Video Game Documentaries: Helping Movies Understand Games

We look at how video game documentaries are helping studios understand the merits of gaming.

Hollywood has always had an awkward relationship with video games. Studios are scared of them because they’re a threat, and something else for teenagers to spend money on instead of big summer movies. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of money in games, and Hollywood wants some of that — but they’ve never properly worked out how. Ever since 1993’s Super Mario Bros, there has been a steady stream of movies based on video game properties, and their guaranteed awfulness has become a running joke. And while that’s slightly unfair on a few films (Raul Julia totally makes Street Fighter worthwhile), it’s not without reason.

And even when they’re not based on an actual title, attempts to make movies more broadly also tend to be terrible. The Last Starfighter, WarGames, and Tron get by on nostalgia (and the latter’s revolutionary effects), but they are pretty much the best of the bunch. Remember The Wizard, the feature length Nintendo commercial? Or ’80s sex comedy Joysticks? Then there are those otherwise forgettable action films that use games iconography as a gimmick, like Gamer, The Lawnmower Man, or even Spy Kids 3D. David Cronenberg’s eXistenZis great, but it doesn’t feel like it was made by someone who has never actually played a video game. Things have improved recently with the likes of Scott Pilgrim and Wreck-It Ralph, but then again, last year we also got Pixels

There is, however, an area where cinema is actually getting games right: documentaries. There has been a small wave of non-fiction films recently that really seem to understand games, and their place in culture — and more importantly that are actually really good pieces of work. Films like 2014’s Atari: Game Over, 2012’s Indie Game, and this year’s The Lost Arcade.

The film that kicked off this cycle was 2007’s The King Of Kong, about the battle for the world record high score on the original Donkey Kong. The film follows loveable schlubby dad Steve Wiebe as he attempts to wrestle the record from his nemesis, the bearded, mulleted, egotistical hot sauce magnate Billy Mitchell, who is basically an IRL Will Ferrell character. Even if it doesn’t sound like the most exciting subject matter, it’s actually one of the most riveting documentaries ever made, that has you physically cheering for Wiebe by the end.

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It is, essentially a sports documentary. And that’s maybe why these films work. To an out of touch studio exec, games and movies probably seem pretty similar — they fill your TV with action heroes and CGI explosions. But actually, they are far more like sport. Ryu and Ken’s stories aren’t really the story you care about — it’s about you practicing and beating the computer, or destroying your friends. From Hoop Dreams to Senna to When We Were Kings, sports has consistently been a subject for documentaries that reach an audience far wider than just sports fans. Sports docs can tell human stories, or be a lens to examine society, and now docs about games are doing the same.

It’s interesting note that a lot of these films fit standard, established documentary modes. Indie Game looks at the burgeoning independent videogame development scene, and follows the struggles of three developers behind cult hits Super Meat BoyFez, and Braid. It is a film about driven, sometimes eccentric artists and outsiders — much like classics such as The Devil And Daniel JohnsonCrumb, or American Movie

Atari: Game Over, directed by X-Men and Avengers screenwriter Zak Penn, is a classic rise and fall story — of how Atari’s young game designer lived the high life then came crashing down when the American console market collapsed in 1983, framed around an investigation into the urban legend that thousands of unsold Atari cartridges were buried in a New Mexico desert. It is story of a company that burned brightly but briefly, much like those told in other docs like Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story Of Cannon Films.

The latest film to add to this list is The Lost Arcade, which hits VOD shortly. This one centres around the last arcade in New York’s Chinatown, as it closes its doors for the final time. Obviously, if you wasted a good amount of your youth pumping quarters into Street Fighter II, then you’ll love it. But it also one of those great films about New York, that can stand alongside Dark Days and Paris Is Burning. Teenage runaways ended up living at the arcade, and the film is full of wonderful archive footage of Times Square, and Chinatown, and a New York that doesn’t exist anymore.

There’s one other recent documentary that doesn’t fit in with this wave, that shows how far we’ve come. Video Game: The Movie is a standard talking heads doc, narrated by a nerd-friendly famous voice (LOTR’s Sean Astin). It attempts to fit the entire history of the medium and the artform into 100 minutes. You wouldn’t attempt to squeeze the entire history of film, or football or boxing, into an hour and a half. This doc treats games as something exotic, that you need your hand held going through. But games are mainstream now. Everyone’s growing up with them, and has a relationship with them, whether it is Candy Crush or Skyrim. The makers of The King Of KongAtari: Game Over and The Lost Arcade know that, and are using them to tell stories about people, not games.

Follow Wil on Twitter @achinglychic.