The climax of Atari: Game Over finds a couple hundred nerds, archeologists both professional and amateur, a digging crew, and a disgraced game designer anxiously standing by in a land fill; it’s windy and looks uncomfortably warm, and the expressions of the gathered mass adorned in sweat-lined video game t-shirts reflects this. An author waits by his Back to the Future-accurate DeLorean. Out of context, the scene is as dry as the New Mexico desert in which they stand, but the film– and a healthy knowledge of video game history– gives this moment its due weight and drama: they are a few digs from uncovering the truth behind one of geekdom’s most enduring legends, you see.
I can’t remember where I first heard the legend that 70s/ early 80s video game juggernaut Atari had buried thousands of unsold copies of the mythically terrible Atari 2600 E.T. video game in the New Mexico desert in the company’s dying days, but the story stuck with me for years afterwards. As a kid obsessed with video games and curious to learn about their history, the notion that a game could be so bad that it sunk a fledgling video game market and had to be hidden away beneath the earth was an irresistible bit of lore that lodged firmly in my imagination. And as director Zak Penn (writer on numerous superhero movies and director of Werner Herzog Loch Ness Monster hunting Incident At Loch Ness) and the assortment of nerds and archeologists in that New Mexico landfill prove, I wasn’t the only one.
Atari: Game Over —apparently the first installment in a series of documentaries on video game history called Signal to Noise– coasts along two timelines: recounting the demise of Atari through the words of the company’s execs and game designers, and simultaneously documenting the excavation of the legendary landfill for those buried cartridges. The recounting of the origins of Atari feel thin in the film’s 66 minute runtime, particularly when considering the screen-time given the the admittedly-charming-but-tangentially-related-to-the-film author Ernest Cline (though a scene of him picking up his DeLorean from a loan to Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin is a fun little bit of weirdness), but the story of the company’s fall and the experience of E.T. designer Howard Scott Warshaw anchors the legend with necessary humanity. In many ways, Warshaw’s story can be writ at large about the fate of Atari as whole: A young, innovative programmer on the up and up in the tech world after designing a string of hits finds his career coming to a close after he takes on the impossible task of designing an innovative game based on the mega-successful E.T.in only five weeks. Through interviews with Warshaw, we learn what it was like to work in the party-positive, tech commune of Atari in the late 70s, the thrill of creating an instant classic, the pain of having three generations of gamers and list-format articles call your creation the worst thing ever, and the search for a meaningful career in its wake.
If you want to find out how bad it is for yourself, the game can be played for free here.
Ultimately, Atari: Game Over becomes about dispelling a myth as much as it is about uncovering one. The crew and those interviewed are invested in finding out whether the E.T. cartridges really are buried in that landfill (they are, it was in the news last year, so it’s not exactly a spoiler, guys), but they’re also invested in exonerating Warshaw and his game of their trumped-up market-killing charges. Once again, a too-short runtime prevents a deeper exploration of the full cultural and economic factors that played a role in Atari’s demise, but the reflections of Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and Warner exec Manny Gerard 30 years removed from the company’s collapse underscore what the dig footage suggests: the truth behind legends is never as clear cut as you would expect.
The buildup to the momentous dig for buried video games is built on the enthusiasm of the director and of the determined oddballs who saw the project finished. The town of Alamagordo, MN where the landfill resides, are swayed by the team of historians and super-geeks who’ve poured years of study into finding these games. Comparisons to uncovering the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark are dropped frequently (and reinforced with key clips from the film), and to these dorks in the desert, it is. Zak Penn is in part’s funny and intrusive as a figure in the documentary, and the best parts are when he lets his subjects take the lead, letting their enthusiasm speak for itself. The documentary itself doesn’t do anything too tricky with cinematography or design, but Atari 2600-inspire graphics throughout the film and a liberal sprinkling of film and video game clips keep Atari: Game Over visually interesting and bolster the subjects rather than distract.
Atari: Game Over set out to find the truth behind a nerd legend and ends up settling another as well. It’s quick, at times too much so, glimpse into the early days of one of the defining art forms of the 21st century and into the the passions the stories surrounding it inspires in fans and other creators alike. If the rest of the entries in Signal to Noise are as interesting, the series could be what Video Game: The Movie couldn’t be: an engaging, expansive history of a medium.
Look for Atari: Game Over on Xbox Video and Netflix