If there's anything I've learned over the years as a gamer, it's to approach films and TV shows about games or gaming with extreme caution. Be it cinematic game-to-film monstrosities like the Street Fighter movie or sensationalist "documentary" garbage like the fifth estate's Top Gun, there always seems to be a disconnect between the people operating the camera and the subjects they're trying to portray. World of Warcraft in particular has received plenty of positive and negative attention, but in recent years, there has been an increasing movement among geeky creatives to try their hand at explaining the game and the phenomenon of its popularity through all sorts of projects. The Raid is one of those projects.
The Raid is a short, 20-minute documentary that sets out to understand not World of Warcraft itself but raiding in the game. What raiding is, how it's different than in other single- or multi-player games, and what makes it so compelling are all touched on by the documentary. Some of the topics might seem rudimentary to actual raiders, but that's because the target audience of the film isn't raiders but rather their friends, family, and any other outsiders who struggle to understand what it is that we're doing within the game. That doesn't mean actual players won't have a reason to watch the documentary, though; raiders will easily be able to connect with the narrative of the film and the players featured in it.
The director and producer of The Raid is Kevin Johnson of Blue Loon Films. He admittedly is not much of a gamer but says that a fascination with technology, culture and virtual worlds is what led him to explore MMOs like Second Life, Age of Conan and World of Warcraft. Johnson started exploring Azeroth for the first time as a warrior and before he'd even left Elwynn Forest, his curiosity led him online to find information on how to play the game properly. It was there that he came across Ciderhelm, a warrior well known for his posts on the official WoW forums and association with Tankspot.com.
Through Ciderhelm, Johnson became acquainted with raiding and how to play a warrior from an endgame perspective, stating, "I was probably the most hardcore tank in Deadmines you could imagine, using all this crazy theorycrafting that, level-wise, was way above what I was doing." From there, it was only a matter of time before Johnson found himself raiding -- and with that, trying to explain to his friends and family what exactly it was that he was doing with all his time. This is how the idea for The Raid came to fruition.
"Whenever my family or friends would be like, 'So what is this you're doing? Isn't this like a weird thing? Isn't this like Dungeons & Dragons?' And I was like, 'Well, no, you know ... ' -- I couldn't explain it," Johnson recounts. "I said, 'So here's the deal. It's really social, collaborative and intense. It takes a lot of time; you get to know these people and ...' I couldn't explain it well in a way that wasn't: 'This is weird.' Yet I felt in my heart that surely this is more than what people are thinking it is; it's not just a video game that people are addicted to. There's a community at work with intriguing social structures and intelligent gameplay happening that takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of community investment and involvement. So at that point, the idea birthed in my head that someone's got to do this thing justice. Someone's got to really try to capture it and explain it to a world that doesn't get it."
From there, Johnson says, it was a year and a half of organizing and planning before he got the nerve together to create a Kickstarter campaign to fund the film. Kickstarter is a website that works with artists to raise community and funding for creative projects through a pledge system. The film was funded through Kickstarter pledges, alongside donations and support from the Tankspot community and the Ventrilo hosting company, Typefrag.
The Raid is Johnson's first film, though you'll never be able to tell by looking at it. Johnson has incredibly high standards for production quality, which come from having spent the last six years working as a professional actor in stage shows, film and commercials in New York City. He's an entirely self-taught filmmaker, learning almost everything he knows about the craft from reading videography blogs. His film shows expert polish, with lighting, sound, and camera work that go above and beyond what you'd expect from a first-timer. Johnson attributes the quality of his work to the advances in camera technology but also his own eagerness to portray gamers in a good light.
I attended a premiere screening of The Raid at BlizzCon 2010. The film is still not finished and the version screened at the premiere apparently had to be shipped overnight from New York to Johnson's hotel to accommodate some last-minute edits. Johnson says he is getting close to a final product, though, and the film will be ready for release after a few more tweaks. Overall, he says he's pleased with how the film turned out and excited to see how gamers and non-gamers receive it.
The film begins with an artful and dramatized montage of several different players preparing to log into WoW for a raid. The sequence is pure fan service and likely to win over even the grumpiest trade chat troll with enjoyable caricatures that every raider will recognize. I strongly recommend seeing the film just for the opening alone, which speaks strongly of Johnson's understanding of players, and his inside experience with raiding in the game. It's probably the most enticing part of the film, and should Johnson be able to push The Raid to a feature-length project in the future, it's something I think viewers will want to see more of.
From the opening, the film breaks into the standard documentary format. Johnson follows a 10-man raid team of <Months Behind> on Eredar (US) from their first pull in heroic Icecrown Citadel to their eventual defeat of the Lich King. He captures video of the players during boss encounters on webcams as well as using in-game footage with the UI displayed (so we can see how players see the game) and without it. It's in the latter form that we see some of the most engaging footage The Raid offers: cinematic, machinima-esque shots of boss battles in rich color that presents WoW in a manner that is probably a hundred times more epic than we ever get to see it.
The Raid covers a range of topics like competition, achievement, and community, all of which root into the individual motivations players have to raid. The most heartfelt (or sappy, depending on how you look at it) moment is when one of the players romantically compares the community of a raid team to the fellowship of a village.
There are only two notable shortcomings I observed in the film, the first of which is that it's actually a little too positive. A good documentary, in order to be objective, needs to present multiple counterpoint arguments so that viewers can see the entire story and then make their own conclusions about the content they're viewing. Very little counterpoint appears in The Raid, yet when I talked to Johnson in our interview, he mentioned some of the topics that could be explored. So it's possible that Johnson is keeping a few things up his sleeve for the feature length project he envisions.
The other shortcoming is a relatively minor narrative conflict that most raiders won't notice. Though it doesn't detract much from the film, the excitement from the raiders sometimes seems unwarranted if the audience is not familiar with the story and lore of the boss encounters. The footage of Valithria Dreamwalker and the Lich King fights in particular present conflicting image to audio, and I foresee non-raiders wondering why exactly the players are cheering in real life when they're clearly all on the ground dead in the game. I suspect Johnson will clarify these points in the film when he starts to screen the film to more non-raiders and gets feedback on how those sequences are interpreted.
All those things aside, The Raid is still definitely worth a look from the WoW community. The project was inspired by us and developed for us, and even if we're not necessarily the main audience the film was intended for, Johnson's love for the subject matter is very apparent in the film's narrative. The film is almost like a love letter to raiding and the raiding community.
The Raid will be released online for free later this year when it is complete. When it's available to watch, WoW Insider will let you know, but for updates, you can follow the project at its official site, JointheRaid.com. Be sure to check it out!