The Feedback: Jane Wagner’s ‘Break the Game’
Narcissa Wright is best known for breaking the world record for speedrunning The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in 2014. Speedrunning, the practice of using glitches in a game to bypass huge segment sections and play through the entire game as quickly as possible, has a huge online fan base and viewership on Twitch, a popular live-streaming platform.
In 2015, filmmaker Jane Wagner was playing Ocarina of Time on her N64. When she couldn't beat a boss, she turned to Youtube for help. Watching video after video, she stumbled across something interesting: speedrunning and, eventually, Narcissa, who had come out as a transgender woman the month prior. Before the 2017 release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Narcissa announced she would attempt another world record for speedrunning. Jane had an epiphany: she had to make a film.
Starting out as a sports comeback narrative, Break the Game became a deeply moving, personal journey of a woman struggling, growing, and opening up in an often volatile digital space. With stunning 8-bit animation, cinematic sequences from Breath of the Wild, and the Twitch stream itself as a framing device, the film is a new kind of immersive screenlife experience that takes you deep into Narcissa's world of streaming and gives you the feeling that you are watching everything live.
The film was part of IDA's 2022 DocuClub LA season and our first in-person screening at Film Independent's screening room since the beginning of the pandemic. In addition to the public screening and feedback session, DocuClub filmmakers teamed up with edit consultants to help them incorporate the feedback they received.
Break the Game had its world premiere at Tribeca in June and its Los Angeles premiere at Outfest a month later. The film is still seeking distribution. Before Outfest, Jane sat down with Documentary at a bustling coffee shop to share her experience making the film, collaborating with Narcissa and D-Gurl, how her DocuClub experience influenced her, and the mental health impact campaign she's spearheading. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
DOCUMENTARY: What did your collaboration with Narcissa look like?
JANE WAGNER: I think we both wanted to do something really meaningful creatively, her with her stream and her speedrun and me trying to make a film. She asked me if she would be able to weigh in on the film. I didn't know what was considered appropriate at the time, having not made a film. I had heard from so many people: "Subjects should not be able to have any say in how they're portrayed." I did some reading and saw that, especially when you're making a film about someone from a more marginalized community, listening to their input is the right thing to do. One thing that was really important for that moment was setting Narcissa up with mental health support so that she wasn't re-traumatized by the process of watching the film. I brought on a mental health supervisor to talk to her, prepare her for that experience and be there for her if she needed someone else to talk to.
The decision to use the streams so heavily in the films was to very intentionally honor her role as a filmmaker. She's the one who filmed and captured all those streams. I think that makes the film really authentic and genuine. When I first started, a lot of advisors said, "You can't tell a movie about someone who's on the computer all the time. That's not cinematic. You have to find ways to get her off the computer." I did everything I could to make the film more "cinematic," but it turned out the most cinematic thing was just to let it be what it actually was. It becomes just a new form of cinema, a new definition of the word cinematic.
Narcissa decided not to attend the premiere or be involved in the press for her mental health. I imagine it could be very traumatic to sit through repeated screenings of some of the worst times of your life. I think filmmakers should really listen to what their protagonists need when it comes to releasing a film.
D: Can you tell me about the DocuClub screening?
JW: DocuClub really transformed the film. Seeing the audience respond to the scenes in the stream, follow along and laugh or sigh made it clear that those scenes were working so well. That's where the film was really most itself. We still had some vérité footage and interviews with Narcissa at the top of the film, but seeing it on the big screen, it became very clear that it was not serving the film. After the screening, I talked to one of the editors, Stephanie Andreou. We both came to the conclusion at the same time that it just needed to be the stream until it wasn't the stream. That completely changed the DNA of the film and made it so much stronger.
D: One of the things that came up in the feedback session after was there being confusion around the beginning montage on what speedrunning was. People also wanted more from Narcissa's relationship with her mom. What was it like hearing that feedback, and then how did it shape how you approach those things moving forward?
JW: You'd think the easiest part of making this film would be explaining speedrunning, but I think we devoted more time to trying different ways to explain it than anything else. There was a stream where Narcissa attempted to make a video highlighting her past in anticipation of Breath of the Wild coming out. I'd always thought there was some way to use that, but it felt too meta. Once the decision was made that the film would be in the stream, it seemed like the absolute most natural way to explain her past and speedrunning was through Narcissa. We ended up relying on the stream's chat to literally explain speedrunning in a very common way on a stream. If you're just popping in, you might say, "What is this?" Then, other people in the chat will fill in the gaps.
