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Premiering tonight: AFK film offers laughs, epic gaming scenes

Tonight is the premiere of /afk, a short film that tells the story of a single WoW player with a dream to solo Onxyia before he quits the game for good. Earlier this week, WoW Insider spoke with Benjamin Dressler, the director of /afk, and got the scoop on some of the origins of the film. Today, I'll be following up that interview with a review of the film and a few more words from Dressler on the more detailed aspects of the production.

/afk is a short comedy that combines live-action footage with in-game animation and machinima. The story follows Piet (Martin Schnuerch), a student whose parents want him to take control of his life and break his gaming habit. He is unwittingly submitted to counseling, where he meets with the brutally honest psychiatrist (Eva Spott.) Piet is cooperative to an extent, telling his in-game friend Nippi (Bill Dean) early on that he intends to quit the game, but as the story progresses, it's apparent that he's very torn on the matter. He questions whether he is addicted and what he wants to do with his life.

To make the decision harder on him, Piet has always wanted to solo Onxyia in the game and liken himself to a mythical dragonslayer, like Beowulf or Siegfried, a task he has not yet fulfilled. The film takes place during Piet's final days in the game, when he spends his time with friends and preparing for his face-off with the dragon.

Update: /afk is now available for viewing.

First impressions

To start, I want to note that the trailer, for those of you who have seen it, is extremely deceptive and paints the film as more of a drama than anything. /afk certainly has dramatic moments, but in the first two minutes of the film, you'll find out it is most assuredly a comedy. When I went into it, I was expecting some sort of a suspense-drama, but what I found was a funny and surprisingly clever film.

The story is quite smart, often misleading the viewer on where the film could go. At multiple times during the film, you expect a Hollywood-esque cliché, only to be yanked back into amusing reality by the script. I think most viewers will enjoy this form of storytelling for a sore topic like gaming addiction, which has been tread on in a mostly negative light by many other films and media.

Feeding your inner gamer

In addition to the humor, the film really feeds the inner gamer, offering lots of scenes that can be described as nothing short of epic. The in-game scenes are extremely compelling and cinematic, with interesting camera angles, smooth "crane" shots, and subtle but effective machinima to enhance the existing puppeteering. If you're the kind of guy (or girl /raises hand) who likes Gladiator and other sword-and-board action films, you'll probably like this film just for how it appeals to those interests.

The film can also be surprisingly intimate at times for something that continually splices between live-action and in-game footage. There is a moment late in the film where I really felt like Piet and his avatar, Aventhor, were one and the same, despite existing in two different worlds. The film really portrays these quiet moments of doubt, confession, and awe with an amazing intimacy. Yes, I did tear up at one point. What?!

As a technical production, /afk boasts many notable traits. The film is unfunded, but the production quality is high; both the live action camera work and the in-game footage are top notch. Dressler and his production team also prove their expertise in the films audio, lighting, and set dressing; everything about the visual of the film looks natural and in place. There is also a very effective and original score by Robert Schnuerch (brother of lead actor, Martin Schnuerch) that complements the action of the film perfectly. There is even a noticeable use of ambient noise that carries you through text-based sequences and shots more effectively than I've seen in some Hollywood films.

The other selling point of the film is the editing, which tackles the difficulty of combining the game world and the real world, something Dressler touched on in his earlier interview with 15 Minutes of Fame. I found the swaps between live action and in-game shots quite easy to follow; I didn't have a problem connecting which voices belonged to which characters through the film's editing techniques. I imagine most of the gaming audience will follow along just as easily, but I bring it up because how successful these techniques are at conveying information to non-gamers helps enliven this style of film. I personally would love to see more films like this that cover a wider array of topics. (How else will I sell my gamer romance film script?)

The actors of /afk

The acting in the film is also well received, particularly from the two onscreen actors, Schnuerch and Spott. Both are well cast for their parts. Schnuerch, in particular, is noteworthy for throwing himself into his character readily. The dancing, screaming, and various unflattering shots needed for the part are all humbly performed; you have to love an actor who will surrender to the embarrassing requirements of a script without missing a beat. Schnuerch also does look the part of a certain breed of nerd, a small point I felt I should note, since Dressler told me that Schnuerch only plays WoW casually and the wardrobe he dons in the film is all costume.

