Transcript of our podcast from 15 July 2008

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Games in Popular Culture Part I: Cloak and Dagger

by Moritz Eggert

Hi my friends, with this segment I am going to start a series of short features on the impact of gaming in the rest of popular culture - how it is perceived, how it is depicted, and how it sometimes turns up as a theme where you least expect it.

I will start by talking about a Hollywood film from 1984, a film that features gaming in a more detailed than usual way. Our listener Raphael Tehan, a screenplay writer by vocation, has thankfully alerted me to this film as a unique gamer movie, and I have to admit that I have never heard of this film as it apparently was never thought good enough by it's producers to be shown in Germany. Or is it the other way round? Never mind...

The film's name is "Cloak and Dagger", directed by Richard Franklin after a screenplay by Cornel Woolrich and Tom Holland from Fright Night fame, featuring a very young Henry Thomas fresh from his success as Eliot in Spielberg's E.T. and the impeccably acting Dabney Coleman, one of Hollywood's most underrated and versatile actors who appeared in uncountable major films or TV shows since 1963. It also features Bill Forsythe as a gamer nerd who looks pretty much like Weird Pete from Knights of the Dinner Table, complete with coke bottle glasses. He gets killed before the first reel is over of course.

In short the film tells the story of an impressionable 11-year old boy, Davey, who spends his time daydreaming in various gaming worlds after the death of his mother. Through a curious turn of events he accidentally gets in possession of secret government information with blueprints of a stealth bomber which has been weirdly hidden in a gaming cartridge of an Atari console game called "Cloak and Dagger". Suddenly he finds himself in situations from his spy role-playing game, hunted by thugs and spies from the other side, only that they are now for real.

The film starts very strangely, with Dabney Coleman playing Davey's imaginary role-playing hero in an attack on a Moscow Embassy which looks like it has been rebuilt in San Antonio, where the action actually later takes place. He kicks some guard butt, kills some evil henchmen and a dame threatening him with a revolver, only to be found trapped in a dead end alley - with two huge giant 12-sided dice rolling towards him like the stone trap in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

Sure enough we find out that all this has just been a roleplaying session by young Davey and his even younger girlfriend, who are playing some kind of spy role playing game in the back room of the "Game Keeper", the realistically depicted games store of the movie complete with Weird Pete Owner sitting in the background and slaving away at a computer game. Two facts immediately strike any experienced gamer as odd - first, they are playing without a Referee - remember: Weird Pete goggle eye is actually not involved in their game session. What is this - Free Style Roleplaying? It certainly looks like that, because Davey uses no miniatures to depict the action but huge life-size GI Joe dolls and giant size props. Very weird! Davey then declares that he just rolled a "24" with his 2 12 sided dice and therefore made his skill roll for survival, which is incidentally also Level 24. What a weird game this must be where you have to roll exactly the number of your skill on 2 12-sided dice to succeed, a 1 in 144 chance as Geoff Engelstein can surely tell you.

On the plus side for the film the game store actually looks very realistic, with the right assortment of games for the time - they probably used a real life store for that. Also the computer game "Cloak and Dagger" is realistically created and actually looks like a typical console game of the time, certainly better than the legendarily dreadful E.T. game which later sunk Atari forever.

In a later scene the father of Davey confronts him in his room to take away his games. The father is also played by Dabney Coleman, which creates some strange oedipal subtext in the film - come on, who ever played a roleplaying game to represent his own father? That is definitely very creepy if your father is not called Conan the Barbarian.

But the games his father takes from him are clearly visible and here Hollywood got it right - he is clutching the 2nd edition of Traveller the SF role playing game, a copy of "Top Secret", TSR's espionage roleplaying game which could have been the game the kids were playing at the beginning, and - lo and behold - Blitzkrieg by Avalon Hill, a game which indeed was many a young wargamer's first foray into the hobby. So the production designer got it right here!

I won't go into the latter half of the film, which is pretty drab by the numbers family film fare with very toned down violence in which thugs shoot at our hero from 2 meters with a silencer and miss him, and in which Davey seemingly crosses from fantastic to real threats without batting an eyelid or suffering severe emotional damage like any normal kid would. But the first half is a feast for any nostalgic gamers' eyes - a nearly unblemished look at gaming culture in the early 80's.

Next episode I'm going to talk about a film in which Paul Newman plays a boardgame for more than 2 hours while wearing a fur and a silly hat - I'm not kidding.

For now I am bathing in the glory of my correct Spiel des Jahres prediction, 4 player glorified Racko "Keltis" - and will predict the 100% Deutscher Spielepreis Winner, which will be: "Stone Age". You can bet on it!

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2008, Westpark Gamers