Shadow Worlds
By Nicholas Russell

Knit’s Island
Dir. Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse, & Quentin L’helgoualc’h, France, no distributor

Knit’s Island screens Saturday, March 16, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

DayZ began, like other zombie survival video games before it, as a mod for another game, in this case Arma 2, released in 2009. The zombie mod is a video game staple, usually presenting itself as a branch off from first-person shooters or role-playing titles: Call of Duty, Doom, Fallout, even Minecraft. In place of the original game’s narrative intricacies, the goal is simply to survive and/or kill as many zombies as possible. It’s within this world that Ekiem Barbier, Guilhem Causse, & Quentin L’helgoualc’h’s documentary experiment Knit’s Island takes place.

With DayZ, the original mod is set in Arma 2’s fictional post-Soviet Eastern European country Chernarus, the landscape of which is based on remote areas in the Czech Republic (additional maps have since been added to the game). Among other things, DayZ is notable for an additional mod created by Irish developer Brendan Greene, better recognized as “PlayerUnknown,” who helped shape the wildly popular Battle Royale format, where players in a given match fight to the last person standing. The Arma franchise operates within an elaborate military tactical continuity usually pitting some form of U.S. special ops team against non-NATO factions. But DayZ exists in the aftermath of an outbreak, in the absence of social order or political governance. Players aren’t highly skilled soldiers, but regular survivors who must eat, drink, keep warm, mend wounds, fight off infection and, often, other players in order to keep going. The Chernarus map is 225 square kilometers, almost 87 square miles (for comparison, Washington D.C. is a little over 68 square miles), with its own day/night cycle, weather patterns, and a working horticulture system. Depending on where or how one wishes to go in the game (on foot, in a car, by boat), it can take multiple real-time hours to travel.

What all this effectively amounts to is a virtual world unto itself, a place where people gather to talk, hunt, and spend time together. Knit’s Island takes this prospect seriously by grounding itself entirely within the DayZ world. Instead of picture-in-picture streaming feeds of gamers juxtaposed with their avatars, the audience sees engine-rendered vistas shot like B-roll, in-game interviews with players staged as talking heads, the physical limitations and cinematographic mores of real-life filmmaking transposed onto the lightweight, untethered physics of a video game. Barbier, Causse, and L’helgoualc’h, who collectively logged more than 900 hours in DayZ to shoot the film, each take on different roles throughout: director/interviewer, technician, cameraman. The three of them navigate the map, meeting with other players, some of whom roam individually, while others accrete into dedicated, long-standing groups.

The documentary impulse to explore the behavioral aspects of gaming isn’t new, especially when it’s in service of a panic about the effects of simulated violence and debauchery on impressionable minds as in Netflix’s Not a Game from 2020, but Barbier, Causse, and L’helgoualc’h seem more interested in the immersive, communicative possibilities that open-world games offer. The players they speak to are often longtime devotees who have spent years in the game, virtually meeting with other players they regard as close friends but whose faces they’ve never seen (DayZ allows players’ avatars to speak using their mics, adding an uncanny or humanizing layer depending on the interaction). Rather than suggesting this reality as aberrant, or a symptom of social ill, the filmmakers imply the communal quality of such an experience. Already, the notion of a self mediated via the internet, projected onto illusory social platforms that function as vibrant centers of detached engagement, has become almost too normalized to comment upon. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the anonymity of the early internet, most often illustrated cinematically in the form of message boards and blogs, has an unavoidable, persistent legacy in online multiplayer games, where the parameters of a given game’s mechanics or story lend itself to a simulacrum of reality.

“It’s a long movie here,” says a player whose avatar goes by the name Reverend Stone in Knit’s Island. The Reverend belongs to the Church of Dagoth crew, a group of players taking refuge in an abandoned Eastern Orthodox church who nominally worship a deity of luck that takes the form of a wolf. In the filmmakers’ hands, the grave, sometimes unnerving seriousness with which certain gamers take their roleplaying is warmly offset by Barbier’s skill as an interviewer, particularly his ability to get subjects to laugh and open up. Throughout the film, Barbier asks versions of the same questions: what does reality mean to you? What do you come to DayZ for? How does this affect your perception of your own life? Some people respond thoughtfully, allowing the facade they’ve created within the game to soften or wholly come down. One player in Africa talks about DayZ at first as a standard form of escapism and later, as a valid, separate reality.

Meanwhile, others outright reject the opportunity to answer what they seem to think are obvious, rhetorical, even hostile questions. Whether this is because of the directness of the inquiry, or because such players feel overintellectualizing DayZ is anathema to its pleasures, is left open to interpretation. Early in Knit’s Island, the trio of filmmakers meet up with a crew who call themselves Dark as Midnight. At times, the veil of performance for the people Barbier, Causse, and L’helgoualc’h encounter is nearly opaque. One can’t quite tell if a person’s accent is real, if their outlandish movements are merely gameplay quirks or idiosyncrasies of the gamer, if the direction of a character’s unblinking eyes represents a true approximation of where the player behind the character is looking. For the Dark as Midnight crew, DayZ is a playground in which its members can indulge their sadism. “We do whatever the fuck we want,” their leader says. Upon arriving at the crew’s base, the filmmakers come across avatars dressed in the usual post-apocalyptic, pseudo-tactical garb: bandanas over the mouth, large backpacks, sunglasses, bandaged limbs, knives and assault rifles strapped to the body. There’s also a male avatar called Princess dressed in pink pajamas laying on a desk with his legs spread open. The Dark as Midnight leader is a woman who grows more irritated the longer the filmmakers interview her; at one point she describes Princess as the crew’s pet and potentially a snack. In the middle of the interview, the leader unceremoniously executes Princess, seemingly due to boredom, before taking her crew out to hunt zombies and other players.

That there is often a disturbing, violent component to fantasy, and that this component isn’t necessarily indicative of a person’s character, is a thematic thread Knit’s Island engages with then slowly backs away from. As the filmmakers spend more time in DayZ, the film increasingly focuses on the Church of Dagoth crew, each of them amiable, patient, sometimes lonely individuals who more easily reflect the possibility for human connection that video games can represent. In other words, the humanizing impulse of Knit’s Island takes over from the more knotted, potentially cautionary study it threatens to be.

Initially, Knit’s Island lulls the viewers with its visuals, leading one to believe the game’s graphics will set the entire film’s aesthetic. From there, the narrative deepens, the emotional distance between filmmaker and player shrinks, the barrier between real life and virtual becomes more permeable. Open-world gaming presents an alternative to reality, a nearly limitless frontier where the rules of gravity and society need not apply, where the term “simulation” extends in every direction, from game mechanics to interpersonal intimacy. In that sense, Knit’s Island takes as its subject not the potential addictiveness of DayZ’s immersion but its value.

The filmmakers grant their subjects the dignity of their belief. The relationships captured are not only real but also rich and complex. The danger is in ascribing too much or too little significance to players’ in-game conduct. If there is any indication as to what Knit’s Island’s filmmakers think of the communities in DayZ, it’s in the way they endeavor to let the players speak for themselves rather than retroactively interpret those conversations via narration. The people interviewed in Knit’s Island are refreshingly self-possessed and more than aware of the surrounding discourse: video games rot your brain, they loosen your grip on reality, they inspire deviant behavior. In some cases, they agree. In others, they don’t. What seems to matter most to them is what makes DayZ worth their time. The answer is the same, no matter if the feeling attached to it is laudatory or critical: other people.