With the growth of video games as an artistic medium, increasing ease of access to cameras and other video production resources and the ever growing role of game developers in the role of interactive auteurs, it seems inevitable that video game documentaries are on the rise. As a game journalist, I’ve seen quite a few of these- here are the game documentaries I’ve seen as of August 2017, ranked from my favorite to least favorite. Bear in mind that these are all documentaries that I’ve actually enjoyed watching- nothing lame makes it to the list.
1. The Lost Arcade
The Lost Arcade is, in my opinion, the best gaming documentary I’ve seen yet, and I’m surprised by how few people have actually seen it. The Lost Arcade tells the story of Chinatown Fair, which was the last arcade in New York City for a while- it’s about the people who loved it, and the attempts of some of its fans to resurrect it. The Lost Arcade isn’t just about the games, it’s about the players and their community. It’s a compelling documentary that manages to be sentimental and heartfelt while staying grounded and realistic; if you care at all about video games, their history and the culture around them, you must check out The Lost Arcade. I don’t have much to say about it- just go watch this honest, brilliant documentary.
The Lost Arcade is available on Amazon.
2. Indie Game: The Movie
Often thought of as the Granddaddy of all video game documentaries, Indie Game: The Movie has inspired a significant number of people to try their hand at game development and, for many folks, has instilled in them a respect for the people who make video games. I was pretty excited for the film when I first caught wind of it; when it came out in 2012, the gaming industry was a different place. Indie games where gaining in popularity thanks to a few breakout hits- Braid, Super Meat Boy, Fez– games that are regarded as pivotal pieces of the indie gaming canon today were featured in this movie, alongside the creators responsible for them.
While I love this movie, it’s not without faults- for starters, I don’t think it would have a lot of appeal for anybody outside the world of gaming. Of course, you’re reading about video game documentaries, so it feels safe to assume that you’re into games- but on my end, that’s just an assumption. Nonetheless, you should know that while this game is about indie devs, it’s not very much about the culture around indie games, and it’s not the sort of movie to show your friends what makes the indie games you love so cool- instead, it’s a movie about struggling artists pushing against the world in order allow their visions to find their place in the world. My main complaint regarding IGTM is that it at times feels myopic, and too soft around the edges. To speak in terms of photography, most lenses can only focus on a subject from a certain distance- if you want to focus on something very far away or very close up, you need either a telephoto or a macro lens. Indie Game: The Movie seems to get a little too close to its subjects without properly focusing on them- I feel that if the film took a little time to back away in order to offer the audience a shift in perspective, it would’ve been perfect- number one on this list. That said, it’s still a fantastically produced, compelling and informative documentary.
Indie Game: The Movie is available on Netflix and Amazon.
3. Atari: Game Over
Right now, video games are a booming and profitable business, with a wide variety of games available to consumers- rather like 1992. Unlike 1982, however, the discovery of worthwhile games is significantly easier for consumers- we have curation and quality control that the industry lacked back then- where am I going with this? The only place I can- 1983, the year of the video game industry crash in North America that dethroned Atari as the king of games- and the year that paved the way for other companies to take their place in the hearts and hands of gamers.
Atari: Game Over from Content Media Corporation on Vimeo.
Back in those wild early 80s, video games for Atari systems were coming from everywhere, at an incredibly rapid rate- even Quaker Oats was producing video games, having acquired the company US Games. There were a lot of terrible games on the market due to a lack of quality control, and there were some particularly high-profile failures, such as the incredibly flawed Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man as well as the game often blamed for the 1983 industry crash: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. It was rumored that an entire New Mexico landfill was filled with unsold E.T. game cartridges- a rumor that the movie Atari: Game Over puts to the test. What’s unique about this documentary is that it feels like a treasure hunt through a barren wasteland of consumerism. The film’s subjects are on a mission to find out the truth about what Atari buried in the desert- it’s a story about trash that feels like a treasure, and it’s well worth your time- it’s an informative look back at the video game industry in its early days. Atari: Game Over is available on Netflix and Amazon.
4. Free to Play
I don’t care about eSports. Not in the least. I don’t have anything against eSports or the people who watch them, and I’m glad to see that some rather intellectually oriented games, such as DotA 2, are gaining audiences full of people interested in watching complex strategies unfold. The thing is, eSports just aren’t for me, in as much as I’m not interested in watching people playing regular sports.
