How would you survive in your favorite game? Peter Haynes’ new webseries AFK attempts to answer that very question. He speaks to Don Rowe ahead of the show’s launch.
Like many of us, Peter Haynes has at one time been completely addicted to World of Warcraft. Haynes has known the sweet seduction of journeying across Azeroth, questing, grinding and spending a shitload of time and money on something that is ultimately irrelevant in the real world. But instead of closing the curtains and merging permanently with an armchair, slowed only by exhaustion or carpal tunnel, he used his experiences as the basis of the upcoming webseries AFK.
Filmed and produced entirely in Auckland, AFK (Away From Keyboard) explores what would happen should a gamer be transported inside the game they love, freed from their doughy meat-body and incarnated in the form of an avatar.
A twelve-part webseries, the show plays on gaming and pop culture tropes in a clever blend of meta-humor and cultural analysis. Just like an MMO, the characters in AFK are not always as they seem. Girls can be boys, boys can be girls, and children roam the land in the form of giant, bloodthirsty orcs.
I spoke to Haynes ahead of the show’s launch next week about the concept, the creative process and the challenges of filming a webseries on a tiny budget in a country used to the $600 million productions of Sir Peter Jackson.
Where did this concept originate?
It got into my head, you know, a ‘what would you do?’ situation. I played World of Warcraft reasonably intensively a few years back, and you spend so much time in it that it kind of gets into your head, and you sort of imagine what you’re doing in that environment and you kind of remember it as if it was real. I mean, I still look back at the game with fond memories of the time I spent in those landscapes, even though none of it really actually happened. It’s quite an easy transition to imagine, and I think a lot of people can relate to it too, which is why it’s gained a bit of traction.
In a sense it is as real as anything else, because you’re getting the same emotional kick out of it.
Yeah, especially when the game first came out. It was a real discovery. It was all brand new, and there were lots of people playing at the same time, they were all discovering at the same time, so there was a lot of actual human interaction which helped a lot as well. It really was like exploring a brand new world.
I guess the friendships that people made are just as valid as a real world friendship, right? There’s still the same bonding experience as your achieving these goals together.
People form guilds, which is almost like a tribe, where they all have the same uniform, and they play the game together and help each other out and make it easier for each other.
Was World of Warcraft your first introduction to gaming?
Oh no, I’ve played games since the Commodore 64 back in the 80s. I’m oldschool. I’ve always really enjoyed the world building games. The environment games, that you can actually explore and get a little bit lost in. I really enjoy those kind of games. I’ve avoided them recently because I know I have a tendency to enjoy them a bit too much and I can get a bit addicted.
Were you drawing from your experience with RPG games during the writing process?
A lot of the humour in AFK does come from gaming references. There’s a lot of references that some casual viewers might not get, but we’ve tried to make it accessible in terms of the basic story. There’s a lot of what’s called MMO references in particular, and I guess there’s some broader gaming stuff as well. There’s a lot of very specific gaming humor in there that we hope will appeal to that particular sector of the audience. Stuff that wouldn’t work in any other environment.
Was that something you intended from the beginning, keeping faithful to the real hardcore gamers out there?
It’s always that balance, you want to appeal to the gaming crowd, but you don’t want to make it inaccessible to a wider audience that might discover it. And we had some good tests with that, where we’ve shown it to people who are not gamers, and who don’t know the terms, and they’ve still enjoyed it because they get the story and they get the characters and they get the basic premise of the dilemma that the characters that are in. We have a character called Steven, played by JJ Fong, who is supposed to be the noob and doesn’t play games and only started that particular game the week before so that’s kind of the audiences’ ‘in’ where she’s constantly needing to have things explained to her.
There’s a tendency in any subculture to get so locked in that you exaggerate how much other people actually know about it. How did you deal with that?
It’s a bit of a risk because if you’re experienced in gaming you tend to forget what other people don’t know. It’s occasionally about pulling it back and saying ‘Ok, I’ve written this, but is it too obscure? Will anyone actually get this outside of a certain circle?’ But you want to put those kind of gags in as well, that some people will go ‘ah, I get that!’ whereas other people will miss it, but you don’t want to have that be detrimental to the plot if some people miss it.
There’s the occasional easter egg that isn’t going to ruin the story if people miss it, but other people are going to nod sagely and go ‘ahhh’. It helps that one of our leads Callum, who plays Jack, actually a pretty hardcore gamer as well. He was a warcraft addict too, and he’s pretty full-on into Magic: The Gathering scene. In fact, he went overseas recently for a tournament, so he knows all the terms as well. It was quite good to bounce things off him and he would say “No that’s too corny, that joke’s been played out”. There’s some gags, some stuff that we came up with in terms of real people in a gaming environment and what they would expect to happen as opposed to what really happens.
