Top of the Docs #25 – Counter-Charge

Welcome to Top of the Docs, Flip Screen’s hub for all things documentary. This weekly column takes a look at the crème de la crème of non-fiction media, with each month tending to focus on a particular theme. The theme for this month is video games!

Gender roles within video games are a tricky thing. As a player, you are presented with a representative figure to embody whilst playing, be that a soldier or a dungaree clad plumber. However what if that character doesn’t represent you? Or isn’t given the option to act as you, the player, feel is right. These are the themes and ideas explored throughout Alex Hovet’s fascinating film Counter-Charge (2016), which takes place within the world of the late 80s adult game, Leisure Suit Larry III.

For those unfamiliar with adult games, they are often semi-explicit, and involve the conquests of one perverted, but apparently overwhelmingly attractive man, in this instance named Larry. Being made in the late 80s, the one blessing of Leisure Suit Larry III is the gorgeous pixelated aesthetic that it blesses Hovet’s film with. Throughout Counter-Charge, Hovet plays through the game, battling against Larry’s sexual urges, and challenging the game through responses it is not programmed to cope with. Hovet looks at how the game handles queer, feminine, or gender non-conforming responses to its prompts, and delivers the results to us on screen.

The beauty of Counter-Charge is very much in its simplicity. It’s easiness to watch is akin to one of the many ‘Let’s Play’ that can be found on YouTube; however, we are forced to analyse and reckon with what is happening on screen through Hovet’s experimental play. We are also given a nod in the direction of critical theory, with excerpts from bell hook’s All About Love: New Visions used as narration for parts of the film. It is a rare film that manages to balance watchability with the necessity for viewer engagement, allowing the spectator to explore not just how we perceive video games in terms of our own playing experience, but also the experience being denied to those who are not accommodated for.

Despite being so watchable, the film has a Kafkaesque almost dreamlike feel to it. The pace and cutting of the film give it an unreal feeling, as though we are floating through Larry’s hidden desires and passions. For me, this only added to my fascination with the film, and the way in which it manages to both interrogate the characterisation of a video games characters, as well as provoking the viewer to create their own character through the film’s quasi-narrative.

Although the presence of adult games on store shelves is now quietly hidden by online shopping, it is no secret that representation in terms of video game characters is a huge problem in the industry. Counter-Charge tackles these issues head on with  exploratory practice, questioning not only the aesthetic difference between characters of different genders, but also the motivation and desire characters are hardwired to have. Hovet’s film reminds us that as open as a game can be, motivations and morals are coded into a character, and with that comes the political motivations of the game itself. It is hard to find a film that manages to delve so deep into a relevant subject through sheer practice.

Counter-Charge is available on the artist’s Vimeo page.