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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Recommendations: Video game documentaries you need to watch

There's not enough well produced documentaries about video games. The medium has a history that goes back farther than you think, and there are hundreds of stories waiting to be told. These stories and experiences can be inspirational, enlightening, and uplifting. It's always a positive benefit to be more aware of the history of something you are passionate about, to help give you a different perspective or more knowledge than what you have.

I love watching documentaries, so whenever I hear about a new documentary involving video games, I immediately try to watch it. This Fall, the now defunct Xbox studios' Atari: Game Over is set to be released over Xbox Live and other digital outlets. It tells the story of the E.T. game made for the Atari 2600, and how it was such a colossal failure it pretty much tanked the company, resulting in all cartridges being buried in a landfill. It's the first documentary that is funded by a major gaming company, and the first to be distributed on a gaming platform. The documentary started out as an independently produced film, but I guess some people in Microsoft were so passionate about the project they decided to give them some support.

The story of the E.T. cartridges buried in a New Mexico landfill has become something of an urban legend in gaming, because no one ever had any proof that it actually happened. The documentary not only will reveal that it did, but go into more detail as to how this game even came to existence. It's great that films like this exist, because it tells a story we might not fully understand how and why it happened. In anticipation of the Atari: Game Over documentary, here is a list of video game documentaries I have personally seen and love, and are definitely something you need to watch, whether you think you know the stories that inspire these films or not.

100 Yen: The Japanese Arcade Experience
Watch it now: Hulu

This brief documentary gives you a basic run down of the Japanese Arcade scene, and how it's managed to thrive over all these years. It covers many different genres of arcade gaming in Japan, and shows you the inside of small local arcades to big company owned buildings. There is a lot of ground to cover, and the doc does a fair job of balancing the different topics. This doc isn't as focused or specific to one topic/person like the other films on my list, but it's still a fantastic primer for the Japanese Arcade culture.

Going to Japan and playing at an Arcade is on my gaming bucket list, so of course I would enjoy a film like this. What I found most interesting about the film was the unspoken rules of the Arcades, particularly the fighting cabinets. There is a sort of hierarchy when it comes to who can play on what machine. These unspoken rules of the Arcade is something I remember fondly about the arcade scene I was a part of growing up, and something I miss. Playing at Arcades taught you how to respect and appreciate your fellow gamer, and everyone pretty much got along and had a great time.

With the absence of Arcades, I feel a lot of that social respect between gamers has been lost. It's nice to see Japanese gamers keeping the Arcade scene alive, and it's as vibrant and popular as it ever was. If you plan on going to Japan one day like me, or even would just like to see what their Arcade culture is like, definitely check this film out.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
Buy & watch it now: Amazon

If you don't know about the storied rivarly between Pac-Man world record holder Billy Mitchell, and average joe Steve Wiebe, you need to drop everything and watch this film now. Or at least later tonight. The hype is real with this one; not only is this one of my favorite video game documentaries, it's one of my very documentaries, period. The drama is palpable in this one, and there is a lot more going on under the surface than a world record.

Everyone loves an underdog story, and it doesn't get any better than the story of Steve Wiebe. He's a average man, with a wife and kids. And one day he was just scrolling around twin galaxies, recently unemployed, saw the Donkey Kong record and thought, "Yea I could beat that." What he didn't realize was that the man who held the record, and many other Arcade records in his career, was Billy Mitchell. A cocky, charismatic, and determined man who did not want to see his record fall to some "nobody."

And this isn't just a one vs one story. What I find fascinating about this documentary is that in a way it reveals how inclusive gaming can be, and how much outsiders aren't respected or welcomed unless they prove themselves several times over. It wasn't just Billy Mitchell's record at stake; the entire core of Twin Galaxies and all those guys who pretty much held records for various other Arcade games, weren't too welcoming of this nobody. He wasn't part of the group. He wasn't there in the eighties for the Life magazine photo shoot. They had never seen him before, so of course he had to cheat for his Donkey Kong score. There was no possible way some guy could walk off the street, and be better than them, especially better than their heroic champion, Billy Mitchell.

This a documentary anyone can watch. But if you are a gamer who has developed a social group or clique revolving around gaming, you need to watch this. We should be welcoming to anyone who wants to get into gaming, or be apart of what we love, no matter who they are. The more people the better I say. And who cares if they are better than you, they can be the challenge you need to elevate your game. Ever since the documentary the Donkey Kong world record has gone back and forth between the two, as well as other newcomers. The origins of the competitive rivalry between Wiebe and Mitchell though, is a must watch.

Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade
Watch it now: Hulu

This premiered at the Sundance film festival the same time as King of Kong, and I consider it a nice supplement to that film. King of Kong focuses mainly on Billy Mitchell, but there were a few other legendary arcade players who joined him in the Life magazine photo shoot along with Walter Day, founder of Twin Galaxies. This movie explores the lives of everyone involved, some who make small appearances in King of Kong.

I actually saw this movie after King of Kong, and I think it's a great reference that gives you more background about this group of connected players Steve Wiebe faces resistance from. The story mainly focuses on Walter Day, founder of the Twin Galaxies website, and his dream of bringing together the best players in the world at his arcade. Many of the world record holders featured in the Life magazine photo shoot, all gain a small amount of fame and fortune afterwards. But with a few exceptions, the fame didn't last more than fifteen minutes, and some haven't really recovered.

E-sports is becoming a big sensation right now, but for me this documentary explores the roots of the competitive gaming scene, and focuses on the individuals personal lives. It's a very intimate and candid look at the trials and tribulations of being a successful competitive gamer or world record holder. It's also a great look back at a time where we didn't have YouTube or twitch, which would've helped these kids probably gain more crossover success and lead different lives. If you love King of Kong, definitely check this out to gain some more knowledge of the other world record holders that came up with Billy Mitchell (and yes, he's in it too).

Tetris: From Russia with Love
Watch it now: Youtube

Originally premiering on BBC, this documentary explores the origins of Tetris, and it's creator Alexey Pajitnov. This is a very detailed and specific documentary, and you learn all you need to know about one of the greatest and most influential games of all time. Not only did Alexey Pajitnov create this game at a time where practically no one else was even making games, but he did so under the Iron Curtain of Russia, and the doc explores how that heavily impacted the creation and almost jeopardized the distribution of the game.

It's quite amazing that the game became such an iconic and international hit. There were many restrictions and challenges from having the game even being shared, let alone sold to millions across different platforms. This documentary also gives fascinating insight as to how companies like Nintendo, Atari and others tried to sort out all the legal rights in dealing with these video games, since no one had done it before.

It's also a very touching personal story, because we all know Tetris, and maybe know the name Alexey Pajitnov, but what I didn't know is that he didn't see a single penny (rupee) for his creation, until recently. So many different companies and people made millions while he made nothing, and practically lived in poverty most of his life. But he is still a very passionate designer and loves talking about Tetris, and his personality and joy just shines every time he is on screen. This is one of the few docs that explores a games history through design and to profile the designer itself. As a gamer, we should all know more about the history of classic games, and this doc is grade A in exploring the origins of Tetris.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
Watch it now: Hulu

Now that you know the origin story of Tetris, want to see who the best player in the world is? So did Robin Mihara the producer and narrator of this doc. This film explores the competitive side of Tetris, mainly with it's various world record holders through out the years. Mihara is on a quest to determine who is the best living player in the world, and this doc has a few neat twists and turns that I don't want to spoil, so that's all I'll tell you about the plot.

This is probably my favorite doc of the list and it's hard to explain why I love it so much without exposing the story. If you thought that King of Kong had drama, wait until you see this one. Besides the intrigue and mystery surrounding all the different players involved, this film does a fantastic job of explaining Tetris. Even if you think you know how that game works, this game reveals a lot of information that the casual player doesn't know, and does so in a way anyone can understand.

This film has excellent cinematography, and the music is outstanding. Tetris is one of those games that works on such a high mental level. Watching competitive Tetris is almost as nerve racking as playing it. There is an extreme sense of focus and urgency for these players, especially as they try to reach the elusive final level in the game, that only one person has claimed to ever reach...

Indie Game: The Movie
Watch it now: Netflix instant
Buy & watch it now: Indie Game the Movie

With the rise of Kickstarter and it's influence on gaming, we are seeing a lot of indie designers find success rivaling big AAA studios. Games like Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez have reached sales numbers that any major publish would love to have, without employing hundreds of designers and creators to reach. Indie Game: The Movie explores the journey of the small design teams behind those three games, and chronicles the rise of indie gaming in the past few years.

