By David Kaplan and Eric Zimmerman
Play imagines a not-too-distant future where video games have become indistinguishable from reality. These fully immersive games are nested inside each other like Russian dolls — each new game emerging from another and connecting backwards with increasing complexity. One moment, a player is a Japanese schoolgirl embroiled in a pillow fight with her girlfriends — and the next moment, the player has suddenly morphed into a scandalized state senator defending himself against a throng of angry reporters.
Synthetic experience competes with real experience as dream, fantasy, and memory begin to collapse into each other. Identities become elastic as the players consecutively inhabit completely different genders, ages, and ethnicities. They must confront a new state of “play” where the distinction between the real and the virtual blurs and their true selves are called into doubt.
A host of questions emerge: Who are the players? Who are the game designers? What is the purpose of these games? What is the point of winning? Where is it all leading? And if someone wants to stop playing, where in the hell is the escape button?
Play has the structure of a puzzle, and is not meant to resolve into a single explanation or interpretation. Rather, the film is a meditation on our present day of hyperconnectivity and information overload, using videogames as the metaphor for the very human search for meaning and identity.
The first collaboration between filmmaker David Kaplan (Little Red Riding Hood and Other Stories, Year of the Fish) and game designer Eric Zimmerman (Gamelab, Rules of Play), the making of Play was an exciting merging of new media with old media. The film was shot in six days, mostly in New York City, with a small crew and a large cast of local New York actors. It was produced by Atilla Salih Yucer (Three Backyards), executive produced by Rocco Caruso (Three Backyards, Judy Berlin), and shot by Michael Simmonds (Big Fan, Goodbye Solo).
Play is a film about games, and one of its two creators is a game designer (that’s me). Even though games and film are often seen as being very similar forms of media, in fact they are radically different. Working on Play emphasized these differences in a very meaningful way to me.
It’s true that the recent history of videogames has led to certain genres of games resembling cinema – 3D shooters, car-racing games, and team sports games being good examples. All of these kinds of games take great pains to look like film or television. Furthermore, it’s true that videogames are delivered on television screens and computer monitors, which is the same way that we experience much of film and video. However, the fact is that these similarities are largely superficial.
What makes a game distinct as a form of culture has nothing to do with its visual appearance. Games are in essence interactive systems in which players participate. They are systems of rules that shape and guide the behavior of players as they move via their play towards a goal or end state. These core aspects of games – which are the fundamentals of board games, card games, sports, and social games, as well as computer and video games – have nothing to do with the visual appearance of the game or its resemblance to cinema.
Some game creators do feel that so-called cinematic “immersion” is the goal of videogames. I am not one of them. While I do enjoy playing many 3D games, I don’t think that games will ever fully replicate the pleasures of cinema, and attempts to do so will always feel like watered-down film experiences.
Working on Play reminded me that film and video is so much a documentary medium – that capturing an image has so much to do with a particular actor’s performance, choices made about the camera angle and lens, the lighting on that particular day, the accumulation of particular decisions of the director, the set dresser, the makeup artist, etc. A unique moment in time is captured on film, and then it is gone. In comparison, games are synthetic from the ground up, and although some motion capture and voice acting elements can be part of the process of game development, games are not in essence a documentary cultural form like photographic media.
I respect the efforts of game creators to craft more cinematically meaningful experiences. But I think there are other ways to make successful games, and other approached to telling stories through games. As a game designer, the question I would like to ask is not, “How can I tell a cinematic story through a game?” but instead, “What kind of story can I only tell through a game?” It’s a question that remains tantalizingly unanswered.
— Eric Zimmerman, Writer, game designer
As a game designer, creating Play with David Kaplan was an educational experience for me on so many levels. I had studied a little bit of filmmaking in college, but had never been part of an actual film production.
One of the unexpected synergies between games and film happened as we were shooting the “Thug” game sequence that opens the film. To recreate the feeling of an over-the-shoulder videogame, those shots were taken on a very small digital camera that was attached via a tripod to the actor’s back. The tripod kept the distance between the actor Erik Rooney and the camera fixed, so that Erik’s head was framed consistently in the field of view even as the actor moved around the streets. The end result was video footage that eerily resembled a live-action version of videogame imagery. Of course, our director of photography Michael Simmonds had his hands full chasing Erik around the streets of Queens with the tripod attached to his back as we filmed those shots!
