The lights are on
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
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
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
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.