March 15, 2018
This is the fifth in a series of posts dedicated to works of videogame literature and theater—not videogames that are literary or theatrical, but rather novels, plays, television series, graphic novels, museum installations, poems, immersive theater, and movies that represent in some fashion or another videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture. For a general description of my critical framework and purposes, see the first post in the series, “What is videogame literature?”
The Game meets This Is 40
Yesterday, I watched Game Night at a mall cineplex. I liked it. It’s bubbly fun, it stars the ever-reliable Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams, the perfect complement to popcorn and a cold IPA, a see-it-enjoy-it-forget-it experience. But being a curious scholar who fears no accusation of overthinking, I thought I’d put down a few words on the film and its approach to videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture.
If you don’t know the premise, think David Fincher’s The Game meets Judd Apatow’s This Is 40. A cute, highly competitive couple (McAdams as Annie, Bateman as Max) host a weekly game night with a small group of friends. They are surprised one night by the arrival of Max’s even more competitive, far more glamorous brother, Brooks. Long story short, Brooks arranges for the group to play an augmented reality game (imagine one of those murder mystery parties with real guns and fully committed actors) that comes with a very sweet prize: a 1976 Corvette Stingray. But things go sideways when real bad guys show up, Max and Annie and their friends don’t realize it, and action-adventure hilarity ensues. No irony there—Game Night easily surpasses Mark Kermode’s “6 Laughs Test.”
Wait, where are the videogames?
Videogames are not a major presence in Game Night. In fact, the movie pointedly ignores them in favor of non-digital games: bar trivia, charades, board games, Pictionary, Never Have I Ever, and so on. The opening credit sequence features a slow-motion rain of iconic game pieces (a noose from Clue, a house from Monopoly, a die, a Scrabble tile, etc.), but there’s nary a game controller in sight. And though we see Annie and Max dancing at their wedding on an arcade dance game à la Dance Dance Revolution (tbh, Michael Cera and Ellen Wong did it better in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), videogames are pretty much a non-presence in the movie—until the third act.
Incidentally, in addition to being avid game players, Annie, Max, and their friends are inveterate pop culture nerds, especially when it comes to movies, references to which abound (Lamorne Morris’s Denzel Washington impersonation is solid) and accumulate as the movie proceeds. Not incidentally, those references come even faster when the characters realize that they’re not actually playing a game and the movie shifts from slapstick domestic comedy to action-adventure comedy.
In the middle of this realization of the reality of their situation, in the middle of this transition from one genre to another, and, I note, in the midst of a transition from one form of play (board and social games) to another (sports like bare-knuckled boxing, football, car racing, and shooting), Annie and Max get into a Very Serious Conversation About Their Future. You see, they’ve been trying to get pregnant, but Max’s sperm aren’t up to the job. He’s stressed out and so are his little swimmers. And, it turns out, he maybe kind of sort of doesn’t want kids. He’s still holding on to the fantasy of being a hyper-wealthy jet-set winner like his brother.
So, of course, Annie and Max talk about Pac-Man.
Annie reminds Max about the time they played the game obsessively, following their typical do-or-die-trying drive to be the best. Annie reminds Max that the strategy they followed was to only eat the dots, leaving the delicious, bouncing fruit alone and therefore avoiding unnecessary risks. (N.B. a perusal of online Pac-Man guides do not indicate this is in fact a winning strategy.) Though Max laughs at the obviousness of the metaphor, Annie isn’t deterred. They agreed, she reminds him, to keep their heads down and pursue a simpler life, a life like their parents, a life in a middle-class cul-de-sac, a life of small pleasures and good friends, a life of game nights. That’s what Pac-Man taught them.
As a videogame scholar, I find moments like these fascinating. No doubt, if you’re looking for grand statements about the medium, you’re going to want to dive into Westworld, Halt and Catch Fire, Reamde, Ready Player One, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, and so on. But these kinds of minor or incidental references to videogames often tell us more about what videogames mean than texts that aim for the grand statement. And I think Game Night has something kind of interesting to tell us.
If you’ve read the last part of my post “What is videogame literature?”, you’ll recall that I identified seven ways that videogames, videogame players, and videogame culture can be represented in texts. In Game Night, we see the diegetic representation of videogame players (Annie describing the act of playing the game, the shot of Annie and Max playing the dance game). We see figurative representation (Annie uses Pac-Man as a metaphor for a life of striving and achieving). But we also see what I call procedural adaptation, but with a weird little spin.
I define procedural adaptation as “the duplication of a game mechanic in a text such as leveling, respawning, manipulating an avatar, first-person perspective, glitch play, etc.” In Game Night, the mechanics of Pac-Man—repetitive movement through a maze, constant pursuit, sudden reversals of fortune, increasing difficulty—aren’t really adapted. Instead, the description of the videogame and their strategy for playing it crystallizes what has already been happening in the movie, transforming retrospectively the slapstick action and car chases we’ve been watching into a videogame. And it transforms the way Annie and Max play the game.
