Video Games: The Movie is less a documentary than a 100-minute advertisement for the gaming industry. Of course, considering the industry’s usual advertisements for itself all involve guns, gore, or John Madden, this isn’t exactly a bad thing. The problem is that Jeremy Snead’s film simply doesn’t know what it’s trying to advertise.
The film begins with a 099 course in gaming history, doing rather astute work covering the early days of Space War being played on ancient computers, up through the crash of ’83, and then runs roughshod over the entirety of the modern gaming era, covering the milestones of the medium’s advances in small, inoffensive bites. This is par for the course for the entire film, which afterward tackles the culture, the technological advancements, and the encroaching of the next generation of games, somehow seeming to duck and weave around the threat of making a salient point in favor of painting the long, storied history of gaming and its gleaming future in the best possible light, bolstered by nerd-leaning celebrities and game developers spouting their own wide-eyed wonder in the language of nostalgia more than insight.
Again, not a bad thing, if the thrust of the film felt like it was attempting to put at ease the kind of person who’s only impression of video videos comes from the news anytime someone finds a copy of Grand Theft Auto in the bedroom of a school shooter. But the version of the video-game world presented here is also a surprisingly sterile one, in which the Sega Genesis never occurred, meaning there were never 16-bit console wars, in which video-game violence is a silly person’s problem, or that the industry has never seen its share of sad, fascinating failures, even though Atari, which spent the entirety of the ’90s in can’t-cut-a-break mode, is better represented here by its founding fathers than any other gaming company. In the process of trying to put the industry’s best face forward, the film somehow makes a fascinating, hyperactive subject still seem as insular and exclusionary as it was when it was just the kids who got picked on in school playing them, and not 49% of the population. The film translates its effects on the players more than its own, inherent fun, and its long, wild history.
The film does eventually get down to the nitty gritty of game development, the mindset of creators and storytellers trying to find out how a player’s mind ticks, how to translate the artistry of film and other media into a burgeoning one that has the tools, but not always the talent to catch up. It’s here that you have developers come off as explorers flailing in the dark trying to advance ideas, and still brave enough to admit they’re continuing to fail at it. This leads into a self-congratulatory segment on where the industry is going, but the more perfect continuation of this section, and possibly the most impressive, simple conveyance of how far the industry has come, happens during the end credits, where we see 30 years of game endings playing out soundlessly, advancing simple title cards proclaiming “THE END” in blocky pixels, all the way up to BioShock’s Little Sisters going on to live happy full lives, and Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard being steps away from making the ultimate sacrifice. The industry is nothing if not a steady advancement of ideas emboldened by technology, and if there’s a message that should be conveyed to the sort of person who would watch a documentary about it, it’s that the industry is trying to be better, not that it’s already perfect. As such, Video Games: The Movie comes off more as a commercial for a grand, overarching product that isn’t finished being developed.