Can a documentary on the history and evolution of video games appeal to those without a care or connection to the industry? It’s a reasonable question and one that was swirling around in my head as I sat down to watch Jeremy Snead’s Kickstarter-funded new film. The blandly titled “Video Games: The Movie” seeks to tell a CliffsNotes history of video games while also promoting them as an art form and showing how far they have come since their early incarnations. For gamers this is cool stuff, but what about for others?
Let me start by admitting an important bit of information. I am a die-hard gamer and have been since Santa Claus surprised me with an Atari 2600 on Christmas of 1980. Since that time all the way to today I’ve had 16 different consoles. I was also a huge fan of the arcade culture during its lucrative heyday. I tell you all of this because, without a doubt, my personal history with gaming influenced my experience with this documentary. I have a connection with the history, the evolution, and the artistry of games as well as the pioneers and current developers who play a prominent part in the film. Therefore I have to admit that my viewpoint may be a bit influenced by nostalgia and my unflinching gamer geek status.
That’s an important consideration because in many ways “Video Games: The Movie” is a celebration. It has its target set on the gaming community who should really enjoy this film. But as I scoured through a host of harsh reviews I noticed that many critics viewed this as a film only intended to “preach to the choir” and some go as far as calling Snead a “salesman”. In one sense I do see what they are saying because there is a lot of pro-gaming passion and exuberance throughout the film. But I also think some of these critics are the same people who the film seeks to disprove. People who perceive the video game industry as inconsequential and who dismiss it on an assortment of flimsy grounds. Yes the film promotes video games, but it also seeks to prove their creativity and importance within the entertainment space.
Sean Astin narrates the documentary which features a wide assortment of interviews. Snead talks to several video game luminaries such as Nolan Bushnell, current accomplished game developers like Cliff Bleszinski and Hideo Kojima, and even television celebs such as Wil Wheaton and Zach Braff. Some give a fascinating look into the origins of video games. Some give keen insight into where games are now. Others give personal testimonies of how games have effected their lives. But the movie doesn’t shy away from some of gaming’s hot button issues. It talks about the video game crash of 1983 and the self-inflicted causes behind the industry’s near demise. It talks about the scrutiny over increased violence in games and the measures the industry was rightly forced to take. It’s compelling stuff.
I really liked “Video Games:The Movie”, but as a documentary the film does have flaws. The biggest problems lie with its structure and storytelling technique. To be honest it’s pretty messy at times. There is no single established time line and the film is constantly jumping back and forth with no real sense of direction. I remember at one point being dumfounded by the material that was being skipped only to be pulled back to it later in the film. Snead seems more interested in talking about topics which is great, but it’s at the expense of a needed fluidity. Then there are moments where the film suddenly transitions to topics which seem out of sync with the more interesting elements of the picture. A brief but clunky explanation of pixels. A sudden divergence into modern game technologies. These things slow the film down and take the focus off of what I was really enjoying.
“Video Games: The Movie” is scattered and unfocused and at times it can be a bit frustrating. But I think it’s also a passion-fueled examination of an entertainment form that has passed both movies and television in terms of worldwide revenue and popularity. Video games have been dismissed in many regards but their evolution is astounding. This film seeks to show them as far more than the simple run-jump-shoot children’s experience that many think of. They have become legitimate escapist entertainment featuring intelligent storytelling and amazing artistry (when done right of course). This film promotes that thought and shows the history behind it.
So I return to my original question. Is this a documentary that can appeal to those without any care or connection to video games? Personally I think it can. It offers a ton of facts and insight about the industry that many folks may not know or realize. At the same time it offers loads of fun and entertainment for the community of which I happily proclaim being a part of. But who knows, maybe that is why the film worked so well for me.