s frustration with Ubisoft hypocrisy and disappointment in the bittersweet realization of a dream come true on someone else’s terms, but Chartier doesn’t take the opportunities to explore gamer culture as For Honor hits the market.

For example, For Honor is extremely violent. Like so many games, it lets players, often young men, pick up a sword and hack their enemies to bits in duels of mindlessly raging machismo. A great scene late in the doc sees Vandenberghe weep while watching news reports about the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Florida in which 49 people died in brutal hate crime. He even says he disdains violence in real life, yet Chartier doesn’t push harder to interrogate an industry that makes billions of dollars through savage games. The doc takes the ultra-violent nature of video games at face value in Vandenberghe’s description of them as a tool for exploring nobility and knighthood.

Playing Hard similarly sidesteps the pervasive misogyny apparent in games and gamer culture, which is evident in the footage of For Honor featured in the film. The only female character in the game [as presented in the film in any substantial role] is the villain—a faceless ruthless bitch named Apollyon (with a voice that sounds oddly like Patricia Clarkson)—and despite all the women who work at Ubisoft, Chartier offers only one interview with a female: Vandenberghe’s girlfriend. When other films at the festival like Netizens deal directly with the issues of representation and toxic masculinity in the culture of which For Honor is a part, this missing aspect of the film is hard to ignore.

Perhaps this toxic masculinity contributes to the knight’s abdication of the throne. Vandenberghe emerges from the film like a gentle giant as he leaves in bittersweet glory. Like the heroes of his game, he survives to play another round in a new kingdom. His story is undeniably melancholy, for what else may the knight conquer when he’s already achieved his dreams?

Playing Hard screens:
-Wed, May 2 at 9:00 PM at Scotiabank
-Fri, May 4 at 1:00 PM at Isabel Bader
-Sun, May 6 at 3:15 PM TIFF Lightbox

Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit for more info.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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