There’s a lot of meta humor in there.
Definitely. We don’t want the audience to forget that they are inside a game, and the world works in a slightly different way to how the real world would work. Having said that though, even though they’re in a game, it’s very real in the sense that they still have to eat, to walk places, they get tired, they get hungry, they get thirsty, and survival is top of the list.
You filmed and produced the whole deal in New Zealand. What were the benefits to shooting in an environment where a lot of fantasy has already been done?
We’ve been able to sell it as ‘shot in middle earth’, ‘from the land of the lord of the rings, from the home of the hobbit,’ that sort of selling point. I don’t know how much that helps really, but it’s nice to be able to do that even if it’s just for the key words. We didn’t have the budget obviously to go to the South Island and make use of those really epic landscapes, but we’ve actually managed to tracked down some interesting looking places just around the greater Auckland area. They look varied and hopefully not many people will be able to guess exactly where tehy’ve been shot. For some of our final episodes we actually built a tavern inside a garden shed. It’s all shot in Auckland.
I imagine props and costuming would be an expensive part of production. Did you manage to take advantage of any left over Lord of the Rings stuff, or any other resources available because of the history of that scene in New Zealand?
Definitely. In fact, most of the stuff came from local larping (live action role-playing), reenactment and cosplay groups who have not only lent their equipment and their costumes, but their bodies as well for certain crowd scenes and fight scenes and that sort of thing. They’ve got really involved and they’ve been involved since the beginning.
There’s always a risk where armour and weapons can look a little hokey and halfass, but that didn’t come across in AFK. Do you attribute that to the influence of these larpers and cosplayers?
I think so, but also I’ve done a couple years now in art departments, I worked on the Crouching Tiger sequel and the new Shannara series this year and I’ve learned from some very top-notch people who have given me some tips about how to make your costumes and props look like they do on screen in the big productions. I’ve put those tips into effect on this series and, as you say, I think it’s come out on the screen. The goal is to make their costumes look worn in, not like they’re fresh off a costume rack.
With these volunteers, why do you think people were so eager to contribute their time?
People know us, our production team, we are 48 hours veterans, we’ve been doing it for the last 12 years so we’ve built a reputation of doing quality work. That helps, because people know that if they fall in with us, they’re going to get something that’s going to look halfway decent at the end of it. And, a lot of people just like the idea and the story. I think it helps as well that we’re portraying cosplayers/larpers/that sort fo creative community in a positive light. They’re kind of the heroes of the story. Q, our lead character, the only reason that she’s survivng so well is because she’s done reenactment and she’s done weekend camps and she knows how to make a bow and how to hunt, and she has an advantage over people who’ve just maybe sat in front of a computer screen.
Do you think this sympathetic treatment is a significant point of difference?
I like to think so. It remains to be seen when the series goes live, but I think there’s a trust there that we’re involved in these communities, I’ve done the reenactment, the larp fighting, I enjoyed going out and bashing people with foam swords, it’s great fun. And they know that we’re not gonna mock them, not gonna make fun of them, which does happen in a lot of other depictions in the media. There’s a trust there and we want to maintain and build on that trust.
Our lead character is a larper, another character is a cosplayer who’s been bullied in school because of that, we’ve got a hardcore gamer who thinks he’s the shit but he’s actually a bigger nerd than the rest of them and to round it off we’ve got a football jock who looks down on it all but he’s trapped in the body of a female so he’s having his own issues. Everybody has their own niche and path, and that’s kind of why we’ve described it as a little bit like The Breakfast Club because you’ve got all these very different people thrown together who otherwise would never have interacted in the real world.
That’s reflective of the real world. You never know who’s behind the computer screen.
That’s true. When you look at their characters, everybody is buff and everybody is beautiful and everybody is powerful but you don’t know who you’re really interacting with.
What’s the plan from here?
We did apply for NZ On Air funding for a second season, we didn’t get that unfortunately, a little disappointed in that, but we’re gonna see what the reception is for the first season and then we’re gonna weigh up our options for a second. We’re not going to do it again if we can’t pay people a living wage. Everybody did for free the first time around and that’s amazing, but it’s not fair to ask them to do it again because it was a lot of really hard work, a lot of hard work for us as well.
AFK: The Webseries premiers next Wednesday at 9.30pm on The Zone.
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