What Video Games: The Movie inadvertently says about mainstream games

Video Games: The Movie takes a breezy tour of history, but shows mainstream gaming in a less than favourable light, Ryan writes...

There is no propaganda in the Star Wars movies. You don’t see posters devoted to praising Emperor Palpatine’s benign leadership. You don’t see adverts or bill board posters positioning Darth Vader as a wheezing man of the people.

But if you did see propaganda in the Star Wars universe, it might look a little bit like Video Games: The Movie – a slickly-produced, 105-minute hymn to an industry that is itself an all-conquering empire. Valued at approximately $66bn in 2013, gaming is now the most lucrative form of entertainment on the planet – and filmmaker Jeremy Snead’s documentary charts the medium’s rise with unquestioning fervour, from its bleeping, rudimentary inception in the middle of the 20th century to its technically astonishing achievements in the present.

There are contributions from such game design names as Hideo Kojima, Nolan Bushnell and Cliff Bleszinski, copious clips of adverts, footage from 70s and 80s arcades, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of games being made in cavernous, air-conditioned offices. Max Landis, Wil Wheaton, Donald Faison and Max Landis chip in with their own thoughts and opinions, and Sean Astin ties it all together with laid-back, user-friendly narration. So why does this lengthy, colourful chronology feel so unsatisfying? 

This simple answer, perhaps, is that it’s so painfully lacking in depth and analysis. The familiar stories from gaming’s growing years are all present and correct: the early pioneers, like Tennis For Two and Space War. Pong. The Magnavox Odyssey. The rise and precipitous fall of Atari. The copies of E.T. buried in the dessert. The Nintendo Entertainment System. The PlayStation. And so on, and so on.

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For the constantly shrinking sector of society who know little about games or their origins, this is possibly fun, informative stuff. For anyone else – particularly those who grew up with videogames as their cultural wallpaper – it is, to borrow a phrase from the late Roger Ebert, “a tour of one’s own living room”.

It’s also an unquestioningly cheery, airbrushed tour, with major controversies – most obviously, violence and its effect on kids – dealt with hurriedly and with little in the way of deeper investigation. According to Video Games: The Movie, there was only one genuinely bad game in history, and that came out in 1982 and ended up in a New Mexico landfill.

What’s most interesting about the documentary is that it raises some pertinent and quite troubling questions almost by accident. Airbrushed though this portrait of the games industry is, some of the warts still show through the sleek layers of paint.

Take, for example, this quote from a games designer, uttered circa 2013:

“You start layering on all the really rich assets. Things like a great story, the high-fidelity art, the fully-detailed characters, and once you start marrying this super high production quality with those original bare-bones prototypes in your design ideas, you can start really bringing the product together.”

There’s something eerily on-message and corporate-approved about this statement. The words ‘art’, ‘character’, ‘story’ and ‘design’ suggest warmth and creativity, but all the other ones come straight from a board room meeting with hard-nosed shareholders. The video games medium is still young and experimental, but it’s also heavily under the control of big corporations with huge amounts of money at risk. How else do you explain that strange collection of words quoted above? It’s the kind of talk that only makes sense in the context of a PowerPoint presentation. 

Of course, major companies have long recognised the lucrative power of video games. Back in the early 80s, when the 2600 console was still in its pomp, a marketing person at Atari pointed at one of its  machines and said, “Do you know what that is? A license to print money.” The jargon-filled utterances of that games designer in 2013 arguably began here.

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Like any commercial industry, game design is a constant stand-off between artistic expression and the need to make money. In some instances, the art wins the day, resulting in such small yet immaculately-sculpted games as, say, Flower or Braid. These games are only briefly glimpsed in Video Games: The Movie; like the industry at large, the documentary is dominated by such behemoths as Call Of Duty, Grand Theft Auto or FIFA.

In fact, the documentary’s narrow depiction of the present-day games scene is oddly disquieting. It offers up an alternate reality of aggressive hype and fervent fan devotion. There are shots of young men, moving along in great swarms to pick up their latest console from a shop. There are scenes at a gaming tournament, where more crowds of young men are lit up by blue laser light, some concentrating intently, others clapping and screaming euphorically. Then there are the people who make the games: young men, hard at work at their desks in those air-conditioned offices.

Of the talking heads featured in Video Games: The Movie, only two are women, and neither is directly connected to game development: one is Alison Haislip, actress and former Attack Of The Show presenter, while the other is Chloe Dykstra, an actress and model who presents the YouTube show Heroes Of Cosplay. Although the documentary never specifically addresses the issue of gender in the games industry, it inadvertently highlights the lack of diversity that still exists, both in development and the games themselves.

What the documentary shows us is a medium that has exploded in terms of technical sophistication and popularity over the space of a few decades, but is still in its nascent stages. It still needs different, diverse figures who can twist the medium into new and unexpected shapes. It’s an art form that is rich with possibility, but is still largely dominated by guns, explosions and male power fantasies. 

On the surface, the story of video games is of a medium constantly climbing a technological ladder, from the black-and-white 2D graphics of Pong and Space Invaders to the detailed, 3D models of the current generation. That ladder then stretches up into future darkness, where utterly convincing virtual reality games no doubt wait for us. But beneath that surface are a legion other stories, each forming part of gaming’s rich history, and each proving that games haven’t gone through a smooth ascension, but a series of fits, starts, mistakes and evolutionary dead ends.

One or two of those stories are occasionally teased in Video Games: The Movie. In one brief behind-the-scenes shot, we see a designer tinkering with the graphics in a cut-scene from Aliens: Colonial Marines. Viewers who know anything about games will be aware that Colonial Marines was one of the most anticipated yet critically panned titles of recent times. It took years to make, but emerged as a broken, disappointing  mess. What went wrong? Did that designer, moving around a digital version of Lance Henriksen on his computer screen, know the game he was making was headed for trouble?

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It’s these kinds of stories that could form the basis of an alternate documentary about videogame history – one that looks at the human nuances rather than the frenzied marketing, flash graphics and armies of fanboys.

Looking at the industry from a remote perspective might give the impression of a smooth progression to today’s marketing-ready, hype-heavy landscape, where each major release is another technical marvel with rich assets layered in. But behind even the biggest, most hyped game lies an army of individuals – artists, designers, writers, programmers, musicians, actors – each with their own experiences of an industry that has expanded beyond all recognition over the past four decades.

The designer of the infamous E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Howard Scott Renshaw, was also responsible for one of the best games of the early 1980s: Yars’ Revenge. Jaron Lanier began as a videogame designer for Atari, later coined the term Virtual Reality, and is now an author of such books as You Are Not A Gadget. Kyle Gabler and Ron Carmel were designers at one of the biggest publishers in the world, EA, before they left to make the puzzle game World Of Goo in the mid-2000s. Carol Shaw, Kellee Santiago and Rhianna Pratchett have each blazed a trail in a male-dominated medium.

What does the growth of videogames look like to those people? How have they seen the industry move and change? What do they foresee in its future? It’s in those individual voices, not the accepted version of events, that the true, warts-and-all story of gaming’s history lies.

Video Games: The Movie is available to stream now from its website.

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