It’s January 13, 2017 – the day of the Nintendo Switch Presentation. Unbeknownst to anyone until today, Nintendo’s latest console is going to be released in under two months, and with it the latest installment in The Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. A hush goes over the crowd as the final trailer begins: stunning graphics, innovative open-world gameplay, calamitous (literally) storytelling. Streamers and reactors around the world are in awe. They’re screaming, crying, cheering. Anticipation is through the roof for what will soon usher in a new wave of popularity for one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises.
Streaming on her own channel is former speedrunner Narcissa Wright. Many gamers will remember her famous 18:10 run of Ocarina of Time back in 2014, in which she set a new world record and quickly became one of the community’s most revered players. Then, she came out as transgender and was expeditiously abandoned by her community, including some of her most ardent fans. Wright has kept a low profile since then, streaming casual games to a smaller, more intimate audience. As she is moved to tears by the Breath of the Wild trailer, she sees the opportunity to stage a return to speedrunning and regain what was once hers. She logs onto Twitch and prepares to go live, captioning her stream with “I must surpass my past.”
This is where Jane M. Wagner enters the chat, literally, and where her new documentary, Break The Game, begins. As a montage of Presentation reactions opens the film, Wagner ostensibly restages how her own journey with Wright began. “That, to me, is where the film originated as a film,” Wagner explains. “I remember watching that trailer on her stream.” A self-described lurker and working documentarian, Wagner had been watching Wright’s livestreams since 2015 and was eager to tell her story. After Wright announced she would compete for the Breath of the Wild world record, Wagner messaged Wright on Twitter and began what would become a six-year collaboration.
Celebrating premieres at esteemed festivals like New York’s Tribeca and Los Angeles’ Outfest, Break The Game follows Wright’s saga, from her humble beginnings as a young gamer to her departure from streaming in 2022. However, what begins as a portrait of just one woman slowly unfolds as a larger examination of life and love in the digital age. “I've never seen a film that really captures my experience on the internet in a way that is nuanced and not sensationalized,” says Wagner. “I think that's going to be a really welcome surprise to folks, that the film really does capture what that world is like from the inside.”
Wagner’s documentary may be the first of its kind, a film that uses the language of gamers to tell a gamer’s story. Streamers will quickly engage with the film’s accurate recreation of Twitch’s interface and retro gamers will be left in awe by the glorious pixel-animated sequences. However, lying underneath all of that is an unflinching look at the difficulties of online celebrity. Narcissa’s love/hate relationship with her own quest for redemption sends her down a spiral, forcing her to confront her digital co-dependency and balance a life both on-screen and off. Despite being small in scope, Break The Game is an impressive achievement from Wagner, as well as her many Zelda-obsessed collaborators.
Gamers Rise Up
“I honestly wasn’t a big Zelda girl until I first came across speedrunning,” Wagner jokes, sensing the irony. Like Wright, the director has been a gamer since a young age, specifically beginning with the era of the Nintendo 64. “I remember seeing it at my best friend's house when I was in fourth grade. I wanted the system so bad that I begged my parents for it.” Her and her brother wound up getting the console for Christmas that year, beginning a love for classics like Super Mario 64 and Diddy Kong Racing. The siblings would brush shoulders with Ocarina of Time, but only as a short-lived rental. “It was never long enough to figure out what to do,” she laughs. “I collected some rupees and I was like, ‘Is this it?’”
She dove headfirst into Shigeru Miyamoto’s adventure series with Breath of the Wild. “I ordered the game right after the trailer hit, just like Narcissa, and I played along with her.” Wagner knew that, if she wanted to tell Wright’s story, Zelda would play an integral part in how it was told. “There'd be no way to make this film without knowing the game and infusing the film with the lore of Zelda.” She would go on to watch playthroughs of other beloved entries, like Wind Waker and Majora’s Mask, striving to gain a thorough knowledge of a franchise so integral to Wright’s identity as a gamer.
However, filmmaking is a team sport. Wagner was adamant that her crew also be experienced Zelda players. “Authenticity was extremely important with who I collaborated with,” she confirmed. “We really needed to embrace the material as much as possible and draw off of those inspirations and influences. It was really important to me to have collaborators who not only respected the game, but literally played the game.” When she tried to approach potential collaborators who were not familiar with the series, they froze. “I think the fact that it was [about] gaming put a lot of more tenured professionals in a place of discomfort, which is strange,” she jokes.
Some of her collaborators include Pat Ackerman, a pixel artist and previous Twitch streamer with over 13,000 followers on Instagram; Emily Wolver, lead animator on the award-winning Sundance selection Cryptozoo; Austin Miller, a sound designer for both gaming and film; and her composers, Jeff Brodsky and Jesse Novak, who individually have composed music for companies like Apple, Google, and Netflix. It’s an esteemed group, but this wasn’t the kind of clout Wagner was looking for. In her first Zoom interview with Ackerman, she immediately noticed a Hylian Shield hanging on the back of his bedroom door. It didn’t take long for her to know he would be a good fit.
