Benjamin Ree’s Ibelin tells a sad and inspiring story on a level that can be summarized in two sentences.
That doesn’t make it less sad or less inspiring, and it doesn’t make its core message any less important. But if you’re already aware that the virtual spaces created by networked gaming are, indeed, valid and even valuable ways of forging social relationships, there isn’t much additional insight.
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Are there still people who think that networked games are just games, and that a guild of pixelated players has no ties in real life? Of course. It’s just hard to imagine that audience wanting a documentary to teach them — much less at Sundance, where similar topics are bog standard, and especially not with the excessively straightforward, if sometimes slightly (but not hugely) visually innovative, approach that Ree takes to Mats Steen’s story.
The two sentences: Mats died at the age of 25 from Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an inherited degenerative neuromuscular disease. Mats’ grieving parents worried that their son had spent his last years in lonely isolation playing video games — under the name “Ibelin” — until they posted about his death on his blog and began to hear how much he had meant to so many people.
The core problem with Ibelin (which was picked up by Netflix out of the festival) is that Ree thinks the audience needs to be pushed to the same revelation as Mats’ parents: that games like World of Warcraft aren’t just people in individual bubbles killing dragons, but fully connected town squares in which genuine and nurturing bonds can form; that the identities people present in those spaces can mirror, but also transcend or correct, their real-world identities.
If you need that proven to you, Ibelin‘s team of digital animators uses 42,000 pages of recorded and transcribed in-game dialogue and descriptions to create the contrast that was Mats/Ibelin’s life — real footage vs. reenactments.
Mats’ parents, Robert and Trude, documented his journey from energetic child to the series of specialized wheelchairs in which he spent his last years. I doubt disability activists are going to feel kindly about the way the home movie footage is presented as tragedy, a series of happy events — parties, field trips, weddings — that Mats could be present at, but never fully a part of.
In World of Warcraft, though, Mat’s character could combat fierce adversaries and be a leader to legions of dedicated friends. Ibelin was apparently a detective, but as reproduced in the documentary’s animated sequences, he spent a lot of time running laps around the game, hanging in virtual pubs and engaging in virtual flirtations. You might have been fooled into thinking World of Warcraft is an elaborate and epic fantasy game with quests and monsters and magic, but as presented in Ibelin, it’s closer to a hybrid chatroom/dating app/therapy session.
The animation is accompanied by narrated readings from Mats’ blog and interviews with a few key people from Ibelin’s life in the game, including a woman he romanced and a mother and autistic son whose relationship he helped improve. These people knew nothing about Mats’ corporeal existence and everything about what he meant to them.
“We assumed they were peripheral acquaintances,” Robert says in the documentary.
As Ibelin presents it, Robert and Trude were caring and attentive parents who somehow had no concept of what it meant that their son was playing a game for 20,000 hours in the last decade of his life. It’s a gap I wish the documentary tried to reconcile.
The film is very invested in proving the validity of the social relationships created in virtual space. To me, that’s the easy part. Video games can absolutely be nourishing and substantive and healthy. And I’m not even sure Ibelin confirms that in a smart way. The suggestion that Mats developed great empathy because his condition made him an outsider and an observer may be true, but as analysis it’s surely reductive.
I was more fascinated by the gaps between real life and the game, rather than the overlaps. Ree is less interested in grappling with the prickly and non-heroic parts of Mats — the actual human stuff — that emerged in the game at times. There’s really no sense of what Mats’ parents thought about World of Warcraft and their son’s obsession with it, and what effort they did or didn’t put into understanding it.
It’s hard to know what Ibelin’s online friends thought about the real person behind the avatar and whether it was or wasn’t notable how little they truly knew about him. The mother and son whom Ibelin helped are easily the best part of the documentary; they offer a more concrete vision of how online interactions can have real-world impact. I’d have gladly traded 10 minutes of Ibelin drinking beer and running for a couple more, and more illustrative, examples of his gaming relationships.
The last 10 minutes of Ibelin are its most powerful, but they’re mostly just filmed footage from Mats’ memorial. They made me teary and underlined the documentary’s key emotional points. But at the same time, they made me even more convinced that it was the story that packed the punch and not really the documentary.
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