Despite being a billion-dollar industry enjoyed by all kinds of people of all nations, video games continue to strive for legitimacy. Every year countless articles and blog posts debate whether or not they can be considered art, or if they are mindless distractions that are aimed at our basest impulses. But within that industry are legions of people working to create unique (or at least pleasurable) experiences that will engage their players and enter into the cultural consciousness and discussion. It’s a competitive field filled with talented folks of various backgrounds who are all hoping to deliver that watershed game players will embrace, the intelligentsia will praise, and will hopefully make them boatloads of cash. Side industries of DIY gamemakers have sprung up, eschewing large studios in favor of creative control to deliver what they hope will be the next big thing. Your Friends Close takes place in that subculture and, while there is some significant stumbling, largely delivers on what happens when everyone looks like a playable character.
Your Friends Close is a Kickstarter-backed film about a group of colleagues gathering for an impromptu party on the eve of what is, for the two of them, a huge success. Becca (Jocelyn Kelvin, who is also the director) and Jason (Brock Wilbur, who is also the writer) are a married couple who have developed a new game, titled “Your Friends Close.” While the details are kept intentionally murky, the game seems to be essentially a MMORPG version of The Turing Test, in which an online group is made up of humans and AIs and players have to suss out who is a person and who is a program in order to win fabulous cash prizes. When Jason announces he won’t be joining Becca in completing the game in France, he opens up his position to everyone else at the party, who see the massive potential in the game and begin to scheme how they will win that coveted slot. As the night goes on and the alcohol flows, relationships are tested and rules are constantly rewritten in a game that these designers can no longer control. (Get it? Because it’s about video games!)
Effectively a Whit Stillman movie for the XBox Live set, Your Friends Close is a film in which everyone speaks in metaphors and maxims, almost all having to do with games, rules, or teams. There are reversals and character reveals that pile on top of each other as the film goes on. It is grating to hear some of this dialogue (with lines like “This is [a game] where you move all the pieces, and I try not to die!”). And yet, still it manages to work. There are two excellent monologues delivered by Jason and another by their developer colleague, Graves (Rob Ondarza), that expertly position video games within not just a cultural debate but also relating to how they’ve personally resonated with the past three generations of players. Loyalties are completely shuffled as soon as Jason offers his attendees the possibility of working on something of this magnitude, which leads to lots of jockeying for favor and attempts at manipulation.
At the center of this melee are Jason and Becca, whose marriage seems continuously fraught with tense armistices, probably a few infidelities, and certainly a level of wariness and competition — which may encourage creative output but also robs them of anything resembling trust or intimacy. Everyone at the party sees Jason as the egotistical ass that he is, but Wilbur plays Jason as okay with that status (as long as he’s in the spotlight and on the precipice of tremendous success, at least). Kelvin’s Becca seems perpetually on the defense against her husband’s machinations, confident in her own abilities while wavering between being the victim and another manipulative person like everyone around her.
Your Friends Close suffers from some sound design issues that lose dialogue, a third act shock reveal that seems utterly unearned, and even an ending that doesn’t make a lot of sense (I’ve watched it twice and still can’t quite figure out what the denouement means for these characters). Despite these flaws and the constant use of maxims (seriously, do not drink every time they say “game” — I won’t have your blood on my hands, dear reader!), Your Friends Close is a pretty strong document of a specific time in our culture, when video games are a huge cultural force yet still derided as lowbrow distractions. For making something fun, game design is a serious business. And for people who build these worlds and define the rules, it can get pretty ugly when they find the rules have been changed and their worlds have been upended.