Fresh off the heels (or hooves, as the case may be) of my review of the excellent A Brony Tale, I was invigorated to look at other recent documentaries that examined and championed other elements of nerd culture; in particular, I was excited to watch Video Games: The Movie (2014). Released last month and directed by Jeremy Snead, produced by Zach Braff, and supported by Kickstarter backers like you, the documentary promises to survey the video game industry’s history, its future, and the culture that surrounds it in a little under two hours; a promise that Video Games: the Movie struggles to uphold. The end result is a film that is sleek, but ultimately lacking.
In terms of design, Video Games: The Movie sets the bar pretty high. Filled with sleek, bright graphics, the film is incredibly easy on the eyes, crafting polished montages of game footage that serve to bridges between topics and a linear timeline that charts the industry. It would just help if the film would utilize said timeline better. The film rushes through about fifty years of history in about ten minutes, pausing at the release of major systems to pay them lip service in the form of interviews stating how good the games for those systems were. A viewer unfamiliar with the medium is never told why Super Mario Bros for the NES was so revolutionary and important, but is assured by a number of voices that it definitely is. The film also seems to willingly overlook some early video game history. After discussing the game that the documentary posits as the first video game, it proceeds to show footage of several games released earlier without taking time to dwell on them. It seems odd that a documentary attempting to chronicle the history of the medium wouldn’t be interested in exploring the earliest roots of such a massive industry. It would be akin to a history of film deciding that The Great Train Robbery was the first film, while showing un-discussed snippets of Lumiere brother shorts.
More of the history of the industry is fleshed out as the film progresses, with segments documenting important moments in gaming history such as the Atari crash of the early 80s and the rising concern over violence in games like Doom and Mortal Kombat in the 90s. These segments, while interesting, feel out of place where they are and add to the film’s disorganization. There’s no reason why these important pieces of history shouldn’t be discussed in the chronology the film presents earlier. The film attempts to structure itself around chapters based on history, culture, and the future of the industry, but all of these inevitably affect each other in some way, making organization along these lines unwieldy. These hops up and down through history work by an interior logic that may make sense for fans already familiar with the industry’s history, but might seem muddled and unfocused for others. This begs the question as to whether this is a documentary for gamers, who are having what they already know reaffirmed, or for nongamers (though at this point, this label is becoming more difficult to define) who want to learn about the industry.
While the film’s recounting of gaming history is problematic, the film’s vision of the medium’s future was equally troubling. The documentary abides by the idea that video games give the player immersive experiences and worlds and states that the future of gaming lies in the creation of richer, more engrossing narratives created with cutting edge graphics engines. This vision of gaming’s purpose and future is accurate, but is incomplete. In making this assertion, the film overlooks non-narrative games and games that put precedent in gameplay over story. The film suggests that a good game is one that tells an effective story, without stopping to acknowledge why games like Pacman or Tetris are great (though the L-block does have a satisfying character arc). The film holds up Super Mario 64 as a shining example in a montage of games with rich, complex narratives, despite its narrative essentially boiling down to “jump in paintings, get stars, possibly eat a cake”. This also overlooks the appeal of sports and racing games, as well as arena-style combat games where narrative isn’t present or doesn’t impact gameplay. While it might sound like I’m trying to nitpick and “um, actually” this movie to death, these concerns are important in a film that wants to represent all facets of gaming. By focusing too narrowly on games as interactive stories, it misses a wide swath of all the things that a video game can be.
One of the strengths of Video Game: the Movie is its impressive stable of interviews and clips. Interviews with industry pioneers such as Nolan Bushnell and modern industry leaders such as Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski and Metal Gear Solid helmsman Hideo Kojima are high profile and give us a look into game development, but the true gems are interviews with lesser known figures, such as Don James, a man who helped establish Nintendo of America in its formative years. I wish the documentary had spent more time talking to early innovators like James and Bushnell, allowing them to tell their stories of the forming of an industry. Rather, we get more interviews with people with tenuous relationships to the industry. Chris Hardwick and Wil Wheaton are geek celebrities in their own right and provide good commentary, but other interviews seem unnecessary, such as an interview with Scrubs star Donald Faison, whose addition seems like it might have more to do with his friendship with executive producer Braff than his contributions to the video game industry. Clips from old video game commercials are fun and goofy, particularly an ad for the doomed Atari E.T. adaption. But often these ads feel like placeholders where more history and info could be provided.
Video Game: the Movie feels more like a glossy proof of concept for a more in-depth look at the industry. The film attempts to address a rich history of a rapidly evolving art form in less time than most summer blockbusters, and this is perhaps why it feels so rushed. The history of video games is fascinating and perhaps lends itself better to an episodic documentary series in the style of Ken Burns, but as this documentary proves, there’s just too much to be effectively addressed in a 110-minute feature.
To use the language of the medium the film chronicles, Video Games: the Movie feels a lot like a preview for a new system. While it may look sleek and impressive, the content isn’t necessarily there.