Fun Netflix docuseries about video-game history underplays the dark side of the industry
Someday, some ambitious film squad will film the definitive warts-and-all history of videogames. The industry’s sales alone, approaching $135 billion a year, justify a detailed examination of how we got from Asteroids to NBA2K21 and who suffered along the way to bring us decades of joystick joy.
Netflix’s new six-part docuseries High Score ain’t that project. It is, indeed, about videogames of a certain era, from around the time that bulky arcade cabinets populated smoky, dark mall arcades, to the era when the era of 3-D gaming arrived on PCs with Doom and game consoles with Nintendo’s Starfox. Each 44-or-so minute episode moves along brisky at a bounce, with twinkly narration from the voice of Mario himself, Charles Martinet. Sprite-styled animations help illustrate the stories of game developers pitching their games to rooms full of stuffed-shirt executives or of kids competing in life-changing game tournaments. High Score scores off the charts on watchability, and it is hypnotically positive about the role videogames play in American and Japanese cultures and the work that goes into making them.
But the stories mostly focus on the winners of the industry, the people who came up with iconic titles including Space Invaders and Pac-Man and how they did it. Occasionally, as in the best-of-the-bunch first episode, that technique is transcendent. Developer Tomohiro Nishikado stands at the top of a building, recounting how he imagined invading octopus when he envisioned the villains in Space Invaders. Using subtle special effects, the shape of distant robot-octupus-like creatures appear on the horizon of a cloudy sky, bringing the visions in Nishikado’s head to stunning life.
There are lots of bits like that, with the real world laid over with 8-bit graphics or with developers slipping into cheesy VHS-quality re-enactments, playing along with gags about the ways companies marketed games in the 1980s. Sometimes it works beautifully, but the overall effect becomes repetitive over the course of what may be the first season of an ongoing document on videogame history.
The larger problem, apart from the omission of the industry’s many failures, fiascos, scandals, and ongoing problematic practices (rampant sexual harassment and horrifying labor practices among them) is that somewhere around episode 2, High Score begins to feel like an extended commercial for interactive software. Nowhere is that more evident in the lengthy dissection of the console war between Nintendo’s NES system and Sega’s Genesis. Does that deserve an entire episode? It’s interesting stuff for even casual game fans, but the nostalgic fawning, particularly a long examination of one of Nintendo’s game tournaments for kids, grows tiresome.
High Score does much better with its interviews of developers, marketers, and even a lawyer who helped define particular eras of gaming. They include John Romero (Doom), Roberta Williams (King’s Quest) and Richard Garriott (Ultima), sharing design documents, explaining happy accidents behind the birth of their games, and gamely (ahem) playing along with lots of camera setups meant to avoid static talking-head interviews at all costs.
There’s some lip service about the moral violence-in-games panic that Mortal Kombat brought on and how the Dungeons & Dragons craze that inspired the genre of videogame fantasy drove some parents’ groups crazy. But that’s as dark as High Score gets, gingerly sidestepping lingering questions about game addiction, among many other topics that would sidetrack its ebullient tone.
That doesn’t make High Score bad by any stretch. It’s downright revolutionary in the ways it highlights a more diverse set of voices than a typical gaming documentary would cover, such as Rebecca Heineman, a trans woman who was a kid gaming champion and future developer, and Jerry Lawson, the late inventor of the videogame cartridge.
But the doc’s cloying boosterism and its need to repetitively focus on rivalries or on pairs of games being developed separately but in parallel feel wearying over six episodes. But it’s about the best series-length look at games we have at the moment. Those who always focus on the visuals in games will enjoy all the pretty graphics and 4K-quality video that High Score has to offer.