The stories behind Phil Fish, Jonathan Blow, and  Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Team Meat) are all fascinating. They are perfect examples of how rewarding yet extremely difficult being an indie game designer is. When you have only one or two people working on a ambitious game and striving to make a name for yourself in a saturated market, it can be very stressful, painful, and a true test of will. This game candidly shows the hardships each creator endures with the creation of their games as well as from the critics and players they are making these games for.

This doc came out before Phil Fish finished Fez, and before he cancelled Fez II and quit the business. You can see his frustration with public expectations here. As a viewer I would say to pause and reflect on how much of their personal lives developers give to each of their games. Sometimes we are not aware that a game can be made by one, two, or hundred people. Regardless of how many are involve, it is usually not an easy process, even if the designers are passionate and generally positive people.

There have been a lot of stories recently about designers receiving a lot of abuse from gamers in regards to their games. We need more documentaries like this to show that it's not always easy to make a game as it is playing one. This does a great job at shedding some light on this process, and much like Alexey Pajitnov, these designers care a lot about their games, and want to bring enjoyment to people more so than make money. Gaming is an art, and designers are our artists, and maybe we should be kinder to these people who have taken up the charge at providing us with hours of entertainment at the cost of sacrificing a big chunk of their personal and private lives.

Minecraft: The Story of Mojang
Buy & watch it now: Minecraft: The Story of Mojang

So you are an indie game designer, with a small group of extremely talented and passionate people working alongside you. You make your game, and suddenly it's a major mainstream hit, selling tens of millions of copies worldwide and becoming an instant classic and immediately influencing hundreds of other games. What do you do next? That's the story of this doc, as it explores Mojang and it's founder Markus "Notch" Persson, the creator of Minecraft.

This is a great doc because a lot of footage is from the beginning of the success of Minecraft, and catalogs all the crazy things that follows. You watch Notch experience most of his games milestones first hand, and enter the surreal world of gaming stardom as he does. Minecraft is insanely popular, and this game does a great job of explaining why, and the influence it has had not just in gaming, but in many different aspects outside of it. You don't need to be a fan of the game to enjoy it; I've yet to play Minecraft and thoroughly enjoyed the story.

This documentary doesn't show too much of the hardships of creating a game like Indie Game: The Movie, but it does sprinkle a little bit of that in. It's very obvious that Minecraft has consumed most of Notch's life, and now he is tasked with building a brand and growing a company. He can no longer privately code for hours on end in his room, instead he's thrust into the position of being the figurehead for the ever growing indie scene.

This film does a beautiful job of showing how much gaming can change not only the lives of the people who make them, but those who play them as well. Many players have dedicated a large amount of their lives to this game and creating the massive community. It profiles some of those gamers, podcasters, and Youtube creators. One of the highlights of the film is when it showcases one teacher who created a whole curriculum around Minecraft at a NYC school. We need more documentaries like this one, and even if you never played Minecraft there is a lot to learn and appreciate from this film.

Playvalue: Your Guide to Gaming History
Watch it now: Playvalue YouTube channel

There are a myriad of self published documentaries available on YouTube. Some stories are too large to be told in a two hour movie, so many channels have a whole series dedicated to gaming history. Playvalue is one of the best, and has a series that explores, in great detail, a lot of the origins of the many areas of gaming history that has shaped the genre today. From the rise and fall of atari, to the feud between Nintendo and Sega, even the beginnings of copyright laws and issues with gaming. This series is the closest you get to a school textbook about the history of video games.

There are over twenty videos, and they all are very fun and informative to watch. There might be some internet and magazine journalists you recognize from the tech world featured, but unfortunately this series was a short lived one. I loved watching these, and when they suddenly stopped making them I was extremely disappointed. Luckily all the videos are still up on their YouTube page, and hopefully they stay up forever. Like I've mentioned throughout this whole article, knowing your history is going to give you a fresh new perspective on games, or get you interested in subjects you had no idea about. The Playvalue series covers a lot of different topics and aspects of gaming, so it has something for every type of gamer. I recommend that you watch all of them, you just might learn something.

Final Fantasy VII: A Retrospective Look At The Franchise
Watch it now: That One Video Gamer YouTube channel

Meet Jirard "Dragon Rider" Khalil, a.k.a. The Completionist. He's on a mission to complete as many games as possible. His videos are well produced and very funny, and he streams a lot during the week with his fellow completionist gamers. Completing a game might not be for everyone, but he explores each game from an angle you might not have the time or patience too do yourself. He's not afraid to tackle new games, but he mostly plays games from his childhood that he loves.

