Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Extra Lives: Four Documentaries on Gaming

Billy Mitchell in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

As a window into the fascination of global life and the odd and wonderful stories that course through it, documentaries are ideally suited to the subject of gaming. There are fewer subcultures more passionate, more insular, more enduring, and more compelling than “those who play games.” I view video game documentaries, whose numbers seem to have swelled considerably in the past five years, with twofold appreciation: I identify with the culture they depict, being a lifelong gamer myself, surrounding myself with other enthusiasts, and now working with those people to create games; and I believe they buzz with the same electric fascination for the casual viewer as, say, a documentary about tribal Amazonian natives. Gamers are imaginative, competitive, and wildly varied, so the scope of such a film can be as wide as human diversity itself. Simply put, video game documentaries can make for an enthralling watch, even if you’re not a gamer, and there are four I particularly recommend.

I can personally attest to the high-pressure atmosphere of game development. Games – especially those made with the technologically-staggering consumer hardware of the modern gaming age – are almost indecent in their complexity. Many work with all the intricacy of film, requiring scripts, directors, producers, actors, composers, technicians, etc, overlaid with the added architecture of interactivity. It should be fairly obvious that it’s monumentally more complicated to allow someone’s input to influence what happens on a screen than to charge them twelve bucks to sit down and be silent. But not all games are triple-A blockbusters. In fact, digital delivery has not only nearly rendered the physical game disc obsolete, but allowed an influx of independently-made games to flood the global market. Pretty much anyone can make a game these days. So what happens when an independent developer – usually one or two programmers, working from home – takes on the kind of challenge that a massive studio, with a thousand-strong staff, endures every day?

Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson
Minecraft: The Story of Mojang (2012) provides the answer. It’s a quiet, subdued, unassuming film, much like Markus “Notch” Persson – the creator of Minecraft – himself, who comes across as shy and gently humourous. Minecraft is a computer game whose outward simplicity belies a profound potential for near-limitless creativity. The player explores a pixelated world, gathering simple resources (wood, dirt, stone) to build any structure, cube by cube, that their mind can conjure. The results will range from a simple cabin to world-spanning constructs of glorious symmetry – a kind of digital Lego with infinite pieces. Notch is revealed to be a man of almost equal inventiveness, making Minecraft in his spare time in his tiny Stockholm apartment. His passion bubbles to the surface when describing his game; it’s clearly a point of fierce and uncompromising pride for him, matched only by his affection for his doe-eyed, waifish fiancĂ©e. The film captures moments of sincere emotion, taking us from his company Mojang’s humble beginnings (the team then comprised of only Notch himself, coding alone in his room) to the massive success of Minecraft (through which the team still remains humble; Notch pointedly remarks that “If I had it my way it’d still just be me, a computer, and a case of Red Bull”).

The Story of Mojang is not revelatory or highly dramatized, acting more as just an edited recounting of events – which is good, considering that this film might be seen in years to come as an important chronicle of a pivotal point in video game history; namely, the creation of Minecraft. The impact of the game on the industry, and how games of all kinds are made, is touched on by many of the interviewees who have occupied similar seminal roles in gaming history (Peter Molyneaux, for example, who is seen by many as one of the fathers of modern gaming). 2 Player Productions, who revealed a unique world of innovation and family life when documenting the Penny Arcade offices on PATV, are known for the quiet nature of their documentary work: they allow the subjects to speak for themselves, and make no effort to influence the final film with a strong authorial stamp or a clear sense of purpose. Their body of work suggests they prefer to literally document, rather than comment upon, and this makes for a neat “time capsule” kind of entertainment. My hope is that Minecraft: The Story of Mojang will be regarded by future film historians as a work of significance and captivating humility – especially considering the global phenomenon that Minecraft has now become.

A scene from Indie Game: The Movie
Indie Game: The Movie (2012) is decidedly not as languid as The Story of Mojang – it’s hypercharged with intense emotion, focusing on the physiological stressors that are caused by indie game development and how it impacts the developers’ lives in both positive and negative ways. Indie Game follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as they struggle to release their hardcore retro platformer Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish and the tiny team at Polytron working through the development hell on their highly-anticipated platforming puzzler Fez, and Jonathan Blow – creator of the soulful, time-bending indie darling Braid – as he reflects on his runaway success. The scope of development is given full recognition as the film shows us how the process of making a game begins (Super Meat Boy), how it ends (Braid), and how it can sometimes become delayed, diverted, or derailed (Fez). The roller-coaster of successes and failures for each team makes for a deeply compelling drama, whether you’re familiar with the game-making process or not. It’s the ultimate underdog story, split three ways – and in an interesting subversion of the trope, it’s not always immediately clear who you’re supposed to root for.

Phil Fish and Jonathan Blow, whether purposefully or not, distance themselves from their fans and the reaction to their creations, and from the film itself as a result; they speak with the arrogance of the artist who creates in order to satisfy his own drive and vision, and doesn’t have any craving or patience for the feedback of others. Blow rankles at the positive reaction to Braid, claiming that players just weren’t “getting it” and were missing vital underlying thematic concepts. He reflects on the mistake of engaging his fanbase directly through forum posts and blog entries, in which he attempted to influence people’s understanding and interpretation of the game, which – far from bringing a greater sense of communion between the game and its players – had the effect of making Blow somewhat of a laughingstock. Fish makes a more tragic figure, as his own perfectionism and lack of focus engender a sense of disillusionment throughout the overlong development process of Fez, which is compounded by legal troubles which threaten the release of the game. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, by contrast, are shown to be sympathetic: they deal with relatable personal anxiety and insecurity, and are deeply motivated by the desire for people to play and enjoy their game. McMillen, an outwardly brash and sardonic individual, reveals his desire to imbue his game with his own fallibility; he wants to create a world in which players can experience his anxiety and fear of abandonment, and also escape from these feelings in the process. When Super Meat Boy finally sees its release on Xbox Live, McMillen is flabbergasted by the community’s enthusiastic response, but Refenes is more subdued. It’s only when he watches footage of players from across the world enjoying his game that he allows his joy to shine through, and it’s an arresting and revealing moment. Each of the subjects interviewed for Indie Game let their guard down at least once, and the result is a more intimate and emotionally-charged film.

