I’m going to say right off the bat that Your Friends Close is not a videogame movie. What I really mean is that it’s not your typical big-screen adaptation of an existing AAA franchise. There’s no CGI, no gun fights or car chases, no tomb raiders or street fighters or mortal kombatants. It’s a movie about videogames and the people who make them, but it’s not a videogame movie.
At its core Your Friends Close is a character study that takes place over the course of a single evening. It’s about human nature and our propensity toward unchecked ambition, treachery, and greed. How far might you go to get what you want? Or, as the film’s tagline asks, “Who would you lose to win?” Thematically, there are parallels to Macbeth; no one dies, but it’s no less of a tragedy.
The film centers on a husband-and-wife team of game designers, Jason and Becca, played respectively by writer Brock Wilbur and director Jocelyn Kelvin. Together, they’ve designed a massively multiplayer strategy game, essentially an online version of the Turing test, in which players compete to determine whether or not their opponents are real people. There are only two rules: guess wrong and you’re out, last player standing wins. Do you form an alliance with others, or do you backstab your way to the top?
Described as “Facebook with a high score, Twitter with a winner,” and even “Myspace with machetes,” they call their new game “Your Friends Close,” from the saying “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” To finish developing it, Jason and Becca must move to Paris, and on the eve of their departure they throw a going-away party, inviting their colleagues and friends, many of whom also work in the games industry.
The partygoers are introduced in the opening credits, and I enjoyed how the film paused to present each of the “players” along with their IQ, Big Five personality traits, and Myers-Brigs Type. It’s a nerdy touch that made the Psych major in me squeal with absolute delight. More importantly, it foreshadows the film’s rich character development.
After he receives a phone call from their boss, studio head Randall Sconce (Michael Eliopoulos), Jason announces that he must remain in the states to work on the game’s TV spin-off. Suddenly, there’s a vacant spot in the Parisian development team. The partygoers, who moments before were amicably celebrating, slowly begin competing for the position. Even conscientious objectors like Jason’s brother-in-law Bruce (Kovar McClure) eventually succumb.
Before too long, these so-called “friends” are at each others’ throats. As the facades drop and devastating secrets are revealed, relationships are destroyed beyond repair. Each person, one by one, is emotionally broken by deceit and betrayal.
Viewers can feel the mounting tension that the partygoers are experiencing as the evening wears on. This is accomplished through Kelvin’s taut, restless direction. The pacing, which I at first thought strange, only serves to heighten the anxiety. The first portion of the film slowly and methodically develops the characters and their relationships to each other while the climax almost feels rushed. As it all comes crashing down, the truth about each character is revealed in such quick succession as to leave viewers speechless, even a bit confused. Nevertheless, in hindsight, this was perfect; the audience doesn’t have enough time to predict the twists, and you’re left in a state of raw disbelief not unlike that of the characters.
The writing in Your Friends Close is excellent. Every piece of dialogue furthers character development in some way. Wilbur deserves credit for balancing character-driven drama and dark comedy with video game theory and nerdy inside jokes. I lol’d quite a few times, especially at the references to The Secret of Monkey Island and the infamous Leeroy Jenkins. At one point, everyone is taking shots of orange and blue-colored liquor. I had a huge grin on my face for that whole scene: now they’re drinking with portals.
In terms of acting, Wilbur and Kelvin play a power couple second only to the Macbeths. Wilbur balances Jason’s facade (charismatic, outgoing) with his true self (uncaring, manipulative), while Kelvin’s quiet strength allows you to sympathize with her without seeing her as a victim (for she is hardly innocent). The rest of the ensemble does a fantastic job, particularly Blake Silver as the conniving AI specialist, Eric, and Jenni Melear as Jason’s assistant, Kylee, with whom Becca suspects he is having an affair. In fact, the tension-filled conversations between Kylee and Becca are some of the most powerful scenes in the film. And Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw is simply delightful as the devilishly charming GLaDOS-esque program, Philip.
I was impressed by the production value of Your Friends Close. It looks great considering its $30,000 budget (over a third of which was raised through a successful Kickstarter campaign). Also, I am absolutely in love with its soundtrack, which can be downloaded on a pay-what-you-will basis.
But what struck me most about Your Friends Close is how thoroughly it examines the role that videogames play in our society today. Near the end, Jason states that the videogame industry is “at a dangerous crossroads,” comparing it to the film industry when it was 30 years old. He notes how much movies changed between the 1920s and 1930s and argues that, for the games industry, “This is our watershed moment! This is the point of no return. This is our first talkie!”
Ever the narcissist, he’s of course talking about his own game, but I think he’s right. It’s pretty cool that we’re alive right now to witness what’s potentially a huge turning point in videogames and their role in society. There are still growing pains, but I believe that the games industry is starting to mature beyond the senseless violence and misogyny its held onto for so long. At least I hope so.
But what impact would a game like “Your Friends Close” actually have on society? Jasons’ sister, Courtney (Heather Wood), fears that by encouraging sociopathic behavior (like deception and lack of empathy), the game will “raise a generation of serial killers.” Becca and Jason are told a few times throughout the film that what they’ve created is potentially dangerous. In the wrong hands, it could even destroy the world. After all, “Everything can be used as a wargame.”
So while the film in no way questions whether videogames are art (they undoubtedly are), it makes the point that even art can be used as a weapon. And at a certain point, the audience is forced to question whether what Jason and Becca have created is a weapon of mass destruction. One that might even destroy their relationship.
Your Friends Close is one of the first movies to seriously pose such questions about videogames, and I sincerely urge you to rent ($3.99) or buy (8.99) it. At the very least, check out the trailer. Whether you’re a fan of drama, dark comedy, or sci-fi, or even if you just like thinking critically about videogames, then you’ll definitely enjoy Your Friends Close.