As season 2 is coming out, I finally took time today to watch all of Video Game High School (VGHS) season 1, a web series by the folks at the freddiew YouTube channel (among others, including some 5 Second Films regulars). And I have some thoughts on its strengths and weaknesses, as well as my motivations for being a Kickstarter backer for both seasons.
The series takes place in a world where video games are the most popular sport, and the best gamers land a coveted spot in a prestigious academy, like VGHS. This backdrop provides a platform for matches with cheering crowds, television interviews with pros, and, in general, an embracing of video games as interesting, worthwhile competition. It treats gaming seriously. Far more seriously than we perhaps should in reality, but it is a breath of fresh air.
The story follows freshman Brian D (Josh Blaylock), an FPS gamer with serious talent, looking to be a champion player and facing all the common high school challenges that get in his way, with video game twists. His love interest, Jenny Matrix (Johanna Braddy), is JV captain and is dating his rival, varsity captain Law (Brian Firenzi). He is often berated by dean Calhoun (Harley Morenstein), but has two supportive friends, Ted Wong (Jimmy Wong) and Ki Swan (Ellary Porterfield).
Let’s start out with the strengths of the series. The action and special effects are of course fantastic. This is what the freddiew YouTube channel is known for. Action scenes included fighting and racing games, but the focus were the many lengthy action sequences played between FPS gamers. They rarely felt boring or tedious, usually having some interesting twist to spice up the combat. The infrangible Law participating in any battle always makes for an entertaining time.
The sound design is also of note. Sound effects for shootouts sounded crisp as always and further established the organic element among the virtual deaths and damage. One particular episode used multiple Protomen tracks, which delighted me. Protomen is a band not dissimilar to Queen in sound, and concept-album oriented. Their two most popular albums explore a dystopian interpretation of the Megaman story and universe.
So with that in mind, it goes without saying that the creators of this series are clearly knowledgeable, passionate video game enthusiasts. This is evident through the art direction, effects, sound, and pieces of the characters and writing. References to real games, lingo, and terminology are purposeful and not tacked-on, paying homage to the culture. (I relished the showcasing of different gaming genres and giving each their time to shine.) Some actions in virtual space use real video game mechanics as plot devices, like BrianD being AFK during a match, overcoming a malfunctioning keyboard, or being spawn camped. These are situations gamers understand and experience, and it is refreshing to see their inclusion.
But there were rockier aspects of VGHS. The writing and acting were funny and clever at best, cringeworthy at worst. There were numerous moments in the series that literally made me lol! Virtually every moment with Calhoun was great, and some of the other, likely more veteran actors consistently sold their characters. But the freshman didn’t do it so much: some lines felt clunky or were written in a way to make them difficult to be taken seriously. I had trouble celebrating BrianD’s dance-off victory, for example, and became frustrated at the numerous times he is annoyingly silent when others are taking advantage of him.
The story overall was quite turbulent. BrianD rockets back and forth from popularity to pariah as if the entire school revolves around his standing. Now, sure, he’s the protagonist, but the entire school body shouldn’t know that! Blaylock also didn’t sell me on all the aspects of his character. It was hard to believe him being tough or cool, at least when armed with sunglasses instead of an assault rifle. And the inevitable played-awkward kiss scene felt far, far too real to me.
Amid some clumsiness, there are many genuinely great, funny, and exciting moments. A mashed potatoes gag is surprisingly funny. A segment when BrianD believes he is listening in on a private conversation and Law reveals to him alone his awareness of the snooping was clever and poetic. The entirety of episode 8 takes a different tone, having some fun self-parody during the intro and paying respect to arcades. And when Calhoun interrupts Brian’s triumphant and cinematic return for the final match, I laughed heartily.
So amid this praise and criticism, do I regret being a Kickstarter backer? No. Weighing in heavily for me is an interest to see online content creators taken seriously, and this effort was an example paving the way towards that future. Through their intro Kickstarter video for season 1, the creators of VGHS knew this. They created something great for a very low budget, and I hope the showrunners, writers, and actors all learn from the experience and that the currently running season 2 is even better.