Tuesday 24 March 2009

The Gamers & The Gamers: Dorkness Rising

Dead Gentlemen Productions started life as a bunch of friends goofing around and making zero-budget movies for their own amusement. However, after the success of their first project, Demon Hunters, in 1999 they got slightly more ambitious for their second, The Gamers, which was released in 2002. The Gamers gained a sort-of sequel, Dorkness Rising, released last year, which was a quantum leap forward in quality.

Both films are based around fantasy roleplaying games and use the device of where we see the same actors sitting around the table and then acting out the actions of their characters in the game world. The Gamers has the players sent on a quest to dispatch their recurring nemesis, the Shadow, who has captured the Princess of the kingdom. As the party's adventure continues, more and more roleplaying tropes are explored: one member of the party accidentally killing another, the replacement character simply joining the party without any in-story explanation, another player not present due to having a girlfriend resulting in his character erratically appearing and disappearing and so on. There are some exceptionally funny moments here, such as the dangers unleashed when the game designers fail to specify what weapons can and cannot be used for sneak attacks, and the intelligent use of a wizard spell to maximise the enemy's vulnerabilities to another player's special weapon. There's also an ongoing subplot in which the neighbour trying to revise for an exam constantly interrupts the group to complain about the noise. Events culminate in the final showdown and a twist ending.

The Gamers (***) is fun. It was made with limited resources and many of the key roles are not filled by actors but clearly the production team and their friends. This actually adds to the amateurish charm of the film. The writing, directing and editing are strong, especially given the team's budgetary constraints, and anyone who's played a tabletop roleplaying game will recognise a lot of the ideas used in the piece. Overall, a funny and entertaining 45-minute film.

Great movie, team, but seriously, you need a better DVD cover.

By the time the team came to make the sequel, their fortunes had increased. The success of their first two films plus another one in the interim (Demon Hunters: Dead Camper Lake) had led to them being able to put substantially more resources into The Gamers: Dorkness Rising. This time the movie is 90 minutes long and features much larger numbers of actors and extras, as well as considerably more impressive effects, costumes, make-up, sets and locations. Also, whilst references in the first movie to the actual game they were playing were deliberately kept generic, this movie is sponsored by several major companies, allowing real gaming products to be used.

This time around the plot is more involved. The dungeon master, Lodge, is trying to write an adventure for official publication, but his party keeps getting killed whilst running it. Power gamer Cass is determined to beat the game no matter what, and the party decides they need two more members to be strong enough to beat the game. Cass' ex, Joanna, joins the group and immediately brings about a change in gameplay, as she is more focused on developing her character then min-maxing her skills. Unable to attract other players (due to the group's 'reputation'), Lodge has an NPC paladin join the party (portrayed as being played by himself during the in-game sequences). The other two players, Gary and Leo, emboldened by the change in group dynamics, decide to play outside their comfort zones, the former by playing a female sorceress and the latter by playing a bard (which attracts howls of derision for the perceived weakness of the bard character class).

The campaign gets underway. The party is charged with locating a magical mask that has been stolen by an evil necromancer. Progress is hampered when Lodge and Joanna's favoured tactic of investigating the situation through dialogue and roleplay is interrupted by Gary vapourising everyone in sight with magic and Leo using his high charisma score to sleep with every woman he comes across, whilst Cass attempts to 'roleplay' his monk by making up totally inane 'wise sayings' on the spot:

"He who stumbles around in darkness with a stick is blind. But he who sticks out in darkness is...flourescent."

Unlike the first movie, the game in the sequel spans several sessions and there are sections inbetween showing how the change in gaming style is spilling over into the characters' real lives. There's also a hilariously random sequence in which the structural conceit of the film (showing the real-life game and events within the game) is applied to a pirates-and-ninjas board game with interesting results. The writer/director keeps a firm lid on things getting too emo or dramatic however, with the focus remaining firmly on the comedy and the characters. The movie's highlight is probably a sequence near the end featuring a very unique kind of 'undead' creature which may rank among the funniest things I have ever seen on screen (and gives the film a single extra-half star below).

The Gamers: Dorkness Rising (****½) is a radical improvement on the original, with stronger production values, a more ambitious script and the presence of more professional actors sustaining the longer running length very well.

Both movies are hard to get hold of in the UK, although excerpts are available on YouTube's Dead Gentlemen channel. In the USA you can get hold of them on DVD via Paizo Publishing's website. A trailer for the second movie can be found here. More information can be found on Dead Gentlemen's homepage here.


Don Early said...

Thanks for the review! Glad you liked it!

Anonymous said...

Loved the first one. Glad to hear the sequel is even better. Now, to find it...

Adam Whitehead said...

Don, not a problem. When's the next one coming out? :-)

Don Early said...

When 30,000 of your best friends buy Dorkness Rising. :)

Don Early said...

Oh, and Dave, you can find it on Amazon, or http://anthemdvd.com/store/products/Dorkness-Rising.html

Anonymous said...

Honestly, the first gamers was the better gamers. If you disagree it must be because you're simply not dorky enough to appreciate everything the first offers, but the sequal is indeed quite good as well : )