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Video Games: The Movie Review

As the title suggests, Video Games: The Movie aims to tell the entire history of the industry in a little over an hour and a half. Whether it's due to having too wide a focus or just poor craftsmanship, the film is unsatisfying, shallow, and oddly structured.

As a longtime game journalist, I'm glad to see that documentarians are turning their eye toward video games; the industry is full of stories that deserve to be told. Unlike recent films like Indie Game: The Movie or Free To Play, which were structured around a handful of individual people, Video Games: The Movie aims higher. It's intended to be a comprehensive history of video games, from its humble mid-century beginnings to the commercial dominance of today.

It is a noble idea. Director Jeremy Snead reached out to fans on Kickstarter in 2013 and raised $107,235 - well over his goal of $60,000. I assume much more was contributed by executive producers actor Zach Braff (Garden State), game designer Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War), and Sony executive David Perry (PlayStation Now). The film has top-notch production values, including a plethora of animated infographics and an effective opening-credits sequence that details the evolution of games over time.

Sadly, production values mean little when the film itself is so muddled. It's one of the most strangely structure documentaries I've ever seen. Instead of progressing in chronological order, Video Games: The Movie speeds through its entire timeline in the first half hour, then bounces back in time spotlighting aspects of the industry's history seemingly at random. One minute someone is extolling the popularity of League of Legends competitions, the next we're back in the mid-'90s discussing the controversy over video game violence.

The film clearly struggles to cover the breadth of history that would have easily filled a multi-part, Ken Burns-style documentary series. It also violates a fundamental rule of storytelling: show, don't tell. Video Games: The Movie is larded with soundbites from talking heads, as important as Atari co-founder Nolan Bushnell and superfluous as ex-Scrubs actor Donald Faison. The insights provided can be insightful, but are too often glib and come at the expense of the film relaying the events at hand to the viewer. For example, you could come away from the section on game violence with no knowledge that the fight made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court a few years ago, in favor of outspoken game composer Tommy Tallarico saying "Hitler didn't play Crash Bandicoot."


The director also leans too heavily on montages set to various strains of chipper indie music - to the point where the entire early history of PC games is reduced to a minute or so of footage ending with EverQuest. Much of the film also seems to be reduced to mere cheerleading for the industry. In an opening set of infographics, narrator Sean Astin spends the viewer's valuable time extolling the virtues and effectiveness of the industry's ESRB ratings. Executive producer David Perry of Sony and Phil Spencer of Microsoft are allowed to drone on about the (highly debatable at the time of this writing) achievements of "cloud gaming." This overly credulous tone, coupled with the musical montages, makes the movie feel more like a promotional video to be shown at an E3 press conference than a proper film. If you are a fan of Wil Wheaton, this is the history of video games for you. The former Star Trek actor's thoughts and opinions are widely featured in the movie, much more so than legendary developers like Peter Molyneux and Hideo Kojima.

As the film flailed around, I wondered who the intended audience is. Most gamers with a cursory knowledge of the game industry won't learn much of substance. At the same time, it's not well organized or compelling enough to sustain the interest of a general moviegoer.

Some interesting footage surfaces of the industry's early "Wild West" days during the reign of Atari and some priceless video of old game commercials. The director also does a great job of conveying the passion of the fans and game designers he interviewed. For many games are much more than just a hobby, and that love and enthusiasm shows through.

Enthusiasm is one thing; craftsmanship is another. Video Games: The Movie has the former in abundance, but its lack of the former prevents it from telling a compelling tale. As a gamer, I'm glad I watched it, if only for the segments with some of my favorite creators and the wealth of vintage footage and photos. As a fan of film, I'm still waiting for the comprehensive documentary that video games deserve.


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