Updated: Nov 30 2017
Ah, the video game documentary. Until only a few years ago, filmmakers rarely took interest in the ins and outs of the industry enough to devote their work to its archival. Thankfully for the Netflix scroller however, many have since decided to delve deeper behind the pixels and the results are a rich filmic history of many aspects of the industry. From retro records to indie innovations, the average Netflix user has access to a wealth of gaming footage.
Sure, it’s not technically a gaming documentary, but the computer lays the foundations for every video game ever so it’s a pretty important one to take note of. Silicon Cowboys tells the story of a young startup in Houston – a trio of friends sitting in a diner plotting to take on computing giant IBM with a portable PC. Compaq Computer’s birth and eventual death tells the story of a machine and its creators that changed the computing game forever.
Genius: Episode 1 ‘Jobs vs. Gates’
Along the same lines as Silicon Cowboys, Genius is not necessarily a gaming documentary. Most of its episodes aren’t even about tech. Episode 1, however, focuses on the rivalry and race between Steve Jobs and Bill Gates which makes for interesting viewing considering the impact both of these figures have made on the gaming industry.
Man vs Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler
375 Kickstarter backers pledged a total of $61,440 to help make Andrew Seklir and Tim Kinzy’s documentary following Tim McVey, supposed world record holder on fiendishly difficult snake-like arcade game Nibbler. Nibbler‘s attraction was that it was the first game to offer a billion points, an offer McVey took up in January 1984, throwing the Iowa resident into the limelight. However when Enrico Zanetti claims he beat McVey’s record that same year, his achievement is thrown into doubt. The film follows McVey as he approaches the cabinet to once more claim his achievement and set a new record. Man vs. Snake: The Long and Twisted Tale of Nibbler was released June 24th 2016 and has won Best Documentary at Fantastic Fest 2015 as well as awards from Calgary Underground Film Festival and FilmQuest.
Video Games: The Movie
Update: 30th November 2017. Video Games: The Movie has since been removed from Netflix, but we’ll keep it up here in case you want to seek it out for yourself!
The problem with Video Games: The Movie is suggested in its title. Attempting to take on the entire video game industry in one feature length film leads to a fairly superficial skimming of the rich history of the biggest entertainment medium of the century. But Jeremy Snead’s 2014 documentary does hold its merit in its 30 minute sprint through the entirety of gaming history. A solid background for anyone looking for a starting point in understanding gaming’s complex history, the dynamic visuals of this timeline offer a skating yet broad coverage of the main events, players, and cultural concerns throughout the genesis of gaming. After this information is fairly bitty, though interviews with developers, publishers, and consumers provide an interest on their own, the documentary as a whole leaps around a bit too much.
Atari: Game Over
Zak Penn’s 2014 coverage of the excavation of 1,300 ET games from a landfill site in New Mexico provides a diving board into the complex world of the North American video game crash of 1983. ET developer Howard Warshaw directs viewers through Atari’s glory days and its downfall in context of the wider industry. A nostalgic and strangely light-hearted melancholy pervades this look at the fall of the Golden Age which gives viewers a rare insight into the inner workings of one of the industry’s most iconic players.
Jason Spingam-Koff’s debut 2010 documentary takes a look at the social and cultural results of highly immersive virtual worlds through the online world known as Second Life. The documentary follows the real lives of the players who have devoted themselves to their second lives and how the two can exist together, if they can at all. While showing its age in its concerns at times, Life 2.0 shines a light on the prospect of sacrificing your natural life in favour of a seemingly boundless one in the virtual world.
Indie Game: The Movie
Update: 30th November 2017. Indie Game: The Movie has since been removed from Netflix, but definitely one to catch if you haven’t seen it already.
Indie Game: The Movie charges its figures with the task of laying the truth bare about their independent development struggles. Directed by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, the film follows Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes as Super Meat Boy prepares for its 2011 release, Phil Fish who’s been stuck on Fez for years, and Jonathan Blow who reflects on the success of Braid since its 2008 release. The film is filled with a struggling sense of disillusionment, both while the products are in development and with consumer responses after release. Above it all though is the raw passion of the people dedicating their sleepless nights to the development of their projects, while revealing their flaws and vulnerabilities to a camera. The film introduced many people to the eclectic perfectionist that is Phil Fish whose internet following exploded after the release. An epilogue style follow up is also available on Netflix entitled Indie Game: Life After which features closing thoughts from the original figures as well as more stories and extra footage.
All Work All Play
Very few documentary makers are waking up to the phenomenon of eSports, but progress is optimistic. This film from Patrick Creadon follows Season Nine of the Intel Extreme Masters event, and the top competitive eSports players participating. Under the direction of Michal Blicharz, the man behind IEM, Creadon takes a look at the phenomenon through the eyes of one of its main figures. Telling the tale of his travels across Poland, journeying between local internet cafes with headsets and mice and challenging anyone who wanted to play, Blicharz shows us the eSports kingdom he has created in a truly passionate display.
From Bedrooms To Billions
Update: 30th November 2017. From Bedrooms To Billions has since been removed from Netflix but there are some cracking interviews in here that warrant further exploration!
Surveying the British video game industry from 1979 to present day, Anthony and Nicola Caulfield originally conceived of From Bedrooms To Billions as a three part television series. After failing to garner the attention of the BBC or Channel 4, the duo crowd funded for their feature length documentary. Exhibiting the creativity and innovation behind the initial key players who strove to place the UK on the gaming map, interviewees include Peter Molyneux, Jeff Minter, David Braben, David Perry, and Mark Healey. From its 8-bit infancy to its independent growth, the film seeks to represent the UK’s leading role in the shaping of the gaming industry.