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A Letter to the Big “N"
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Posted on 09/12/14
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Review: Video Games: The Movie

Posted on Friday, July 4 @ 14:00:00 Eastern by

Since the conception of electronic computer entertainment software, video games have grown rapidly and that's no less true than today with next-generation console hardware, the explosive growth of PC gaming thanks to digital distribution, and a burgeoning community of gamers that lift their favorite products up as examples of what life could or should be like.

Wouldn't we all love to have superpowers? Wouldn't we all love to be the one singular hero who saves the day and brings truth and justice to bear on those evildoers who would bring the world to its knees? Games give us that power and Video Games: The Movie does all it can to explain how to those who feel the medium falls short of books or movies.

To accomplish that, the filmmakers loop through the historical narrative of gaming a few times to analyze different layers of the industry, the hardware, the experiences we've all come to know and love, and of course the controversy. While the film takes its time and goes deep into subcultures and the more personal narratives that erupt from intense passion (as is commonly found in gaming), some avid gamers might find the film a little boring for treading on ground well-paved in the medium's consciousness.

Video Games: The Movie started life as a Kickstarter project looking for funding and finding it in over 1100 backers on the crowd-funding service. It's no surprise then that the film feels like a collaborative group effort made by people who care a great deal about video games and have made it a personal mission to wave the banner over naysayers.

In the end, that means a lot of the talking heads either were there at historical moments in video gaming or truly know what they're talking about. Why talk to a GameStop manager when Cliff Bleszinksi, a totally rad Nintendo dude himself, can tell us about the Nintendo Entertainment System? When many convention goers credit Nolan Bushnell with the creation of gaming as we know it, the film goes to speak with the Atari founder directly but I wish more anecdotal exposition were available to shed light on the earliest days of gaming.

Instead, it can feel like Video Games: The Movie whips itself into a frenzy in order to cover as many bases as possible. By the time the credits roll you might think you've heard the same story three or four different ways, especially as early details get more focus later on.

The disastrous launch of E.T. for the Atari 2600 doesn't need a segment unto itself, but it gets one anyway, as does the violent video gaming debate started by games like Mortal Kombat. The filmmakers speak with people who nullify claims that gaming causes violent behavior, but not without firmly displaying the opposition's opinion and doing so in a more compelling cut-for-cut media blitz.

Indeed, the best editing in the film is reserved for trailer compilations and discussions of gaming's ability to self-market as an industry or in media coverage of "must-have toys for the holidays."

In fact, even recent Facebook sell-out Oculus Rift gets a "how's it made" sequence that feels completely unnecessary as it stands today. The applications for virtual reality seem to extend well beyond the current market (perhaps for the more sinister potential of mankind's incarceration in an all-virtual world), but it isn't a part of my own personal video game history and I'm not sure it ever could be. Maybe there's a Kickstarter circle of respect we don't know about, but it's not like the dedicated gamers who carry this film and Oculus Rift on their backs will see anything from the revenue stream anyway.

In that way, some elements of Video Games: The Movie feel like betrayals to more diehard consumers. That, thankfully, doesn't change the fact that this film deserves a spot at Sundance and other independent festivals for its dogged determination to give anyone and everyone a baseline understanding of "that one game, with the plumber and the princess."

It seems impossible to leave Video Games: The Movie without learning something new about the medium or at least solidifying an existing awareness of gaming as a culture and a business. Video Games: The Movie thoroughly succeeds in its mission with smart pacing and organization.

I might not like looping from the 1970s to present day repeatedly, but games are complicated as all hell and it's on us that so many outside of the hobby feel intimidated and distraught at the thought of a virtual world that leaves rules and many common sensibilities out to dry. When Grand Theft Auto allows you to beat a virtual hooker to death for a refund, it can give people a negative impression of something that actually delivers a lot of joy and freedom to people who feel socially incarcerated or have disabilities.

It's for that reason that really nerdy people like Zach Braff and Wil Wheaton provide the most compelling arguments in favor of games. At the end, the film suggests games have come further than anyone could have expected, but the medium still has a long way to go. As was the case with the film's funding, I suspect it's on gamers themselves to see that mission through to the end.
Tags:   culture, Movie

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