Any medium–whether literature, film, television or videogames—can be read through the lens of “discrete, interlocking units” of meaning, cultural video game critic Ian Bogost notes in his book Unit Operations. What this means, in other words, is that we can interpret the sounds, images, and movements of video games like we do shots in films and that they can tell us about our culture and ourselves. Xin Jiang’s Out of the Game takes this idea one step further. Live-action film and video games are intercut with each other as the film follows the life of a young game designer Ilya Zarembesky. We see the designer hang out in his apartment, pick out clothes, and awkwardly reconnect with his design partner, a young woman that he used to date and is still in love with. Jiang claims the film is a documentary. If so, it echoes the irony of sophisticated documentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop, or, at the very least, Catfish. Ilya is so flat–so utterly unaware of himself–that he is almost a video game character himself.
Out of the Game begins with Ilya’s voice-over describing how “effort is always rewarded” as the film shows a series of two-dimensional games. Ilya claims that one only must go through a series of steps, multiple times if necessary, to advance to the next year. The game designer, however, appears stuck in status. He plays games, watches TV, eats chips from his bed, and fiddles around on his computer. Slowly, a thread emerges: he loves his design partner and she’s amazing. They are going to meet up in Barcelona for a convention, and at first Out of the Game looks like it may be a cute re(meet) story of geek love. However, through Ilya’s story, the truth emerges; the two have dated, and she’s not going to marry someone else. His love for her becomes increasingly unnerving as the story progresses. When we finally see them together, collecting a prize for their tech in Barcelona, she seems awkward and uncomfortable. Her smile is a grimace. At the end of the film, Ilya goes through a box of mementos of her, sadly claiming that love is what it is.
The film’s brilliance lies in the absolute lack of depth. Ilya’s life appears absolutely two-dimensional. His white walls, Ikea furniture, and sterile apartment are almost devoid of personality. Moreover, we need no other friends, intimates, or outside activities. Ilya instead spends his time parsing the meaning of screen shot his colleague took and trying on banal t-shirts. Even his mementos of his love are flat: ticket stubs and waste paper. We see him trying to create an image of depth by filming his introduction for the Barcelona competition over and over, but he just says the same introductory phrases. Out of the Game works because it threads flat videogames seamlessly into contemporary life, and in doing so may show how the algorithms and images of video games speak to contemporary millennial life.