February 21st, 1986, an action/fantasy RPG-like game released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) called The Legend of Zelda. Unlike the console’s mascot, the Italian plumber Mario, who jumped, stomped, and power-uped his way through one obstacle or another on a side-scrolling quest through eight worlds with four levels each, Zelda featured a hero named Link, equipped with a sword and shield and able to utilize other weaponry as he traversed his own 2D landscape filled with puzzles and/enemies both above ground and below in a journey to restore a piece of mythical object known as the Triforce so as to defeat a dark wizard, Ganon, rescue Zelda, and restore the country of Hyrule. Since 1986, there have been many entries into the Zelda series, each one bringing with it a new Link as the bearer of the Triforce of Courage, each one changing the way one approaches this long-running series. For some gamers, the announcement of a new Zelda game means a new opportunity to explore a fantastical realm. For Narcissa Wright, a trans gamer, the announcement of 2017 The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, developed for both Nintendo Switch and Wii U, a return to Hyrule meant an opportunity to restore herself to a glory she’d had for some time and lost when she transitioned. Using footage Narcissa captured over six years, first-time feature director Jane M. Wagner presents Break the Game, a documentary that explores the world recording-holding Twitch streamer and the struggle to come to terms with life as it is versus the fantasy we imagine it to be.
Though one doesn’t need to be a gamer in order to understand Break the Game, there are some aspects to know to make it easier to follow within the framework of the documentary.
First, this is Breath of the Wild per the 2017 Nintendo Switch presentation.
Second, to “break” a game has a few meanings. In game design, breaking the game mean that it won’t function as intended either because something is overpowered, underpowered, or generally doesn’t operate within the perimeters of intention. This can result in something as large as a full-on crash of the software because the code doesn’t know what to do, getting stuck in a space because you’re not able to progress in the game due to doing something the game wasn’t designed for you to do, or, as is the case here, finding and exploiting the code in order to beat the game in a manner not intended.
Third, speedrunning. This is just what it sounds like and, within the framework of gaming, means to get through a game as quickly as possible by any means possible. To some, the idea of speedrunning a game may be ridiculous, but the same psychological mechanism that turned kicking a ball into a net, passing a puck across ice, or chucking a shotput into the peak of athleticism, did the same for video games and speedrunning. Narcissa Wright, prior to her transition, held the world record for speedrunning two different Zelda games, Paper Mario on the Wii, and Castlevania 64 on the Nintendo 64. As shown in the documentary, Narcissa was someone who drew a crowd. But, by the time we meet her, she can barely pull triple-digits on her Twitch stream.
Now, Wagner smartly explains the above things fairly well, sometimes overtly by providing definitions, sometimes passively by allowing the audience to watch as Narcissa signs into Twitch and starts a chat up, wherein the chat serves as the documentary audience’s surrogate. But making sure that one understands the vocabulary matters before delving into the heartbreaking nature of the documentary as a whole. Not because there’s something inherently sad about someone seeking to reclaim former glory (that’s a staple narrative tool in traditional features), but by understanding the terms and concepts, by understanding the drive that Narcissa feels and the world in which she professionally is trying to return, the easier it is not to see the trials as something to look down upon, as though what she’s trying to achieve doesn’t require some form of athletic skill. Thus, when the stream starts picking up viewers, we rally with her, and when it drops, a pit forms in our stomachs in solidarity. However, the drama isn’t just from whether or not Narcissa breaks the record. That would be interesting but hard to convey via the mostly “screenlife” presentation. Instead, slowly Wagner unpacks what Break the Game is really about, Narcissa’s self-imposed isolation due to the perceived social rejection she’s received since she was a child making her vulnerable to parasocial relationships that only exacerbate her rejection sensitivity.
The official summary states that Break the Game is about following her journey to grab the world record again, but that’s just the hook. What we slowly realize is the documentary highlights the inherent connection people need and the way online interactions mimic but don’t replace the real thing, while also exploring the ways in which a person clinging to the past prevents them from enjoying the present or, at worst, having a future. The majority of the documentary is presented mostly in a genre that’s become known as “screenlife,” wherein everything takes place within what a computer camera sees. As we learn at the start of the film, Narcissa shared years-worth of material with Wagner and that footage gets doled out through the very clear period of the film. What this means is that much of what we see is Narcissa on-screen, her chat box in one place, and whatever game she’s playing. Sometimes Wagner brings portions of the chat box, just a screen name and what they said, up to the center, focusing in on comments either supportive or negative, depending on what’s occurring. Considering that sometimes the chat area is populating so fast that the audience may not be able to read it, this tactic ensures that the audience sees exactly what Wagner thinks is important to the moment. What it also does is utilize the visual vocabulary of the gaming world to highlight how the users connect with one another. Through several sprite-based animations (evoking that classic Zelda style), Wagner takes Narcissa’s dialogue and punches it up, making it come off as grander, as though her desire to be back on top of the Zelda world is a divine mission. These animated sequences also soften the more painful moments by helping to create a separation between Narcissa the person and Narcissa the player. Interestingly, it’s this division, this schism in herself that ends up being what’s explored, the quest being the way in to the conversation of who they are and what they are if they’re unable to score the world record. As long as the viewer takes the conceit of video games-as-sport seriously, there’s little doubt that even the average viewer won’t root for Narcissa. The thing is, when one lives online, there is no such thing as average, there is only the empathic, the trolls, and those who take advantage.
By the end of Break the Game, it really doesn’t matter whether Narcissa achieves the world record or not. What matters is whether or not she can face her life as it is, rather than hold on to what it was. A new game in a beloved series that she’s connected to brings with it the promise of rebirth. What a beautiful and hopeful idea that is. But what if it turns to ash because the world is not always kind to outsiders when they’re straight, let alone part of the LGBTQIA+ community, and the anonymity of social media enables the worst of the worst to say and do whatever they like without concern for the real people on the other end of the stream. In fictional stories, the hero is the hero because they sacrifice themselves for the sake of others. But the parasocial dynamic of live-streaming creates a false sense of supportive symbiosis, when it’s far more fair weather. Narcissa Wright is a person and Wagner never loses sight of that whether using old home videos, present day phone calls, live-stream recordings, or in-the-moment footage. With delicacy and care, Wagner presents a tale of a warrior on one last mission who doesn’t realize that what she’s fighting for isn’t built on ones and zeroes, but blood and bone. Link isn’t real and neither is Hyrule, but Narcissa is and the value of that is only found if she herself can learn how to break her own code.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.