Gaming Historians Respond to High Score

Netflix has just released the documentary series High Score, created by the production team at Great Big Story. It’s been a large topic of discussion over the last few weeks in the independent game history scene for both its content and presentation as everyone has come to their own conclusions about what the release of this series means for the field. With this in mind, I wanted to collect the opinions of my peers for posterity on what seems to be an important moment in the potential broadening of understanding in this field. Other gaming documentaries have been released in the past, but High Score has even in my own life notified people I would not have expected to know about gaming history otherwise.

Below I’ve posted the individual interviews from the various historians and retro enthusiasts within my circle to amalgamate the reaction from various corners. My own review is last on the list.

Dale Geddes, QuarterPast83

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Ocean broad, puddle deep

High Score delivers fast-paced eye candy that’s sure to drive the core audience crazy with its intellectual sloppiness. 

For the overwhelming majority of its intended Netflix audience — those who’d choose to binge-watch this instead of Secrets of Great British Castles or The Mind, Explained — this docuseries is fine. It’s enjoyable even, albeit a little disorienting.

To its credit, the program offers a good balance in interview subjects: From the obscure, to the disenfranchised, to the usual suspects, to even some impressive rare gets. But after four hours spent fence-posting its narrative around nearly 40 interview subjects, there’s not much livestock inside the corral.

The dozens of individual stories are well told, but the overall narrative lacks cohesion (and occasionally logic) as the various parts are forced fit into (more or less) chronological order. Viewers with a vested interest and knowledge of the subject might howl about obvious omissions or distortions as the show lumbers into its next segment. Charles Martinet does a commendable job with narration, but his script doesn’t provide much explanation about the underlying causes and effects intertwining those pieces.

In fairness, the most egregious factual errors come from the interview subjects themselves, but – for their part – the producers offer accompanying graphics instead of fact checkers. (And the pixel-art scenes often flew completely off the rails.) So while it will hopefully popularize the subject of video-game history to a mass audience, it too will inject new (and re-inject old) misrepresentations (back) into the collective conscience.

Certainly the breadth of information given to the uninitiated does more good than harm — which is fortunate since, given its length and wide distribution, High Score is now the de facto popular documentary source for video-game history. (It’s always possible though another distributor could underwrite a competitive project of this scope.) Enthusiasts can now form a cottage industry of errata lists.

My favorite part was Magic Hat. The episodic aberration into eSports was baffling. Here’s hoping the Great Big Story production team gets further opportunity to share their footage of rare archive material.

Marklincadet

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Let’s focus on the positives first. The developer insights were the absolute highlight for me. There are some big names here that lend the show considerable weight, and it’s very refreshing to hear them tell stories from their time in the game industry, watch them walk around with their partners in crime, or do fun stuff related to the games they worked on. High quality stuff, and the visuals surrounding them are polished (though not my style, but that’s another discussion entirely).

But I can’t say the same about the way their stories were presented.

Unfortunately the facts presented here aren’t always the full ones, or even the correct ones. It’s not a showstopper for those learning about all this for the first time, but this is damaging for game historians, would-be game historians and even Norm, The Gaming Historian. It’s hard to clarify this sort of misinformation for such a wide audience whose first and last brush with game history could be here. And what about those who are inspired to preach game history themselves, basing their knowledge of it on this documentary?

The fundamentally flawed structure and format of the show. It seems like there was a conscious effort to tell the story of the entire gaming industry, and how all these major developments are connected to one another and the way we play games today (ahem eSports). But in the end, it’s hard for us to invest in these stories when we have to divert our attention between two or more other stories of varying relation. That, and the episode based around Fighting games devotes a full third of it to a FMV game they’re really biting off more than they can chew here

It’s clear that this series is a love letter to the legacy of video games, and while it’s not fair to overlook it’s accomplishments, the flaws are certainly hard to ignore. If I was honest, I didn’t think this show was for me, but there were times in the later episodes I genuinely found myself engrossed in how earnestly some of these stories were presented, however brief those moments would be before yet another abrupt jump (ahem eSports). In the future (if there is one), I would perhaps like to see them take cues from fellow docuseries The Toys That Made Us and maybe The Twilight Zone in the way they format their series, and I wonder if for fact-checking they could get in touch with those geeks who keep game history alive when there isn’t a high-profile documentary in production.

