Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for this. Read on though and you’ll see how that’s clearly not affected my view of it.
When it comes to video game documentaries, I’ll watch pretty much whatever I can get my hands on. As a medium, it’s had little coverage in this form and as someone who takes as much an interest in where games come from as the games itself, I lap this stuff up. When Video Games: The Movie first announced its Kickstarter, I backed it at the level to get the movie at release without hesitation. I knew little about its creator but I just wanted to see more of this stuff get made and when it came out today, I dove right in. Unfortunately, it’s ultimately just a shallow, gushy love letter that preaches to the choir and little else.
It turns out Video Games: The Movie’s writer/producer/director Jeremy Snead, actually does video work for the industry itself, often in the form of trailers. This is evident when you watch the movie. It’s full of quick cuts, licensed musical backings and flashy motion graphics, where I surprisingly noticed more than a few glaring typos (geez guys, it’s spelled veteran, not veteren.) It also has no sense of pace, always feeling like it’s in a rush, spazzing back and forth between time periods and topics with no consistent flow. You can look away for a minute and come back to see it talking about something not at all related to what it was before. Despite clocking in at over 90 minutes, it still manages to skip all kinds of important industry history, including several of prominent game consoles and it all but entirely ignores the massive role personal computers played in the rise of the medium. It hits a lot of the key historical beats that most people already know about and doesn’t even acknowledge many others. As someone who already knows a lot of this history, I found myself dumbstruck by how much was omitted.
A number of industry veterans and fans of the medium are interviewed throughout, everyone from Nolan Bushnell to Wil Wheaton to Hideo Kojima to Chris Hardwick. There’s a couple of important historical figures but not as many as I’d like to have seen in a movie ostensibly about the industry’s past. I also have to say that including three people who were also listed as being Executive Producers (a reward for backing the project at the $10,000 level) felt a little weird to me. Especially David Perry and Cliff Blezsinski, both of whom got segments dedicated to pimping technologies they both have investments in (cloud gaming and VR respectively.) All of this is backed by narration from Sean Astin, whose delivery is so wooden that I honestly wouldn’t have known he was in it if his name wasn’t in the credits.
My big issues are with how the movie presents information and what it leaves out. As I said above, many important gaming systems and basically computers as a whole are excluded in all but a pass on a motion graphic timeline. In addition, several key elements of gaming’s history are either omitted or distilled down to the point of misrepresentation. A segment is devoted to the famous 1980s crash that all but killed the console business until Nintendo came around and revived it. Notice there that I said the console business. Computer gaming actually thrived after the crash but nowhere is this mentioned. The movie also blames Atari’s infamous E.T. game as what caused the crash, when in fact is was just the most prominent story of a crash that was already well in progress by that point. Later, a segment is jarringly shoved into the middle of the movie to deal with the subject of gaming violence and it’s demonising by politicians. Rather than show how this came about and how it’s since largely gone away, it just spends several minutes hammering on about how violent kids are a parental problem, not a gaming problem and how wrong everyone is to blame them. Guess what guys? We won that fight already! The US Supreme Court was with us and aside from an occasional tabloid story, violence in video games is no longer a mainstream cultural issue. This was a movie made largely in 2014, why are you still acting like we’re on the defensive?
Beyond that, Video Games: The Movie deals with almost no other criticisms of the gaming industry. It’s cultural impacts, social impacts, the problems of representation, the business challenges that have been building for more than a decade and are coming to a head right now, there’s no mention of any of these. Most of the information is presented in the form of either old trailers or commercials, many of which are clearly low quality pulls from YouTube and occasionally with an industry personality talking over them. Those are fine in moderation but it’s not really what I want to see the majority of a documentary consist of. Furthermore, this movie which is supposed to be about the medium, spends almost all its time focused on the AAA side of the business. Indie games get a short segment to tout the same usual lines about creative and corporate freedom, mobile games are left out entirely except for Angry Birds, the cultural revolution that is Minecraft only gets some B-roll and aside from a mention of Steam by Wil Wheaton, the resurgence of PC gaming is ignored. Don’t get me wrong, I love AAA games and am glad to see something these days that doesn’t just speak cynically of them but it also feels like Snead is kind of kissing up to the industry that provides his bread and butter when he’s not making documentaries about it.
Make no mistake, this is a love letter to the medium and the industry of video games but my question is, who was this actually made for? People who are existing fans of video games probably know a lot of what the movie talks about already. Preaching to the choir is fine and all but did you need a crowd funded documentary to tell people a stripped down version of what they already know and love? If you’re someone who doesn’t care about video games, I don’t see how this is going to change your mind about anything. If you’re hoping to get a history lesson, you’re better to spend a couple of hours on Wikipedia where you’ll actually get a complete story.
Video Games: The Movie is a documentary that uses a flashy presentation to cover up the fact that there’s little underneath. What information hasn’t been excluded has been boiled down and distilled to something that doesn’t do justice to the history it’s trying to convey. This is a movie made for people who are just going to nod their heads in agreement with it because they were already sold on its ideas before they even sat down. Documentaries are supposed to be more than that, they’re supposed to provoke independent thought and discussion and enlighten from those. All this does is just go “VIDEO GAMES AMIRITE GUYS?!” for over an hour and a half and honestly, I think we can do better than this.