Who is your audience? With any sort of medium, may it be movies or video games, you have to pick out your target audience. Writer/director Jeremy Snead takes on the task of covering a multi-million dollar industry that’s only recently started about forty years ago, but now influences everything from the technology in your living room to how you interact with other people.
“Video Games: The Movie” points out that nearly half of all households in America contain a console system, and even more have a device of some sort that can play games. Snead seems intent on tackling those just at the fringe of the gaming world who might have played “Ms. Pac Man” in a previous life or picked up “Angry Birds” for the very first time. Through the use of numerous interviews, old commercials, and probably one too many montages, “Video Games: The Movie” tries to give the audience a crash course in gaming while trying not to crash itself.
Snead covers a vast amount to information in very little time, moving the audience from the early days of “Spacewar!” to that of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that hasn’t even hit the market but is already changing gaming. The audience moves though all of this information in broad chapters titled History, Culture, Creation, and Future. Instead of taking on the material linearly, the director goes through stuttered starts and stops, zipping the audience over a broad generalization of the theme before jumping back into earlier sections to cover topics such as the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, a story that’s being made into a movie all its own.
“VG:TM” starts out well enough, with the definitive nerd argument of “who’s the father of video games” debate that features everyone weighing in on who invented video games, then continues on chronologically through the different systems. Snead hits on many of the major consoles but barely touches on the games that made the consoles. He seems more concerned with processing power and graphical fidelity rather than the touchstones in gaming culture. It would be as if you made a documentary on movies, only to talk about the projectors in the theater. There’s a sense that the director knows the facts about gaming, but little about the “whys” behind it. And fortunately, that’s where his stellar cast comes in.
From the very start to the last roll of the credits, the who’s who of gaming royalty stream out of nearly every scene. Such luminaries as Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder of Atari, and Cliff Bleszinski, the man behind “Gears of War” and “Unreal,” weigh in on the history of games while providing their own antidotes about being in the industry. Stars like Wil Wheaton, Allison Haislip and Chris Hardwick add their own stories and give a viewpoint of a fan looking into a world. If anything, the head-spinning pace of the interviews leave no context of how important these people are to the industry. Simple introductions would have given the speakers words more weight to viewers who don’t know them by sight alone.
Snead manages to pull out some amazing personal stories from these interviews that turn out to be the heart of documentary. Mikey Neumann, one of the game developers from Gearbox, talks about battling back from a stroke and how video games and the community at large helped him recover by supporting him throughout his recovery. More than just the number of polygons a game can fit on screen, the tales that these developers are more than just reports from the frontlines, but love notes to an industry that’s not always been easy to love. These stories reflect not only a new technology, but a culture that’s grown around it sharing our digital experiences.
For a documentary about pushing the boundaries of storytelling, they forgot one of the main rules — show, don’t tell. Most of the documentary consists of interviews smattered with B-roll; the film itself starts off with two montages of video games across history and then tosses them out like swag at a gaming convention, using full commercials for older games without really proving a point. Sound clips from the interviews present the same unifying ideas — video games can tell a story, for instance — but the audience is never given a chance for one moment to actually see how a game tells story.
To be fair, describing a game is like showing someone the notes of a great symphony. Going from an interactive to a non-interactive medium loses something in the translation. In the movie, you can see Snead getting very close to big moments such as E3, the biggest gaming event in North America, and IndieCade, the biggest public indie gaming conference, without diving into the sights, the sounds or even the stories of the people there.
Don’t talk about “League of Legends.” Show the championship games as young gamers get on stage, fighting to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in a stadium filled with people screaming their names. Walk through with the actors of “The Last of Us,” the biggest game of last year, and talk to them about bringing that character to life and how it’s different than film. I know you can’t put the controller in people’s hands, but you can get awfully close to it.
For someone dipping their toe into the gaming pool, “Video Games: The Movie” manages to pull you through the entire history of this virtual medium. Even without the context of how important the people are to the industry, their passion and knowledge comes across with every line. Unlike documentaries like “The King of Kong” or “Indie Game: The Movie;” there’s no drama pulling those just outside the technological bubble into the world of gaming. And for those of you who live in those two consoles house, you’ll get little more than a refresher course in the art of gaming from this documentary.