High Score has within it all the ingredients to create a delicious bolognese pasta of a docuseries, but the recipe is off and the tomato sauce wasn’t cooked enough so it’s a bit watery. I’m sure if given time and feedback the cooks will tweak it to perfection, but until then this is still some watery stuff. We can only hope that they get it right the next time…

Alex Smith, They Create Worlds

Alexander Smith

High Score, the new Netflix documentary series from France Costrel, is probably the first truly mainstream documentary series that has attempted to capture the history of the entire video game industry, or at least the first twenty-odd years up to 1993.  As such, it will probably serve as the first point of entry on the topic for many of its viewers.  Under these circumstances, the documentary has a duty to balance being entertaining and easy to follow with the need to provide at least a rudimentary understanding of events in an accurate manner.  Unfortunately, it largely falls down on both points.

First, the good.  The filmmakers have interviewed a broad spectrum of game creators that span a diverse array of genres, eras, and geographic regions.  These include both obvious and oft interviewed individuals like Richard Garriott, Nolan Bushnell, and Trip Hawkins, alongside more obscure (in the West) developers like Akira Nishitani, the principal designer of Street Fighter II, and several other Japanese game creators. In a real coup, the filmmakers also sat down with Roberta Williams, who is notoriously wary of granting interview requests.  They also have fun with their subjects with some entertaining setpieces, like Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado gazing out from a rooftop as aliens invade Tokyo or Richard Garriott DM’ing a D&D game in which every player is a version of him.  These sequences are visually interesting and are useful for grabbing hold of a general audience.

Unfortunately, the stories told by these creators, while interesting in isolation, are not linked together in a coherent manner.  The filmmakers decided that rather than try to encapsulate the whole history of the first two decades of videogames, they would choose certain subjects upon which to focus.  Episode 1, for instance, is all about the Golden Age of Arcade Games, while Episode 3 is all about Adventure Games and RPGs.  While at first glance this seems a great way to focus the arc of each episode, the filmmakers instead ping-pong back and forth between several subjects without giving any of them their due.

Episode 1 is the worst offender.  It opens with Space Invaders absent any context on how video games developed before 1978.  There is no Atari, no Pong, no Spacewar, no Ralph Baer, and no indication that we should know or even care about any of those subjects except for a quick “if you don’t know what Atari is, don’t worry, we’ll tell you later.”  After moving through early eSports and then checking in with Pac-Man, we are treated with a generally well done but completely random look at speedup kits through the eyes of GCC, the makers of Ms. Pac-Man.  Then it’s time to take a complete detour into Jerry Lawson, incorrectly identified as the progenitor of the programmable video game system and the cartridge, before sitting down with Howard Scott Warshaw for the briefest of looks at the console industry and how E.T. supposedly destroyed it.  Practically any of these topics could be the subject of a 45 minute documentary all on their own, and none of these segments have any room to breathe. The transitions between them are also awkward, and the viewer is left with no narrative throughline demonstrating how we got from Space Invaders and the greatest heights of the videogame industry to E.T. and its complete collapse.

Subsequent episodes better manage to stay on topic, but they are still plagued by two serious problems.  First, the topics are dictated by the interview subjects.  Yuji Horii not available to talk about Dragon Quest?  Well, then Final Fantasy is the crucial series in the birth of the JRPG.  Shigeru Miyamoto not returning your calls?  Then sound is what really made Donkey Kong stand out because we can talk to Hip Tanaka.  Tom Kalinske representing the Sega story?  Well then, he was responsible for everything good that Sega of America ever did, whether it was his idea or not.  To be clear, it’s not the interview subjects making any of these claims, but the way the filmmakers themselves frame the interviews leave the audience with those impressions.

