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One In A Billion: A Man’s Quest To Reclaim His High Score

by AJ Moser on Jun 26, 2016 at 08:13 AM

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The 1982 arcade game Nibbler may seem simple on the surface, but it has left a detailed legacy of emotion, high stakes, competition, and impressive feats of athleticism. Man Vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler is a new documentary from directors Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy that chronicles the decades-long trial to find the one true world champion of Nibbler.

Selkir and Kinzy bonded during their time working as editors on Battlestar Galactica in the mid-2000s, when they would play games on a home-made arcade machine late at night to blow off steam as they worked under strict deadlines. While playing through a number of games, the two discovered Nibbler.

“The game is deceptively simple,” said Andrew Seklir. “It starts off very slow and kind of manageable. You improve with the game as it gets harder.”

Anyone who played the game Snake on a cell phone or web player will recognize Nibbler, but at the time it was brand new to the two editors. After trading high scores, they grew competitive about the game, leading Tim Kinzy to discover the story of Tim McVey.

Filmmakers Kinzy and Seklir with a Nibbler game cabinet.

“I was pretty driven to beat Andy,” Kinzy said.  “I thought maybe someone has heard of this game and there’s a pattern or strategy. When I looked it up online, I found a picture from Tim McVey Day, and saw there were way too many zeroes in his high score.”

Tim McVey is not a well-known name in the gaming community. Perhaps it’s because a Google search redirects to Tim McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, or maybe because of McVey’s quiet seclusion in Oskaloosa, Iowa. An area once known as a mecca for video game enthusiasts, Walter Day’s Twin Galaxies arcade is located nearby and icons like and Billy Mitchell (King of Kong) were close friends of his.

At 16 years old, McVey’s claim to fame was becoming the first person to ever score a billion points in any video game. Achieving the feat in Nibbler took a grand total of 44 hours and only one quarter.

“What really got me attracted to (Nibbler) was the speed,” McVey said. “A lot of the games in the arcades back in the early eighties, to me, were a little bit on the boring side. I always liked fast games.”

After watching a fellow gamer attempt the high score at Nibbler, McVey was inspired by Walter Day, the owner of Twin Galaxies arcade. Day pushed him to aim for the first billion point game and McVey went for it.

“It took about three or four weeks to get adjusted to the speed,” McVey said. “It looks stupid easy when you’re watching someone play it, but it’s actually pretty difficult. You need decent reflexes and hand eye coordination. But once you’re good at it, the question becomes how long you can keep playing.”

Fighting physical pain and exhaustion, Tim McVey pushed himself through nearly two full days of playing the game to conquer the billion point mark. To commemorate his achievement, McVey was given a key to the city, a parade was held in his honor, and January 28 was declared “Tim McVey Day” in Ottumwa, Iowa.

“We found an article from the ‘80s,” Seklir remembers. “We were pretty low at that time, I think I was in pain trying to get close to a hundred thousand, and I saw that billion points, and I thought how could that be possible? When I dug deeper into the story, it really captivated my imagination.”

The film features a number of light-hearted animated sequences.

Seeing all the hallmarks of a great story, Seklir and Kinzy decided to try and find McVey and produce a film about the first billion point game. The original idea was to publish the short on YouTube, but once they started rolling cameras and interviewed McVey, the self-proclaimed “accidental documentarians” stumbled onto a larger story.

Multiple challengers came for McVey’s score from around the world. One player, Enrico Zanetti from Italy, claimed to have beaten the original score after reading about Tim in VideoGiochi, a popular gaming magazine.

“I started to wonder if I could do it again,” McVey said. “There’s been controversy about different scores around the world, and I didn’t know about Enrico Zanetti at the time, but if he just barely beat my score, I said ‘I can do better than that.’ I wanted to push myself.”

The film picks up with McVey in his forties, his legacy in question, and follows the various attempts he underwent to emerge as the game’s world champion.

“When they contacted me, everything changed,” he continues. “They said ‘do you think you could still do it?’ It’s just weird how everything fell into place.”

Returning to the game after twenty five years was no easy feat, and the film chronicles a series of ups-and – downs following the quest for a new high score.

Tim McVey, the first gamer to score a billion points in an arcade game.

“The average marathon of Nibbler if you’re anywhere near the billion points is around the 40 hour mark,” McVey said. “The first time I tried it, I was a lot younger, a lot more energetic, and staying up all night didn’t seem like a big deal.”

The film presents these marathons like sporting events, in the spirit of Rocky Balboa and the Karate Kid. Part of this comes from the clever and joyous editing from Seklir and Kinzy, but also from the unique skills of McVey captured in the story.

“I challenge anyone who says there’s no athleticism involved to sit down and try it,” McVey said. “There’s considerable pain involved. As I get older, sitting in that position sitting for extended periods of time, I’m gonna get tired.”

McVey’s endurance and fight through exhaustion is the main focus of Man Vs. Snake, but the film also tells an inspiring true story about the sense of camaraderie shared by a community of gamers as they challenged each other and themselves.

“There’s inherent drama in a guy trying to stay up for two days playing a video game,” Selkir said. “Something is going to happen. To see the hours that it takes, it’s a long, lonely road to get there. I think the film captures it to an extent, but unless you’re doing it, you don’t really know what it’s like.”

The full story of Tim McVey and the game Nibbler is told in Man Vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler. It will be available June 24 on video streaming platforms.