It’s thus comes as a bit of a surprise to me that Free to Play, a documentary on professional gamers, is among my favorite video game documentaries. After watching it, I can honestly say that I have a newfound respect for eSports that I didn’t before. While I’m still not interested in watching eSports, I now understand the passion that drives the players and excites the players- I now realize that playing video games professionally can be every bit as challenging as regular sports. If you don’t believe me, I suggest checking out Free to Play– true to its name, it’s free to watch on Steam as well as on Youtube.
5. Stage of Development – The Human Stories of Video Games
Stage of Development is a little bit different from the other entries on this list as it’s a series of bite-sized documentaries. The first season is about the indie game dev scene in Chicago, and it features discussions with the wide variety of game developers from the area- the first episode is about Young Horses, the studio behind comedy game Octodad, while the second follows William Chyr, creator of the hotly anticipated Manifold Garden, an artsy game involving solving puzzles in a world in which the laws of physics are quite different from those of reality. The fifth and final episode is about Bit Bash, a Chicago-based video game festival that has worked wonders for uniting the indie scene in the Windy City.
I love Stage of Development for a few reasons- for starters, it’s one of the few gaming documentaries that I would recommend to people who aren’t into video games. If you’re not familiar with the world of indie games, I feel that Stage of Development does a good enough job balancing the up-close-and-personal human drama with its informative elements to make it worth watching. It’s entertaining and compellingly paced while remaining informative- it deftly avoids the traps that other video game documentaries seem to fall into so easily. Stage of Development is available on Steam.
6. Surviving Indie
Surviving Indie in a lot of ways is reminiscent of Indie Game: The Movie– it gets up close and personal with a few indie game developers and highlights their struggles. In a lot of ways, it feels like the product of IGTM in that it’s about folks who tried going indie, full of starry-eyed optimism, and kept finding themselves running into brick walls and uncertainties. The successes of the developers in IGTM were awesome, but atypical. Most indie games don’t hit it big, and a lot of devs find themselves struggling to put food on the table- this is where Surviving Indie focuses.
Passion is often held up as a hallmark of quality in the video game industry. When you want to describe a game as having been made with feeling, heart, enthusiasm, you’ll say that the developers poured a lot of passion into it- at what cost? If you’d like to find out more about Surviving Indie, you can read my review here. Surviving Indie is available on Steam and Amazon.
7. Branching Paths
Branching Paths is a pretty unusual video game documentary; it follows several indie game developers in Japan and is largely about their struggles to succeed in the corporately oriented Japanese business culture. In Japan, going indie is generally regarded strange- it’s expected that individuals take up work for an established entity- in spite of this, there’s a growing number of people working for themselves- and making it.
Unfortunately, Branching Paths has a few issues that I feel prevent it from being truly great. For starters, it doesn’t explain things particularly well, and seems to assume that the audience is familiar with certain concepts- when you’re making a documentary, the last thing you want to do is leave certain portions of your audience in the dark. As such, I can really only recommend it to people who are already into video games- that said, it’s a well produced and generally informative documentary; if you’re curious about the struggles of Japanese indie devs, it’s well worth a watch. Branching Paths is available on Steam.
8. Road to Eternity
A rather interesting documentary, Road to Eternity is the story of how Obsidian produced Pillars of Eternity, a CRPG that was a tremendous success on Kickstarter a few years ago. This documentary is free to watch online and offers some surprising insights into what goes into the running of a game studio. I recommend watching it if you’d like to learn more about the roadblocks and challenges common to game development. I didn’t at all dislike the documentary, but the reason it’s so far down the list is because it comes across as a bit soft- that is to say, at times it felt like an extended “E3 Behind the Scenes” trailer. That said, the documentary’s purpose was to promote Obsidian and their games- overall, it’s well worth checking out, and it won’t cost a thing (aside from your time).
9. Pixel Poetry
The biggest issue I take with Pixel Poetry is that I don’t know who it’s meant for. It’s a documentary about video games as art, and while I personally found it interesting to watch, I found it hard to say whether or not anybody watching would be convinced one way or another that video games are (or aren’t) art. Personally, as you may surmise, I’m certain that video games are an art form, every bit as legitimate as film and books and Fabergé eggs. You, however, may not be entirely certain of their legitimacy as such. Will Pixel Poetry change your mind? I don’t believe so, unless you’re really truly on the fence.
That said, I do think that Pixel Poetry is worth a watch if you’re interested in hearing about why other people think that video games are art- it’s available on Amazon and GOG.
So, what do you think of these documentaries- have you seen them, and do you agree with my thoughts on them? Am I an uncultured rube for having never seen The King of Kong? Do you have your own documentary recommendation? Let us know in the comments below or hit us up and follow @1RuleBeCool on Twitter; follow me for my own views.