The filmmakers also accepted statements from their interview subjects uncritically without providing additional context.  When Roberta Williams says that Mystery House was the first computer game with graphics, there is no one to explain to the audience that dozens of Apple II, TRS-80, Commodore PET, Exidy Sorcerer, etc. games were created with graphics before Mystery House.  And that’s just giving her the benefit of the doubt that she meant microcomputer platforms rather than computers in general.  When Jerry Lawson’s children, who are not historians and cannot be expected to know the full story, say their father “created the technology” behind the Fairchild Channel F, this claim is left unexamined. The audience therefore never realizes that Wallace Kirschner and Lawrence Haskel of Alpex Computer Corporation created this technology before Lawson had any idea it even existed, or that he merely led the team that adapted it into a commercial product.  Gordon Bellamy is rightly proud that he convinced EA to properly represent African American players in the Madden football series, but he goes too far in identifying Madden ‘95 as the first sports game generally with significant representation for African American athletes both within the game itself and on the packaging.  The filmmakers let this statement stand rather than pointing out a half-dozen or so counter examples such as multiple NBA games starring the likes of Julius Irving and Michael Jordan, or the outsized impact of Bo Jackson in the game Tecmo Bowl.

The second major structural problem with the documentary is its obsession in forcing eSports into all but one episode of the show.  As video game competitions are a growing area of fascination on streaming platforms and college campuses, the filmmakers no doubt saw this as a way to boost interest in the documentary with a younger crowd. In practice, this leads the documentary to giving inordinate amounts of time to an obscure Sega national championship event in the early 1990s and a Japanese Street Fighter II tournament that, while interesting, do not intersect with larger video game history or indeed the other subjects of their individual episodes.  This leads to some awkward section transitions and further harms the coherence of the finished product.

High Score was never going to be able to cover the first twenty years of video game history in six 35-45 minute episodes, so the filmmakers were wise not to try.  However, within those six episodes it needed to tell coherent stories about moments in the history of the medium, and this it fails to do.  Therefore, while certain interviews and visual montages are interesting and entertaining, the documentary as a whole fails to provide any real insight into the history of the video game industry for a general audience or specialists alike.

Kate Willært, A Critical Hit!

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I found High Score frustrating because the production values are great, and the new interviews are entertaining, but the way it’s structured is frequently confusing, and it’s disappointing how it trots out the greatest hits of gaming history myths.

I wasn’t surprised by the presence of the myths, but the questionable structural decisions is what really baffles me, especially the first episode. Every subplot in the first episode connects to Atari in some way, so if they’d simply opened with Atari, the episode literally would’ve structured itself. Everything would branch out from the Atari story.

Instead, we get the Space Invaders segment referring to Breakout but never mentioning it was an Atari game, and an awkward moment where the show stops to tell the viewer that if they haven’t heard of Atari, they’ll be introduced soon. That’s like visible duct tape holding together an unstable structure.

Also, I felt super confused when the cold open was E.T., and then they didn’t get back to that plot until near the end. Suddenly they’re talking about Space Invaders, and I’m like “okay, I guess that was it for E.T.?” 

The best cold open would’ve been to say how the founders of Apple worked on Breakout, tell the Atari story through that, then move on to Space Invaders from the Breakout story. It makes me wonder if the writers didn’t know the founders of Apple worked on Breakout? Or was the drama of Jobs screwing over Woz considered too negative?

I wonder if younger viewers are going to come away thinking Space Invaders and Pac-Man were created before Atari, on top of the various myths.

