Monday, June 6, 2011

Blogorium Review: The Dungeon Masters

The Dungeon Masters is a confusing film: in many ways, it feels like Trekkies, if less invested in the subject, or Ringers: The Lord of the Fans, if less championing. I get the impression that the film is trying to help audiences understand the world of gamers, particularly Dungeons and Dragons, but I'm not sure what the end result is supposed to be: inspiring or humiliating.

I really don't want to approach this in a mean-spirited way, but as the social awkwardness compounds on each of the film's subjects, one must wonder what Keven McAlester was hoping to accomplish in spotlighting the game masters. The film was initially supposed to be a history of D&D, and the opening of the film certainly reflects that, covering a convention of fans with short interviews, but quickly hones in on three subjects (who I'm not going to identify by name; the film does, and it isn't hard to find them, so I don't see much point in adding to that).

 Each is a Dungeon Master (or, as they prefer, "Game Master"), who manage a campaign (or game) for multiple players. The GM sets the rules, creates the story, and guides their players through a campaign (which can last from a few hours to several years). After the convention the cameras follow them home to focus on their lives when they aren't leading campaigns.

What struck me isn't so much that they reinforce particular stereotypes about "fantasy" fans / gamers / D&D players, but the construction of the film almost seems to revel in slowly unfolding how much like the outside world's assumptions about what "D&D Nerds" must be like. The editing deliberately withholds information in order to increase the discomfort for viewers trying to sympathize with the film's subjects.

 The first GM left a religious puppet show over "differences of opinion" and works as an apartment manager, although he hopes to jump-start his writing career and has met with a literary agent. At least, that's what we see at first. During a moment in his disheveled apartment, the door opens and his wife and son walk in, initially dispelling the implication he lives alone. Through conversation, it eventually becomes clear that he doesn't manage the apartment complex - his wife does - and that instead of "working full time," she argues that he "maybe works part-time" although he protests that he helps when she's not around. During a montage He explains how to "punish" your dice if they misbehave (complete with demonstration), delivers his epic sci-fi / fantasy novel (which he seems to be unable to cut down, per request), and shows disdain while doing sit ups. What exactly am I supposed to take away from this?

 The second GM is in the Army Reserves, a nudist, and likes to kill off every group he plays with. He openly admits that he doesn't always have an ending for his campaigns and prefers to punish his players for doing foolish things like deciding to (and this is a direct quote) "run through a door." During back and forth interviews with one of the campaign members and the DM, it's clear his expectations are really unreasonable. The player explains that he spent time trying to discover which door was the exit, only to realize none of them were, but the GM scolds the players (to the camera) for not "testing" the doors to his liking, so the door they choose leads to a "Sphere of Annihilation." Earlier in the film, he tries to kill off another party and fails to after being unable to defeat them by rolling the dice.

 The third GM is introduced in full make-up, explaining that she feels more comfortable as a dark elf. Living in Gulf Coast, Mississippi, the youngest of the dungeon masters alternates between Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, and Live Action Role Playing (LARPing) while searching for work. Her desire to avoid large corporations was thwarted after a small business owner behaved inappropriately with her, and before the film she left her boyfriend because he played WoW "too much." She finally takes her makeup off halfway into the film, and moves in with a guy who seems cagey about their relationship status. Her ex-husband was violently abusive, leaving her emotionally distant and unwilling to "rely on anybody" moving forward.

The unifying link between the three is a desire to escape from their respective realities - one is running from his childhood, another lives in an underwhelming adulthood, and the last is trying to escape the omnipresent decay of post-Katrina Gulf Coast. It's easier to kill off your members and leave than say goodbye, or to deal with separation, and when he comes back after years of silence, the sense of discomfort - not only with his players, but also the family he abandoned - is palpable onscreen. The first GM is constantly shirking his real-world responsibilities - instead of finding work to support his  family, he decides to start a public access show about a villain who realizes he's bad at his job and decides to host a public access show.

 Their interview audio is often juxtaposed with drab, unappealing shots of parking lots, strip malls, and images of urban decay, which helps underline the desire to escape, but also lends a dispassionate, detached tone to the film. This American Life is sometimes criticized for being too "distant" from its subjects, but the construction of The Dungeon Masters often feels bored and condescending to its subjects. I felt like I should be laughing at their misfortunes (particularly the first and second GM's) but instead felt uncomfortable.

