<Warning – This show is impossible to discuss without spoilers, and impossible to enjoy with’em>
Fess up, how many of you thought you were going to get to use the gun? Show of hands. No point being coy about it, I’ve already spoken to one critic who told me she was expecting to get a few shots in, and who sounded about as disappointed as I was that she didn’t get to. Anyone else? I didn’t even know what the show was before I walked in (having avoided spoilers like a boss) and the moment I sat down in my camo-covered twitcher-hide my trigger finger started to get itchy. Picture of Coney Island’s ‘Shoot the Freak’ concession in the programme? Awe-some. Let’s blast some fucking thesps.
Leaving my little pillar box 55 minutes later and I have two major thoughts:
1) I’d make a terrible bird watcher. Instincts all wrong.
2) I’m a bit disappointed by GAME.
There’s already been a bit of mild kerfuffle on the branches of Twitter about what constitutes an immersive show, and whether GAME in any way qualifies, and why we might expect it to anyway. It’s not a hornets’ nest worth re-poking (the hornets are mostly dead and they weren’t very interesting hornets when they were alive) except in as far as GAME builds expectations, arranges possibilities, and then resolutely fails to live up to or make the most out of them.
If you watch a trailer for a video game, in the cinema or on Youtube, there will often be a watermark in the bottom left of the screen reading ‘In-Game Footage’ or suchlike. That’s there to let you know that what you’re watching isn’t pre-rendered, that it isn’t FMV and that when you actually sit down with your joypad (I know they’re called controllers these days but to Hell with the Young) you’ll get to actually interact with the environment and influence the whizz-goggery on the screen. It’s there so you know that it’s not a trick.
There’s plenty of in-GAME footage here, it’s a technical masterpiece of overlapping performance and pre-recording, blended with quirky retro-HUD graphics and spot-on dystopian idents. But somehow, for all of this, it still feels like a bit of a trick. Or like a whole box of tricks, applaudable and laudable enough on their own, but adding up to something pretty obvious and everyday.
Waiting in the Almeida bar and being called in in groups to take your positions in allocated ‘zones’ is always going to be exciting. It’s like waiting in the lobby of Laser Quest on your mate’s birthday. You step inside and ‘zone attendents’ hand you your headphones. There are TV screens and electronic shutters. It’s all very, very cool.
The setup of the house you’re looking into is even better. An immaculate, faceless model-home with granite worksurfaces, a hot-tub and menacing robotic cameras which beam every detail of this young couples’ lives onto the plasma screens above our head. We’re in a sort of nature reserve for humans. A zoo for the unemployed, plucked out of their natural habitat and placed in glossy, climate controlled imprisonment to be blasted into unconsciousness by paying guests of the faceless management. A sniper rifle is modded to hold tranquilizers, and the couple we’re watching, like countless others, presumably, have to take their medicine at the convenience of the customers if they want to keep their house.
As a satire on new class divisions, on the escalating housing crisis, the dehumanisation of the poor, the commodification of everything under the sun and everything under that, it’s bluntly, brutally effective. It’s not particularly nuanced, it probably wouldn’t make it to green-light as a mid-season episode of Black Mirror, but its points are coherent and as hit their target like a sniper’s splintering bullet.
What’s most effective about it, and where it progresses most bleakly from its most obvious predecessors like Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game is that the human-hunters are no longer moustache-twirling aristocrats, and that the game is no longer a bloodsport. The price for a shot at this struggling pair is about £500, the customers a range of depleted middle class couples and pissed-up hen parties. This is entertainment for the masses. You do this instead of a track day, or a health spa. And you don’t shoot to kill in some clandestine Hostel-style pastime for the unspeakably rich and evil. You just shoot to maim the everyday lives of these everyday people, to fire a million little darts into their attempted existences until they finally crumple into nothing. Because that’s what poverty does – it kills sex lives, ambitions, relationships between partners and between parents and their children. That’s the meat of Mike Bartlett’s argument here – that’s where it draws blood and where it’s at its most vital.
And that’s great, that’s brilliant. It’s correct and original and expressed with great clarity. It’s just that in every other way GAME fails to connect, and that it’s clearly really trying. It’s never really clear who we’re supposed to be, we’re drawn into complicity through proximity with the gun-toting jolly-holidayers, but it hasn’t been worked through. From Leo Warner’s video design you’d presume you were watching some kind of televised reality show, but the script makes no mention of a wider audience. The world outside of this sham-house is all but invisible, its distance from our own left frustratingly concealed.
The dialogue is also largely perfunctory. Central couple Carly and Ashley are well played by Jodie McNee and Mike Noble, but despite the pathos of their situation they’re hard to care about in any deep sense. Maybe that’s the point. But as we’re not given a gun (did I mention they don’t give you a gun?) then our reactions to this remain unexplored. A side-plot involving ex-soldier David, paid to entertain the trigger-happy guests and becoming increasingly broken down by his duties, feels perfunctory, and that in turn sends the climax into flatline.
Despite its intellectual strengths, dramatically it feels like so much of a missed opportunity. The potential this visibly (ironically?) expensive technical masterpiece has to really fuck with its audience flies flapping in the breeze. There’s an increasingly obvious disconnect between what we see on the screens and what takes place in the house, but whereas in Speed or Scream (seminal texts, both of them) this is used to brilliant, thrilling effect, here it’s just an afterthought. Sacha Wares directs slickly in a formica-shiny design from Miriam Buether, but as a machine for doing something – and one capable of doing so damn many things, in dramatic terms, GAME does very little.