Monday, July 18, 2022

The Gamers - A Nerd Cinematic Universe


Over the last twenty years or so it would appear geek had gone chic. While I wouldn't exactly call being a nerd mainstream, it is more widely accepted these days, no longer a niche thing that will get you made fun of on the playground or at work. There was an episode of The West Wing where Josh Lyman had to admonish a White House employee for wearing a Star Trek pin to work every day. Places like Hot Topic turned their business model from being Goth to being nerd. The Marvel movies helped bring comic book nerdism to the forefront, and made it okay for someone to declare that they like Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, etc. Young girls aspire to be Carol Danvers, and Natasha Romanof. Even Netflix's Stranger Things made playing Dungeons & Dragons cool.

Film, television and gaming are now catering to this level of accepted nerdy, Surface Nerds, as I call them. However, more hardcore nerds know about a cinematic universe that is only spoken about in hushed tones. There is a film out there that kickstarted its own cinematic universe six years before Marvel released its first entry in the MCU. Instead of movie theaters, this series of movies is played out in college presentation rooms, halls of z level conventions, D&D shops, and laptops across Nerdom. The Gamers started out as a teeny tiny budget student film and grew to become much more, spoken about in hushed tones, and a wink and nod, as fans everywhere extol the fandom's secret handshake, a one word question, "The Shadow?"

"Hey, check out this movie I found" is the normal route in which this movie has spread since its release twenty years ago. I first read about the film in 2004 or so while doing my normal online browsing. I downloaded a bootleg copy (Sorry, Matt Vancil) and loved it. I would later purchase a legit copy through GOG. I never knew anyone outside of myself and a handful of others had seen the movie until I started hanging around gaming circles in college. After perusing forums I realized it was bigger than I imagined. 

The Gamers is a movie that centers around a group of college gamers playing their weekly game during finals week, of all weeks. Right off the bat they are interrupted by an angry young lady who tells them to keep it down, as she is trying to study. We then get into the game, and we follow the group into the game world where we see the actors as their characters. They are tasked with rescuing a princess from the clutches of the evil villain known simply as The Shadow (The Shadow?). What follows is a bit of hilarity and loads of charm as these players battle evil to do their thing, including defeating a simple bad guy with a siege weapon, stealing characters' pants, and drinking mead. For a film with a budget of nearly zero, this movie is pretty well made. 

The princess is even played by the angry young lady, who yells at them a few times, including a scene where she appears in the game world and screams at them to shut up. The film ends when the good guys win, having defeated The Shadow. The gamers celebrate in the room. Meanwhile, the player characters appear in the real world. They then slaughter the gamers, except Mark, who had excused himself to go on a date with a girl.

I don't know all the logistics, or what exactly went down, but in 2006 a sequel was filmed. Because of distribution issues the film didn't see the light of day until 2008. The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising is the most popular of the four films, having arrived online at a time when nerdom and being anti-social was peaking on the Internet. I also think this movie came to Netflix streaming when it was in its infancy. This movie followed a new group of gamers and had more real world plot than before. I'm guessing because they had a bigger budget and had more money for more than one location. The only actors to return were Nathan Rice (playing a different character than the first movie), Emily Olsen (the angry girl), and Chris Duppenthaler, returning as Mark, the sole survivor of the first film.

The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising follows Lodge, a game writer who works a crappy job and has a serious case of writers block. He comes home day after day and sits in front of his computer, staring vacantly at the blank pages of his open word processor. The only time he gets to have fun is when he games with his friends in the backroom of the game store his friend Leo (who is one of the gamers) owns. After each session his buddies go out of waffles, and Lodge walks home a broken, depressed man.

One day Lodge's friend Cass brings his ex-girlfriend Daphne to game. You see where this is going now? Daphne joins the game, and we get quite the band of merry men, and women, as Gary decides to play as Luster, a woman. As before, hilarity ensues in the game as Cass insists on using his own cache of weapons, including a lightsaber, and desires to play as an elf (with ears) even though Lodge forbids it. There is a funny scene where Cass' ears are yanked off by the king. Also, Luster can't stop fireballing NPCs, and having sex with player characters, including Leo and his infinite stack of bard character sheets. 

Reception of this sequel was so high that the group decided to crowdfund a third movie. The Gamers 3: The Hands of Fate got a release in 2013. Most of the real world scenes were filmed at GenCon, with the in-game scenes taking place within a playing card universe. The film's protagonist is Cass, although the characters from the previous movie appear as well, in slightly diminished roles. For the first time it would seem The Gamers has a bit of a budget. This is the first movie in the series that actually looks like a theatrical film. 