What’s curious about this entire approach to shooting is that we were replicating in the analog real world exactly the mechanism by which some videogames create their visuals. In a typical 3D over-the-shoulder style game, where a character is running around the game world and seen from the back, a virtual camera is attached to the back of the character. This camera, usually connected with a virtual spring to give the camera smooth motion, keeps the character framed in the center of the action, even as it follows the character around the game world.
Without knowing it, we had reverse-engineered a real-world version of a videogame camera, an appropriate approach for a film like Play.
— Eric Zimmerman, Writer, game designer
Writer / Director
David Kaplan is the writer/director of the feature film Year of the Fish, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and was released theatrically in 2008. Year of the Fish won Best Film honors at the 2007 Avignon Film Festival and the 2007 Asheville Film Festival; the Audience Award at the 2007 Independent Film Festival of Boston; and was nominated for the Piaget Producers Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards. Kaplan has made several short films, including Little Red Riding Hood starring Christina Ricci and Quentin Crisp, which premiered at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, was shown in theaters and on television throughout the world, and has been taught as part of the curriculum at Harvard, Oxford, and Columbia Universities. His other award-winning shorts include Little Suck-a-Thumb, The Frog King (1995 Sundance Film Festival), and LoveDeath, commissioned for Lincoln Center’s 2003 New York Video Festival. He is currently in post-production on his second feature film, a comedy set in an Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, Queens, starring Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show), Madhur Jaffrey (Shakespeare-Wallah) and legendary Bollywood actor Naseeruddin Shah (Monsoon Wedding). Kaplan recently lectured at Scripps College in Claremont, CA on “Fairy Tales into Film.” He has been a lecturer or guest speaker at Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, Columbia University, and the Tampere School of Art and Media, Finland.
Eric Zimmerman is a game designer, entrepreneur, author, and academic who has been working in the game industry for 15 years. Eric’s diverse activities have made him one of the New York Observer’s "Power Punks," one of Interview Magazine’s “30 To Watch,” one of International Design Magazine’s “ID 40” influential designers and one of The Hollywood Reporter’s “Digital 50” along with Stephen Spielberg and Will Wright. For nine years, Eric was the co-founder and chief design officer of Gamelab, a game development company based in New York City that was named one of five “Rising Star” design firms by HOW Magazine. Gamelab’s games have won awards from the Independent Games Festival, Games for Change, ID Magazine, Art Directors Club, Ars Electronica, as well as finalist nominations in the Webby Awards, the IGDA Developers Choice Awards, and the Zeebys casual game awards. Eric’s game design work prior to Gamelab includes the critically acclaimed SiSSYFiGHT 2000 as well as the PC games Gearheads and The Robot Club. He sits on the boards of Games for Change and The Institute of Play, and on the advisory board for Digital Media for Global Kids. Eric lectures and publishes extensively on games, including keynotes at major industry events. He is the co-author with Katie Salen of Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, the definitive textbook on game design (MIT Press, 2004). Eric has taught courses at MIT, New York University, Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts. He has exhibited game artworks at museums and galleries in the U.S. and abroad.
Atilla Salih Yucer
A Turkish national born in South Africa to UN diplomats, Atilla studied in England and France, before finishing his undergraduate degree at NYU’s film school. Through his production company in Turkey, Yaka Film, Atilla produced Stolen Eyes, a Turkish/Bulgarian co-production which won awards at international festivals such as Moscow, Sofia, Bergamo, and Monte Carlo. In Istanbul and New York, Atilla has produced and/or assistant directed more than 10 feature films, as well as dozens of commercials and music videos. He recently produced a series of concert films called Jazz Mix Festival for Mezzo television in France, and acted as co-producer and assistant director on the independent film Three Backyards, starring Edie Falco and Elias Koteas. Three Backyards was selected to compete at Sundance 2010. Currently, Atilla is co-producing a film with Lisa Muskat entitled Look, Stranger, starring Anamaria Marinca and Tom Burke.
