When Zak Penn first agreed to direct a documentary surrounding the supposed mass burial of thousands of Atari games in the New Mexico desert, his expectations were low.
"I was expecting it to be a lot more futile," the "Avengers" and "X2" story writer told Indiewire following a screening last week. "I just figured we weren’t going to find anything or if we did it would be inconclusive."
Penn had good reason not to get his hopes up; his previous documentary, "Incident at Loch Ness," had failed to make history by uncovering the legend. But his experience making "Atari: Game Over" led him down a different path: Throughout the process he discovered not only the truth behind the myth, but a surprisingly emotional element at the center of the story.
"Atari: Game Over" follows two timelines: the excavation of a mass video game dump, and the events that led to it 32 years prior. The second timeline follows the whirlwind rise and fall of Atari, as told by former company higher-ups and the video game designer blamed for the industry’s demise. Howard Scott Warshaw is the creator of the classic Atari games "Indiana Jones" and "Yars’ Revenge," though what he’s best known for is "E.T.," a game widely regarded as the worst of all time. That’s the game blamed for the collapse of Atari, and the game many suspected to have up to millions of copies buried in the desert.
"It was one of those stories that the more you dug into it the stranger it got, the weirder it got," said executive producer Jonathan Chinn. "The fact that the worst video game of all time had been buried in a landfill by one of the greatest tech companies of all time, it just raises the question of why? And that’s always a good place to start."
The movie not only serves as a history of the Atari era, but also as a film about legacy and loss, with goofy game designer Howard Scott Warshaw at the heart of it.
"It’s a story I’ve been telling for a long time," said Warshaw, "The thing that really impressed me about Zak and his team was they actually found fresh and new material…They took me into very personal places in this story and that’s never happened before."
Warshaw’s journey acts as the thread connecting the two timelines. His early 80s character is a slacker genius that encapsulates the Silicon Valley mindset that Atari helped usher in. When we see Warshaw’s present-day self at the Atari dig his reactions give emotional gravity to what would be an otherwise fun but shallow story.
“It’s not just a silly urban legend with no substance, this is a story that should be told," said Penn.
And whether you know the ending or not (hardcore gamers might recall seeing the outcome of the excavation in the news last April) you can stream the film exclusively on Xbox 360, Xbox One and xboxvideo.com starting today.