 Maybe the film hits too close to home: my father played D&D in college, and remains a big fan of science fiction and fantasy. I know a number of well adjusted adults who play D&D, LARP, and also engage in related activities that don't at all embody the stereotypes reinforced in The Dungeon Masters. I don't play D&D - I did once when I was 8 or 9 at a friend's house - but I don't look down on people who do. I know people who LARP and do CosPlay; do I think it's kind of silly? Maybe, but I've also seen the work they put into the costumes, and the sense of community they feel.

In the interest of fairness, I hated the Dungeons and Dragons movie, but mostly because it was a really bad movie.

 It's fair to say that horror fans are engaging in a more socially acceptable version of "geek" fandom, one that doesn't meet the kind of derision that Trekkies, D&D players, Star Wars or Comic Book fanatics do. The film community turns its nose up to horror and its fans, but the "heroes" emblazoned on horror t-shirts are covered in blood - they kill people in evil ways. People don't sneer at a Freddy Krueger the same way they do an Elf, but the fans aren't any less passionate or devoted to their geeky  subculture. It doesn't escape me that I write a blog about movies under the moniker Cap'n Howdy, and that I too embody a number of characteristics and ideals lampooned in the film.

 I don't mean to push people away from The Dungeon Masters - it's a compelling documentary, to be sure. It's entertaining, and does shine a light on a somewhat unrepresented branch of gamers, albeit in a less than favorable way. Rather than empathize with its subjects, instead we're left with an emotionally distant young woman, a unrepentant jackass, and a man with delusions of grandeur, caught on camera by a director that dwells on their inability to function as members of the real world. Entertaining? In an uncomfortable way - crueler audiences will howl with laughter - but yes, watchable by all means.


Josh Merritt said...

As a gamer,and a Dungeon Master, it is disappointing to see that this film ends up being just another entry in a long list of what could be considered anti-gaming propaganda. (Which began in the 80's with "Mazes and Monsters")

While I understand that people want to focus on the strange or unusual in these sorts of films, it is a true insult to those of us who are well adjusted and happen to enjoy Dungeons & Dragons. It has lead to a general (if unstated) feeling of embarassment about our hobby, that most us us have to overcome at some point in our lives.

Many gamers are much more unlikely to talk about their interests in mixed company, due in part to the general stereotypes about us, that are only reinforced in this film.

It would have been refreshing to see a documentary that truly sought to understand gamers, and our hobby, but instead we have gotten another slap in the face by someone who has little to no understanding what it is like to be a Dungeon Master.

Cap'n Howdy said...

It's such a strange documentary, because the opening seems to embrace gaming culture while covering GenCon, but as the film hones in on the Dungeon Masters (two of them insist on being called "Game Masters") the overwhelming effect of the editing is to say "look at what losers these two guys are."

I left out a number of other points at which the director and editor(s) deliberately hold out information until the most embarrassing moment. As soon as the concept of writing a novel is introduced, I knew it was going to end in rejection. The "nudist" moment is totally superfluous to the film, but underlines how not "normal" this guy is.

I know a few DM's and I'm really curious how they will react to this film. It's not a freakshow (which, arguable, Trekkies and Trekkies 2 are), but by no means does it present the concept of D&D fans and LARPers as something that can be integrated into a person's life.

The Lizu said...

:) Hi. This is Elizabeth, the girl in the doc.

Just an FYI, I'm nothing like the documentary. It was edited and slanted; and I've given several interviews about it. I'm actually quite normal for the most part-- they decided that making it look like I live in costume was the best way to edit things.

I'd give more detail but I don't feel like getting into it too much. I'm pretty findable on the internet, and it's pretty easy to see that what they portrayed isn't me. Yes, I LARP, and yeah, I did play a dark elf-- but not for the reasons it said in the doc (they actually blended my explanation for "tell us what drow are so the people who don't know understand" and "why do you play a dark elf" together). :P

At any rate, nice review. I dislike the film entirely and regret being a part of it.

Cap'n Howdy said...

Thanks for reading the review. It troubles me that many people who saw this movie when it was on Netflix aren't going to do the kind of research to find out that this is a very misleading film. I have the feeling that many of them simply laugh (because it's designed to be "funny" in its editing) and walk away convinced that gamer stereotypes are real.

When it isn't being condescending, the film is depressing and really rubbed me the wrong way. I'm sure they have some justification for it, but the film smacks of intentionally misleading editing. Hopefully it isn't taken at face value, but considering how many people can't be bothered to follow-up on what they see, who knows?