Eva Spott, the psychiatrist, fills several roles in the film, despite what little we know of her. Many times, she serves as Piet's antagonist, funneling both mainstream opinion (on gaming addiction) and rational but unsympathetic advice into blunt jokes and criticism. At other times, though, the psychiatrist serves as a voice of reason and offers a caring or insightful statement to Piet. Spott has no trouble jumping around between these different roles, and a great portion of her humor in the film comes from her mastery of deadpan. There is a lot of comedy in this role that I think Spott brings all herself; if you go back over her lines, you'll find there are many ways the actress could interpret them.

Spott is a professional actress, having worked on stage and television in Germany. Dressler says that while she is not a gamer, her son plays WoW and other online games, and she was able to connect to the material of the script much in the way that her character does.

Finally, Bill Dean is the voice actor for Piet's in-game best friend, Nippi. As Dressler told us in his first interview, Dean is a talented but relatively unknown voice actor. He started out as an extra on /afk, but because of the quality of his recordings, he was offered the chance to read for Nippi and was eventually given the role.

Dean really excels at the comedy his character brings to the film, but I found some of his dramatic performance disjointed. Particularly in the second half of the film, some of his lines are awkward in their inflection and pauses. This could be from inexperience, but I'll give Dean a lot of credit in that he has a lot of factors working against him. First, the character Nippi only appears in the film as an avatar, and that avatar doesn't have a moving mouth. (Unlike machinma, where characters mime in sync with voice actors, the characters in /afk are true to the game and only behave in the way a player would control them. Player audio is often played over an idle and blank-faced avatar.) There are also some small problems with the script (which I'll touch on in a moment) that Dean may have had trouble with. I would like to see him in future projects where I expect good things from him; he shows a lot of promise and potential in /afk.

Viewing themes through a neutral lens

Overall, I like the story of the film. There was a lot of care and process put into writing it, and it's clear that the production team made an effort to portray the themes of the film with a neutral lens. Many players might interpret the story as a little preachy on how the game can negatively impact your life; most of that comes from Nippi, who we learn is comfortably settled into an existence in which he has either escaped from his less-than-glamorous life into the game or let his life get destroyed by the game. While featuring a character like that alongside the consumed Piet is not over the top, I find it's the details of Nippi's story the seem forced and cliché. Nippi could just as well have had a simpler or singular negative impact in his life from the game, but by having multiple ones, it feels as if Nippi serves more as a vehicle for an overarching message than a character. And as I implied earlier, the points at which Nippi's backstory are delivered are the parts where the character's voice actor seems to struggle.

After speaking with the director about this, I think how viewers scrutinize the film as a whole will depend largely on how they interpret the ending.

"There is kind of a message, but I didn't want to say 'You have to do that, or that,'" Dressler explained. "I think movies like that are too simple. I think the generation of computer gamers don't really have a voice in the media. It's happening slowly -- people that grew up with video games are coming up as politicians, or as reporters, and so slowly, video games begin to generate a voice, but I couldn't really think of a movie that says ... I mean, yes, it can addict you. I don't think we have to argue about that; many players know just how much it can drag you in. But I think gamers should just have a little bit more self-esteem about that ... Everything you do, everything your generation brings has downsides and upsides.

"WoW and gaming in general appear in the media again and again, but almost always for negative reasons -- if you have school shootings or someone dies from playing for 40 hours. But there is really no real media and no voice out that says, 'Hey, gaming is cool; gaming is our thing. It is positive, and it is negative, but it's our thing and its our generation.' I really wanted to be positive in the end."

I won't spoil the film by sharing the rest of Dressler's explanation before the film is released, but if you check out the comments, I'll include the rest of his quote, which I think wonderfully explains the ending of the film. You should check it out after you watch the film later tonight.

I should mention that I anticipate many viewers complaining about the two leads being difficult to understand (both are German actors). There is a possibility that subtitles may be added to the film at some point, but while I had trouble following along with the dialogue and accents when I watched the trailer, seeing the film in its entirety allowed me to focus more on the continuity of the dialogue. After analyzing the film several times, I don't have any trouble understanding the actors anymore, so try to give it an honest chance.

Premiering tonight on YouTube

/afk premieres tonight on YouTube. Two premiere events are being held on U.S. and European servers that when completed will make the film viewable to the public on /afk's channel, even if you are not participating in the event. I would anticipate the film will be available by 7:00 p.m. EST in the United States and 8:00 p.m. GMT in Europe, though the events start an hour before both these times. You can watch this video if you want details on participating in the event.

/afk runs about 20 minutes long, and since it's being screened online for free, there really isn't a good reason to miss it. The production as a whole is amazingly well executed, and the story is very fun while still being topical. There is some occasional cursing in the film, but other than that, it's suitable for all ages. Be sure to check it out!

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, News items, Interviews

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