I love sci-fi, and I love video games. The idea of being fully, bodily immersed in a video game has always sounded intriguing, and while inventions like the Oculus Rift are taking us one step closer to that (virtual) reality, we’re probably a long ways away from actually feeling the punches an NPC throws at us.
With Postopian Pictures’ eight episode cyberpunk web series Haphead, though, video gaming has already reached new heights. In the year 2025, a company called Asterisk is developing the technologies to truly immerse players in games.
“It’s not enough for video games to look amazing, it’s not enough for video games to sound amazing, video games have to feel amazing.”
Maxine, a recent high school graduate and avid gamer, has taken a temp job at Asterisk making the haptics cables that plug people into the video games. When she and her friends get the grand idea to steal a few of the cables for personal use, Maxine stumbles upon a subculture of gamers in the city — called “hapheads,” and identifiable by their unique haircuts — as well as a dangerous conspiracy.
The production values on Haphead are excellent, especially for a science fiction web series that doesn’t shy away from wide shots of vaguely futuristic buildings, the sprawling city, or showing off the world’s new technology. It’s definitely a very pretty show. Some of the writing is hit and miss — every once in awhile we’re treated to dialogue like “Best level up quick, poser,” and “Looks like this new meat’s got some spice,” — but stuff like that is so awfully cheesy that it’s instantly endearing. It helps that the diverse background cast brings a decent amount of charisma to their lines.
Elysia White in particular does a great job of making Maxine a likable, magnetic, interesting protagonist, balancing out her moments of maturity with some really ill-advised (but entertaining!) decisions. One moment she’s getting a job to support her father’s dreams, the next she’s slipping multimillion dollar technology into her belt loops, or picking a fight with someone at least twice her size. She takes her punk-ish cues from her anarchist “Screw The Man” father, who wears his facial tattoos like a badge of honor and resents the 9-to-5 job he’s forced to take in order to support his family.
Maxine and Simon’s relationship is on good terms, and they’re very obviously supportive and loving, but like with any parent-child relationship there are tensions. Besides the fact that her new job gives her access to all the cool video gaming things she can “help herself” to, Maxine hopes that bringing in a second paycheck would give her father more time to finish his comic book. Meanwhile, Simon is worried that his daughter is working under terrible conditions, since Asterisk’s location in a “special economic zone” means it can get away with paying under minimum wage and not following basic health and hazard laws. (Also Asterisk employs drones that literally taser employees who get out of line, so really, Simon’s worries aren’t unfounded.) It’s the cause of many an argument, and serves as a compelling driving force for the emotional aspect of the plot.
The action aspect of the plot is equally cool. Using the haptics cable with her favorite rabbit-fighting-ninja game serves as a training program of sorts, giving Maxine the muscle memory and strength to fight in real life. Maxine uses her newfound power for good, of course… and for fun, kicking the asses of a few deserving people as the series progresses. I love a good fight scene, and Haphead has its fun with trying to deliver.
My main issue with Haphead is this: the game world itself is very bare bones, which doesn’t quite match up with the scale of the rest of the show. What we see of Maxine’s favorite game is almost laughably bad-looking. Especially considering the kind of graphics and involved mechanics in games right now, the dryness of “Overgrowth” doesn’t feel like something that people would regularly play, let alone get addicted to. This might seem like nitpicking, but the problem becomes when Maxine begins to use the game as an emotional outlet as the season goes on. It’s just the teensiest bit harder to connect to the scene when the music is rising, Elysia White is giving a pitch-perfect expression of Maxine’s grief, but you just can’t get past the bunny rabbits sitting around a campfire and bipedal wolves throwing repetitive punches and kicks in a sparsely populated, empty-of-charm world.
But really, this is a small and somewhat superficial concern in an otherwise fantastically drawn up universe with a gripping story. And with the surprise twists and cliffhanger ending in the final episodes, I’m already emotionally preparing myself for Haphead season two. Make it happen, guys!