Film Review: Video Games: The Movie

You'd have to be a real noob to glean anything substantial from this superficial, haphazardly structured primer on videogame history.

No longer simply the colorful arcade diversions that delighted children of the ’70s and ’80s—and ate thousands upon thousands of their quarters in the process—videogames have grown up to become what's arguably the 21st century's dominant entertainment medium. The sheer breadth of titles, genres and gameplay experiences available to today's devoted and casual gamers, not to mention the variety of outlets that host videogames (your computer, your phone and even your pedometer), would blow the mind of any kid waiting in line to take their crack at a Donkey Kong arcade standalone circa 1981.

Within the past few years, the story of the industry's propulsive growth has been chronicled in numerous articles, news reports, nonfiction books and various short and feature-length documentaries, the latter of which tend to zero in on one specific aspect of gaming culture, be it independent game-makers (2012's insightful Indie Game: The Movie) or MMORPG—that's “massively multiplayer online role playing game”—addicts (2008's Second Skin). By going big and broad in its narrative timeline and point of view, Jeremy Snead's doc Video Games: The Movie endeavors to provide the definitive cinematic textbook history of the industry, as well as the various controversies that have dogged it over the decades. Starting with the MIT dorks/visionaries responsible for creating one of the earliest recorded electronic games, Spacewar!, in 1961, the movie cruises back and forth through the subsequent decades, ticking off such notable events as the introduction of Pong in 1972, the Icarus-like rise and fall of Atari in the early ’80s as well as the Nintendo Revolution that followed, the mid-’90s console wars and up to the present-day plethora of gaming options.

Previously a director of videogame commercials and music-videos (yes, videogame music-videos are a real thing), Snead clearly understands the subject matter and, more importantly, has strong connections within the gaming industry, granting him access not only to knowledgeable talking heads, but also behind-the-scenes access to the various companies where these multi-million-dollar entertainments are designed and manufactured. Meanwhile, enlisting a celebrity like Zach Braff as an exec producer and interview subject grants him access to a certain level of star power—Donald Faison, Chloe Dykstra, Chris Hardwick and Wil Wheaton are some of the geek glitterati who appear on camera to comment on various topics and provide the target audience with faces they recognize and love (or, in some cases maybe, love to hate).

The movie's real secret weapon, though, is the skillfully edited montages of videogame clips that crop up every five minutes or so. Some are dedicated to specific games and characters (like a sequence depicting Mario's evolution from 8-bit gorilla fighter to 64-bit adventurer), while others are just a mash-up of retro and modern titles that'll make viewers alternately go "Aw man, I loved that game!" or "Aw man, I gotta play that game!" To be perfectly honest, Video Games: The Movie could have been produced as one long gaming montage peppered with occasional voiceover commentary and it would be a perfectly enjoyable way to pass 100 minutes.

That version of the film would certainly be as enlightening—if not more so—than the documentary we wind up getting. While Snead is careful to hit many of the big points in gaming history, he often glides through them too quickly to make an effective point. (This is most deeply felt in the section of the film that tackles the always hot-button subject of videogame violence, an issue that the director is clearly unprepared to deal with in any substantive way, weighing in on the debate in as perfunctory a manner as possible.) The back-and-forth structure proves distracting as well, as the movie keeps interrupting itself to pursue another line of thought, rather than devising a narrative flow that would put its different ideas on the same continuum.

And what Snead leaves out of his "official history" is substantial enough to fill at least two or three additional documentaries. Based on this version of events, for example, you'd have little idea about the importance Japanese game designers played in rescuing the medium after the Atari boom-and-bust. (Mario gets his own montage, but where's the extended segment on his creator, Shigeru Miyamoto?) Furthermore, the popularity of P.C. gaming, as well as addictive iPhone diversions like Candy Crush—one of the most popular games in the world right now—are reduced to the margins by his console-centric point-of-view. It was probably a folly to assume that one film could encapsulate the entirety of this ever-evolving medium, but Video Games: The Movie cheats its audience by pretending to offer the whole story, when it really only tells a part of it. 

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