But the singular craft of game development is only one side of the coin. For as long as games have existed, people have wanted to play them together – and against one another. Tennis For Two from 1958, considered by many to be the very first video game, has it right there in the title. Gamers from around the world compete in international competitions in games like Starcraft and Street Fighter, drawing lucrative sponsorship deals and stadium crowds that number in the hundreds of thousands. And as excellent documentaries like Senna (2010) and The Motivation (2013) demonstrate, competition is at the heart of any absorbing drama.

A scene from The Smash Brothers
The Smash Brothers (2013) is easily the lowest budget film on this list, released for free viewing on YouTube in nine parts. It examines the surprising emergent culture around Nintendo’s Super Smash Brothers: Melee fighting game – designed as a pick-up-and-play party game the whole family could enjoy, and transformed into a deep and startling competitive fighter by dedicated fans. In the game, players choose classic Nintendo characters like Mario, Samus, and Link, and square off in a two-dimensional arena. This is a simple set-up, but the hidden intricacy of the game combines with the dogged determination of competitive players to create a fascinating story about a fiercely passionate underground community.

The brainchild of amateur documentarian Travis Beauchamp, Smash Brothers is a slapdash film, and would likely have been impossible to make without the cooperation of the elite players who feature in interviews. In many cases, they’re literally children; fourteen years seems too meagre a span of time to merit such precise and exacting skill, and such widespread adoration from fans, but there you have it. Players are positioned as heroes and villains, introduced with the breathless excitement of a groupie meeting his idols, and Beauchamp makes no attempt to disguise this naked enthusiasm. Smash Brothers is his love letter to these unassuming, pockmarked titans of gaming. These are boys who pack a brown bag, stepping out of their mom’s Caravan to dole out virtual defeat, merciless as Mongol conquerors. If it sounds hyperbolized, it’s because these competitions took place in the overly-dramatic climates of school-aged teens, and the charged atmosphere of the film is perfectly reflective of that reckless passion of youth. In interviews, these shy, antisocial geeks reflect on their victories and defeats with such fervour that it seems they forget they’re supposed to be diffident in front of the camera. It’s in this – the revelation that games can crack through years of introversion and self-consciousness, and allow a nervous kid to bask in the spotlight – that the quality of Beauchamp’s film far surpasses its meagre trappings.

Steve Wiebe (right) in King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
By contrast, King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007) is a more mainstream affair. It boasts widespread critical acclaim and a much higher budget than anything else discussed here, and while not as intimate (or genuine) as the others, it remains possibly the best of all. For years, Iowa’s Twin Galaxies organization has stood as the official edifice or any and all international gaming world records. The highest player achievements of all time, in every game from Pac-Man to Portal, are confirmed and recorded officially by Twin Galaxies’ intrepid pioneer, Walter Day. King of Kong focuses on Steve Wiebe, a challenger to the Donkey Kong throne, who intends to beat the world-record high score set by Florida sauce magnate Billy Mitchell in the late 1980s.

The film is highly dramatized, with a bit of an unreliable-narrator aftertaste – it seems hard to believe that events actually transpired in such theatrical fashion, and without the influence of a documentary crew looking to make an exciting competitive film. Nevertheless it makes for an incredibly engaging watch, easily surpassing the other documentaries discussed here in terms of sheer entertainment value. King of Kong is funny, informative, and exciting. It’s paced like a sports film: If Indie Game: The Movie is a realistic underdog story, then King of Kong is Rocky – it’s that much more stylized, and that much more fun. Wiebe is portrayed as an affable family man, a milquetoast “guy-next-door” whose personality is so bland he’s equally believable as a Boeing engineer, a science teacher, and a world-record Donkey Kong player – all vocations he pursues with quiet excellence. Mitchell is an almost comic figure in his flagrant arrogance, selfishness, and hypocrisy. He strides on long legs through Walter Day’s arcade like a king surveying his domain, his all-American necktie flapping behind him like a cape, dismissing claims of Wiebe’s Donkey Kong success with immodest laughter. Footage of Wiebe playing drums with his kids is intercut with shots of Mitchell accepting awards and hocking his line of barbecue sauce, and it becomes difficult to take King of Kong seriously. But then, why would you take Rocky seriously? The buildup of character, motivation, stakes, and emotion is expertly paced, and whether you choose to root for the colourless Wiebe or the nefarious Mitchell you’re sure to see it through to the ending. (And yes, there’s a training montage.) I think King of Kong’s more deliberately-constructed style ill serves the documentary format, which has been put to better use through films like Minecraft, Indie Game, and Smash Brothers, but that doesn’t diminish its effectiveness in the slightest.

Two of these four films are available on Netflix, one is on Youtube, and the other costs less than five dollars. There’s no excuse to avoid these excellent documentaries, especially if you’re not a gamer – because together they create a fascinating picture of what it means to make and to play games, to the millions of people worldwide who do it every day. There’s a wonderful and vibrant subculture living right next to you – all you have to do to join in is pick up the controller and press Start.

–  Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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