Through the Computer Monitor and Back
A Review of Oleg Sentsov's Gaamer (Gamer)
Your few seconds of peculiar inactivity in the middle of the empty space is interrupted by a quick yet ominous buzzing sound. You got hit. It didn’t hurt but the red gauge floating on the upper left corner of your field of vision shows that it had a significant damage to your life. You turn around and see the perpetrator, wearing a purple suit of futuristic armor, charging towards you. You fire your weapon, and after moments of sparks and noise, body parts erupt from where your opponent used to be. You let out a sigh of relief. A few seconds later however, the familiar ominous buzzing sound makes another appearance. You got hit again, and as always, it did not hurt. The only difference now is that that is the last time you’ll ever get hit, at least during that insignificant painless life that only lasted for a minute and a few seconds.
Videogames have really changed. From the pixelated single player adventures that had definite storylines to finish, games are now designed to be immersive and addictive, complete with manufactured visuals that are close to reality and a certain capacity for socialization. Videogames have not only created worlds, they have created lives that are as replaceable as ammo, leading to world rules that do away with morality and the sanctity of things that are normally sacred in the real world. Videogames have allowed us to live second lives that are presided over by the very simple law of kill or be killed. However, these secret second lives, lived only inside wired bedrooms or paid game hubs, are but mutations of the uneventful and painful real lives that gave way to them. The distances between these lives are short. But to travel back and forth, unmindful of the repercussions of being sucked into the seductive delights of a life with hardly any rules and complexities, poses an inherent danger.
Oleg Sentsov’s Gaamer explores the gap between these two lives. Through the story of young Koss (Vladislav Zhuk), who has just been expelled from vocation school but is unaffected because he believes he has a future in gaming, Sentsov paints a portrait of a very mundane life that struggles for some sort of significance. The nameless Ukrainian town that finds itself as the setting for Koss’ unremarkable coming-of-age offers no opportunity for excitement. The commuter tram plies its daily route with the same ticket lady inspecting if each passenger has paid their fare. The youth are on the verge of crossing over to adulthood, choosing which particular path would lead them to satisfy their responsibilities with the most ease. Most of them talk about college or work or fulfilling an ambition leftover from an unaccomplished childhood. They wilt away, thawing towards university, or some hobby, or some vocation. All in all, it is a town that aspires for character. Its residents, as a result, can only long to escape from that lifelong boredom.
The pleasures gaming has provided Koss are countless. In his troop, he is a leader, wise in all aspects related to Quake. In the gaming world he thrives in, he is near invincible, allowing him to travel from his town to the capital to win the nationals, paving his way to compete in California along with other anonymous gamers from around the world whose possible dull lives tempt them to do better in their artificial second lives. Those pleasures, like the artificial lives that end as soon as enough hits are absorbed, are temporary. The excitement wears off. The redundancy of real life beckons. Koss has to abandon the fantasies his dissipating childhood has left to live a life that is unadorned and ordinary. Gaamer, in demystifying that particular subculture that has successfully separated generations by exquisitely pointing out the obvious sheens and motivations of those stuck commuting to the game world from the real world, exposes the need for escapism especially from the droll experiences most of humanity is forced to swallow.
In the end, even cinema is an escape. It has to be exposed for what it is. Its portrayals of truths and half-truths should be placed in a perspective of fiction, of being created by another human being. When Koss has readied to graduate from being a gamer to become an adult, he sheds his jacket and prepares to sleep. A celebratory song plays in the background, and Koss, from being melancholic in his delayed decision to grow up, beams a smile, and looks at us. The same way that he broke the barrier that separates videogames from real life, Sentsov breaks the barrier that separates cinema from real life. By revealing the artificiality of his creative exercise, he deepens his agenda, cautioning the world from being too enchanted with second, third, and fourth lives lived vicariously through avatars that are either controlled from a mouse and keyboard or directed by intellectuals behind the camera.
(First published in Filmkrant: Slow Criticism 2012.)