Another way to put this: The Pac-Man conversation shifts the movie’s meta.
Romancing the meta
Game Night is a very “meta” movie, almost annoyingly so. This is a movie that is very aware that it is a movie. Moreover, it is aware that we’re aware that it is aware that it is a movie. So, not only do references to other movies abound in the dialogue, not only does the film borrow liberally from the meta-movie tradition—think David Fincher, Christopher Nolan, Judd Apatow, Mel Brooks—but it also plays with our expectations, especially as it moves to the conclusion. Wait? Is this still a game? Oh, okay, no. Oh, it is ! Wait, what?
Not coincidentally, Game Night is also about a very “meta” group of friends. They get great pleasure from commenting on themselves and their situation, expressing both genuine friendship for each other even as they comment on the nature of that genuine friendship and their expression of it. (Sharon Horgan as Sarah and Billy Magnussen as Ryan are especially good with this stuff). I’m reminded a bit of relationships I had with friends in college: a whole lot of sarcasm, a whole lot of love. Brooks’s arrival amps up the irony by throwing Max and Annie literally off their game and everyone else into a swamp of epistemological uncertainty.
Annie, Max, and their friends are “meta” in another way. They cheat. Not in a, you know, evil way. More of a trash-talking, bending-but-not-breaking-the-rules, just-between-friends kind of way. When we first meet Max, he’s buying a round of drinks for the teams playing bar trivia, but the shots for his team aren’t vodka, but water. When Brooks is kidnapped, Annie and Max don’t try to solve the riddle he leaves behind. Instead, they ransack his bedroom to find his iPad, then track his iPhone to a nearby bar. Meanwhile, Sarah and Ryan find the receipt and drive over to the headquarters of the game company. When they need to get access to police files, they all team up to lie to their neighbor, playing on his pathetic desire to join them in a game night, then lie again to gain access to his computer.
In other words, Annie, Max, and the gang are inveterate performers, continually judging each other’s performances as players and neighbors, continually deceiving each other to get a little advantage, to hide a bit of semi-legal relationship infidelity, to throw somebody off their rhythm, though never so much that it would cause anyone harm. Brooks’s arrival casts all of this carefully calibrated meta-play into disarray.
And this is where we reap the bouncy, bouncy fruit of the Pac-Man reference.
You see, you can’t cheat at videogames the way you can at, say, Hearts or Monopoly. Because videogames are software programs, they don’t allow players to, say, peak at the cards or slip a couple $500 bills under the board. When I play soccer, I can pull the shirt of an opponent and, if the referee doesn’t see it, it won’t get called. But when I play FIFA 18, if I foul an opponent, it always gets called, no arguments allowed. Likewise, when we play Pac-Man, we can’t cheat, but we can deploy a meta. As I explained in an earlier post, “A useful way to think about this broader range of activities is in terms of ‘metagaming.’ Conventionally, metagaming is defined as the analytic and strategic activities not designed into the game rules but that emerge when players develop a history with a game and the players who play it.” Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux expand this notion, arguing that metagaming is one of the fundamental “conditions of twenty-first century play,” an approach to play that isn’t just about rules and strategies, but about “[a]ttitude, affinity, experience, achievement, status, community, competition, strategy, spectatorship, statistics, history, economy, [and] politics.”
So, let’s be clear: we’re not diving into Hegel or Alain Badiou here. The lesson of Game Night is a simple one. By shifting the meta from board games and sports (all of which have an end condition–you either win or you lose) to Pac-Man (which goes on and on, its map repeating, for all intents and purposes, endlessly), Annie and Max no longer play as ironists, no longer treat relationships like game pieces, no longer judge everything by winning or losing. The life lesson of Game Night is unadulterated sentimental cornball: we should value each other not because we’re winners or losers, but because we have fun playing together and it’s always more of the same and that’s okay. As a result of the change in their meta, they not only learn the truth about Brooks, but come to appreciate their creepy neighbor who, we find out, has been playing with the characters all along, hiring the thugs who kidnap Brook.
At this point, the movie kind of breaks. Not that it’s not entertaining, but it becomes a fairly conventional, if still fun and funny, action-adventure comedy. Pac-Man isn’t mentioned again, and the group goes back to playing their weekly game night.
So, what does Game Night have to say about videogames?
It’s not the fruit, but the Pac-Dots.
Game Night’s diegetic, figurative, and procedural representation of Pac-Man serves to affirm the simple pleasures of play, the value of honesty, and the purity of competition. By shifting from board games and sports to a game that cannot be affected by the emotions, relations, or objections of the player, the film shifts the focus from the game to those who play it. And that strikes me as just the right lesson to learn from a movie whose ambitions aren’t any greater than having a bit of fun.