Feature-length films about the history of video games are sort of like buses. You wait around for one for ages, and then suddenly three good ones all turn up at once. Okay, well not exactly at once, but hey you get the idea – the point is that we’ve recently had a bunch of really great documentaries on the history of gaming released in close proximity to each other. After Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over and Jeanette Garcia and Daryl Rodriguez’s World 1-1, From Bedrooms To Billions is the third feature film documentary that I’ve watched in recent months about the history of video games and the awesome people who make them.
In contrast to the two other American-based documentaries, Nicola and Anthony Caulfield’s film plants its focus on the other side of the pond on the nascent UK gaming scene, chronicling what the Brits were getting up to with their computers during the ’80s. It’s essentially a celebration of Britain’s technological tenacity in the ’80s – how diligent bedroom coders transformed a fun, small-time hobby into a core part of the hulking global entertainment behemoth that the games industry is today. It’s detailed, entertaining, and pretty much essential viewing for those interested in learning more about video games (duh), the games development process, and how Britain’s talented coders played a key part in gaming’s history.
Bedrooms narratively picks things up on the advent of the first wave of affordable home computers starting to hit the market with the release of the Sinclair ZX80 in 1980, but the ball really starts rolling the following year when its successor, the ZX81, turns up on the scene and acts as the catalyst which changes everything. From this equivalent of the UK gaming scene’s big bang, things continue to go from strength to strength; we see the introduction of further cheap but powerful computers such as the BBC Micro, the Commodore 64 and the ZX Spectrum, the gradual compartmentalisation of the development process as solo programmers banded together into small tightly-knit teams and later the rise and fall of the major British publishers in the mid-’90s just as Nintendo and Sega were battling it out for console dominance in the UK’s living rooms.
The film is presented in the usual documentary style as a series of talking head segments with a great variety of developers, journalists and other big industry figures drawn from far and wide across the gaming universe. Among the many talented developers prominently featured are people such as Mel Croucher (Deus Ex Machina), Julian Gollop (XCOM) and David Braben (Elite) to name but a few. It’s also particularly awesome to see game artists such as Mo Warden and Dawn Hollywood give their thoughts and talk about their experiences working in an industry where female voices are still unfortunately very much in the minority.
The DIY punk ethic of the early 80’s developers is particularly fascinating to learn about, and it’s this exciting combination of youth and technological possibility which fuels the drive of the film’s narrative. Hearing passionate stories directly from the pioneering legendary developers of the era such as Jeff Minter and Matthew Smith about how they would studiously slave away at their machines, quite literally all day and night, to create their games is both entertaining and inspirational in equal measure. Especially to a chump like me who probably couldn’t make a game, even if it came running up to me and dropkicked me in the face.
All the major areas of the evolving game development process are covered over the course of the film – as the technology and resources of the industry improve over the years, you hear first-hand perspectives on everything from art direction to programming, designing to writing and pretty much everything else in between. Personally, I found one of the most interesting aspects of the design process that the film explores was hearing game music composers talk about the technical limitations they had to work with when composing the early chiptune soundtracks, and how they had to think outside the box (actually, more like inside the box come to think of it) to get around them. There’s a great section where composer Martin Galway is talking about the technical constraints of the Commodore’s SID chip; struggling to get true polyphonic chords to sound clearly, he describes how he had to come up with some nifty workarounds using various filters and very quick oscillating arpeggios in order to get the effect of having several notes play at once. Nifty stuff indeed.
Interestingly, the film also explores the birth of the UK gaming press and how games coverage back then changed from being just drab, lifeless technology reports completely devoid of passion into actual games critique with the introduction of young, fresh-faced and enthusiastic writers of the day such as Gary Penn and Julian Rignall. As you might imagine, being a fellow who likes to punch out excessively long game reviews of my own, it was interesting to see how the early games magazines actually started off as the primary means of acquiring games through their long printed BASIC sequences before gradually morphing over the years to take more of a critical perspective as the industry grew.
At just over two and a half hours in length, Bedrooms is a seriously comprehensive retro retrospective. While the level and depth of detail in the documentary is easily its greatest strength, I personally felt that the pacing towards the second half felt inconsistent and slightly rushed, at which point the film seems to stumble and lose its focus somewhat. By the time Bedrooms reaches the ’90s, a lot of the details about this era are skimmed over at quite a fast pace, which really jars with the carefully detailed slower speed the rest of the film had been moving at up to this point, and it feels a rather abrupt and jarring transition as a result.
Admittedly, as the Japanese and American console behemoths start to dominate the mainstream UK gaming space, and all but a few of the original British publishers are left standing in their wake, a great deal of this era largely falls out of the scope of the documentary’s core subject matter, so I can appreciate why this isn’t dealt with in as much detail as previous sections. Thankfully though, the discussion of the similarities between the currently booming indie game scene in relation to the British ’80s heyday manages to nicely tie things up on an elegant and contemporary note.
So, if you’re interested in the history of the videogame industry, particularly about what exactly was going on in the gaming world in the swirling neon-coloured amniotic waters of ’80s Britain, then you’ve got to press pause right now, put down your controllers and keyboards and check Bedrooms to Billions out. Simultaneously entertaining and informative, the film is an impressively comprehensive document of the era which is essential viewing for pretty much anybody who loves games, their history, and where the industry might be heading in the future.
Additionally, if you’re after more British-flavoured video game retrospectives from the Caulfield duo (I know I am) then you’re in luck. The filmmakers currently have a new Kickstarter campaign ongoing, which is now fully funded at the time of writing (congratulations!) for the next chapter in their documentary series, From Bedrooms to Billions: The Amiga Years (due out January 2016). The Kickstarter is still open for backing for a few more days (again, depending when you read this) so if you want to get behind the project yourself, then head over there and get involved. In the meantime, game on!