Monday, July 10, 2023

Festival View: The 1 Up Fever

Sometimes, filmmakers really do manage to see the future

Film festival programming can be a vicious vocation.

It’s true, a lot of us fight, hard, for premieres. It’s a sad thing for me, as I’d love it if every film could show everywhere, but it’s usually the big players that end up with the big films, and the tiny folks, they get the the crumbs, usually a year or two old by the time they fall into our laps.

Now, there are few festivals smaller than the Silicon Valley Science Fiction Short Film Festival. In fact, we don’t have a full-time home. We tour, showing shorts wherever we can. Mostly, it’s at cons, sometimes at libraries, we’ve even projected on a sheet hung on a prominent Silicon Valley engineer’s garage door! We don’t do every year, in fact there’ve only been 8 editions since I founded it in 1999. Luckily, I get shorts from film friends I know through Cinequest or have met on the circuit, and those have buoyed us through the years.

So, it wouldn’t be the place you’d expect a North American primiere for a short that ends up playing around the world and making a buzz again a couple of years later when the world had moved along the path it envisioned and made it seem even more like the documentary it proposed to be! The film, The 1 Up Fever by director Silvia Dal Dosso was our one big win.

So, let us go back to the far-off year of 2013. It was a year like many others, only more so. The world had yet to experience the hellscape that begun in 2016, and Prince and David Bowie were both still alive.  I remember sitting down to work on screening for the festival and coming across a film that had graphics that harkened back to the 8-bit graphics of my all-time favorite gaming system. This film had hit the exact right set of eyes.

Honestly, I don’t think it would have mattered who’d seen it; it’s just so good it can’t be denied.

The film was delivered as a documentary, and not played for knowing laughs as in Arrested Development, The Office, or What We Do in the Shadows sort of way. It was played straight, a series of interviews inter-cut with action scenes of people, out in the world, playing an Augmented Reality game.

In the first segment of the film, a bunch of folks were running around Berlin which had been turned into a giant level of Super Mario Brothers. The graphics are straight out of the NES text-interludes. We see coins, just like those found in the Mario franchise, hanging in the air.

The concept that the ‘documentary’ was pitching was that a game added a layer of false reality where you could go through Berlin collecting coins by hitting the coins, which were virtual representations of literal amounts of the virtual currency Bitcoin. They would collect these by hitting them with their smartphones. If you got your phone taken away by a security guard after trespassing to collect coins, you lost your entire stash. They told the story largely through interviews that seemed 100% legitimate.

And that was the brilliant part, and why so many people were brought into the idea that this was an actual documentary. They spend a fair amount of time going over the mysterious origin of the game and make direct connections to the mysterious origins of the game. Those of us in the know about Bitcoin, and at that point cryptocurrency wasn’t a thing that made headlines, nor were there real cryptobros, though a few of the folks ‘interviewed’ for The 1 Up Fever would certain qualify as such before the term was coined.

What may be the most fascinating part of the piece – it’s all come to pass!

Several AR experiences existed at the time, though nothing at the level that the film presented. Things like the fascinating but glitchy Paranormal Activity: Sanctuary existed as a real-world based mobile AR experience, but they were few and far between, and technologically The 1 Up Fever was worlds ahead of any of the significant platforms. It showed a phone-based game, while many of the real world examples were based around special glasses (and I can’t be the only one who remembers and loved GoogleGlass, right?) or head-mounted helmet-style displays. The idea of using a phone for a real-world-based augmented reality game would become the standard following Niantic’s Ingress. It was still a teeny-tiny segment of the gaming world until a little game called Pokemon GO was released in 2015.

That’s when The 1 Up Fever got a massive up-tick in attention.

The short played various festivals in 2013 and 2014, then showed once in a while until about 2017, when it played not only fests, but also conferences. You latch on to that presentation model and you’re likely to play for a lot longer than the average festival run a short might enjoy. There was a renewed series of debates over the reality of the short, just as we had at our festival when we showed it at BayCon 2014. They played it brilliantly down the line, and it’s only been helped by the real world catching up to their vision. Even today, you’ll find folks asking what the name of the game is and wondering if it’s available in the App Store.

You can still see The 1 Up Fever on Vimeo, and if you’ve got the time, you really should. It’s the kind of sly, prescient sci-fi you really can enjoy while fitting it in with the world around you. Just like in the game...


POSTED BY: Chris Garcia - Archivist, curator, and professional wrestling enthusiast. @johnnyeponymous