‘Gameboys’: How the Lockdown Unleashed a Modern Love Story

The new YouTube series Gameboys started modestly enough: a 10-minute pilot episode where two boys meet online. Gavreel (Kokoy de Santos) has just beaten Cairo (Elijah Canlas) in an online game–marking a first in what appears to be a very popular social media life of the latter. They agree to do a rematch, but only when Cairo consents to Gavreels’ wooing–pass or play. In the next episodes, a love story blooms, and a breakthrough boys’ love (BL) series unravels.

The concept is intriguing. Gameboys is set in the present, with the COVID-19 crisis as backdrop. Restricted by the lockdown, the characters interact through video calls and instant messages, and we learn more about them through social media posts and stories. The show is instantly relatable because the characters navigate the same unfamiliar circumstances as their viewers and use the same technologies that people in the real world are left to use to connect and communicate with friends and loved ones.  

Image courtesy of The IdeaFirst Company

Gameboys is a case study for limitation giving birth to creativity. It is the brainchild of the production outfit The Idea First Company, whose leaders Jun Robles Lana (Barber’s Tales, Anino sa Likod ng Buwan) and Perci Intalan (Dementia, Unforgettable), have said they wanted to continue telling stories in spite of, perhaps, even because of, the global pandemic.

To deliver Gameboys, the filmmakers have to creatively work around the same restrictions confronting the show’s characters. Director Ivan Andrew Payawal (The Comeback, I America) remotely gives the orders from home. Without a camera crew, set designers, nor make-up artists, the series depends heavily on Ash Malanum’s script, which smartly pulls from pop culture and displays intimate understanding of how the young generation is using technologies to connect and communicate. But its very core, Gameboys also leans on its young character actors, who are forced to navigate an unfamiliar work environment–to say the least.

And this is where the show made one of its smartest choices: casting. Both de Santos (F#*@BOIS, Tumbang Preso, I AM U) and Elijah Canlas (Kalel, 15, Sundalong Kanin, Sakaling Di Makarating) have been acting on film and TV shows for years.

Related: This New Online Series Triumphs in Representing Boys Love in the Philippines

While both actors had a breakthrough last year in their own festival outings, (F#*@BOIS for de Santos; Kalel, 15 for Canlas), they have been building their acting careers for a while. This experience strongly manifested with believable, nuanced performances in Gameboys, especially in its latest episodes, where the show starts to build gravitas.

Considering they act at home in their own clothes while looking straight into a phone camera that a family member operates, de Santos and Canlas are very effective in conveying emotions with just facial expressions–especially their eyes. Their love-struck characters in Gameboys are a departure from grittier roles both have played before. And as the series continue to rake in the numbers, all eyes are on both of the young actors as the series will likely catapult its actors to stardom.

Fan art by Angelika Imperial. Grabbed: The IdeaFirst Company, Facebook

With the release of each episode, Gameboys continues to grow its massive following, not just in the Philippines, but around the world. Every new episode amasses more views in the first 24 hours than its predecessor. The show is published with English subtitles, but fans from around the globe interestingly contribute subtitles, allowing the show to reach even more audiences.  

Part of Gameboys’ popularity, of course, is because it’s an adaption of the Boys’ Love (BL) genre, which traces its roots in Japan. This has recently seen an explosion, especially in Asia, where immensely popular BL shows from countries like Thailand and South Korea have been sweeping the region. Gameboys is credited for being one of the first, certainly the first truly popular, BL shows from the Philippines.

It has to be said, though, that the BL genre is not without controversy. Original BL content were made with a heterosexual female audience as the primary target, making the lens with which gay lives are captured somewhat problematic. There’s also the question of what straight actors playing gay characters means for representation, and whether these actors are using the platform that BL gives them to raise LGBT voices.

Image courtesy of The IdeaFirst Company

However, if there’s one production outfit that can effectively adapt the BL genre to the Philippine setting, it’s The IdeaFirst Company, the very studio that gave us films like Die Beautiful and Barber’s Tales, which tackled LGBT themes with finesse and wit.

Gameboys adds to their canon of stories that are in touch with the times. In fact, one of the loudest messages in Gameboys is what’s not being explicitly said: that love between two boys is like any other. In Gameboys, there’s no coming out, no disclosure, because it’s not necessary. It’s a love story, plain and simple.

Watch the first episode of Gameboys here: