For those lucky enough to be in the US (or indeed those who come by their television through mystical futuristic means), there’s a new Discovery documentary that should be on everyone’s TIVO/hard drive. Rise Of The Videogame.
Unlike so many programmes about videogames, Rise Of demonstrates a depth of research and work that lifts it above the usually banal, patronising rubbish that television normally produces on the subject. It interviews all the right people, knows to show clips of all the right games, and makes the assumption that you’ve already a basic knowledge of the subject.
The first episode (of five hour-long documentaries) explores the birth of videogaming, and takes the Cold War as its allegorical guide. After discussing oscilloscopes being hacked to play a tennis game, it moves on to the enigmatic Steve Russell talking about how he created Spacewar!, comparing the original nature of gaming (shooting things, missiles, explosions, etc) with the American culture of fear surrounding the tensions with the USSR; how it was, “Born out of Cold War anxiety and nurtured in the era of counterculture.”
Of course it touches the obvious bases, with detailed discussion of Pong and Pac-Man, but rather than awkward clips of the semi-famous recalling vague nostalgia, this has Atari founder Norlan Bushnell and Pong programmer Al Alcorn talking about their memories, and how they drove owners Warner mad with their relaxed approach to business, or Toru Iwatani recalling the remarkable story about how he deliberately created Pac-Man to attract female players, settling on a theme of eating after observing that one thing women had in common was that they’d order dessert after dinner. A slice taken from his lunchtime pizza later, and videogaming’s first icon was created.
Space Invaders creator Tomohiro Nishikado explains how he used the tempo of a human heartbeat to create drama in his game. Alexey Pajitnov tells the story of Tetris, and how the USSR came to make millions from his creation. It’s the right people doing the talking.
Episode 1 draws to a close with 1983’s US videogame crash, and the collapse of Atari, with wonderfully honest recollections from those in the company, before jumping ahead to the collapse of the USSR and the end of the Cold War.
A little visually overwrought with its montage footage of real-world conflict, it’s otherwise a solid, informative and surpremely well “cast” documentary. If you’ve read around the subject, it won’t tell you anything new. But it’s fantastic to hear the stories from the people themselves. Episode 2 is very sensibly about the rise of Mario, next Wednesday.
More info at discovery.com/videogame.