Video games offer a world beyond the actual game with a rich culture and history, which offer intriguing and compelling stories ranging from the uplifting to the downright bizarre. As gaming cements a firm berth for itself in popular culture, documentary makers are eager to offer insight into what makes the medium tick.
Hollywood is always eager to jump onto the bandwagon of popular franchises. The results are often underwhelming and fail to do justice to the actual game. When it comes to documentaries, the stories are far more focused on the human facets of gaming and how behind every game is a person with hopes and aspirations. Exploring these as a gamer is an enriching experience.
Here are the five best video game documentaries.
1. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters tells the story of multiple attempts to beat the high score record for the arcade version of Donkey Kong. The film revolves around two competitors, the endearing underdog Steve Wiebe, and the mullet-sporting consummate professional Billy Mitchell. What ensues is a drama packed with suspense that screenwriters only dream of conjuring up.
Taking on proportions that far surpass its seemingly basic premise, the film develops into an entrancing battle of good vs. evil, honesty vs. betrayal, perseverance, and the search for redemption in the face of unassailable odds. The film also provides revealing insights into the semi-professional ranks of arcade gaming in the 1980s and beyond, as well as the joyously eccentric Walter Day and his record-keeping organization, Twin Galaxies.
We can’t recommend The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters enough, you’ll be perched on the edge of your seat throughout and I guarantee you’ll end up rooting for Steve Wiebe by the end of the documentary.
2. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters
Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters documents the history of possibly the world’s most played game through the lives of multiple enthusiasts as they train for the Tetris World Championships, notably with insights about how the puzzler impacts them individually. The documentary also covers a few cultural enigmas associated with competitive Tetris including the mystery of world champion Thor Aackerlund and high-level strategy.
The film also centers around the organization of the Classic Tetris World Championship and the efforts of a certain Robin Mihara to get the event off the ground. Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters is an insight into the human side of gaming and is as informative as it is compelling. The selection of interviews with prominent Tetris personalities also adds depth to the whole package.
3. Indie Game: The Movie
Indie Game: The Movie documents the inherent difficulties of game development by following the joy, drawbacks, and turmoil experienced by developers. The film focuses on three games and their creators; Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes while creating Super Meat Boy, Jonathan Blow as he muses the long journey from development to the commercial success of Braid, and finally Phil Fish’s, at times, harrowing experience developing platformer Fez.
Indie Game: The Movie offers an honest view of what goes into an indie game, from the financial hardship to the emotional toll, by way of the ups and downs, the personal investment, and the search for nebulous perfection. The Fez parts are especially gripping as the audience wavers between disdain for Fish before realizing that we are privy to the troubles of a perfectionist who has invested so much of himself into his work that he has lost sight of everything else. Seeing Indie Game: The Movie has become somewhat of a rite of passage for any serious gamer.
4. Thank You for Playing
Thank You For Playing follows the story behind the acclaimed indie game That Dragon, Cancer. The autobiographical point and click exploration game is a chronicle of the developers’ experience with raising a child diagnosed with terminal cancer. It takes players on a journey through interactions with characters, choices, and a series of vignettes staggered along the road from diagnosis to the child’s death.
In the documentary, the last harrowing month’s of the child (Joel’s) life are exposed in all their emotional gravity, as is the development of the game – an homage to Joel and a personal memento for his parents. The film covers a heavy subject with grace and humor, though it doesn’t shy away from the deeply disturbing facets of such an experience. It’s also a strong argument for developers to invest far more intimate and relatable real-world experiences into games. A reminder that gaming can be so much more than formulaic first-person shooters.
5. Free To Play: The Movie
Produced by none other than Valve, Free To Play: The Movie tracks the experiences of three professional DotA 2 players as they prepare for the inaugural DotA 2 International Tournament and vie for the 1 million dollar prize. The documentary sheds light on the commitment required to play eSports at the highest level, portraying the personal sacrifices and costs that are involved. It also provides invaluable insight into why eSports are becoming increasingly popular. Most importantly, the documentary shows the similarities behind what goes into becoming a traditional top-level athlete and the trials of becoming a professional DotA 2 player. Even if you only have a passing interest in DotA 2 itself, Free To Play: The Movie is well-worth a watch to get an understanding of what these young men go through on a daily basis.