Currently on Netflix, the documentary Atari: Game Over does one thing very well - makes you very endeared to Howard Scott Warshaw.
Warshaw is the game designer and developer for the Atari 2600 game E.T. based on the film of the same name, that in 1983, supposedly killed the video game industry and thus, millions of copies of its cartridges were shamefully buried in the desert.
This documentary is the story of the filmmaker's, Zak Penn, attempt to find those cartridges and to answer the question - What happened to Atari?
Like a lot of recent video game documentaries, the film begins with some variant of "Now, video games are everywhere." This is probably an unnecessary line, considering the audience for this film has to be specialized enough to care about buried Atari cartridges but let's move past this.
The film uses Warshaw as the central character around the history of late 70s and early 80s video game development, explosion and subsequent downfall. Warshaw, who is now a therapist, had, before creating E.T., developed classic games like Yars Revenge and the adaptation of Raiders of the Lost Ark to Atari. Warshaw is naturally a part of this arc of history and admittedly realizes that he tried for decades to find the same high as he felt as a young man on the wave of the video game craze.
While Game Over does the perfunctory history of the history of Atari and interviews with Nolan Bushnell, what it does so much better than its peer documentaries is tie it to Warshaw, who is person that the audience can actually connect to. In contrast Video Games: The Movie has a group of young people talking about how "AWESOME" Atari was, which may be fun for them, but when sitting in movie and asking yourself 'why should I care?' Game Over answers with Warshaw's experience and life.
The climax of the film, not surprisingly, is the big dig, where Atari cartridges are discovered in a land fill. People come out in droves to see the dig and a cheer goes up as the old games are found. Ernest Cline, author of Ready Player One, is there too. He makes an appearance for several scenes throughout in a DeLorean from George RR Martin for no reason other than I can assume to throw some nerd-credibility in there, cause seriously, he serves no plot or historically illuminative purpose. But, really, his presence is a lot like the cheer as the games are found.
I am a game and vintage computer collector myself. I don't have a tremendous amount of money, so often I content myself with old programming books from the 70s. I own three Atari's including a Sears Atari. I own multiple copies of E.T. and my most rare game is Swordquest: Waterworld. I get excited about old gaming stuff, but not enough to break my bank.
Nothing about the Atari dig excites me. As the different people at the end of the film explain, hating E.T. has become fashionable. There are far worse games on the Atari 2600, even the Atari 5200 in its entirety is terrible. The dig and its excitement in the film are Internet Exciting not actually exciting on a gaming level. That strikes me as a little hollow, like just throwing a bunch of retro gaming t-shirts on a character in a film and calling them a "gamer." To any screenwriters out there looking to exploit this market, I recommend you use Ernest Cline.
I don't doubt anyone's authenticity, but self-congratulation and masturbation in gaming docs is horrendous, and it's the only part of the film that starts to dip into this realm. Fortunately, Warshaw carries it past this.
Warshaw, having been demonized for his creation of E.T., is understandably touched by everyone's involvement, hardwork and enthusiasm. This is actually moving. It's validation to a person that his who had to give up a career he was good at and loved. As the film notes, there are no lifetime achievement awards for Warshaw.
I didn't obtain any new information from this film, but it did make me like Warshaw more and that's for a guy who is already pretty likeable. If you haven't seen his series Once Upon Atari it's one of the more in-depth "documentaries" on gaming and programming history I've seen.
Friday, April 24, 2015