Arts·Hot Docs

This new documentary delves deep into Montreal's Ubisoft — the largest videogame studio in the world

Jean-Simon Chartier's Playing Hard is premiering at Hot Docs, offering audiences a unique look into video game production.

Playing Hard is premiering at Hot Docs, offering audiences a unique look into video game production

Playing Hard. (Hot Docs)

In Montreal's Mile End neighbourhood, filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier's production company MC2 Communication Media has an office just two blocks away from Ubisoft Montreal. He's watched it grow from having a few hundred employees to becoming the largest video game development studio in the world with over 3,000 people working there.

"I witnessed this tribe of programmers and designers taking over all restaurants, cafes and bars in the Mile End," Chartier says. "They eventually took a few floors in the building where we had our small office. And we had to move!"

Chartier believes that this evolution that was happening in his neighbourhood was also taking place in the entertainment industry as a whole — gaming was becoming bigger than Hollywood.

So Chartier told himself that he needed to make his way "into the Ubisoft fortress and find a story to tell." And the years-in-the-making result is Playing Hard, a documentary having its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto this week.

Playing Hard is essentially a creation story revolving around Ubisoft's battle game For Honor. It's shaped through following creative director Jason VandenBerghe, for whom For Honor is a true passion project: he says he's been building it his head for over 10 years. Now it's finally being developed, but it's not the dream VandenBerghe had thought it might be — the development process is intense, and he struggles to retain control of what he sees as his baby.

Shot over three years, Playing Hard offers an intimate window into the extraordinary — and extraordinarily complicated — process that VandenBerghe and his colleagues went through, one that Chartier himself admits he knew little about going into the film.

"I read about the industry like everyone else before I started this project," he says. "But I knew so little that everything was new to me. And that's a stand I was comfortable with as a director because I wanted to tell a story with an outsider's point of view. I wasn't really interested in all the technical aspects of producing a game. I wanted to use some of the game milestones — approval from the head office, announcements, crunch time, marketing — so I could tell an evolutive character-driven story. So I learned more about the psychology of my characters than about the creation of a game."

Playing Hard. (Hot Docs)

Chartier does feel that he's much more interested in gaming now than he was before he started this film.

"I think that gaming is becoming more and more predominant in our society not only as an entertainment form but as a way of interacting together," he says.

But what about as an art form? 

"Well, there is probably a whole debate — and a documentary — that could be constructed around this question," he says. "I would not be the good person to be enlightening because I'm not a gamer myself. I have not experienced different type of games...But if you take art as a representation of a story through the imagination and the skills of a creator or creators, yes, I think video games are art. Just as a film, a play, a novel. And when it's 500 people that are working on one piece of art, then it becomes a system where technology and management are what makes the whole thing become alive."

Playing Hard. (Hot Docs)

Chartier hopes people will come out of Playing Hard relating to what the team behind For Honor went through. He certainly has.

"In this story, I recognize myself because I see my anxiety, my stress, my inability to communicate well often, my desire for performance, my ego. We all have our ways, our fears, and we all have to live with conflicts. Passion brings conflict and I think conflict is a way to evolve as a human being."

He also hopes the film will create a discussion.

"Different people will see this story in different ways," he says. "I'm a spectator now. I'll discover it for the first time with a crowd at Hot Docs."

Playing Hard. Directed by Jean-Simon Chartier. Premieres May 2 at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.