“[I was] like, ‘Yes, you get it. We speak the same language here.’” In effect, they all did. Miller’s first-ever tattoo was Zelda-themed. Wolver would take breaks in between working on Break The Game to play Tears of the Kingdom. Brodsky has a miniature book of legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo’s sheet music on his desk, though he admits that he has been partially using it as a coaster. All of these creators had spent their childhoods collecting rupees and slaying Ganons, much like Narcissa and much of the film’s intended audience. However, they were also exceptional artists, each particularly qualified to bring their individual facet of the film’s visual or sonic identity to life.
Her Life, Animated
Within the first 10 minutes of Break The Game, as Wright imagines a world in which she returns to claim her destiny as a top-tier Zelda speedrunner, audiences get their first glimpse of the film’s stunning pixel art animation. Rendered frame-by-frame with authentic 2D sprites, Narcissa narrates as she greets fans outside her castle door and retrieves the Master Sword from the stone. “Maybe they’ll start to see who I am and finally have it in their hearts to respect me.” Though surely reminiscent of Zelda’s early years, the art’s higher pixel density and dynamic range suggests a style popularized by more modern pixel-animated games, like Shovel Knight or Octopath Traveler. It’s mesmerizing.
Before signing onto the documentary, Ackerman was most well-known for his custom first-generation Pokémon sprites. “Being a pixel artist, I always want [them] to be smaller because a lot of games have smaller resolution,” Ackerman explained. “But with it being film, Jane was like, ‘I think I want it a little bit bigger.’” Without the constraints of game consoles and data systems, Ackerman was free to spread his wings. “It was definitely some of the hugest-resolution pixel art I've ever done,” he continues. “There were little details I could add, whether it was just expressions, or movement of something – even just squirrels running in and out of trees. There was this big world to venture into.”
The animations also illustrate Wright’s childhood discovering game design. Flashes of EarthBound and Pokémon easter eggs coat the screen in gamer gloss, but the sequences also serve as Wright’s internal thoughts and struggles. It allows for Ackerman to make Wright the hero of her story using iconography that is instantly familiar to Zelda-heads. “There are those huge elements in Zelda that are iconic to Link, the hero of the story, and then easily transferable to Narcissa, the hero of Break The Game's story. When Narcissa pulls that sword out right in the beginning, it sets the tone. She's talking about her big comeback and it's just like the start of this hero's journey. The castle is like Narcissa's fortress. It is her safe place.”
Wolver helped animate Ackerman’s pixel art using the popular motion graphics software Adobe After Effects. “That just so happened to be the very niche thing that I do,” Wolver explained. “It felt like a match made in heaven.” Wolver, who had previously worked with popular gaming content creator Scott the Woz, was excited to combine her love with and experience in both gaming and film. “It was so exciting to work on a project that was even tangentially related to Zelda. It's that feeling of when you've done right by your childhood self in your adult life.”
Bleeps and Bloops
Miller felt an especially deep connection to Wright’s story before the work even began. “It's really a film about trans identity,” they say, “and I'm non-binary. I use they/them pronouns. That is very important to me just from a storytelling standpoint.” Wagner reached out to Miller specifically looking for a gaming sound designer who could bring that sensibility to film. “Most of my career has been in games, but I have scored to film,” they explain. “To take this idea of ‘hey, this is a film, but it's about video games, so we want it to sound like you are playing a game’ was really important to me. I was trying to go into it with the mindset of, ‘If I were hired to do sound design on a Zelda game, how would I make it mine?’”
Each of the film’s animated sequences is made all the more visceral through Miller’s sound design, from modern accent effects to bitcrushed bleeps and bloops that sound like they came straight from a 16-bit game cartridge. One moment involving evil clones of Wright, a not-so-sly reference to Dark Link, was a particular highlight to work on. “I spent hours just on maybe three seconds because it was my favorite little part,” they gush. “I grew up, like Narcissa, with Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Wind Waker. I grew up hard in the ‘90s, so I loved seeing [Dark Link] used as a tool to show Narcissa's journey.”
Brodsky and Novak’s eclectic score for the film elevates both the animations and many reconstructions of Wright’s Twitch streams. The film’s sound blends both orchestral instruments as well as immersive synthwave elements. “It bridges the electronic world and the fact that we're telling a story about lives that are happening outside the game too,” expressed Novak. “It's a great way to cover a lot of ground at once while keeping things moving.” Despite having extensive experience in chiptune, Novak focused on the traditional sounds in the film’s musical palette. “I'm using horns and timpanis and snare drums and cymbals and strings,” he lists, “what I think of as bread-and-butter orchestral scoring instruments.”
