In a sense, Break the Game isn’t telling us what we don’t already know about some of the pitfalls of the internet’s cesspool. With a sensitive (and sometimes creative) touch from director Jane M. Wagner, it’s an exploration of the isolation, loneliness, and cruelty that living almost every component of your life online can affect a person and how it can also reverberate in the real world.
Director: Jane M. Wagner
Narcissa Wright, a renowned world-record ‘Legend of Zelda’ speedrunner, documents much of her life on Twitch as she tries to set a speedrun record for ‘Breath of the Wild.’ While somewhat unfocused, the record effort itself fades into the background as it explores the kind of isolation, near-constant online harassment, and validation-seeking efforts that living your life online affects a person.
Before the film begins, we’re told that Narcissa Wright, best known for her Legend of Zelda speed runs, has recorded more than 3,000 hours of herself streaming content since 2010, so it’s fitting that much of Break the Game takes place directly on the screen. We watch Narcissa’s computer turn on, click open various folders, use different apps, log onto Twitch, and check all of the messages people have sent since she was last on before starting a livestream. As she streams, the sidebar chat constantly updates as her loyal viewers chime in and the trolls try baiting her. Sometimes, the live chat also provides bits of exposition as one commenter asks to explain video game jargon and another person responds.
Years ago, before Narcissa transitioned, she would get upwards of 18,000 people concurrently watching her video game livestreams; in one scene, she’s being interviewed in a crowded room full of fans cheering her on. But after she came out as a trans woman, she’s lucky to get 50 people watching her play on a normal day. (A time-lapsed sequence showed that, on one occasion, more people tuned in to watch Narcissa asleep than awake; she’ll often eat her meals on a Twitch stream, which usually consists of soylent.) Many of her older viewers stopped watching. (She also generally stepped back from speedrunning due to hand injuries.)
And some of those viewers only watch to spew transphobic insults (including deadnaming her), posting threats about swatting her, and encouraging her to kill herself. They watch to see her fail or stumble in any way so they can exploit it. And Narcissa is, if nothing, self-aware.
“I think I’ve been very desperate for any attention,” Narcissa says about herself. “And thus, the people who show me negative attention, I seek it out.”
She sees the upcoming release of Breath of the Wild as her big comeback, a way to recapture her heyday and escape her past. Around then, Wagner loops in 8-bit animation that allows Narcissa to imagine herself the hero slaying the demons and trolls (some of whom appear similar in design to Zelda’s Bokoblins). There’s a playfulness to some of the animation, which is also used to illustrate one of Narcissa’s first memories of her dad installing a game for her to play. But it’s also effective in showing the darkness seeping in.
And Break the Game certainly gets into darker territory as less of the focus is on the speed run record itself, which is resolved well before the film ends; sometimes, Narcissa’s loyal viewers are left wondering if some of the events she streams are things they should be privy to private moments like that. But that parasocial relationship between Narcissa and her followers isn’t all grim: A bright spot is a budding romance between Narcissa and Alex (also known as d_girl), a fellow Twitch streamer and trans woman who offers a reprieve from the isolation that is part of Narcissa’s life; the film takes that idea more literally when Narcissa finally logs off, the cameras follow her on her travels, and the sun on the coast shimmers.
Break the Game has no easy answers on how to combat or push back against the transphobic harassment Narcissa is subjected to daily. But even for someone incredibly online, sometimes logging off or letting yourself experience life off the screen has its merits, even if it’s only for an audience of one.
Break the Game premiered at the Tribeca Festival on June 10 and will be available to stream on Tribeca’s virtual platform from June 19 to July 2.