Making a documentary on any subject, let alone video games, isn’t easy. It requires a lot of research, finding the right people for in-depth interviews and has a painstakingly long editing process. In 2012 James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot released their tour de force Indie Game: The Movie and brought to light the hardships and inner workings of indie game developers. Earlier this year, Valve revealed the world of competitive gaming with Free to Play. Both of these feature documentaries focused on one particular niche of the gaming industry and more importantly, the people who seem to have the most at stake with the medium.
So when Zach Braff (who you may know as the character JD from the TV series Scrubs) decides to produce his own love letter to video game culture, what can we expect? Rather than take the route of the aforementioned films and honing in on a specific branch of the game industry tree, writer/director Jeremy Snead has decided to open up the vaults and comb through the the highs and lows of the video game history, from the advent of Spacewar! in the backroom labs of M.I.T. during the ’60s to the near-infinite power of cloud gaming in the present day. Video Games: The Movie (VGTM) bounces back and forth along the historical timeline rather than focusing on a particular person or group of people. While it has noble intentions to justify gaming (and gamers) to the world, the end product unfortunately falls short of conveying its message.
Let’s start with what this documentary does well. There’s engaging commentary from the founding fathers of video games, guys like Nolan Bushnell (Atari) and Al Alcorn (Pong). Alcorn’s reference to the potential of the medium back in those days as “a license to print money” reveals the opportunities that Atari capitalised on during the early years. There’s also some reflections from Nintendo boss Reggie Fils-Amie on his first NES experience as well as Cliff Bleszinski championing the fact that games developers can be cool too.
The development cycle does get some analysis, though it all ends up migrating towards the well-trodden territory of games vs film and indies vs AAA.
The development cycle does get some analysis, though it all ends up migrating towards the well-trodden territory of games vs film and indies vs AAA. While the Cliffy B and Hideo Kojima reflections are particularly interesting, much of the remaining commentary starts to feel like a bunch of outsiders looking in. Like actor and producer Will Wheaton. He’s not an authority on the industry nor the culture, yet we have to listen to him describe the trope of how video games are like a movie where you get to make the decisions. Same with screen writer Max Landis, who seems to revel in the moment where he compares Facebook users to gamers. I can appreciate Snead’s attempt to keep a living room-style discussion feel with these interviews, but this informal approach results with glossing over the real issues.
Take Mike Neumann from Gearbox software. He describes his story of recovering from a stroke and how video games brought to him in the hospital helped aid his rehabilitation. It’s intimate moments like this that Sneadon should have explored further and featured more of from different sources, rather than a random fan saying “It’s like Phil Fish said…” or inserting quotes from JFK and Ghandi into a gaming context.
The length of VGTM is a hefty 105 minutes which is more than double what it needed to be. So much time is taken up with nostalgic television commercials and musical gameplay montages that once it broaches an interesting subject, it promptly moves down the timeline onto the next historical step in console graphic fidelity and processing power. Diving into detail about the Electronic Software Association’s latest statistics and peering into the technology behind a pixel also takes up valuable run time that could have been better spent focusing on particular games or people that changed the industry.[yt_video id=”ETSKGdtrMK8″][/yt_video]
The measuring stick I employ for rating video game documentaries is a pretty simple one: Would I recommend my non-gamer friends to watch this? Having barely made it through VGTM myself, the answer is unfortunately no. This is a feel-good documentary laced with nostalgia that curious gamers who grew up with the industry will no doubt identify with. But in 2014, you can get a lot more than 105 minutes of mediocre entertainment for $13.
Nostalgia and previously explored issues make Video Games: The Movie a missed opportunity to dig beneath the surface of the gaming industry.