Young teenager Jennifer is running away from home when she gets a phone call from her sister. Furious, she tosses her phone away, ignoring the call as she heads into a nearby arcade for refuge.
In the arcade, Jennifer finds herself gravitating towards a special section of especially old games. One game, unmarked, unplugged and especially beat-up, catches her eyes. Though it’s unplugged, its screen lights up and invites her to play. Which Jennifer does — and which takes her on a journey into the knottiest, most emotional parts of her psyche.
Writer-director Michael Felker’s short has a sci-fi premise, but at heart, it is a drama about regret, love and the fervent desire to revisit our mistakes and re-do the actions and words that we wish we could take back.
Though there are a smattering of special effects, arcade-style 8-bit animation and a narrative structure that takes advantage of sci-fi genre tropes to explore its central themes and ideas, the storytelling at heart is focused and even almost minimal, with pared-down dialogue and settings. The visual approach of the film is clean and precise, taking care to repeat each “loop” with similar camerawork while working in variations that build off what happened before, showing subtle progressions and embedding clues with each turn.
The structure of the plot, of course, takes full advantage of the loops and stages inherent to gaming storytelling, and here they allow Jennifer to revisit the emotional trauma at the core of her conflict. Actor Kate Buatti is able to work through each reiteration of the loop, emotionally anchoring the audience and also developing the character with each turn. Each time reveals more information about what happened between Jennifer and her sister, heightening audience interest and building the character’s arc gradually as Jennifer learns to face herself and grapple with her mistakes. And when she finally levels up, she is able to achieve a catharsis that is genuinely emotional and well-earned.
Like many of the genre’s most enduring stories, “Would You Like to Play Again?” uses the ideas and concerns of science fiction to explore the thorniest, most confusing nooks and crannies of emotion, and helps us achieve a deeper understanding of just what it means to be human. Ingeniously grafting the repetitions inherent to gaming into the story of one teenage girl’s emotional evolution, it actually offers a model on self-reflection, as we peel back layers upon layers of defensiveness, anger, rationalization and more — until we are finally able to be vulnerable, open and truthful with ourselves, and then with others.