Here’s a movie that will make you fall in love with video games all over again
Atari: Game Over is a wonderful movie. It’s a love story about video games, the people who play them and the people who make them.
Director Zak Penn tells the story of the famous Alamogordo landfill dig that, earlier this year, unearthed a trove of Atari 2600 cartridges that had been dumped by Atari back in 1983. In doing so, he beautifully resurrects the reputation of the most infamous of those games, E.T: The Extra Terrestrial, and of that much maligned game’s maker Howard Scott Warshaw.
This documentary is about entertainment culture, history and an urban legend. But at its heart sits the story of Warshaw (pictured below), whose sparkling career as a game designer was cut short after the collapse of Atari.
There are some genuinely moving moments as this middle-aged man looks back at his glory days, when he was pumping out million-selling games one after the other, and the hubris that led him to attempt to knock out a licence for one of the biggest games of all time in just five weeks.
Penn creates a sympathetic portrayal of Warshaw as a young man at the center of the fastest growing entertainment business in the world, a man lauded by Steven Spielberg as a genius, a man who, along with a bunch of oddballs and outsiders, was making it all up as he went along, creating an industry that had hitherto never existed.
We also see the older man, now enjoying a successful career as a Silicon Valley-based psychologist, who can finally look back at the crazy days of Atari’s growth and subsequent explosion with pride.
Warshaw attends the dig, but this part of the story focuses on another man, Joe Lewandowski, an Alamogordo-based landfill expert who worked at the dump back in the 1980s, and has been obsessed by the legend of dumped cartridges ever since. You might suppose that a video game documentary that spends a good chunk of time on landfill logistics might be losing focus, but you’d be wrong. This section of the film, even the local political shenanigans underpinning the story, is fully fascinating.
The dig, attended by dozens of game fans, concludes a threaded story about the Atari era, when games were new, when no one understood where this form might be going, when kids thanked their lucky stars they were born in an era when such magic was possible.
Pundits like Mike Mika, Seamus Blackley, Gary Whitta and Ernest Cline add smart talking-head context to the proceedings that is light-years ahead of the sort of blathering we saw in Video Games: The Movie, a poor history-of-games documentary that I reviewed earlier this year.
Mika, most especially, brings a passionate perspective to the story, that ET took the rap for Atari-owner Warner’s inability to spot a saturated market, and that far from being the worst game of all time, actually had some merit.
It is always good when a documentary offers fresh perspectives, upturning the drenched sod of received wisdom. There is a lovely irony in the thought of all those “worst game ever” listicles down the years, pointing fingers at ET and Atari with dreadful accusations of pure laziness and greed.
Laziness and greed were, of course, factors in the demise of Atari, but Penn is not afraid to delve into the more nuanced and interesting circumstances and events that led to ET‘s disgrace and Atari’s destruction. At this point in history, the exec players who are interviewed in this film are mostly happy to discuss their own mistakes and ignorance back in the 1980s. It is a useful reminder that simple, satisfying theories almost always merit suspicion.
I have seen the history of video games explained in film on so many occasions that I now find the whole thing dull. But this story zips through familiar territory with some neat archive footage finds and genuinely funny infographics, always with tongue firmly in cheek.
Where it excels is in its unashamed embrace of video games and gaming culture as a thing of positivity, warmth and emotional fulfillment.
We think now of the Atari era as a bust, a prelude to the organized efficiency of Nintendo and its heirs. But Nintendo built its success on the foundations, and yes, the rubble, left by Atari. In its own time, Atari created just as much wonder and magic as anything since, in the hearts and minds of the people who played those games.
Because it was funded by Microsoft, Atari: Game Over is available on Xbox Live via Xbox One, Xbox 360, and Xbox Video (Gold membership not required) from Nov. 20. I hope it is opened up to a wider audience at the earliest opportunity. This is a movie for everyone who has ever cared about video games.