Rocco Caruso has worked in film and television for more than 23 years. During those years, he has worked for Warner Bros., HBO, MTV, and XM Radio among others. He began his career as an associate producer on the PBS children’s program Shining Time Station, which starred Ringo Starr and introduced Thomas the Tank Engine to American children. As an independent film producer he produced director Eric Mendelsohn’s debut feature Judy Berlin, which won Best Director at Sundance, Best Independent Film at the Hamptons Film Festival, and was an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival. It was nominated for three Independent Spirit Awards one of which was for Best First Feature. Judy Berlin was named one of the Best Films of 2000 by The Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, and Paper Magazine. Rocco then produced director David Kaplan’s debut feature Year of the Fish, which was an Official Selection of the Sundance Film Festival. Year of the Fish won the Grand Jury Prize at the Avignon Film Festival and when it was released in September 2008, The New York Times called it a film full of “fantastical delights.” Rocco is currently in post-production on Eric Mendelsohn’s new film Three Backyards starring three-time Emmy winner Edie Falco.
Regan Mizrahi — Mystery child
Regan Mizrahi is from a family of three child actors. He earned his union card while still in diapers doing commercials. His present day job is playing the role of Boots the Monkey on the animated series Dora the Explorer. Other roles include appearances on SNL, MTV’s Human Giant, a handful of films, and dozens of television commercials. His most recent work includes Ice Age 3, two episodes of Rescue Me, and an iPhone application. His favorite work to date has been voicing numerous Wii computer games because then he gets to play them. He is presently filming the role of Little Brian in John Gray’s film White Irish Drinkers.
Max Baker — Psychiatrist
Baker has appeared in many films, including Revolutionary Road; Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest; Constantine; The Island; Life, or Something Like It; and The Time Machine.
Mark Pinter — Senator
Pinter has portrayed long-running characters on daytime television for all of the major networks, including Roger Smythe on All My Children and Grant Harrison in Another World, for which he received the Best Villain Award from Soap Opera Digest in 1996. In addition, he has guest-starred on primetime television series including Cold Case; Law and Order: SVU; Law and Order: CI; Charlie’s Angels; The Love Boat; Hart to Hart; and Hunter. Pinter made his motion picture debut in Norman Jewison’s Other People’s Money and starred in The Eden Myth for Hollywood Films. He had a featured role in Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky and can be seen in Eric Perlmutter’s indie feature Season of Youth. On stage, Pinter has performed on regional theater stages throughout the country including Book of Days for Arena Stage; Hamlet for the Old Globe; Charley’s Aunt for Carter Center Stage; Equus, Black Comedy, and The Shadow Box for Arizona Theatre Company; Victor/Victoria for North Shore Music Theatre; The Sound of Music for Syracuse Stage; Hello, Dolly! for Bucks County Playhouse; Follies for Little Theatre on the Square; and the world premiere of Courting the Muse for the White Barn Theatre, starring opposite Tony Award winner Lillias White. Off Broadway, Pinter starred as Stanford White in the New York premiere of Don Nigro’s My Sweetheart’s the Man in the Moon for the Hypothetical Theatre Company, as well as the world premiere of Three on a Couch at Soho Rep. Pinter directed the world premiere of Jonathan Bell’s Portraits, starring Roberta Maxwell and the late Dana Reeve. He also directed Charles Keating and Patrick Horgan in a revival of David Storey’s Home for the Wilton Playshop.
Jenn Harris — "Jenn"
Jenn Harris is currently understudying Julie White in The Understudy off Broadway. She has appeared in a number of productions off-Broadway, including: New Jerusalem; Modern Orthodox (Lucille Lortel Award & Theatre World Award); Mercy On The Doorstep; Ashley Montana Goes Ashore to the Caicos or What Am I Doing Here?. At the Berkshire Theatre Festival she has appeared in Pageant Play and The Heidi Chronicles. She has appeared in the feature films Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Last Will and Testament of Marlborough Patch; and the short A Plague of Tics (Cannes Film Festival 2003; Best Short Comedy at the New York Independent Film Festival). She has been seen on television in HBO’s Bored To Death, Law & Order, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and Guiding Light. She is a graduate of the Boston University School for the Arts, L.A.M.D.A., and The Second City (Chicago).