Namcokid47

High Score Review

High Score, to put simply, is disappointing. What could have been a fantastic idea for a series was utterly ruined by its strange pacing and poor attempts at summarizing the history of a massive, constantly-changing industry. The six episodes released provide varying levels of quality, with none being worthy of anybody’s time. They’re all an incredibly weak, surface-level “analysis” of the industry’s history and come off as nothing more than cheer-leading squads for Nintendo and eSports (eSports have almost no real importance to studying video game history, despite what this show wants you to believe)

The most aggrevating and downright insulting aspect of High Score is the way it attempts to summarize everything and its peculiar design choices. You have well-loved game creators like Toru Iwatani (Pac-Man) and Tomohiro Nishikado (Space Invaders) talking about pizza or anything except the games they designed; most of the time, the viewer isn’t even told about the significance of these titles and why they should care about them. There’s a multitude of other errors as well, from the RPG episode’s lack of any mention of Dragon Quest, to the Nintendo of America episode failing to even mention what the company’s lawsuit with Universal was about, to the final episode incorrectly labeling the creators of Spacewar! as “a bunch of kids” (they were working at MIT).

Anybody interested in studying the history of video games would find little value from High Score. Its weak attempts at providing “insights from the innovators who brought these worlds and characters to life” feels more like a jab than anything else, and its episodes are filled with misinformation and barely scratch the surface on the industry. The viewer feels like they’re missing out on a much deeper, grander story, as if the producers are going off of Nintendo press releases and not news articles or books from the time period. In an attempt to please everybody, they instead please nobody.


Ethan Johnson, The History of How We Play

My predominant feeling when watching High Score was confusion. As a visual storyteller, a historian, and someone rather intimately knowledgeable with these legends I just did not understand the methods used to express these tales. It’s only exciting so long as you’re not questioning what it means, which I feel is hard to do if an audience member is trying to carry the stories with them beyond the watch time. I can only describe the delivery as erratic and the message as non-existent.

To give credit, I wasn’t disoriented because of the filmmaking. The crew at Great Big Story are expert editors and have their visual storytelling chops. You can see how each action the interviewees take is related to their theme or narration and they are great at transitioning out of each subject for a clean break. Issues start to arise when any individual story is meant to relate to any other, especially with the strangely rigid format that they stuck themselves with.

The biggest issue for High Score is its lack of strong tentpoles. Looking at the individual stories as reflections of the narratives told on the Great Big Story Youtube channel, I can easily see how each story would have been better explored in isolation. It was a choice to string these together and potential themes for binding them together are only hinted at. A vague theme in the first and third episodes of games representing a potential for establishing one’s identity within games seems almost accidental. The growth of competitive gaming isn’t traced with any sort of throughline, mixing any sort of one-to-one challenge with the larger idea of league play. Any other points they may have been trying to make were lost in the shuffle of feverishly cramming as much as possible into a full-length TV episode timescale.

I did enjoy much of the humor, especially when it came from things the interview subjects were doing. It’s a skill to get these generally reserved people to act on camera and I think that speaks to the candidness of their approach to the subject. The pixel art interludes I got far less from, though I wasn’t repulsed by them. Despite the diverse set of voices who get to show their personalities, I don’t think anyone can really claim they were well represented. With so much missing context there’s no place for these stories to sit. It undermines the accomplishments of each individual and really defeats the point of the exercise.

It’s fair to say that I was generally entertained on the sit through, helped by watching with like-minded people to comment on the gaping holes of understanding which peppered the script. This criticism is meant to serve as a useful reaction for anybody considering the role of storytelling in history. I don’t believe that everything needs to be focused around a central idea – I.E I don’t think it was necessary to have an eSports episode by itself – but I can simply not see why the narrative was cobbled together in the way High Score chose for the final edit. Ultimately it won’t do any harm to those who dig deeper to understand the omissions and errors, but as a piece of general entertainment it leaves me wanting.


Thanks again to the excellent panelists for taking part in this! I hope the opportunity to express some feelings about this work were helpful in evaluating what we value as historians and storytellers. Until next time!

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