Playing Hard, a surprisingly candid documentary about the making of For Honor, is available now on Netflix. Only a year old, it seems even more timely next to recent stories of working conditions, work/life balance, and ongoing stress in the game development community.
The documentary was not commissioned by Ubisoft. It’s the work of Jean-Simon Chartier, who wasn’t interested in video games as a subject per se. But he definitely noticed Ubisoft Montréal’s growing presence in the neighborhood where he worked and got curious enough about what they did to follow everyone around for several months.
In the documentary, three main characters emerge: Jason VandenBerghe, For Honor’s creative director; Stéphane Cardin, the producer, and Luc Duchaine, its publicist. All three go through intense personal journeys, struggling with their creative idealism, the need to collaborate, the desire to throw all they have into the project and the strain that causes elsewhere in their lives.
In Duchaine’s case, his health worsens with his diet as he takes on the globe-trotting job of promoting the game. Cardin, a divorced father, is pulled in so many different directions he checks out in December 2016 — two months before the game ships — to go to therapy. And VandenBerghe swings from the excitement and joy of bringing a 10-year-old creative vision to term, to ultimately losing control of it in a collaborative process. Eventually he finds he has no role on the team and his passion project has left him, like an estranged child. VandenBerghe has since left Ubisoft Montreal.
“Never before have viewers been exposed to the incredible human machine that is required to create such a large-scale game,” Chartier writes on Playing Hard’s official web page. Chartier notes that after several months of shooting, his access to the production floor was revoked. After “many months and discussions,” he was allowed back. “Ubisoft bet on transparency, a quality that is missing in the game industry,” Chartier writes, noting that Ubisoft had no say over the film’s final cut.
For Honor, a multiplayer-based hack-and-slash fighter, launched in February 2017. Though acclaimed in initial reviews, it did not appear to have the markings of a breakout hit at launch. It’s been more of a gradual hit, having since caught the wave of living games. For Honor opened 2019 with its third year of new content — “The Year of the Harbinger.”
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