In 2014, 25-year Mats Steen died from Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a disease that manifested during childhood and eventually rendered him paralysed and wheelchair-bound. Seen as a loner by his parents, all they really knew of him was his love of gaming. But Mats made the choice of leaving his password with his father Robert, who chose to share news of his son’s passing with his friends via Mats’ blog. What Robert and wife Trude did not expect to see was the multitude of messages about his son and the impact on their lives through World of Warcraft and his eponymous avatar, Ibelin.
Director Benjamin Ree paints a tragic picture as to Mats’ childhood and his parents’ struggle with giving him the best life possible, even though they know that his illness will gradually deteriorate his quality of life. But despite the home videos of family holidays and get-togethers, audiences can see Mats slowly withdraw from his loved ones and spend more time gaming, progressing from Nintendo Gameboys into PC gaming. This sullen tone mostly stems from his parents’ memories, as they believed that his illness had denied him all of the life lessons they wanted him to experience such as relationships and friends. Ironic then, as it is not until Mats’ death that the documentary comes alive.
Ree delves deep into Mats’ mindset via insights from his blog, which paints him as a witty and honest person. Although he sheds light on being disabled, it doesn’t stop him from cracking jokes and expressing himself – simple things that people may take for granted yet he fully embraced from the confines of his wheelchair. However, Ibelin raises its game by introducing a masterstroke: recreating Mats’ “life” through World of Warcraft, thanks to animated sequences and archived chats to deliver a significantly more compelling World of Warcraft film than the live-action adaptation.
Through Ibelin, a muscular character with a love for ale and solving mysteries, Mats has the life he craved but could not attain – he could drink, run for miles, fight and talk to others without judgement and anxiety from the real world. In Mats’ eyes, the world of Azeroth was his home and where he lived life to the fullest. Despite his condition, he sought out to help and bond with others through kind words and gentle actions without judgement.
Candid interviews with other users from all over Europe, including a mother and her autistic son, shed light into a compassionate young man who can emotionally resonate with users going through similar circumstances. A scene where Mats develops feelings for a girl, whose parents confiscating her PC (stating that WoW characters aren’t ‘her real friends’) leads to her being depressed, is a standout scene as he goes to write a letter to a friend’s parents to allow their daughter to play, signifying that someone can care for others regardless of where they are.
But while Ree shows the benefits of online communities, takes care to highlight the emotional turmoil experienced by disabled people due to a lack of mobility and self-confidence. Ibelin may be a pillar of support for others but the documentary also boldly sees him in a FOMO-embittered state as he misses out on Warcraft gatherings, voice chats and even in-person visits, choosing to hide from the world rather evoke pity from others. While this brings a realism into Mats’ fantastical escape, it is heartbreaking to see him to lash out towards the people he has befriended because, regardless being in a close-knit community, he continued to not see himself as part of it and that his fears of being forgotten and disregarded were part of his own insecurities.
By the time Ibelin comes to a fraught and heartbreaking climax, there is a warmth that comes from knowing that Mats lived his life to the fullest, even it is in a virtual world. Overall, Ree delivers a curious, innovative and poignant portrait that celebrates the life of a remarkable person, even after their death.
Director: Benjamin Ree
Runtime: 106 minutes