In this age of next-gen online-centric consoles, with 1080p/60fps graphics gripes on almost a daily basis and a plethora of patches, updates and fixes for broken multi-million dollar triple-A games, it’s easy to lose perspective and forget just how far video games have come as a medium. Despite having been around since the late ’40s/early ’50s, video games (and later the games industry itself) are still relatively speaking, a fledgling newcomer in the entertainment industry. In comparison to the more established artistic branches of film, music and literature, video games are rarely treated with anywhere near the same in-depth historical analysis, attention and respect that are so often heaped upon those other arts, despite the fact that games draw from all aspects of those revered aesthetic forms in intricate and interesting ways.
Thankfully then, independent filmmakers Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez have made it their calling to tap into this relatively untapped and rich seam of gaming history to definitively document on film the early years and culture of interactive entertainment. World 1-1 is a Kickstarter-backed documentary put together by the Florida-based duo, the project also being their first feature-length film; the first in an intended series of documentary films about the history of video games, and the interesting people who make them.
As the first chapter in a proposed series, World 1-1 is a seriously impressive starting point for the duo’s monumental documentation project, not to mention an impressive debut effort altogether. As a standalone film in its own right, World 1-1 is a substantial chunk of video game history and culture that acts as a lovingly compiled record and resource of the early ’60s to early ’80s era of gaming – essentially the two decade period where the gaming industry was born out of the primordial post-war soup of science, technology and bright young whizz-kids with big ambitious ideas.
World 1-1 is an exploration of how video games were (and continue to be) a vital stepping stone in the process of our society becoming computer and tech savvy today; it’s an essential watch for anyone with even the slightest passing interest in video games and how they are intrinsically part and parcel of our current and ever-growing technological culture.
At just over two hours in length, there’s certainly a lot to take in, but Garcia and Rodriguez have crafted a gripping narrative of events to deliver an in-depth and definitive visual document of the birth of video games which is both detailed yet accessible; ambitious in its scope yet never losing sight of the human element at the heart of this story of computer chips and gaming visionaries, joypads and eccentric entrepreneurs, motherboards and pioneers of the electronic age.
The central focus of the film is fixated firmly upon Atari – “The fastest rising and the fastest falling company in the history of American business”. The documentary charts the company (and by extension, the gaming industry itself) from its humble beginnings through to the meteoric rise during the boom years of the ’70s, all the way up to the eventual implosion and the great exodus of Atari engineers to third party developers, and the eventual oversaturation of the market with the tidal wave of shovelware that led to the subsequent ‘death’ of the industry that followed in the early ’80s.
The majority of the film is made up of a series of talking head vignettes which draw from a myriad of sources from across the industry, which provide a carefully balanced equilibrium to the narrative. There’s big names on the developer side of things who were there at the time, such as (of course) Nolan Bushnell, Owen Rubin and Donna Bailey, alongside prominent public figures from the media side of things, such as Patrick Scott Patterson, IGN head honcho Peer Schneider, the gentle enthusiastic tones of Jared Petty, and my own personal favourite, ex-IGN Senior Editor and Kinda Funny host Colin ‘the pride of Long Island’ Moriarty. His eloquent orations bookend the film, and his regular onscreen appearances, full of his trademark dry and charismatic charm, always brought a smile to my face whilst watching.
As you might imagine, with their overlapping subject matter of Atari, World 1-1 dovetails really nicely with Atari: Game Over – a similar documentary piece (and great film in its own right) released last year by director Zak Penn, which chronicles the video game crash in particular through the eyes of Howard Scott Warshaw, who also features prominently in World 1-1. The developer of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Howard is often (criminally) accredited with the industry crash of ’83, and it’s good to see that he gets significant screen time in both projects, allowing him the opportunity to finally tell his side of the game’s unbelievably unrealistic development story.
Personally, although Atari: Game Over is a project that explores Howard’s story with a slightly more personal and emotional focus (centred around the climactic myth-busting discovery of the buried E.T. cartridges in the fabled New Mexico landfill), I feel that World 1-1 offers a picture of much greater detail and context to the developer’s story, and arguably giving a more substantial account of just how events transpired as they did, and how financial problems and severe time constraints impacted on his work, and ultimately, the entire industry.
The film can be roughly split into two halves – one pre-Atari 2600, the other detailing the iconic console’s development, and the aftermath that followed. Whilst the documentary’s focus is obviously geared towards years of videogames past, there are choice moments woven in throughout the structure of the story where the directors call out to current ongoing and controversial issues of debate in the culture of video games today. For example, contemporary players who’ve ever wondered why there’s such a prevalence of clone titles in the digital markets for example will find that World 1-1 offers some interesting parallels between the industry’s past and present practices.
Whilst certain interesting accounts and experiences were perhaps cut short and left somewhat underdeveloped – accounts of what it was like to be a lone female software engineer in a male dominated industry from Centipede developer Donna Bailey were fascinating, but unfortunately rather brief – modern gamers will no doubt be surprised with what they learn at various points when watching, and will come away with a greater knowledge and understanding of their beloved activity. A particular moment of personal revelation for me was discovering that Sonic the Hedgehog’s sassy finger-wagging, toe-tapping idle animation was almost certainly ‘borrowed’ from Major Havoc.
World 1-1 is available on digital release today, January 15th, and from one video games fan to another, I think the film is definitely up there with David Sheff’s written account of Game Over as one of the most detailed, personable and fascinating accounts of the birth, rise and the (brief) fall of the world’s biggest entertainment industry.
I can’t wait to feast my eyes on future filmic chapters from Garcia & Rodriguez, and from the sound of the post-credits tease, Nintendo are the logical industry corner stone to be up next in the project’s hot seat. So, when that next level has loaded, I’ll be right back – now, if only I could find that warp zone…