Another result of making the film very much on the stream was that we had her going through photos of her mom and utilizing the home video footage in a way that I think was very successful in making her mom into more of a character.
D: What was it like working with Daniel Garber, your edit consultant?
JW: Dan was the perfect person, I think, for this film. He had some knowledge of streaming culture. He's worked in both documentary and narrative, which I thought was really great for this film since I didn't want to be stuck in traditional modes of documentary filmmaking. He was very empathetic towards Narcissa. Beyond our formal feedback sessions, he was there for me as a resource.
There was an incident after production on the film ended where Narcissa was back on Twitch, and a viewer trolled her into showing a graphic image on her stream, which led her to be banned. She had a meltdown on Twitter and tweeted, "I wanted to kill myself and people at Twitch HQ." Within five minutes, she deleted the tweet because she knew it was wrong. I talked to her about it, and she was very remorseful. She thinks that her being banned was justified. She saw the tweet as a form of self-harm.
Many people suggested that I include the fact that she made this tweet at the end of the film. I tried it out in the form of an epilogue with cards and some footage, and in my gut, I didn't think that it necessarily needed to be in the film because the film didn't shy away from showing Narcissa as a fully-fledged human character who makes mistakes and doesn't always do the right thing. The film, to me, was very much set in a very specific time and ended with Narcissa, as she says, returning to level one. We don't know what she's going to do from there, but it's a moment of some hope and a restart to use the gaming term.
I emailed Dan Garber and said, "There's something I need to talk to you about. Can you watch the end of the film again with this new epilogue?" He quickly got on the phone with me, and we had a really long discussion about Narcissa's tweet. He asked if I thought that there was any sense that it was a credible threat, and I said, "No, absolutely not." I decided to take the epilogue out, and I'm extremely pleased with that decision.
D: Also, let's talk about the festival experience.
JW: We had our premiere at Tribeca, which was extremely exciting and felt like a really great fit for the film because Tribeca has a section of their program for games and immersive. We could connect with a larger gaming audience and film lovers audience. All of our screenings pretty much sold out. We got a standing ovation at our first screening, which was really powerful. After the second screening, I got a DM from someone in the audience who is big in the Breath of the Wild community who said that they felt the film was a really authentic portrayal of streamer culture and this speedrunning community. That really meant a lot to me.
At the same time, my mom brought a posse of her friends to one of our screenings, and beforehand I told her, "This friend won't like it. This friend won't like it. This friend's just coming because they've known me my whole life." I was shocked that they loved the film for real. They weren't BSing me and were struck by the human element and the relationship between Narcissa and D-Gurl. That really came through for them and helped guide them into the new space.
D: Can you tell me about the panels you've been putting together at the festivals?
JW: We did a panel called "Break the Game / Break the Stigma: Mental Health and Identity in the Digital Landscape," where we had a representative from an awesome organization called Take This, which serves the mental health of online gamers and helps provide resources. We had another streamer called Mxiety, a mental health advocate who destigmatizes mental health in the gaming space on her stream. We had Alex Eastley, aka D-Gurl. The panel was moderated by Liz Ryerson, who I met through Narcissa. She writes on games, is a game designer and a game composer, teaches games—she does all the games things. It was a wonderful conversation about what it's like to be a streamer, to engage in parasocial relationships, and how it affects streamer mental health. We talked about experiences of online harassment, cyberbullying, what to do, and what resources are available.
Since the film is so entrenched in Narcissa's singular perspective, it was important for me to show a more intersectional view of gamers and expand the conversation of mental health so we can also see people in the LGBTQ community who are gamers who are thriving. We also discussed how platforms like Twitch could be held more accountable for supporting marginalized creators.
We're trying to do similar panels at other festivals. We want to take this film to gamers and provide a forum for discussion and access to resources tailored specifically toward online people. There's the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, but that can be a huge step for someone to take when most of their interactions are in the digital world. Something like the Games and Online Harassment Hotline—where you can get help through text—can be a much easier step for someone to take when they need help.
In addition, we hope that parents who might see the film can engage in more understanding conversations with their children or gamers in their life. There needs to be more of a sense of what's possible within the space and what some of the pitfalls are.
Gabriella Ortega Ricketts is an archival producer and actress living in Los Angeles with her partner and their three cats, Hank, Duke, and Archie. At IDA, she is the manager of artist programs and a proud member of the union Documentary Workers United. In her spare time, she paints and bakes pies. Recently, she's taken up attempting to sew.