Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Perspective: Video Games: The Movie

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vgtm_box I went into this film intending on writing a review, however after seeing what it has to offer I think the better article more discusses what you can expect and if, at this time, it’s worth the higher prices asked of a direct-to-digital (DTD) release.

I didn’t know about this movie until the day before it was released thanks to an interview between Giant Bomb’s Patrick Klepek and director Jeremy Snead.  In their brief conversation, it becomes clear that Snead has chosen to tackle this documentary as a pop culture phenomenon and dissects it for the public.  Knowing that I went into VGtM expecting it to be adjusted for a general audience and quite possibly learning nothing new that anyone who’s studied video game history didn’t already know (or could learn on this and other sites).  That’s okay, as a retro gaming blogger and podcaster I know I’m working with a minority group (retro gamers) within a minority group (“core” gamers, for lack of a better term).  To put it bluntly: if he made a movie specifically for us or people like us it would be a commercial failure.  Not only that, but I got the feeling from some of Klepek’s line of questioning that Snead may not be quite up to snuff on his deep historical facts on gaming’s past.  I’ll give him this though, his favorite video game of all time is Ikari Warriors on the NES, and that has to count for something.  For appropriateness I invited over a couple of friends who are familiar with gaming but most likely knew little about the subject and also piggy-backed my wife into the audience, which is somewhat unfair because she has to listen to my historical gaming diatribes on a regular basis, and we watched this mainstream-safe documentary on more than four decades of my favorite hobby.

It wasn’t more than 10 minutes in (the film runs just around 90 mins) that I was already annoying people as I questioned, nitpicked, and vocalized by general dissatisfaction with the way Snead’s film tackled history itself.  After a justified attack on my disposition, I shut the hell up and just watched the film for face value.  To my surprise, I was entertained.

You may not know the story of Ralph Baer, Nolan Bushnell, or even Shigeru Miyamoto, or the long-standing debates in nerd culture as to which of these three men are responsible for what we know call a video game.  Thanks to the content of this movie, you will not only meet those men but you’ll get some insight on what they contributed and why it’s understandable to consider any of them to be the “father of modern games”.  Additionally being a visual medium, this film affords people to finally see old school consoles like the Odyssey in action – and why I consider it more of a Pong clone than a game system – or even what a really old computer, the PDP-1, looked like in an MIT lab.  Things like that are cool and do add to your knowledge, even if you already knew the facts, because now you can attribute it to a moving working game.  Unfortunately for all the good it brings, this documentary gets bogged down in a limited amount of interviews, focus, and timeline of events that it feels a bit rushed and suffers with the audience for it.

dreamcastSega fans like myself will notice an apparent lack of those particular consoles in the spotlight, the most atrocious being the complete omission of the Dreamcast.  Yeah, seriously, it’s not in the entire film.  Just in case you’re wondering if it was a timeline issue, this movie features everything from Spacewar! to Destiny (running on a Playstation 4), so I have no idea why it was omitted.  Focus keeps jumping back to Nintendo’s consoles, which at first makes sense due to its larger popularity, but since the house of Mario is so good at keeping its stories and secrets locked away there are few facts to help support the events VGtM tackles.  Sega, on the other hand, has documented some of its longest, strongest, and most troubled game and hardware development stories in gaming history.  None of the big interesting tales come into play – like the origins of the Sony Playstation as a SNES CD add-on or the day that home console games took on arcade games.  For the large scale issues that are covered, like the mid 90s senate hearings over video game violence, the documentary offers no perspective or opinion, even from its interviewees.  This leaves the viewer uninformed with limited information and forced to decide whether or not they agree with it and frankly is horrible coverage.

vgtm_nb

It all wraps together in a by-the-book documentary that is one thing: safe.  No controversy here, no new stories, no opinion, and ultimately no soul.  I can’t speak to why certain decisions were made, but it seems clear that budget and time constraints were probably the largest factors as to why we are consistently leaping back and forth over the 20 year gap from 1990-2010 as a focal point and why nothing is covered in depth.  When compared to a much better executed documentary like The King of Kong, you start to notice how the opinions, tales, and drama reinforced by that film keeps you invested because, for better or worse, it is trying to say something.  VGtM is not really trying to say anything other than, perhaps, that video games are a big market and here’s some cool factoids about them.  The reality is that few have tackled the subject and Snead’s film is worth seeing, even if it didn’t quite tackle the subject the way I would have liked.  I still feel that learning about the behind-the-scenes scandals and business wars of Nintendo, Sony, and Phillips or the $100 slam of the Playstation over the Saturn plays to the masses much better than showing me a ton of blood in Mortal Kombat and mentioning that the senate once discussed gaming violence.  Either way, if you’re looking for a documentary that lays a limited portion of the video game pantheon at your feet and selectively reveals facts that anyone who grew up with games could tell you, it may be worthwhile.  I’ll be the first to admit that nostalgia is a strong factor and VGtM being in an audio/visual medium capable of showing off the games themselves makes it worth the time and price of admission.  Hopefully you can get a mixed group and find the entertainment in a flawed, but fun trip down gaming memory lane.

Video Games: The Movie is available in limited theatrical run and digitally for both rent and purchase via Amazon, VuDu, Google Play, iTunes, and at videogamesthemovie.com.  Cost for rental varies starting at $6.99 for SD with HD and purchase options up to $12.99.  The editorial writer, Fred Rojas, rented this film in HD from Amazon Instant Video for a cost of $6.99 and viewed it twice during the 1 week rental period.  No technical hang-ups occurred during either viewing.

Written by Fred Rojas

August 5, 2014 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Blog

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