Meanwhile, Brodsky lent his skills to the film’s synth tracks. “We're standing on the shoulders of giants,” he instills, referring to Kondo’s many iconic Zelda themes. “I wanted to hear some of that palette, but try something new. I was thinking of it as fractalized Zelda music.” Brodsky’s synths are deeply layered and incredibly expressive, perfectly evoking the technical limitations of 8 and 16-bit game cartridges but far exceeding them, similar to the retro-inspired soundtracks of games like FEZ and Hotline Miami. “Writing melodies or ideas and then throwing those into a granular synthesizer that deconstructs and reconstructs the sounds in these epic, big ways can often create a really powerful emotional feeling.”
A New Hero of Hyrule
The film’s aesthetic and sonic homages to Zelda serve a much larger function than fun references or even the aforementioned authenticity. These elements settle viewers into familiar territory so that Wright can tell a familiar story. Her documentary uses the same archetypal adventure storytelling in Zelda to turn Wright into her own Hero of Hyrule. “Narcissa is in almost a childhood state when she plays her games,” the director explained. “In Zelda [specifically Ocarina of Time], you start off as child Link and you have to become adult Link. That idea of growing up also plays out in the film as well.”
Wright’s journey begins with a bang. She purchases Breath of the Wild on Day 1 and masters many of the game’s speedrunning shortcuts. Her initial world-record stream makes the front page of Twitch and amasses several thousand viewers. Wright even begins to fall for a fellow micro-creator and streamer, Alex Eastly, referred to as her screenname d_gurl. When Eastly comes to visit Wright in Portland, they begin a relationship. “I feel like I’m at a high point in my life, suddenly,” she says in the film.
Still, not all is well under the surface. Wright still faces endless harassment, from memes mocking a possible doxing to transphobic messages encouraging suicide. Wright does her best to put on a brave face during her streams, even calling out ignorant users on camera. “You get to see great support for Narcissa going through these hard times but then you see that evil horde crawling from the depths of…you know, we know where they're coming from,” Ackerman laughs, “just to invade her stream and thrive on this negativity. Narcissa ends up thriving on it too.” Wright’s insistence on proving her haters wrong pushes her away from Eastly and sends her down a rabbit hole of desperation and obsession.
“I loved the way that they portrayed Narcissa's journey very similar to The Hero's Journey [with] this big climax in the middle,” says Miller, referring to Joseph Campbell’s seminal story structure that has inspired Zelda as well as many other beloved franchises like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. “[It’s] similar to fighting the big boss in any Zelda game, except the big boss in this is her own mental health and emotions.” Through help from d_gurl, her mother, and the most loyal members of her audience, Wright manages to overcome, as she calls it in the film, the online experience. “Those are the ones that really help Narcissa with the saving and I really loved that.”
A Movie Made By Zelda Fans For Zelda Fans
For most players, the relationship between gaming and filmmaking boils down to botched adaptations of their favorite franchises. Things have gotten better lately, but we still live in the shadow of an extended separation where gamers were convinced that films were poisonous. Break The Game could help to bridge the divide. “I think gaming culture feels youthful,” explains Wolver, “and cinema feels a little older and more established. This, to me, is the first thing that would spark something in a younger generation that doesn't even watch that many movies these days. This is something that would really move them enough to think about cinema as an art form.”
Ackerman hopes the film’s content will inspire its viewers to be kinder to others. “There are a lot of people going through so many things in their personal life who also stream, who are also on social media, or maybe wrapped up in games,” he adds. “I think seeing someone else like them, especially a trans person, go through this and [seeing] that there are other people living in this solitude that are struggling…I hope people can go on those ups and downs of the story and see if there's someone they know struggling with depression or struggling with their gender identity, or just feels very alone like Narcissa.”
“I feel like the movie is so empathetic,” Brodsky concurs. “There are so many weird, cloistered, shut-in, lonely, kind of angry people associated with the world of gaming. I think this movie is kind and thoughtful in a way that, I think, hits back at some of [those] uglier tendencies. When I first started working on this project, I googled Narcissa Wright and one of the first things that came up is this hit piece, a three-hour documentary on YouTube.” That search result remains one of the top videos associated with Wright’s name on the platform. “That is a terribly unsympathetic, unempathetic, kind of vibeless, neurotic takedown. Jane brought empathy and a real filmmaker's eye to this project.”
“It's really important that this film reaches [an] audience of gamers and Zelda fans,” explains Wagner. “[Break The Game] is a way for people in that space to think more deeply about some of the topics in the film – like cyberbullying, online harassment, loneliness, isolation, depression, anxiety – but through the lens of gaming so that it's more approachable. I hope the film can be a tool to watch some of those conversations in a really safe and authentic way in our community.” Break The Game has yet to announce a virtual release strategy, but when it does, the community will be watching.
For more information about Break The Game, you can visit breakthegamemovie.com.