The most interesting moment from a new documentary about the making of For Honor comes just over 70 minutes in when the team at Ubisoft Montreal is celebrating the game getting certified on Xbox One and PS4. Speeches have been made and the champagne is flowing freely when the game’s then creative director Jason VandenBerghe turns to the studio’s CEO, Yannis Mallat, and says “You’ll forgive me if I don’t dance on my own grave.”
“There’s no grave here,” Mallat replies, trying to ease the tension knowing Chartier’s camera is rolling just a few feet away. “Yeah, okay, sure,” says VandenBerghe.
“You’re a very responsible guy, you can decide how you react,” interjects Mallat.
VandenBerghe, the original visionary behind the game, is now slowly being edged out of its future, we learn. “I am a hard man to understand. So people are left to interpret what I want and what I do through the lense of whatever they think I am,” VandenBerghe says in a voice over.
The documentary is called Playing Hard and it’s by filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier. Debuting at this week’s Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, it tracks the creation of one of the biggest new games released in recent years. For Honor was a risk for Ubisoft. It’s a multiplayer-centric game pitting players in the roles of knights, vikings, and samurai against each other.
Chartier has said in interviews that he’s not much of a video game buff himself and only became interested in Ubisoft as a potential subject matter for a documentary because of how they appeared to be taking over the corner of Montreal in which his office was located. The studio agreed to let him film for six months during the earlier parts of the game’s development before eventually showing him the door saying his presence was making some people on the team uncomfortable. In the end, he was let back in eight months later, after the game had received the greenlight from Ubisoft corporate to be developed to completion, and the bulk of the documentary takes place between E3 2016 when the game was announced and the following February when it was actually released.
The documentary is a portrait of artistic inspiration and emotions. The movie depicts a clear separation between VandenBerghe and Ubisoft by the time For Honor is about to ship, but it never digs into exactly what precipitated the rift. VandenBerghe, to whom the original creative vision for the game is attributed, talks about being difficult to work with and there are hints of his being demanding and sometimes rubbing people the wrong way during meetings and in feedback session. But no one filmed ever says definitively why he wouldn’t have any part in working on a potential sequel to the game, including VandenBerghe. It simply ends with him dramatically walking through a snowstorm alone.
In addition to following VandenBerghe, the film also focuses on Stephane Cardin, the game’s producer, and Luc Duchaine, the man responsible for developing the brand behind the game and marketing it to the rest of the world. They have distinct roles, and toward the end of development it’s clear Cardin and VandenBerghe, despite still being friendly, are no longer on the same page. While the three principals don’t always see eye to eye, Playing Hard isn’t interested in adjudicating their differences, but rather simply showing the emotional toll the unique creative processes at work in making games can take on the people involved. VandenBerghe feels like his artistic child has slowly been taken away from him. Cardin is so stressed out by juggling picking his daughters up from their mother for visits with making cutting features from the game to get it to ship on time that he disappears in December of 2016 for several weeks to get therapy. And then there’s Duchaine who travels the world trying to sell audiences on the idea of a game while feeling guilty for not seeing his family enough and nearly stress-eating his way toward a potential heart attack. While the documentary focuses mostly on the last year of the game’s development and runs approximately an hour and a half, the people at the heart of it began the journey back in early 2013.
During that time the game VandenBerghe talks about having wanted to make this game for 10 years. At the height of development over 500 different people are working on it, and the documentary suggests that this is when VandenBerghe’s relationship to the game begins to break down. With the key gameplay pillars in place, each managed by someone else, he’s no longer able to touch every element and help shape it the way he thinks it should be. Late in development he’s resigned himself to sitting in a small, dimly lit cubicle embedded in the wall working on refining the game’s story and dialogue. Occasionally he goes home for lunch to briefly see his wife and guzzle some protein shakes. The closer the game gets to actually being made, the more he seems to despair.
“I’m going through this weird, weird process of letting go, and so I’m sort of separating from the game. And there’s depression that comes after you stop creating, at least for me, you get really sad,” VandenBerghe explains in a voiceover on his way to a sparring session in the middle of the work day. “Did you fire yourself?” asks a friend he’s met up on one of the floors of an abandoned office building. “I did!” exclaims VandenBerghe. He explains that while he still has an office and the game is still months away from shipping he no longer has any tasks left on his to-do list. “They no longer care about my opinion,” he says.
By the end he’s still making appearances to help publicize the game, most notably a livestream with celebrities from Game of Thrones who are playing the game just prior to release. Some part of him seems to know that this is just a parting gesture, at least the way the documentary portrays it. He’s wounded. Deeply so. He describes the process of leaving For Honor, and in effect breaking up with Ubisoft, the studio he’d worked at for a decade on games ranging from Red Steel 2 to Far Cry 3, like having one’s child go off to college and say they never want to hear from you again. “I’m sorry dad, but you’re just too intense,” he says in an interview on his couch at home. “I’m gonna go and do my own life but please don’t contact me again.”
In a blog post in May of last year, three months after the game’s release, VandenBerghe wrote that he was planning a sabbatical and that aftwards he’ll look at what project he takes on next at Ubisoft. Two months later he wrote on Facebook that he had left Ubisoft to join ArenaNet, makers of Guild Wars 2 and other games.
The precise terms he left on aren’t clear, and for its part Playing Hard raises more questions than it answers. But as a look at the some of the real humans working inside an industry notorious for its secrecy Chartier’s documentary is a rare achievement.