(director: Cullen Hoback; cinematographers: Morgan Dye/Cullen Hoback; editor: Cullen Hoback; music: Speechwriters LLC ; Runtime: 81; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Aaron Kirk Douglas/Cullen Hoback; Hyrax Films; 2007)
“The pic is a natural for gamers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Cullen Hoback (“Freedom State”) directs this quirky documentary about the subculture of gamers in the Seattle area playing Nero, a franchise game played monthly on week-ends across the country by as many as three million of those aged between 15 and 55 and of both genders; it’s like Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a medieval inspired game played for real through role-playing (in a game known as LARPing-Live Action Role Playing).

We witness the transformation of the mostly geeky players from their civilian life as they change into costumes, paint their faces and take hold of their props (for some its swords made out of foam), and play the game with a certain intensity between sword-carrying players in staged combat trying to vanquish the painted monsters while strictly following a thick rulebook. I never quite understood what the complicated game was about, but those playing it seemed to and were seemingly having a ball playing out their alter egos. The participants all seemed eccentric, in a friendly way, who needed some kind of lift from the stresses of their normal world. Hoback never patronizes them or takes easy shots at them as they bare their souls, but instead gives them their due and lets them explain in their own words what the game means to them. They are articulate, and each tells why they are passionate about the game they take so seriously and some tell of their misgivings. The weary Shane Macomber ,who owns the franchise and must organize the event, is currently suffering from burnout after doing it for the last eight years and is not sure if he can go on. Without him, there would be no game. In a surprise move at the end of the April event, which might have been the last, gamer Dave Overman takes over the franchise because he wanted the games to continue even though he doesn’t think the game is perfect. The players range from college students, the jobless, one smart but gamer obsessed lad in his fifth crack as a senior in high school, a thirty year old who lives at home with mom but is healthy enough to bring girlfriends to the events, a computer programmer and an unhappy clerk in a general store.

The pic is a natural for gamers, but also might attract the curiosity of those cinema-friendly to curio flicks. I’m in the latter category, since I never heard of the game before seeing this film and have no interest in playing it after seeing the film. Yet I could see why the players would pay a modest fee to play this escapist game and spice up their lives in probably a healthier way than some do on week-ends. Though the game is not without certain dangers, as it can be addictive and play havoc with real relationships if not properly checked. Physically, the game is safety conscious and stresses non-violence. But the players stay out all night in the wooded camp area and in Febuary, when this event was shot, it gets down to 10 degrees at night and if not dressed warmly there’s a chance of hypothermia.

As far as I can see, the benefits far outweigh the dangers in being a Nero player. Though it’s something I have no interest in (I’m content in being a dreamer), I can see how others might find such a lively fantasy activity an attractive outlet. If it weren’t for this odd and well-presented film, I wouldn’t have seen for myself that gamers are real people with rich fantasy lives and the game, like the film, has a certain transcendental charm that can’t be explained fully by words.