I dunno if you know this about me but I’m a bit of a gamer. Don’t worry, I’m not one of the horrible misogynistic, hateful, shut in idiot gamers you read about in the papers. I’m one of them gamers that likes playing games and not being a dick. I also really have an interest in the history of gaming from is very beginning. I’ve read everything I can. Own a number of books and articles on the medium and it’s origins. I’ve attended museums devoted to games. I even worked in the industry for a year and, as part of that job, I ended up playing Rock band on stage in a strip club. Yup, I like games. They’ve been good to me. So, I jumped at the chance to watch Video Games: the Movie, a documentary charting the history of video games as a medium and art form. Does this doc pass my rigorous requirements for a study of one of my favourite past times? Click the link to find out.
Video Games: The Movie is another in a gradually elongating line of gaming based docs that required crowd funding to even get made. The most notable of these docs was Indie Game: The Movie. They’re fond of that “The Movie” tag aren’t they? Narrated by the always affable Sean Astin, he of Goonies and Lord of the Rings fame, Video Games: The Movie takes a fairly casual approach to retelling the various ins and outs of the artform. For me, personally, I have found this to be a little disappointing. I feel as if the history of gaming could be a greatly in depth and detailed work, exploring the minutiae of game mechanics and the stories behind various work’s creation. As the film is only 100 minutes long I didn’t go in expecting the video game equivalent of The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, but I had hoped for a little more (super) meat (boy) on the bones.
What we do get, though, is a documentary that is, in all honest, perfect for anyone unfamiliar with gaming and how it came about. The sort of doc you should show to someone who thinks gaming started with Space Invaders, or… God forbid… the Playstation. Seriously, I’ve come across people that thought Sony started real gaming. This does mean that for those of us that have played Space War on a replica of a PDP-1… yes, I have… we’re left with a lot of information that can feel simplified for the layman. The film does a fine job of showing not just the origins of games, going back to early games such as Tennis For Two and Tic Tac Toe, but also how far the technology has progressed since, leading right up to the Playstation 4 and Xbox One. There’s a hell of a lot missed out, but in the interest of giving people an overview of the artform, just enough is crammed in.
The film also remembers to name the names of the people that forged the industry itself. The Nolan Bushnells and Al Alcorns of the world. There’s even interview segments including just those fine chaps. As is usually the case with this sort of film a few major names are missing. Whilst Shigeru Miyamoto is mentioned he’s not interviewed. Instead we get perennial spouter of company line Reggie Fils-Aime representing Nintendo. I like the guy but he’s such a company guy it’s hard to gain any real insight from him. Not having a creative voice from Nintendo, or really any of the major Japanese developers, is quite an oversight. That said, it’s understandable if gaining interview time with those creators would have been too difficult. Hideo Kojima, the creator of Metal Gear Solid, is there though.
The majority of the talking heads involved are on fandom side of the industry. Zach Braff, Max Landis and Will Wheaton all lend their views as fans of games. With less focus on the voices that made the industry the potential depth is given way for more of a celebration of the fandom of games. This is a deliberate approach though, as the film is very much about telling you just how far games have come. They’re so popular that even JD and Turk from Scrubs play them! On the industry creatives side of things there is a few more well known names, such as Cliff Blezinski (Unreal, Gears of War) and Peter Molyneaux (Fable, Theme Park and a million broken promises). It’s a shame that people who genuinely have a lot to give to such a film are missing though. No Tim Schafer. No Alexey Pajitnov. No Jeff Minter. Those may be the people I’d most like to see interviewed though. But, again, this isn’t a massively in depth documentary, so maybe presenting the more familiar faces was the right move.
What is also largely absent is actual discussion of individual games. The film prefers to focus on console generations, nostalgia and certain events such as the video game violence debate rather than take any individual games as a case study in design and the effect they had on future games. This is likely where the film differs most from what I would have liked to have seen. If you’re talking about the history of games you need to discuss the actual games in a way that shows how one passed on it’s ideas to another. The closest we get is a section that focuses on how the way we play games has changed, along with predictions for the future. This does mean that whilst there is plenty of game footage their importance to the story being told is put aside to focus on what’s changed in the gaming landscape over the last 40 or so years rather than how games have changed their own landscape.
In the end Video Games: The Movie is not really a documentary made for me, a certifiable gaming nerd. It’s more made for you mum. It’s light hearted and, with the help of Sean Astin’s inoffensive voice, it’s largely palatable by anyone with even a passing interest. The graphics and the lightweight approach to detail does lead this to feeling a lot like a school history lesson. There’s enough to give you a decent amount of knowledge, but not enough to encourage fandom from those that otherwise wouldn’t. I guess I’m really just after the video game equivalent of The Story of Film. Something that details every important step, development and breakthrough that the medium has experienced whilst also delving into the culture. As an introduction to video games this film works fine though and can be a nice lazy way to pass the evening. I’d watch Indie Game: The Movie or King of Kong if you’d rather see a more detailed work laser focused on any one particular aspect. Eventually we may get enough of those laser focused documentaries that we don’t need The Story of Video Games.