Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Nerd's Work Is Never Done – Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie & The Legend of The Atari Burial

The Atari dig in Alamogordo, New Mexico, April 2014.

In 1983, Atari, Inc   the reigning monarch of the global video gaming market at the time   buried over 700,000 of its popular Atari 2600 game cartridges and consoles in a New Mexico landfill. This was the final act of a company which would shut its doors shortly afterward and fade into pop culture history, thanks to a massive industry blowout now known as the North American Video Game Crash of 1983. The one game which could be said to have caused this collapse was Atari's E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a tie-in product based on the Steven Spielberg movie.

But how could a single title tank an entire home console empire? The answer is that due to negotiations to secure the film rights taking far longer than anticipated, Howard Scott Warshaw, the game's programmer and lead designer, was given only five weeks to complete the game for release in the 1982 Christmas season leading to one of the biggest commercial failures in video game history and a title that is frequently cited as one of the worst video games ever released: a cryptic, ugly, and incomprehensible adaptation of a beloved children's film. Burying the hundreds of thousands of worthless, unsold cartridges left over must have seemed like an excellent idea.

But the veracity surrounding the details of the story became unclear with time, and soon few were sure whether or not the infamous Atari burial ever actually took place. Investigations by fans of gaming history produced inconclusive results, and the story soon took on the spectre of an urban legend. Who really knows what lies out there in the New Mexico desert? This mystery resulted in existing copies of the game more than tripling their original value, collectors becoming desperate to own such a rare piece of gaming history even one so sordid as E.T..

James Rolfe as the Angry Video Game Nerd in Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie

One such collector and a legend of video gaming in his own right is James Rolfe, better known by his alter ego, the Angry Video Game Nerd (or AVGN). Rolfe's website and production company, Cinemassacre, has produced online episodes of comedic retrogaming reviews since 2004, and in that time the titular Nerd has produced hundreds of episodes and spawned legions of imitators on YouTube and elsewhere. In 2006, Rolfe was enjoying the explosive success of his web series, and realized he finally had the means to achieve his lifelong dream of becoming a professional feature filmmaker, by writing, directing, and starring in a feature-length Angry Video Game Nerd movie. After years of refusing constant requests by fans to review Atari's notorious E.T., Rolfe decided that the plot of his film would centre around the Nerd facing his worst fear, and finally reviewing the game. Of course, this would require him to travel to New Mexico, and find out once and for all whether or not the legends were really true.

A 2014 documentary released on Xbox Live called Atari: Game Over chronicled the 2013 excavation of the burial site in Alamogordo, NM, in which hundreds of Atari cartridges were indeed uncovered and auctioned off putting the urban legend to rest once and for all. This revelation, however, didn't bother Rolfe, whose film takes a much more demented approach to the tale by suggesting that the buried cartridges contained parts of the alien spacecraft which supposedly landed near Area 51 in the late 1940s, part of a conspiracy led by fanatical (and thankfully fictional) U.S. Army General Dark Onward. This is well in keeping with Rolfe's bombastic and exaggerated comedy style, which Angry Video Game Nerd: The Movie delivers in generous helpings. The Nerd (who neither has nor needs any other name) is joined by his friend and fellow game reviewer Cooper (Jeremy Suarez) and corporate sponsor Mandi (Sarah Glendening) in his attempt to uncover the mystery at the heart of the Atari burial, while dodging the maniacal Onward and his goons, and enlisting the help of crackpot scientist Dr. Zandor, legions of adoring fans, and even Howard Scott Warshaw himself (who appears to deliver a rousing inspirational speech about the importance of the Nerd's frank and unapologetic search for truth). Even schlock maestro Lloyd Kaufman, occasional guest on the AVGN show, pokes his head out for a cameo. Chases, escapes, explosions, giant city-stomping monsters, and countless lowbrow gags ensue.

The Nerd and friends, in Angry Video Game Nerd: The  Movie.

AVGN: The Movie is deliberately designed to match the production style of Rolfe's original home-made web series, which was entirely filmed and set in his basement (which is covered, floor-to-ceiling, in classic gaming paraphernalia and collectibles) meaning the film is a glut of hilarious lo-fi special effects, from lovingly-made miniatures to poorly-composited VFX shots in which smudged green screen artifacts are clearly visible. It's also full of the gross-out toilet humour characteristic of the Nerd (in an early scene, he sprays a fountain of neon-green puke at Mandi when she shows him the prototype of "Ee-Tee 2"). And, also in keeping with the AVGN web series, the dialogue is sharp and clever, from throwaway gags ("Do you even know where Area 51 is?" asks Cooper, to which the Nerd scoffs "Somewhere between Areas 50 and 52?") to genuinely funny jokes (such as the geek-phobic Onward proclaiming that "Sometimes you have to break a few eggheads to make a homeland security omelet"). An excellent score by Bear McCreary, comprised of heavy metal music, a symphonic orchestra, and synthesized 8-bit gaming console sounds also bolsters the film. Some awkward pacing and an overlong runtime challenged my attention, but Rolfe pretty much nails the B-movie feel he's going for, and ends up with a smooth, well-produced, and ultimately very entertaining gamer culture achievement.

AVGN: The Movie doesn't really recommend itself to non-gamers and those unfamiliar with the AVGN web series (the film's $325k budget was entirely crowdfunded through Indiegogo, making it a project for a niche audience although the film's opening does establish the character and legacy of the Nerd for the uninitiated). But even with its cavalier attitude, the film engages with some undeniably fascinating history. In retrospect, it will be AVGN: The Movie, and not factually-based productions like Atari: Game Over, that will prove valuable in capturing the zeitgeist of this strange cultural event in its truest form. It's a film by gamers, for gamers and who would be better to document the excitement, the mystery, and the vindication of such a unique period in the history of gaming?

– Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid film buff, gamer, and industry commentator since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade. He is currently helping to make awesome games at Ubisoft Toronto, and continues to pursue a career in professional criticism.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I knew none of this stuff. What an interesting article/review. Good work, Mr. Cummings.