Jessie Austrian — "Jessie"
Austrian appeared in the off-Broadway production The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Roundabout Theatre Company. Her regional credits include Jane Eyre at the Guthrie Theater; My Fair Lady at Virginia Stage Company, Actors Theater of Louisville, and Cleveland Playhouse; The Mystery of Edwin Drood at Trinity Repertory Company; and Cabaret & Main at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Jessie is a founding company member and teaching artist with the NYC-based Fiasco Theater. She holds an MFA in acting from the Brown/Trinity Consortium.
Brian Berrebbi — Reporter
Brian Berrebbi is an actor/comedian/writer/ninja born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and currently a resident performer at The UCB Theater where he’s been in literally thousands of performances in runs of more than 70 shows. His TV credits include: Royal Pains; 30 Rock, The Unusuals, Important Things w/Demetri Martin; Michael and Michael Have Issues; and ImprovEverywhere (Pilot). His film credits include The Last Film Festival and The Winning Season. He was a contributing writer on MTV’S The Andy Milonakis Show. He’s most recognized from commercials for T-Mobile (“Secret Lovers”), and Mastercard, among many others. He loves comic books, minored in neuroscience, and owns a set of nunchuks. His proudest accomplishment however is creating the phrase "Coleslawesome" which didn’t catch on at all.
Gregory K. Korostishevsky — Waiter
Gregory K. Korostishevsky emigrated from Russia (former Soviet Union). After partially recovering from culture shock and spending a great deal of time learning English, Gregory finally resumed his acting/comedy career in America. He has appeared on various TV shows including NBC’s Ed, 30 Rock, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien. He has done numerous national commercials for Amstel Light, Domino’s Pizza, Vitamin Water, Verizon, Geico, Sprint (Superbowl spot), and voice-over work for the video games Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV. Gregory appeared in several movies including From Other Worlds (directed by Burry Strugats), Cold Souls (starring Paul Giamatti), and Today’s Special (directed by David Kaplan).
Graham Douglass — Assistant
Douglass has appeared onstage at the Beijing Institute of World Theatre and Film in King Lear. He appeared off-Broadway in Hardball; at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Wing It: A New Musical, Late-Night Cabaret (directed by Malcolm Gets) and 365 Plays/Days. At the Unity Theatre he appeared in The Gift of the Magi; The Hypochondriac; Cabaret, Anything Goes; Big River; Godspell; On Golden Pond; and Lost in Yonkers. His film credits include Suicide Dog Cracker, Diogenes & Dionysus, and the upcoming Linus Lovely. He holds a BFA from Syracuse University.
Ying-Yu Tan — "Kaori"
Ying is an actress, dancer, and artist from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She appeared at the Flux Factory in Long Island City with Superhero Clubhouse, playing the role of Girl in Neptune, loosely adapted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Most recently she was seen as a dancer in The Boxman, directed by Kathryn Hamilton at the SITI Company Studio; Going After Cacciato with Working Man’s Clothes Productions at the June Havoc Theatre; and as part of the "Teen Army" in 13P’s production of Monstrosity at the Connelly Theater. She can be seen as Lila in the upcoming film Rooftop in Brooklyn, directed by Devin Burnam. She is also currently working on a dance piece, as well as directing a short with The Dry Wall Project.
Noriko Sato — "Noriko"
Noriko is originally from Japan. She started acting in Japan as a member of a school comedy troupe, then had acting training in Canada, Virginia, and Maryland. She has played a variety of roles such as an action heroine (Lana in Double Edge and Crimson Cat in Ultra Heroix), school girl (Yoko in March!), and many more. She is an accomplished basketball player and was featured in the film The Winning Season.
Buzz Bovshow — Reporter
Buzz Bovshow previously appeared in David Kaplan’s films Year of the Fish and 7 to the Palace. Other film and television credits include John Adams, Anything But Love, Sex & the City, and several appearances in the Law & Order franchise.
Sylvia Kauders — “Doris”
Kauders has appeared in the films The Wrestler, Analyze That, American Splendor, Judy Berlin, Manhattan Murder Mystery, This is My Life, Crimes & Misdemeanors, and Witness. Her theater credits include Torch Song Trilogy, Tale of the Allergist, Crossing Delancey, and Square Root of Three.
Akira Tokyo — “Akira”
Akira is a theatre student living in New York City. She mainly performs as a singer.