Video Games: The Movie opens with a graphical rush of gaming imagery that will activate some degree of nostalgia in most viewers under 50. As bits double and the images grow in complexity, the vastness of the still-young medium’s history becomes clear. Jeremy Snead’s Kickstarted documentary seeks to maintain that level of wonder for its full running time. But its starry-eyed love turns uncomfortably grandiose; at some point, Snead apparently decided that the full scope of gaming can only be understood by quoting no less than Gandhi and John F. Kennedy.
The movie starts out well enough, with a quick overview tracing the development of electronic gaming from the late ’60s to the present day, pointing out the lack of consensus on who should be considered the most important name in this process. Snead talks to an impressive if mostly unsurprising mixture of game designers, industry veterans, and self-appointed celebrity nerds like Wil Wheaton, Chris Hardwick, and Alison Haislip. Zach Braff is also on hand, presumably because he executive-produced the film. (This probably also explains the presence of Donald Faison).
At first, Snead’s history looks like a straight line of triumphs. Failures, like every Sega console after the Genesis, are acknowledged only as barely visible, un-narrated events on a timeline. But after its initial run-through, the movie circles back to 1982, when the infamously terrible adaptation of E.T. for Atari was rushed onto shelves and then, soon thereafter, to landfills. It’s a fascinating sidebar—one of the most popular movies of all time spawning one of the most disastrous games, and resulting in a temporary industry slowdown—that no one in Video Games: The Movie bothers to contextualize. The E.T. game is just described as rushed and bad; while brief sample footage certainly bears that out, it would have been interesting to hear some first-hand accounts about why the game failed.
The movie doesn’t just ignore the specifics of failure, either. Beyond associating breakthroughs with particular years and companies, Video Games: The Movie has trouble moving beyond generalities. Multiple talking heads go on about the medium’s advanced storytelling capabilities and its capacity for great art while failing to name a single example of what they’re describing for more casual gamers. The best they can do is point to the enormous teams of designers, writers, voice-over actors, and music composers, among others, needed to make a modern mega-game—and, on the other end of the spectrum, explain that independently produced video games also exist. (Though, again, not a single specific one is described or even mentioned by name).
In place of examples or anecdotes, the movie offers montages of game footage and vintage ads. They’re entertaining, but not particularly insightful. The only sense of controversy comes when Snead brings up repeated outcries against violent content in games. Predictably, not a single participant has anything bad to say about the issue—and by focusing on the simplest possible versions of the argument (addressing whether most video games are horribly violent and, secondarily, whether game violence might encourage violent behavior), the movie conveniently sidesteps actual issues, like misogyny in games and gaming culture. Its observations about the way games can increase social connectivity are touching without ever coming to life.
A wittier, more playful version of this movie might have fused vintage graphics, different points of view, and the medium’s complex history into a more shaded portrait. Instead, it inadvertently becomes an act of hubris: a sweeping declaration that games are better than ever, and will only continue to improve—like one of those shameless Oscar montages about the magic of the movies. Video Games: The Movie talks a lot about storytelling, but practices very little of it.