One such game is FFVII, a game that he wrote a thesis paper in college called Embracing Your Dreams: The Storytelling of Final Fantasy VII. Inspired by that paper, he created an extensive series of videos exploring all the thematic elements of the game, and how they are presented through each character, plot point, and gameplay mechanics. I have not seen any series of videos that comes close to the level of detail and research that Jirard does with the FFVII series. And he just doesn't breakdown the main game, but he also includes the various spin offs and even the movie Advent Children.

If you were a fan of FFVII, you need to watch this. If you weren't a fan, you still need to watch this. This isn't a video series that explains what's wrong or what's right, instead it's a very specific examination of the game and how it expresses it's themes, and executes it's artistic vision. I appreciated the level of research and attention to detail of Jirard's analysis, and it seems the massive FFVII was just made for collegiate level discussion. You will definitely come out with a better understanding and appreciation for the game, I know I did. I wish that someday he can do more videos similar to this one, or hopefully others will try a similar approach with their favorite series or game.

Tropes vs Women in Video Games
Watch it now: Feminist Frequency YouTube channel

Last, but certainly not least, is Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. This is an honorable mention because the series is still ongoing, and recently released her latest entry this week. If you follow gaming through websites or blogs, than you know about some of the horrible backlash she has had to endure, dating back to the beginning of her Kickstarter campaign. The abuse is horrible and unwarranted, not only because it's not fair to attack her for her belief as a women who loves video games, but because this is one of the smartest, engaging, and enlightening series of videos about gaming culture being done right now.

At the beginning of each video Sarkeesian clearly states, "This series will include critical analysis of many beloved games and characters, but remember it's both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of it's problematic or pernicious aspects." I 100% agree and love that she begins each video with that declaration. I love movies, TV, video games, and comics and I can enjoy many of my favorites as well as simultaneously criticize them on certain issues that affect me directly, like stereotyping of geek culture or lack of latin representation in TV and film. I think a lot of people attack what she's doing because they think she's some crazy feminist out to destroy games. Those people obviously don't understand her initial statement, and refuse to acknowledge that because she grew up with games and loves games, she too can have a passionate opinion about the genre. She has a desire to explore the abuse and negative tropes of women found in games because she is a women who had played games all her life and become very aware of that problem, and she does a great job of making other people aware of her observations.

When I first saw the series, I was amazed of the large amount of examples and references Sarkeesian uses to clearly express her point. This isn't some video series where someone express how they feel for twenty minutes, with no evidence to back it up. This is a very well educated, thoroughly research, and sensitive approach to discussing a topic. The subject matter might be seen as controversial to some, but honestly I wish there were more people doing a series with this much research and detail involved. It's not just an examination of our gaming culture, but an examination of how society has influenced our gaming culture and vice versa.

Whatever your initial feelings may feel to hearing the title of the series, or even the title of her channel, I encourage every gamer to watch this series. Start from the beginning, and remember to heed her opening statements clearly. I love games, and have played games all my life, but there are countless times where I too may find certain aspects of the culture or designs disturbing, confusing, or wrong.

I also have two daughters, who love video games, and watching this series has made me aware of certain things that I never would have been aware of, frankly, because I am not a women. But I can still relate, being a male, to the idea of tropes vs gender, or race, or religion, etc. We all in some way, can relate, regardless of gender, nationality, or religion. And that's what makes this documentary so fascinating. You might not take the same stance as Sarkeesian, but I guarantee you will at least see things from a different perspective, and be able to more clearly analyze all the different social implications found in games or other media, wherever they may originate from.

Well these are my favorites, and I encourage everyone to try and watch these films. We can learn a lot from documentaries, and a great documentary doesn't teach you to think a certain way, or tell you to behave a certain way. A great documentary shows you a story from a different perspective, and leaves room for you to formulate and create your own opinion. You can learn many things about the subject of the film, but maybe even about yourself. These are real people who love and care about gaming, something that, if you are reading this blog do too.

I'm always on the look out for great documentaries, and I have seen a ton, but not all. Of the many I have seen these are the ones I feel every gamer needs to watch. It'll help give you a new perspective, I know they each have given me one. I learned a lot from all of these, and I've been able to apply what Iv'e learned in all aspects of my life, not just gaming. Maybe they will do the same for you.

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