Video Games: The Movie review

This documentary attempts to be the definitive overview of the gaming phenomenon, with mixed results.

My personal love affair with video games began with the much-maligned Atari 2600 version of Pac-Man. Although the home version of Bally/Midway’s dot-munching classic was to its arcade inspiration what Cecilia Gimenez’s so-called Monkey Jesus retooling was to Elías García Martínez’s orginal Ecce Homo fresco, five-year-old me could not get enough of it. I could sit on the floor of my living room playing video games in my pajamas and eating cereal? Yes and please!

After the Atari became old hat, my desire for more electronic diversions led to the Commodore 64, then the NES, then the Sega Genesis, and on and on and on leading to the release of the recent Ouya console. At this point, I can’t imagine my life without the gaming that I so enjoy. 

I’m guessing, neither can you.

So it’s a safe bet that Video Games: The Movie is on your radar. Writer/director Jeremy Snead’s new documentary first garnered attention last year with a successful Kickstarter campaign. Snead was able to enlist a variety of creators, experts, and celebrities (including narrator Sean Astin and Executive Producer Zach Braff) to help bring this valentine to gaming to life.

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His love for the film’s subject is apparent in every frame of the film, though, as viewers soon find out, that isn’t necessarily a good thing. The film is frontloaded with infodumps that keep repeating the same basic mantra of “video games are awesome, and they are here to stay.” It then jumps around chronologically to discuss topics such as the birth of gaming, the history of consoles, the rise of PC gaming, and the future of gaming…which will apparently include, sigh, a comeback for virtual reality.

This time-shifting framework can be a bit frustrating, and you’ll wish more effort was spent on shaping the film’s narrative structure than creating montages of gaming footage. Likewise, its grandiose approach towards its subject matter is laughable at times (Gandhi is quoted on screen), and at one point a talking head mentions how gaming now gives nerds who don’t fit in a place to do so, a statement that was definitely accurate in the 1980s but woefully out of date now given our current electonics-driven climate. There are also topics like the role arcades played in the rise of gaming culture and the controversies regarding video game violence that are only briefly touched upon. These issues demand further inspection, but unfortunately the documentary’s running time doesn’t allow for it.

Despite not having the same entertainment appeal of The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (which is still the definitive documentary on the human aspect of gaming), there is a lot here for gamers and non-gamers alike to enjoy and relate to. Early on, Wil Wheaton perfectly sums up the appeal of gaming by stating how it makes the player “an active participant instead of a passive observer.” Such insights captivate, and they get to the very core of why gaming has become an unstoppable global phenomenon. Extra lives go to Snead for gathering a really impressive roster of speakers, including Nolan Bushnell (arguably the father of video gaming, as you will see in the film), Pitfall creator/Activision legend David Crane, and Nerdist creator Chris Hardwick.

Later in the film, much screentime is given to how online gaming helps strangers develop friendships and relationships, and creates an impenetrable bond. This point is illustrated by the movie’s most touching sequence, the story of how gaming helped Gearbox writer Mike Neumann recover from a stroke. These stories of how the pasttime have a tangible impact on people’s lives are much needed, and they really help Snead prove his basic thesis that games enrich our society in often immeasurable ways.

During an interview featured in the film, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima states that games “will change and evolve, but they will forever be a part of our global culture.” Where the doc succeeds most is showcasing a fast-moving exploration of the how, where and why this may be so. Here Snead creates a film that attempts to cover the entire spectrum of gaming life. This ambitiousness is both a strength and weakness, yet even with its flaws Video Game: The Movie is a documentary worthy of putting the joystick down for.

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3.5 out of 5