Aside from the occasional underwhelming adaptation of a much-loved title, video gaming is a rarely seen subject in films. But with Grand Theft Auto becoming the world’s fastest-selling entertainment product in 2013, it was only a matter of time before producers started fluttering their eyelashes in the story’s direction.
The result is BBC Two’s one-off film, The Gamechangers, which follows an intense period for game-maker Rockstar as they raced to develop San Andreas in 2002. It’s a gripping, thought-provoking subject, but the execution of the story is disappointingly nibbling rather than biting.
Sporting some rather impressive facial fuzz, Daniel Radcliffe stars as the game’s pioneering mastermind Sam Houser, a British expat who built GTA into a juggernaut franchise by wowing gamers with a sprawling virtual underworld that mixed criminal characters, lethal weapons and outrageous storylines into a high-octane concoction.
This extravagant violence unsurprisingly provokes the ire of American parents and politicians, who are convinced the game’s championing of law-breaking is having a corrosive influence on their children’s morality. Their cause is led by crusading lawyer Jack Thompson (Bill Paxman), a self-styled Batman who becomes determined to halt the game’s relentless rise after he meets a young boy in Alabama who blames the game for his bloody killing spree.
The Gamechangers is beautifully shot by director Owen Harris, who evokes the bleak techie tone of The Social Network to lend the action a cinematic sheen. Harris also cleverly uses elements from the game to exhilarating effect, including visualising gameplay as a flashing haze around the player’s field of vision and a breathless sequence, in which a boy shoots his way out of a police station, that mimics the game by taking place as one swivelling tracking shot.
Both Paxman and Radcliffe are superb in the lead roles, with the latter particularly impressing as an abrasive and ambitious young man, giving Houser an empathetic centre rather than simply sticking to the social outcast stereotype.
The story focuses mainly on the court battles surrounding the game’s violent influence on children, but writer James Wood deftly weaves between Thompson and Houser’s personal lives to highlight the surprising similarities between the seemingly opposing figureheads. Both are so fiercely determined to succeed in their goals – Thompson to have the sale of violent games banned; Houser to create an game that can rival the immersive escapism of film – that they become blinded to the damage they are causing their friends and families.
Even though his film doesn’t have the backing of Rockstar, Wood is still careful to tackle the story’s moral issue with balance and sensitivity, respecting both sides of the debate by showing the scientific research that supports Thompson’s claims as well as emphasising the lack of concrete proof around the game’s ability to inspire violence.
The problem with trying to cover all the facts, however, is that it doesn’t leave much room to develop the drama. While Woods clearly wants to explore the devastating effects of obsession with this film, as Thompson’s family come under attack and Houser’s team crack under the pressure of producing a game to match his exacting standards, he spends so much time trying to cram three years of history into 90 minutes there’s very little time left for the character drama to take shape.
Maybe it would’ve worked better as a TV series, but as it is, the story frequently loses momentum and then struggles to pick it back up again, leading to a flat and rather clunky conclusion. But while the storytelling may be flawed, the subject matter is fascinating; and with its bold direction and fantastic performances, The Gamechangers is a definite much watch, whether you play video games or not.
Click here to watch The Gamechangers on BBC iPlayer