Life in a Video Game is Tough, but in Avalon, it's Also Awesome

The Last Starfighter is my favourite video game movie of all time. But it had to fight, almost to the death, to claim the top spot. Because at number two is Avalon, a 2001 flick that's part-Japanese, part-Polish, all awesome.

It's a strange movie. But I love it for the same reason I love Last Starfighter; instead of meekly adapting an existing video game property, it does something interesting with the idea of video games themselves.

In Avalon's case, that means throwing us into a dark, dysfunctional future where almost everybody on Earth is addicted to a single online video game (named for the movie itself). The game looks brilliant, being a combat simulation that lets combatants use the weapon of their choice in a deathmatch which is so realistic it puts Modern Warfare and Battlefield to shame.

But there's a dark secret to it, as Avalon's very best players can become "trapped" in the game, their real bodies reduced to little more than vegetables. One of these warriors is the star of the film, Ash, who after hearing of a secret level to the game sets off to try and find it, despite the fact failure will kill her. In the real world.

I find Avalon interesting for two reasons. The first is that it, unlike the recent Gamer, it doesn't use a game simply as an empty vessel to propel an action movie storyline. The film's director, Mamoru Oshii (of Ghost in the Shell fame), is a gamer, and describes Avalon as a military role-playing game, one inspired not just by shooters and MMOs but by older stuff, like Wizardry, a PC RPG series Oshii was hooked on when he was younger.

Because of this, the entire movie is structured like a game. The players populating Avalon are divided according to rank and class. They form "parties". Killing others gives you experience points, and in a neat touch, even the games of the future can be affected by lag, though in Avalon's case this manifests not just as a connection issue, but in physical pain for the user as well.

The other is that it's just so damn strange. Avalon is a Japanese production, with a Japanese director, producers and writers, but it was shot in Poland. So it stars Polish actors, who spend the movie speaking Polish. That's not something you see every day. It's got a great look, though; a little bit Fallout, a little bit STALKER.

Nor do you see many movies shot in the 21st century that are shown entirely in sepia. Entirely. Having come too early to be a play on the "too brown" colour palettes of many contemporary games, it was instead an attempt by the film's creators to keep the whole thing looking consistent, the game world looking like the real world and vice versa. It also, handily, helps improve some special effects, as while there are some that look great (the in-game death "animations" especially), there are others that were probably a little too ambitious given the technology and money at-hand.

Avalon wasn't exactly a blockbuster hit. It was never given a theatrical run in the US or most of Europe, and made a name for itself mostly through people passing around DVD versions of the film. It's still easily available today (there's even a Blu-Ray version!), though, so if you feel like settling in and watching a movie that takes video games seriously (and don't mind subtitles), you should definitely check it out.

And after that's done? In 2009 Oshii released a spiritual successor of sorts, this time an all-Japanese affair, called Assault Girls. It's...nowhere near as good, but it does star some pretty Japanese ladies shooting at giant worms, so if that's your thing, this has your thing in spades.

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You can contact Luke Plunkett, the author of this post, at plunkett@kotaku.com. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and lurking around our #tips page.