At Several Points, The For Honor Documentary Is Incredibly Sad

There's several moments in Playing Hard, a documentary on Netflix about the making of Ubisoft's third-person brawler, For Honor, where the process of making games seems irrevocably and almost permanently broken.

It's a documentary that is told through personality, mostly through the lead designers and directors. The documentary debuted at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto last year, but it only hit Australian Netflix this month. It's a story about what happens to the people over the course of development, and what happens to the relationships of people throughout that process.

It's a story about limits, and what happens when those limits are broken.

Image: Netflix

The For Honor documentary came about after filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier noticed that Ubisoft started to dominate his part of Montreal. Chartier pitched the idea to Ubisoft Montreal's communications department, but was initially rebuffed. A second meeting with Luc Duchaine, who would go on to be For Honor's brand manager, got Chartier in the door, and eventually he was allowed to spend 8 months shooting inside the Ubisoft offices.

The project started, in effect, with a meeting between Jason VandenBerghe and producer Stephane Cardin. Cardin's previous project had just been canned, and he'd convinced Ubisoft to give his team another six months to work on another proposal. If they didn't like it, they'd go work on one of Ubisoft's existing IPs.

But Cardin needed a director. Along came VandenBerghe with a wooden sword, a sword he'd made when he was 14, and a dream.

That was how the relationship between For Honor's creative director and producer began.

An early prototype of For Honor's fighting system.

There's a time jump in the documentary, because the team became uncomfortable with Chartier's presence. So after the early bits of footage, back in 2013 when the game was called Hero and Ubisoft Montreal had just greenlit the project, the film spends most of its time between 2016 and For Honor's release in February 2017.

Perhaps the biggest change between those periods is how philosophical - optimistic, even - VandenBerghe is. Early on, there's scenes featuring the veteran director talking about his affiliation with multiple religions growing up. He waxes lyrical about the potential for fantasy to speak truths about the human condition. He speaks about watching shows with a purpose, trying to absorb the message being delivered "like it was a piece of philosophy".

"Anyone who is interested in how the world works will also be interested in violence, because violence is a natural consequence of conflict," VandenBerghe says in his lounge room, as the camera pans to plushies and pieces of art on the walls.

It's a remarkable mental state to portray, particularly given considering VandenBerghe was let go just before For Honor shipped.

Not long after For Honor gets approved as one of Ubisoft's new IPs, VandenBerghe stands on top of a table and calls out to the team. "Remember, we're in this together," he says.

And from the documentary's lens, that's where things start to fall down. It's worth remembering that we see this primarily through VandenBerghe's point of view, with the occasional interjections from Cardin and Yannis Mallat, the managing director of Ubisoft Montreal.

But they're not the main driving forces here. For VandenBerghe, For Honor is the game he's wanted to make for over 15 years. It's a story that gets told ad nauseum, one that was told repeatedly around the game's announcement at E3 2015.

After that point is when For Honor really starts to grow. Instead of VandenBerghe being the primary creative vision, For Honor's creative team gains a structure. Over five studios worldwide join the project. Around 500 staffers get involved.

"I no longer have the time to explain to the people whose feelings I've hurt what I've meant," he explains. "Something about the way that I act and the way that I talk communicates to them that they're in danger. And I scare people."

VandenBerghe gave a GDC talk about how For Honor was pitched at GDC 2017, after For Honor's release.

Because VandenBerghe is the central narrative force, Playing Hard becomes consumed by how he handles the pressure and stress. A separation begins to grow between him and senior leadership, with mentions of VandenBerghe being difficult to work with. It's never openly mentioned as to why VandenBerghe is a hard boss, but we're shown the occasional frustrations during meetings, conflicts that blossom into small arguments, and VandenBerghe retreats more and more into the game's narrative.

We're given a lot of information that hints towards the kind of game For Honor could have been. The game was understaffed for a significant period. A lack of staff on the game's multiplayer meant that people had to be pulled off other features that were developed, including the split-screen functionality that was pitched early on.

"I've had seven resignations in the past few weeks," Cardin said, as the film cuts to a developer's desktop background that simply reads, "Don't Panic."

As Cardin clashes with Duchaine, VanderBerghe admits his retreat into the narrative.

"I've given up control of over 90% of this game by this point," he says.

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There's all-in meeting, where leadership is promising the For Honor team that conditions will change. "The thing I'm asking you is to open your mind and work closely with us to make it happen," he says. "Please stop [being] negative, saying nothing will change. We will again make things change internally, and I will work my ass very hard to make sure we have a healthy environment and a healthy calendar for everyone."

Shortly thereafter in the film, Cardin takes a sudden leave of absence for an "intense therapy retreat". "My command centre just shut down," he says during a company-wide meeting.

"I woke up, and I was not able to just think."

Amidst this, VanderBerghe talks about separating from his baby. He speaks about a depression that's almost identical to the depression mentioned by Hello Games' founder Sean Murray. Murray spoke a lot about how a developer's happiness often peaked at the beginning of a project, and it was often at its worst by the time a game had launched.

At one point, VandenBerghe attends a longsword class. His tutor asks if he needed the stress relief, knowing he was still working on For Honor.

"Did you fire yourself," the tutor says.

"I'm done. They no longer care about my opinion," VandenBerghe replies.

Of course, Far Honor was far from done.

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I hesitate to call Playing Hard a great documentary, or even a good one, if only because it raises more questions than it answers. For a documentary that spent so much time on the ground floor - at least two years, if you consider the footage recorded before and after its E3 reveal - there's a surprising lack of input from other figures. Not one female developer is interviewed on the project. Other leads that worked with VandenBerghe, ones that could at least have shed light on what the working conditions were like, or the harshness of understaffing, are not shown.

The game mentions For Honor's live beta, which was undeniably broken. The peer-to-peer matchmaking caused immense problems for the quality of games, with dedicated servers not introduced until over a year after the game's release. Playing Hard is not a documentary about games, but it also didn't touch on some of the team's worst moments either. Those difficulties are hinted at, but never fully revealed or addressed.

Most of the torment belongs to VandenBerghe, culminating in a semi-confrontation with Ubisoft Montreal CEO Yannis Mallat at a celebration party for For Honor's launch. "I'm not going to be invited back, and the reasons for that are not OK with me," he says, surrounded by people.

"The parts of my personality that I am currently being told are the reason that I need to go are the same parts of my personality that made me the best choice and the reason that they gave me that team," VandenBerghe says.

"I won't work on the sequel, I won't do another, I won't continue with this team," he says, alone at the top of some snowy fields.

In real life, VandenBerghe took a sabbatical for a few months before being convinced to join ArenaNet. "I won't be making games directly any more - I'll be studio level, shepherding teams and growing people," VandenBerghe wrote on Facebook.

Given everything, I'm surprised he's still working in games at all.

Playing Hard is available on Australian Netflix now.


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