Like the previous film, this entry into The Gamers introduces a new crop of characters and gamers. However, this is the first one where most of the previous actors return. In this movie, Cass meets Natalie, a hardcore player of a fictional card game Romance of the Nines. Cass tries to score a date, but Natalie isn't having it. Cass claims he can excel at any game, and Natalie challenges him to take down a guild of hardcore players whose intent is pure evil. In order for Cass to prove himself he enlists the help of Leo, a hardcore ROTN player from way back. The movie comes to a head at GenCon, where Cass finally proves his mettle in a tournament in order to defeat this band of scoundrels.

The in-game story is actually serious for once in the series. Gone is the humor, replaced by a story of love and loss. Amid all this, Lodge and Daphne, now dating, must survive a roadblock of their own, as Lodge feels he never won Daphne over, in the way a hero wins the princess in books and movies. This is probably the best entry in the series, as the story is quite well done, and it ends in such a daring way. Oh, and probably unbeknownst to Lucasfilm, there are Stormtroopers in this movie. I mean, there was a lightsaber in the last one.

The best part of the movie was in the very end. Originally, this scene was going to be its own entry in the series, as it tied all three movies together. But I guess because they were pressed for time and resources at this point, this seven minute scene found its way into the end of the third movie. The first thing we see is the catatonic remains of the Mark avatar, who never became sentient because Mark excused himself to leave for his date. He has apparently been made a mindless minion of The Shadow (The Shadow?). The group from the second film, including Luster, barge into The Shadow's lair ready to face him down finally. The film starts this way too, and is then interrupted. The Shadow explains to the in-game characters that his quarrel was never with them. Instead, his quarrel is with those who continued to disrupt his plans. He then weaves his magic and the characters are gone, replaced by the real world gamers. The characters then find themselves in the back room of the game store. At that moment, Nimble, Rogar, and Magellan appear. These are the in-game characters from the first movie. The ones who slaughtered the players at the end. They have apparently been stuck in our world since 2002. Nimble introduces himself and says that the portal has opened once again. 

I'm not sure what this was meant to lead into. Details are fuzzy over what happened to the production company in charge of this series, but for awhile there was nothing from their camp. What followed was a couple of unfinished seasons of spin-off shows, including one where Gary has to put his sister's fiance through trials, and another where in-game characters are forced to play a role playing game in our world. That second web series was the basis for what was next to come from the camp. 

In 2017 a one hour short movie was released that was supposed to be the blueprint for a new webseries that followed the adventures of the original four characters stuck in our universe. The Gamers: The Shadow Menace reacquainted us with Nimble, Newmoon, Rogar and Magellan. These game characters are locked in a fantasy game set in our universe, but is not actually our universe. They are controlled in the real world by a new group of gamers who are playing a game written by their dungeon master and are basing it on the game the players were playing in the first movie. The best scene in this entry is when one of the characters gets Rogar as a character and the DM notes he has an intelligence level of four. The player then notes that his paper, Rogar's actual original player sheet, says the character's intelligence level is five and that the number four had been crossed out. This is a reference to The Gamers where Rogar objects to his character's intelligence only being a 4 and he crosses it out and writes 5 on the page.

The guys must open a portal back to their world. They are aided by the gamers who want to help them get home. They find out The Shadow lives among them, and he runs a cabal on a college campus. While I enjoyed this movie I wasn't sure how it fit into the overall The Gamers lore. There are no other tie ins to the other movies, and none of the actors appear either. This was the last thing the people in charge of the franchise released and there has been no word of anything else since it came out. In my opinion they were trying to reboot the franchise and ran out of funds. They have made other non-The Gamers projects, and I've read there were plans to put them all together into one solitary universe.

As mentioned before, this universe was fun, and while they don't come out with constant material, what is out there is amusing and entertaining. The franchise is a deep nerd cut that only hardcore serious nerds will know about. I like that it exists within a level of nerdom that probably will never make this franchise popular or known to anyone outside of a random con, or Reddit. Surface level nerds might have heard of the second film, but few will know that there were two sequels and a movie that came before it. 

I'll be totally okay if they don't make another film or web series. This is my cinematic universe that exists on screen and in print (a book was supposed to be released at some point). If you know of this series of movies you'll have instant nerd cred with me. If you are a fan, remember to always be down for some waffles, speak in hushed tones, and always beware of The Shadow (The Shadow?).

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