For filmmakers, the world of online entertainment is currently a wild frontier. We live in a time where anyone can post a silly web video and possibly achieve some type of Internet celebrity. And for creative people desperate to tell stories, it’s a great way to literally and instantly reach anyone on the planet with an Internet connection, so long as you can catch their attention.
The implications of this are staggering, with both benefits and disadvantages. In a time when many of the largest Hollywood blockbusters seem lackluster with their bloated budgets, tired story-lines, and necessity for ridiculous branding (Battleship comes to mind), there is great opportunity on the web to create entertainment that cuts out the middle men. YouTube videos don’t need anywhere near as large an audience as a Hollywood film, allowing for creators to find their niche far easier. In an idealized world this would create a model where creativity could flow freely. While this is certainly part of the equation, it is not the whole story.
Much like a microcosm of “making it” in Hollywood, the world of YouTube, Twitter, and Internet fame is still a landscape where creators are desperate to garner views and followers in order to build themselves as a “brand” and constantly stream out content to consistently attract viewers. Sometimes this results in a multitude of videos and creative content of sub-par quality, and it can be difficult to sort through all the crap and find the diamonds amid the rubble. In addition, the idea of a “web series” is relatively new, and unlike feature films, sitcoms, or even episodic dramatic television, it is a storytelling format that has not had much time to gestate. Most web series I have seen too often feel like television pilots stretched or spliced into smaller pieces, fanciful feature film ideas without the budgets to support them, or the product of recent amateur film student graduates who didn’t seem to have actually learned from any of the mistakes they made in school (seriously guys…hire a sound person!).
Yet “Video Game High School” (called here on out by it’s acronym “VGHS”) is, I believe, a web series that has come the closest to cracking the formula. Much of the project was independently funded through Kickstarter, in part due to the fan base of one of the directors Freddie Wong, who has developed a following due to consistently releasing comedic VFX-heavy YouTube videos, often with a comedic slant towards the gamer community. Kickstarter is a godsend for smaller projects seeking funding, as it allows fans to get a direct return on projects they would like to see take shape, and even feel they have some stake in. Kickstarter most recently and famously funded the newest adventure game being developed by Tim Schafer, creator of such classic games as “Day of the Tentacle,” “Monkey Island,” and “Grim Fandango.” There is no question that “VGHS” has a tiny budget for a series with so much ambition, but at the very least, the creators behind it made sure it did actually have a budget of some kind in the first place. While it is true that filmmaking technology is getting cheaper and cheaper, it still requires money to take shape. I should mention at this point that I am very close friends with many of the creators of the show, so I have enjoyed watching the project develop over the last few years.
Set in a bizarro near-future (we at least know it’s a world inhabited by floating kick-balls and hovering tandem bikes), the titular “VGHS” is an elite school for the best students to hone their skills in order to make a living as, presumably, professional gamers. This is world where gaming is taken very seriously, to the point that a “frag alert” interrupts a news story about the missing president, and characters call each other only by their gamer tags instead of their full names.
The show opens with lovably awkward Brian D (Josh Blaylock) getting accepted to the prestigious school after he publicly humiliates the world’s best gamer, known only as “The Law,” on national television by killing him in-game. Arrogant and conniving as ever, The Law (played with delicious gusto by Brian Firenzi) makes plans to transform Brian D’s high school experience into a living hell. Meanwhile Brian D nurses a crush on the tough-as-nails Junior Varsity FPS coach Jenny Matrix (Johanna Braddy), and develops a Harry-Ron-Hermione relationship with best friend Ted (Jimmy Wong) and the obtuse but perky Ki Swan (Ellary Porterfield).
While the show focuses primarily on FPS (first-person shooter) gaming, it’s fun to see other types of games get lampooned as well. A highlight of the show is Ted’s run-in with the eloquent and intense Drift King (Rocky Collins) who desires for to Ted to accept his true destiny as a racing gamer, and a cameo from Freddie Wong himself as a washed-up Guitar Hero champion. If the show gets picked up for later seasons, it will be fun to see what other types of games will have their share in the spotlight (I vote for strategy games!). Other fun characters include The Law’s crony Alliterator (who only speaks in alliteration), the sleazy Games Dean (who continuously leaches off Brian D’s plots to become “cool”), and fast-talking TV hosts Scott Slanders and Shot Bot (the latter of whom is an actual robot). And for those who regularly browse the YouTube labyrinth, viewers may recognize iJustine as a sexy TV host, Harley Morenstein from Epic Meal Time as oppressive school dean Ernie Calhoun, and even Zachary Levi from “Chuck” as Ace, Brian D’s stern but well-meaning FPS teacher.
As a whole it’s a very loopy show, but it’s perfect for the Internet. While containing a continuous arc (that admittedly does play well when viewed as a feature film), each episode (which vary in length, but tend to run around 12 minutes) makes a point of containing a sequence complete with a unique action set piece and some sort of story twist. The gamer gags and lingo may not be accessible to everyone (some of the more obscure gags definitely went over my head), and would never play in a wide release feature film, but as a show about gamers made and funded by gamers for gamers, it works wonderfully. In one episode the soundtrack is even provided by the niche 80s throwback band “The Protomen,” whose albums tell the story of “Mega Man” as a rock opera. Most importantly, it’s clear the script was written for the intention of being a web series, and time was taken to develop the story as such. The patience and hard work shows on screen, causing this to probably be the first web series I’ve seen where I was emotionally invested in the characters by the time the final few episodes rolled in.
Admittedly the show takes a while to hit it’s stride (I don’t think things really start clicking into place until the fourth episode or so), and on occasion the running time of the individual episodes feels too short. I also found it a bit disconcerting what the implications might be of a school that trains kids in the art of killing each other at such an early age, but as this has not bothered the gaming fan community, I probably shouldn’t worry about it either.
With great production values on a tight budget, an enjoyably self-aware script, and a band of fun and engaging characters, I hope “VGHS” may be the standard by which other web series are judged. I’ve seen artistic and creative web videos before, but this is It’s the first time I’ve seen a web series engage on such a solid storytelling level. If you have ever been one to enjoy playing video games with your friends (and your enemies!), this is a show for you. Not convinced? Check out the trailer! After all, I put it together!
New episodes of VGHS can be viewed at RocketJump.com, where they air every Thursday. Episodes that have been out for a week are also available on YouTube on Freddie’s channel. Four episodes have aired thus far, and there are nine episodes total.