Pass or Play on Gameboys?: Definitely Play

These days every relationship feels like a long-distance relationship

Our two male leads meet up in a nearly abandoned city with face masks on and maintaining social distancing. One holds flowers.

When the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 surfaced in China last year, nobody could have predicted the sweeping global implications of what quickly became a pandemic.

As country after country succumbed to the virus, lockdowns began and the way we lived our daily lives changed overnight. And while we all hope that at some point we can “get back to normal” – however improbable that is – we have nonetheless had months of social distancing and isolation. As lives move online, the way in which we conduct our relationships has changed; sometimes radically.

And yet filmmakers have been the slowest to respond to this new paradigm. Drama writers and producers have backdated projects to be set pre-Covid. When you turn on the television or stream a film on Netflix, the coronavirus world is mysteriously absent.

And then along came Gameboys to deal with the new normal head on.

Cairo presents his live streamed gaming in his small room with a big smile on his face

In the middle of the Covid19 lockdown in the Philippines, Cairo Lazaro (Elijah Canlas) is live streaming his gaming and trying not to think about his father who’s in hospital with the virus. When he’s defeated by another gamer, Angel2000 (Kokoy De Santos), Cairo wants a rematch. But Angel2000, otherwise known as Gavreel Alarcon, will only play a rematch under one condition: if he wins, Cairo has to let him pursue him.

Will Cairo pass or play?

Gavreel and Cairo communicate through a zoom call

On the surface, Gameboys is everything you’d expect from a BL plotline. A reserved teen is pursued by a more aggressive and confident man who wins him over. The Filipino film industry is known for producing slick, glossy, tightly edited romances that zip along and take you for the ride. Gameboys has this in spades.

And yet there is nothing standard or cliched about Gameboys. It is surprisingly heartfelt and deeply sincere. And while it is no doubt tempting to put a label on it – ‘The Best BL of 2020′!! – it defies the genre in enough ways that we could argue it doesn’t belong in that restrictive box at all.

Gameboys either sets a new standard for BL stories or is simply a great teen drama that happens to have a male-male romance in it. Either way, it has something that other gay romance stories should be aspiring to: genuine heart.

Gavreel tries to zoom call Cairo, looking pensive while he waits

In a short 10-minute pilot episode, Gameboys establishes its premise and its characters. But it quickly gives us something else as well. A deep sense of isolation, claustrophobia and the grief of lost opportunities and lost moments. This undercurrent of loss runs underneath the rest of the season, slowly gaining pace and form until the current turns into a river and threatens to sweep everything away.

When Cairo explains that he is named after a city his parents always wanted to visit but never did, he is giving voice to how the pandemic has led to the loss of aspirations. The child of people who named their offspring London, Cairo and Paris has to grapple with not being able to leave his house to meet a friend, let alone travel to another country. And that’s before we consider the possibility of exposing a loved one to a disease that could kill them.

Cairo calls a friend of his from Zoom wearing a mask because he's outside

That isolation is only amplified for Gav, an orphan who recently had to bury the grandmother who raised him and now lives alone.

A story told entirely through zoom, video calls, emails, online chat and social media, Gameboys tells of a life lived through technology rather than in person. And while this works for a certain period of time, there inevitably comes a point where it simply isn’t enough and the cracks begin to form; ones that a hug could mend in seconds but a video call cannot.

A Zoom call hangout for the gang with drinks and snacks but each in their own rooms because they can't meet up in person

The text is littered with the usual complications and external threats that you’d expect of a story of this type. Gav’s ex-girlfriend now best friend who is initially concerned he’s simply acting out of boredom. Cai’s childhood friend who has reappeared in his life with a crush on him. And Gav’s needy and often manipulative ex-boyfriend, Terrence, who wants him back.

And yet none of these ostensible complications are as important as Gav and Cai’s relationship itself. Filipino writers never make the mistake of thinking that an external issue is more important than the internal ones it’s using those complications to illustrate. Gav’s insecurity and Cai’s need to protect himself are rooted in deeper problems the two are grappling with and the show never forgets this.

Gav, Pearl, Cai, Terrence and Wesley meeting up on Zoom

All the characters – Gav, Pearl, Cai, Terrence and Wesley – appear through the story in the small box of the screen, only venturing out for groceries with a mask and gloves. Our gaze is limited by the screen in the same way their world is. Their life is reduced to that small box, helping us to feel their sense of disconnection and of claustrophobia.

But Gameboys isn’t just a show about the way in which we’ve been forced into an entirely online life. It’s also a show that’s the result of an entirely online life. It’s not just about people making zoom calls, it’s filmed that way too. With the limitations on filming due to the lockdown, the producers themselves were forced to film a show from the same distance their characters are dealing with.

Gav and Cai try to use Zoom to create a sense of intimacy by making it look as though they're kissing each other

As the show progresses and everybody’s mental health begins to fray, Cai and Gav find themselves limited rather than liberated by the technology that brought them together in the first place. As viewers we can feel their rising frustration as they try to resolve problems caused by distance while being forced to stay at a distance.

“The world didn’t stop,” Cai says near the end as he videocalls his mother while hiding in the parking lot downstairs drinking, “Look, Ma, time didn’t stop. And the world still keeps on turning.”

We stopped. We had to. But the world didn’t. All we are is one year older with little to show for it. And for teenagers who are trying to work out who they are in a world that’s changing radically around them, this pandemic can only heighten their feelings of helplessness and confusion.

For this reason, despite any flaws it may or may not have, Gameboys is the show for a new era.

Pass or Play? Definitely play.

Cairo calls his mother over Zoom from the car, crying uncontrollably


3 thoughts on “Pass or Play on Gameboys?: Definitely Play

  1. I watched the first 2 eps so far and enjoy it. The best part of this isn’t even the romance (I’m gunna be honest, but I think Gav comes off as kinda creepy) but that it is so relevant to our times. I’ve yet to see a drama even acknowledge the pandemic but this one is centered around it and the hardship people are experiencing due to it. So far it is handling the issues surrounding the pandemic deftly, and even though it’s set in a different country I think it equally resonates around the world as we are all experiencing very similar issues.

    Well written! I’ll finish watching this weekend.

    1. Thanks so much, Trin!

      Yes it’s so refreshing to see a show that not only acknowledges the pandemic but deals with it head-on. And as you get further into it, you’ll see that it never shies away from doing so. I found parts of it heartbreaking.

      You’ve made an interesting point about Gav and I’ve heard other people say they think he’s creepy or the relationship is toxic. On paper his behaviour is is similar to other BL male leads (I was going to provide examples but there’s so many it’d be a whole new post!) For me personally, there was one thing that separated this from other BLs and that’s the fact that Cai can block him at any time. In fact at one point he does. So while BLs are far too prone to aggressive men essentially harassing smaller, less assertive men into a relationship, I don’t see that here. Cai could simply block Gav if he wasn’t interested. And Gav also knows this.

      I do think the ‘Baby’ thing got a bit too much though. And I have some thoughts on Pearl but she’s getting her own spinoff series so I’ll see how they deal with her there.

      Again, thanks so much for commenting. I hope you enjoy the rest of it as much as I did.

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