[Update: This review refers to the film's "Festival Cut", which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film's "Extended Edition" will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo's own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]
Full disclosure: I’m a geek.
Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters. (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.
I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Rising, because I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called). I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.
[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]
The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around. (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.
As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.) It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.
Don’t get me wrong - Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film - Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.
For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.
Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.
Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.
(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! - and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++
Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.
And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.
As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.
Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.
So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!
+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.
I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners - a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!
I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.