Ranking high on the list of movies you can’t quite believe nobody thought to make previously, “Video Games: The Movie” provides a slick, entertaining survey of electronic gaming’s history to date. Most folks under 50 are likely to find it all nostalgic fun; most folks over 50 needn’t bother, especially since Jeremy Snead’s documentary provides so little critical analysis, it eventually feels like a glorified promotional tool for an industry that, as noted here, now outstrips music and movies with its estimated $24 billion annual revenue. The Variance release hits U.S. and Canadian theaters July 18, digital platforms three days earlier; prospects should be hale by nonfiction cinema standards.
While opinions differ on the form’s origin point, the pic points at the seminal moment in 1962 when MIT staff and students created a game to showcase the abilities of a new computer with a then-novel display screen. Leading the charge into commercial arcades was Atari, which debuted “Pong” in 1972. Founder Nolan Bushnell says it soon became clear that the most popular games were “simple to learn but impossible to master,” making them addictively engrossing. As memory capacities grew, the rudimentary graphics of such early hits as “Pac-Man” and “Space Invaders” gave way to ever more elaborate designs, encompassing story elements, realistic figure rendering and immersive environments.
Frequently returning to a 3D timeline of developments, “Video Games: The Movie” checks off the arrival of significant companies, games and devices over the ensuing decades, including Nintendo, “Super Mario Bros.,” “Mortal Kombat,” Sony Playstation, “Tomb Raider,” Xbox, “Myst,” “Doom” and so on. Once treated as a fad by the huge corporations that now largely own and develop them, vidgames reached a point of market saturation in 1983, when the “legendary” flop of a heavily promoted, hastily designed “E.T.”-related dud helped prompt a backlash. Consumers tired of subpar product demanded and eventually received more innovative and interactive releases. Executive producer Zach Braff (the biggest name among a handful of middleweight celebrity enthusiasts interviewed) claims today that games rep “the ultimate example of art and science working together.”
There’s certainly a lot of colorful eye-candy to be had here, given the huge number of games excerpted onscreen. But there’s no real discussion of what constitute the medium’s real artistic highlights to date, or why. There’s a sunny take on the “global society” of players who compete, sometimes meet, develop real-world friendships, get married, and even experience their “shared passion” as a means of healing (or at least distracting) from personal loss or injury.
But long-standing (if shaky) accusations that gaming can be harmful are disposed of all too glibly. One interviewee notes, quite reasonably, that many other nations that have the same videogames don’t share our sky-high crime statistics; still, the extremely violent and misogynist fantasies peddled by many games can’t simply be shrugged off as “entertainment.” Other questions, such as whether obsessive gaming can shorten youthful attention spans or reduce the ability to learn in less hyper-stimulating situations, go unaddressed here. It’s posited that the lean-forward experience, as opposed to the lean-back one (gaming vs. the non-interactive media of movies, music or books), “lets you live the dream.” But really, how useful is a dream if it involves sitting alone for hours fighting imaginary dragons or gangbangers?
Those are matters for another film, or several. “Video Games: The Movie” is content to celebrate without much insight. It offers brief, general appreciation of the enormous time and team effort that can go into game creation, from idea to voice acting to market testing. As if made for Comic-Con, the pic ends with the promise that the future can only be bigger, better and full of surprises. Such a lightweight industry portrait isn’t really flattered by the inclusion of some very lofty onscreen quotes from Gandhi, JFK and the like.
The lineup of interviewed designers, engineers, execs, marketers and so forth is well chosen (if predictably light on women who aren’t just fans — another topic left unaddressed), and well integrated into a lively, smartly paced whole. Packaging is glossy, with diverse pop tracks adding more flavor than Craig Richey’s original score.